George Soros’ theory of reflexivity explains the rut in public sector banks

Public sector banks continue to remain in a big mess. In a recent research note
Crisil Research points out: “ Asset quality remained under pressure with gross non performing assets rising by 45 bps[basis points] to 5% of advances because of continuing stress across sectors such as infrastructure, construction and iron and steel. Also, restructured assets for public sector banks as a proportion of advances increased by 70-100 bps to around 7-8% as of December 2014.” One basis point is one hundredth of a percentage.
What this means in simple English is that for every Rs 100 given by Indian public sector banks as a loan(a loan is an asset for a bank) nearly Rs 12- 13(Rs 5 worth of non performing assets plus Rs 7-8 worth of restructured loans) is in shaky territory.
The borrower has either stopped repaying the 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. Crisil Research expects gross non-performing assets to remain at the current high levels, during the period January to March 2015, results for which will soon start coming out.
The question is how did the Indian public sector banks end up in this state? The simple answer as explained above is that they gave loans to borrowers who are no longer repaying them. The next question is whether the due diligence carried out by banks was adequate? This is where things get interesting.
A major portion of the loans which are now not being repaid were given out during the period 2002 and 2008. This was the period when the stock market in India was in the midst of a huge rally. The economy was also doing well.
This had created a massive “feel good” factor which ensured that corporates where willing to borrow and banks were willing to lend. Between end December 2001 and end December 2007, the lending by banks went up at a rapid rate of 26.8% per year. To give a sense of comparison, the lending by banks between December 2007 and December 2014 went up at the rate of 16.8% per year, which is significantly lower. If we consider a much shorter period between December 2011 and December 2014, the lending by banks went up by just 13.4% per year.
What this clearly tells us is that the growth in bank lending between December 2001 and December 2007 happened at a very rapid rate. This rapid rise was a reflection of the era of “easy money” that existed during that period due to the stock market and the Indian economy both going from strength to strength.
And this is where things started to get messy. Before we go any further it is important to understand, the theory of reflexivity proposed by hedge fund manager George Soros.
As Soros writes in
The New Paradigm for Financial Markets: The crux of the theory of reflexivity is not so obvious, it asserts that market prices can influence the fundamentals. The illusion that markets manage to be always right is caused by their ability to affect the fundamentals that they are supposed to reflect.” Reflexivity refers to circular relationships between cause and effect
Typically, the price of a stock is expected to reflect the underlying earnings potential of a company (or the kind of money that the company is expected to make in the days to come) or what analysts like to refer to as fundamentals of a company. What Soros implies through the theory of reflexivity is that the stock price of a company also impacts its earnings potential. Or to put it simply stock prices can have an impact on the fundamentals of a company.
In the feel good and easy money era that prevailed between 2001 and 2007, the stock prices of companies rallied at a rapid rate. This gave the companies the confidence to borrow a lot of money from banks, in the hope of expanding and earning much more money. But they bit more than they could chew and a few years down the line the interest that they paid on their outstanding debt was a major part of their total expenses. This had an impact on their profits. Hence, the stock price of a company ended up having an impact on its earnings.
As companies started defaulting on their interest payments and loan repayments, banks started becoming a part of this mess as well. They had to write off loans as well as restructure them. This has now led to a situation where the stressed assets of public sector banks are now close to 12-13%. In this way, a rapidly rising stock market ended up having an impact on the performance of banks. Also, in many cases the public sector banks were forced to lend to crony capitalists by politicians.
High GNPAs will restrict growth in net interest income to 5-7% year on year, in spite of lowering of deposit rates by some of the banks,” points out Crisil.
To conclude, the bad habits are usually picked up during good times. And that is precisely what happened to public sector banks in India.

The column originally appeared on The Daily Reckoning on April 15, 2015