What Arun Jaitley can learn from Rajan’s IRMA speech


A few days back I wrote a piece questioning the logic of the State Bank of India entering into a memorandum of understanding with Adani Enterprises to consider giving it a loan of up to $1 billion. My logic was fairly straightforward—Adani Enterprises already has a lot of debt (around  Rs 72,632.37 crore as on September 30, 2014) and is just about earning enough to service that debt.
Several readers wrote in on the social media saying what was the problem if Adani was offering an adequate security against the loan? Raghuram Rajan, the governor of the Reserve Bank of India, answered this question in a speech yesterday. Rajan was speaking at the third Dr. Verghese Kurien Memorial Lecture at IRMA, Anand.
As Rajan said “The amount recovered from cases decided in 2013-14 under DRTs (debt recovery tribunals) was Rs. 30,590 crore while the outstanding value of debt sought to be recovered was a huge Rs. 2,36,600 crore. Thus recovery was only 13% of the amount at stake. Worse, even though the law indicates that cases before the DRT should be disposed off in 6 months, only about a fourth of the cases pending at the beginning of the year are disposed off during the year – suggesting a four year wait even if the tribunals focus only on old cases.”
So, just because a bank has a collateral does not mean it will be in a position to en-cash it, as soon as the borrower defaults on the loan. As big borrowers (read companies and industrialists) have defaulted on loans over the last few years, the non performing assets of banks, particularly public sector banks have gone up.
As on March 31, 2013, the gross non performing assets (NPAs) or simply put the bad loans, of public sector banks, had stood at 3.63% of the total advances. Latest data from the finance ministry show that the bad loans of public sector banks as on September 30, 2014, stood at 5.32% of the total advances. The absolute number was at Rs 2,43,043 crore. During the same period the bad loans of private sector banks was more or less constant at 1.8% of total advances. Interestingly, public sector banks accounted for over 90% of bad loans in 2013-2014 (i.e. between April 1, 2013 and March 31, 2014).
All these points have several repercussions. The first is that banks need to charge a higher rate of interest in order to compensate for the higher credit risk (or simply put the risk of the borrower defaulting on the loan) they are taking on. As Rajan said in the speech “The promoter who misuses the system ensures that banks then charge a premium for business loans. The average interest rate on loans to the power sector today is 13.7% even while the policy rate is 8%. The difference, also known as the credit risk premium, of 5.7% is largely compensation banks demand for the risk of default and non-payment.”
Simply put, those who default in effect ensure that those who repay have to pay a higher rate of interest. The irony is that banks give out home loans to individuals at 10-11%. This shows that lending to individuals is a better credit risk for them than lending to infrastructure companies.
As Rajan put it “Even comparing the rate on the power sector loan with the average rate available on the home loan of 10.7%, it is obvious that even good power sector firms are paying much more than the average household because of bank worries about whether they will recover loans.”
Also, a report in the Business Standard today suggests that the RBI is “mulling action in terms of limiting loan-sanctioning powers of banks with stressed asset ratios.”
The stressed asset ratio is the sum of gross non performing assets plus restructured loans divided by the total assets held by the Indian banking system. 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) by increasing the tenure of the loan or lowering the interest rate.
Business Standard report carries a list of 14 public sector banks that have a stressed asset ratio of 12% or more. Central Bank of India has the highest stressed asset ratio of 20.49%, followed by the United Bank of India at 19.7%.
If the RBI decides to limit the loan-sanctioning power of these banks, it will do so in the backdrop of the finance minister Arun Jaitley asking banks to lend more. A few days back Jaitley said “We have asked banks to go out there and lend without any fear. They should do proper appraisals of projects and provide loans to infrastructure projects.” Like in almost everything else, he was following the tradition set by his predecessor P Chidambaram.
The stressed assets of many public sector banks did not cross 12% because they did not carry out proper project appraisals. It crossed such high levels because the banks were forced to lend to crony capitalists close to the political dispensation of the day i.e. leaders of the previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA).
Take the case of GMR Infra. For the period of three months ending September 30, 2014, the company paid a total interest of Rs 845.04 crore on its debt. Its operating profit was Rs 101.14 crore. The company had a total debt of Rs 39,187.45 crore as on March 31, 2014. What this clearly tells us is that the company is not earning enough to pay the interest that it has to, on the total debt that it has managed to accumulate.
This is true about many other companies as well particularly in the infrastructure sector, which is dominated from crony capitalists. These companies borrowed much more than they should have been allowed to in the first place. Also, many promoters got away without putting much of their own money in the business.
As Rajan said “The reason so many projects are in trouble today is because they were structured up front with too little equity, sometimes borrowed by the promoter from elsewhere. And some promoters find ways to take out the equity as soon as the project gets going, so there really is no cushion when bad times hit.” This could not have happened without the tacit support of the political dispensation of the day.
And this perhaps led Rajan to quip that India is “a country where we have many sick companies but no “sick” promoters.” “In India, too many large borrowers insist on their divine right to stay in control despite their unwillingness to put in new money. The firm and its many workers, as well as past bank loans, are the hostages in this game of chicken — the promoter threatens to run the enterprise into the ground unless the government, banks, and regulators make the concessions that are necessary to keep it alive. And if the enterprise regains health, the promoter retains all the upside, forgetting the help he got from the government or the banks – after all, banks should be happy they got some of their money back!” Rajan added.
Another implication of the massive increase in bad loans for public sector banks has been that the law has become “more draconian in an attempt to force payment.” As Rajan put it “The SARFAESI (Securitization and Reconstruction of Financial Assets and Enforcement of Security Interests) Act of 2002 is, by the standards of most countries, very pro-creditor as it is written. This was probably an attempt by legislators to reduce the burden on DRTs and force promoters to pay. But its full force is felt by the small entrepreneur who does not have the wherewithal to hire expensive lawyers or move the courts, even while the influential promoter once again escapes its rigour. The small entrepreneur’s assets are repossessed quickly and sold, extinguishing many a promising business that could do with a little support from bankers.” This leads to a situation where upcoming entrepreneurs do not want to take the risk of growing bigger by taking on more loans and may choose to continue to remain small.
To conclude, Rajan’s speech at IRMA was an excellent summary of all that is wrong with the Indian banking sector. He also made suggestions on how to set it right. The promoters should not try and finance mega projects with tiny slivers of equity, he suggested. Banks needed to react quickly to borrower distress. And the government needed to set up more debt review tribunals. These are simple solutions that need political will in order to be implemented.
Arun Jaitley has been asking the RBI to cut interest rates for a while now. He has also asked banks to lend more. Nevertheless, it’s not as simple as Jaitley thinks it is. First and foremost the government needs to ensure that big borrowers cannot just get away with defaulting on loans. This in itself will have a huge impact on interest rates.
As Rajan put it “It is obvious that even good power sector firms are paying much more than the average household because of bank worries about whether they will recover loans. Reforms that lower this 300 basis point risk premium of power sector loans 
vis-a-vis home loans would have large beneficial effects on the cost of finance, perhaps as much or more than any monetary policy accommodation.”
This is something that Jaitley should be thinking about seriously in the days to come, if he wants banks to genuinely bring down lending rates.

(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He tweets @kaul_vivek)