On December 29, 2020, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) released the Report on Trend and Progress of Banking in India.
Like every year, the report is a treasure trove of information, especially for people like me who like to closely track the aggregate banking scene in India.
Sadly, most of this important information barely made it to the mainstream media, this, despite the fact that the health of the country’s banking sector impacts almost all of us. (This is one reason why I need your continued support).
Among other things, the report discusses the issue of the bad loans of banks in great detail. Bad loans are largely loans which haven’t been repaid for a period of 90 days or more. They are also referred to as non-performing assets or NPAs.
Let’s take a look at this issue pointwise.
1) The total bad loans of banks (public sector banks, private banks, foreign banks and small finance banks) as of March 31, 2020 stood at around Rs 8,99,802 crore. This is the lowest since 2017-18. The following chart plots the bad loans of banks over the years.
Source: Reserve Bank of India.
Despite this fall, the Indian banking sector on a whole continues to remain in a mess. We shall look at the reasons in this piece.
2) The total amount of loans written off by banks has steadily been going up over the years. In 2019-20 it peaked at Rs 2,37,876 crore. The following chart lists out the loans written off by banks over the years.
Source: Reserve Bank of India.
Basically, loans which have been bad loans for four years (that is, for one year as a ‘substandard asset’ and for three years as a ‘doubtful asset’) can be dropped from the balance sheet of banks by way of a write-off. In that sense, a write-off is an accounting practise.
Of course, before doing this, a 100 per cent provision needs to be made for a bad loan which is being written-off. This means a bank needs to set aside enough money over four years in order to meet the losses on account of a bad loan.
Also, this does not mean that a bank has to wait for four years before it can write-off a loan. If it feels that a particular loan is unrecoverable, it can be written off before four years.
So, does that mean that once a loan is written off it’s gone forever and is no longer recoverable? In India things work a little differently. In fact, almost all the bad loans written off are technical write-offs.
The RBI defines technical write-offs as bad loans which have been written off at the head office level of the bank, but remain as bad loans on the books of branches and, hence, recovery efforts continue at the branch level. If a bad loan which was technically written off is partly or fully recovered, the amount is declared as the other income of the bank. Having said that, the rate of recovery of loans written-off over the years, has been abysmal at best.
Now getting back to the issue at hand. The bad loans of banks as of March 31, 2020, have come down to some extent due to write-offs. As the Report on Trend and Progress of Banking in India points out: “The reduction in NPAs during the year was largely driven by write-offs.” Interestingly, the RBI offers the same reason for bad loans coming down in the years before 2019-20 as well.
Let’s try examining the above logic in a little more detail. The bad loans or NPAs of banks as of April 1, 2019, stood at Rs 9,15,355 crore. During the course of 2019-20, banks wrote off loans worth Rs 2,37,876 crore. Nevertheless, as of March 31, 2020, the bad loans of banks had come down to Rs 8,99,803 crore.
If we subtract the loans written off during 2019-20 from the overall bad loans of banks as of April 1, 2019, the bad loans as of March 31, 2020, should have stood at Rs 6,77,479 crore (Rs 9,15,355 crore minus Rs 2,37,876 crore). But as we see they are actually at Rs 8,99,802 crore.
What has happened here? What accounts for the significant difference? Banks have accumulated fresh bad loans during the course of the year. The net fresh bad loans (fresh bad loans accumulated during the year minus reduction in bad loans) during 2019-20 stood at Rs 2,22,323 crore. Once this added to Rs 6,77,479 crore, we get Rs 8,99,802 crore, or the bad loans as of March 31, 2020.
The point to be noted here is that banks on the whole have accumulated fresh bad loans of more than Rs 2 lakh crore during 2019-20. This is a reason to worry. It tells us that the bad loans problem of Indian banks hasn’t really gone anywhere. It is alive and kicking, unlike what many bankers, economists, India equity strategists and journalists, have been trying to tell us. Many borrowers continue to default on their loans.
The net fresh bad loans accumulated in 2018-19 had stood at Rs 1,34,738 crore. This tells us that there was a huge jump in the accumulation of fresh bad loans in 2019-20. The current financial year will see a further accumulation of bad loans due to the covid-pandemic.
3) In a February 2017 interview to Dinesh Unnikrishnan of Firstpost, Dr KC Chakrabarty, a former deputy governor of the RBI and a veteran public sector banker, had put the bad loans number of Indian banks at Rs 20 lakh crore.
As he had said:
“I’ll put the figure around Rs 20 lakh crore…One should include all troubled loans including reported bad loans, restructured assets, written off loans and bad loans that are not yet recognised.”
The trouble was not many people took Chakrabarty seriously at that point of time. Nevertheless, the Rs 20 lakh crore number doesn’t seem far-fetched at all. As mentioned earlier, the bad loans number as of March 31, 2020, stood at Rs 8,99,802 crore.
Between 2014-15 and 2019-20, the total bad loans written off by banks was Rs 8,77,856 crore. We are taking this particular time period simply because in mid 2015 the RBI launched an asset quality review and forced banks to recognise bad loans as bad loans. Up until then the banks had been using various tricks to kick the bad loans can down the road.
If we add, the bad loans as of March 2020 to bad loans written off between 2014-15 and 2019-20, we get Rs 17,77,658 crore. What does this number represent? It represents the total bad loans, the Indian banks have managed to accumulate between 2014-15 and 2019-20. And it is very close to the Rs 20 lakh crore number suggested by Chakrabarty.
Of course, this calculation does not take into account the loans which are bad loans but have not yet been recognised as bad loans. Former RBI Governor Urjit Patel in his book Overdraft—Saving the Indian Saver writes:
“In February 2020, ‘living dead’ borrowers in the commercial real-estate sector – under a familiar guise (‘a ghost from the past’, if you will) viz., ad hoc ‘restructuring’ – have been given a lifeline. It is estimated that over one-third of loans to builders are under moratorium.”
Professor Ananth Narayan of the S. P. Jain Institute of Management and Research, writing in the Mint in June 2020, said: “Banking NPA recognition remains incomplete… For a while now, RBI has allowed banks to postpone NPA recognition for some of the over Rs 8 lakh crore of MSME, MUDRA and commercial real estate loans.” The situation could only have worsened post the spread of the covid-pandemic.
If we take this into account, the bad loans of Indian banks over the last five years have amounted to much more than Rs 20 lakh crore. In that sense, Dr Chakrabarty has had the last laugh. As Chakrabarty had said in the Firstpost interview: “Unless this portion is recognised first, there will be no solution to the bad loan problem.”
Or to put it simply, how do you solve a problem without recognising that it exists.