15 municipalities could collapse because of VBS

By Sipho Masondo for City Press

Fears are mounting that up to 15 municipalities across the country could collapse because they are not likely to recover their R1.5bn investments at VBS Mutual Bank.

Their exposure to VBS was “too large compared to their operating revenue”, according to a Treasury document sent to the affected municipalities last week.

The SA Reserve Bank (Sarb) placed VBS under administration in March, following a liquidity crisis. VBS’s main source of cash was illegal short-term municipal deposits which it used to fund long-term loans to clients.

Senior Treasury officials fear that some of the municipalities – based in Limpopo, North West, Gauteng and Mpumalanga – could collapse. This would force their provincial governments to place them under administration.

The Treasury report reveals that the 15 councils are unlikely to recover their R1.5bn total investment.

“The payout to municipalities is highly uncertain,” the document reads. Its authors point out that Sarb is likely to prioritise retail depositors and not bail municipalities out.

“In line with the mandate of protecting the most vulnerable, the restructuring will focus on the depositors. At this stage, the ordinary depositors will get back almost all their deposits,” reads the document.

Sarb has already approved a restructuring that would benefit rural retail depositors, funeral insurance collectives, stokvels “and other vulnerable groups”.

“There may be little left for municipalities, which deposited illegally. It is a general principle that no bailouts are provided to municipalities,” the Treasury document says.

A senior Treasury executive said there were concerns that because of their “reckless investments” at VBS, some of the municipalities may no longer be financially viable.

“Some of their finances are in tatters, and they may need to be placed under administration,” the executive said.

Salaries in jeopardy

The official cited the example of Giyani, which invested R158m of its R302m operating revenue in VBS.

“How does a municipality without half of its operating revenue survive?” the official said.

The newly established Lim 345 Municipality, in the Thohoyandou area, had invested R122m of its R344m operating revenue in VBS. Greater Tubatse in Sekhukhune had put R210m, or 38%, of its R548m operating revenue in the bank.

Another Treasury executive said this money was part of municipalities’ annual budgets and not extra money that the councils could function without.

“Unfortunately, they have lost all that money and it is only a matter of time before you hear that some of them are not able to pay salaries. I’ve heard that one of them nearly didn’t pay salaries in November last year,” he said.

An executive member of the SA Local Government Association said it was “almost a foregone conclusion that some of these municipalities will crash”.

“We are losing sleep over the issue. The money was strictly for operational issues, not reckless investments,” said the official.

Fictitious deposits, untraceable lending

The Treasury report reveals that about R900m is missing at VBS.

“This money appears to have disappeared due to fictitious deposits and untraced lending. There is evidence of large, unrecoverable loans to directors and related parties. There is some evidence that VBS paid a lawyer a ‘commission’ when municipalities deposited money with the bank. It is not, at this stage, evident if this commission was passed on to municipal managers.”

The report says the bank’s business model was “ill-fated and doomed to fail”.

“VBS made long-term loans, knowing that their primary funding was short-term in nature and lumpy. Hence the business model is almost certainly designed to generate liquidity problems when a few municipalities withdraw their funds to spend on budgeted programmes,” the report reads.

Law was broken

Treasury says VBS actively flouted the law by focusing on municipal deposits, which made up almost 75% of all its deposits. Despite being aware of the restrictions on accepting municipal deposits, the bank continued to accept more. This continued even after it started talking to Treasury about phasing out its past municipal deposits, in order to comply with the Municipal Finance Management Act.

The Mahikeng, Greater Tubatse, Ruth Segomotsi Mompati and Elias Motsoaledi municipalities appear to have been enticed by the high returns the bank promised and disregarded the act.

Curator’s ‘extortionate’ fees

Two VBS senior managers accused the bank’s curator, Anoosh Rooplal, employed by auditing firm SizweNtsalubaGobodo, of charging “exorbitant and extortionate” fees. He sent the bank a bill of R2.6m for three weeks of work.

Sarb appointed Rooplal when it placed VBS under administration in the middle of March.

Rooplal sent the bank his invoice on March 31. The bank paid three days later.

One of the managers said: “If you invoice R2.6m in three weeks, how much will you be paid every month? How much will Anoosh and SizweNtsalubaGobodo be paid by the time the bank is back on its feet? It all looks exorbitant and extortionate.”

Another manager lamented the fact that while depositors could not access their money, the curator was being paid handsomely.

“It simply just doesn’t make any sense to me,” the manager said.

The curator’s spokesperson, Louise Brugman, said Sarb had approved the remuneration and fee structure for the curatorship upfront.

She said that, as per normal governance practice, the curator was required to regularly update Sarb on fees, related activities and the bank’s financial position.

“As further irregularities have been uncovered within the bank, additional experts have been required to assist to restore the bank, all of which is reported and explained to Sarb,” she said.

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