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Crony capitalism: The truth about Indian banking is finally coming out

One of the well kept secrets about the fragile state of the Indian economy is gradually coming out in the open. The Indian banks are not in great shape. The Financial Express reports that the chances of a lot of restructured loans never being repaid has gone up. It quotes R K Bansal, chairman of the corporate debt restructuring (CDR) cell, as saying that the rate of slippages could go up to 15% from the current levels of 10%. "The slower-than-expected economic recovery and delayed clearances for projects will result in a higher share of failed restructuring cases," Bansal told the newspaper.

When a big borrower (usually a company) fails to repay a bank loan, the loan is not immediately declared to be a bad loan. The CDR cell is a facility available for banks to try and rescue the loan. Loans are usually restructured by extending the repayment period of the loan. This is done under the assumption that even though the borrower may not be in a position to repay the loan currently due to cash flow issues, chances are that in the future he may be in a better position to repay the loan. Or as John Maynard Keynes once famously said "If you owe your bank a hundred pounds, you have a problem. But if you owe a million, it has."

 Crony capitalism: The truth about Indian banking is finally coming out

Reuters

As of December 2013, the CDR cell had restructured loans of around Rs 2.9 lakh crore. Of this nearly 10% of the loans have turned into bad loans with promoters not paying up. Bansal expects this number to go up to 15%. Interestingly, a Reserve Bank of India (RBI) working group estimates that nearly 25-30% of the restructured loans may ultimately turn out to be bad loans.

And that is clearly a worrying sign. There is more data that backs this up. In the financial stability report released in December 2013, the RBI estimated that the average stressed asset ratio of the Indian banking system stood at 10.2% of the total assets ofIndian banks as of September 2013. It stood at 9.2% of total assets at the end of March 2013.

The average stressed asset ratio is essentially the sum of gross non performing assets plus restructured loans divided by the total assets held by the Indian banking system. What this means in simple English is that for every Rs 100 given by Indian banks as a loan(a loan is an asset for a bank) nearly Rs 10.2 is in shaky territory. The borrower has either stopped to repay this loan or the loan has been restructured, where the borrower has been allowed easier terms to repay the loan (which also entails some loss for the bank).

The RBI financial stability report points out that this has happened because of bad credit appraisal by the banks during the boom period. "It is possible that boom period[2005-2008] credit disbursal was associated with less stringent credit appraisal, amongst various other factors that affected credit quality," the report points out. Hence, borrowers who shouldn't have got loans in the first place, also got loans, simply because the economy was booming, and bankers giving out loans felt that their loans would be repaid. But that hasn't turned out to be the case.

Interestingly, Uday Kotak, Managing Director of Kotak Mahindra Bank recently told CNBC TV 18 that the current stressed, restructured or non performing loans amounted to nearly 25% of the Indian banking assets. He put the total number at Rs 10 lakh crore of the total loans of Rs 40 lakh crore given by the Indian banking system. This is a huge number.

Kotak further said that the Indian banking system may have to write off loans worth Rs 3.5-4 lakh crore over the next few years. When one takes into account the fact that the total networth of the Indian banking system is around Rs 8 lakh crore, one realizes that the situation is really precarious.

Interestingly, a few business sectors amount for a major portion of these troubled loans. As the RBI report on financial stability points out "There are ?ve sectors, namely, Infrastructure, Iron & Steel, Textiles, Aviation and Mining which have high level of stressed advances. At system level, these?ve sectors together contribute around 24 percent of total advances of SCBs (scheduled commercial banks), and account for around 51 per cent of their total stressed advances."

So, five sectors amount to nearly half of the troubled loans. If one looks at these sectors carefully, it doesn't take much time to realize these are all sectors in which crony capitalism is rampant (the only exception probably being textiles).

Take the case of L Rajagopal of the Congress party (who recently used the pepper spray in the Parliament). He is the chairman and the founder of the Lanco group, which is into infrastructure and power sectors. As Shekhar Gupta pointed out in a recent article in The Indian Express, Rajagopal's "company got a Rs 9,000 crore reprieve in a CDR (corporate debt restructuring) process just the other day. His bankrupt companies were given further loans of Rs 3,500 crore against an equity of just Rs 239 crore. Twenty-seven banks were involved in that bailout."

Here is a company which hasn't repaid loans of Rs 9,000 crore. It benefits from the restructuring of those loans and is then given further loans worth Rs 3,500 crore. So, if the Indian banking sector is in a mess, it is not surprising at all.

As bad loans mount, banks will go slow on giving out newer loans. They are also likely to charge higher rates of interest from those borrowers who are repaying the loans. This is not an ideal scenario for an economy which needs to grow at a very fast rate in order to pull out more and more of its people from poverty. If India has to go back to 8-9% rate of economic growth, its banks need to be in a situation where they should be able to continue to lend against good collateral.

So is there a way out of this mess? A suggestion on this front has come from Saurabh Mukherjea from Ambit. He suggests that the bad assets be taken off from the balance sheets of banks and these assets be moved to create a "bad bank". This would allow the good banks to operate properly, without worrying about the bad loans on its books. As he writes "This would, in effect, nationalise the bad assets of the Indian banks and the taxpayer would have to bear the burden of these sub-standard loans."
The government had followed this strategy to rescue Unit Trust of India (UTI). All the bad assets were moved to SUUTI (Specified Undertaking of the Unit Trust of India). The good assets were moved to the UTI Mutual Fund, which has flourished over the years. The government also has gained in the process.

The trouble here is that even if the government does this, there is no guarantee that it might be successful in reining in the crony capitalists. Over the last 10 years crony capitalists like Rajagopal, who are close to the Congress party, have benefited out of the Indian banking system. Given this, it is but natural to assume that after May 2014, the crony capitalists close to the next government (which in all likeliness will be led by Narendra Modi) will takeover. And that is the real problem of the Indian banking sector, for which there can be no solution other than a political will to clean up the system.

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Updated Date: Feb 25, 2014 07:47:05 IST

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