The Great Indian banking Ponzi scheme

 ponzi

 

One of the themes that I have regularly explored in The Daily Reckoning newsletters is the mess that the Indian banking sector currently is in. This newsletter is another one in the series.

The RBI Financial Stability Report released in June earlier this year pointed out: “Five sub-sectors, namely, mining, iron & steel, textiles, infrastructure and aviation, which together constituted 24.8 per cent of the total advances of scheduled commercial banks, had a much larger share of 51.1 per cent in the total stressed advances. Among these five sectors, infrastructure and iron & steel had a significant contribution in total stressed advances accounting for nearly 40 per cent of the total.”

Within the infrastructure sector, the power sector is a big defaulter. Loans to the power sector form around 8.3% of the total loans. But at the same time they form around 16.1% of the stressed advances.

The stressed advances or loans are arrived at by adding the gross non-performing assets (or bad loans) 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 by increasing the tenure of the loan or lowering the interest rate.

So what would typically happen in such a scenario? Banks would go slow on lending to sectors that have been defaulting on their loans. But is that really the case? The sectoral deployment of credit data released by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) earlier this month suggests otherwise. This despite the fact that banks claim every quarter that they continue to stay away from the sectors that have given them pain in the past.

People may not always tell the right story but numbers do. And here are the numbers. The RBI sectoral deployment data suggests that between July 2014 and July 2015 banks lent a total of Rs 1,20,900 crore to industry as a whole. The lending to industry went up by 4.8%, in comparison to 10.2% growth between July 2013 and July 2014.

The situation gets even more interesting when we take a closer look at the numbers. The bank lending to the infrastructure sector between July 2014 and July 2015 grew by Rs 71,600 crore. Within the infrastructure sector lending to the power sector grew by Rs 59,400 crore.

Lending to the iron and steel sector grew by Rs 27,100 crore during the course of the year. Loans to the iron and steel sector form around 4.5% of the total loans and 10.2% of the total stressed advances.

What does this tell us? In the last one year banks gave Rs 98,700 crore of the Rs 1,20,900 crore that they lent to industry to the two most troubled sectors of infrastructure and iron and steel. This means that 81.6% of all industrial lending carried out by banks in the last one year went to the two most troubled sectors of infrastructure and iron and steel.

These sectors form around 19.5% of the total lending carried out by banks and 40% of their stressed assets. The overenthusiasm of banks to lend to these sectors comes even after the RBI in the Financial Stability Report had raised a red flag.

The report had warned that the “the debt servicing ability of power generation companies[which are a part of the infrastructure sector] in the near-term may continue to remain weak given the high leverage and weak cash flows. Banks, therefore, need to exercise adequate caution while dealing with the sector and need to continue monitoring the developments very closely.”

With regard to the iron and steel sector the report had said that “the sector holds very good long term prospects, though it is currently under stress, necessitating a close watch by lenders.” But the July numbers on the sectoral deployment of credit clearly suggest that banks are not listening to the RBI.
What does this really mean? By lending more and more money to sectors which are in trouble, banks are essentially kicking the can down the road.

The banks are giving new loans to companies operating in these troubled sectors so that they can repay their old loans. They are effectively running a Ponzi scheme. A Ponzi scheme is essentially a fraudulent investment scheme where money being brought in by new investors is used to pay off old investors.
Over and above this conversations I have had with some industry insiders I have come to know that banks(in particular public sector banks) have been using the 5/25 scheme in order to postpone dealing with the bad loans issue, in the hope that these loans will become viable in the years to come.

The 5/25 scheme allows banks to extend the loans given to infrastructure projects to up to 25 years while refinancing them every five to seven years. As a December 2014 newsreport in the Mint newspaper points out: “Banks were typically not lending beyond 10-12 years. As a result, cash flows of infrastructure firms were stretched as they tried to meet shorter repayment schedules.”

In fact when the scheme was first introduced it was available only for new projects. However, in December 2014, it was also extended to existing projects as well. Banks were allowed to increase the repayment tenure for companies which had borrowed money for infrastructure projects and come up with fresh amortisation schedules for repayment of loans.

Such an increase in the tenure of repayment would not be treated as a restructuring of assets. An increase in tenure brought down the amount of money that the companies had to pay during the course of a year, in order to repay the loan. And this increased their chances of continuing to repay the loan.

This 5/25 scheme is also available for projects lending against which has already been classified as a restructured asset (i.e. its repayment schedule has already been extended or the interest rate has been lowered). When such a loan is brought under the 5/25 scheme it continues to be classified as a restructured asset up until the project gets upgraded on the satisfactory servicing of the loan.

RBI’s rationale behind extending the 5/25 scheme to existing projects was that that instead of giving up on an asset under stress, if efforts were made to make it viable, then the loan could be paid back and therefore the pressure of bad loans could be eased.

As RBI governor Raghuram Rajan said on August 4, 2015, while addressing a press conference: “We have said that there is no problem to lend to a project even if it is a non-performing asset, so long as it has done something to bring the project back on track and not for evergreening the loan.” But is that really the way banks also look at it?

Rajan further said in a speech on August 24, 2015: “To deal with genuine problems of poor structuring, it has allowed bankers to stretch repayment profiles…to infrastructure and the core sector (the so-called “5/25” rule), provided the project has reached commercial take-off, has a genuinely long commercial life, and the value of the NPV of loans is maintained. RBI is undertaking periodic examination of randomly selected “5/25” deals to ensure they are facilitating genuine adjustment rather than becoming a back-door means of postponing principal payments indefinitely.”

I sincerely hope that RBI is carefully examining the 5/25 loans. As Rajan said, the RBI making it “easy for banks to “extend and pretend”, is not a solution.” I agree.

The column originally appeared in The Daily Reckoning on Sep 11, 2015

Why Lalu Yadav had a change of heart towards Nitish Kumar

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Lalu Prasad Yadav has gulped “poison” but is still alive. As he told reporters yesterday: “I want to assure the secular forces and the people of India that in this battle of Bihar, I am ready to gulp everything. I am ready to consume all types of poison. I am determined to crush the hood of this snake, this cobra of communalism.”

The p-word is essentially a metaphor for Lalu accepting that Nitish Kumar, the current chief minister of Bihar, be projected as the chief ministerial candidate in the assembly elections scheduled in the state later this year. The Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leader had resisted Nitish being projected as the chief ministerial candidate until now.

But with Nitish declaring on June 7 that he no longer wanted an alliance with the RJD for the forthcoming polls, Lalu had no other option but to agree to Nitish being projected as the chief-ministerial candidate.

Mulayam Singh Yadav, the president-designate of the proposed new Janata Party, welcomed this decision of Lalu and said: “I am very happy about the unity of Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar. Kumar will be the chief ministerial candidate for Bihar. Laluji has proposed Nitish Kumar’s name for the chief ministership. Laluji said he will campaign.”

Lalu may want us to believe that he drank the poison to crush the cobra of communalism, but that is not really the truth. If Lalu had to continue to stay relevant in the years to come he needed to ally with Nitish. He had no other option.

The electoral numbers of the 2014 Lok Sabha polls give us the answer. Data from the election commission shows that the combine of Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) and Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) got 36.36 per cent (BJP = 29.86 per cent + LJP = 6.5 per cent) of the valid votes polled during the Lok Sabha elections last year.

The RJD and the Congress Party which fought the elections together got 20.46 per cent and 8.56 per cent of the valid votes respectively. Nitish’s Janata Dal(United)(JD(U)) which fought the elections separately got 16.04 per cent of the valid votes. Hence, the vote percentage of JD(U) + RJD at 36.5 per cent was slightly more than that of the BJP + LJP at 36.36 per cent. Further, RJD+JD(U)+Congress got more votes than BJP + LJP. Nevertheless, since RJD + Congress and JD(U) were not in alliance, these votes did not translate into Lok Sabha seats.

The RJD won only four seats in the state and its alliance partner the Congress party, won two seats. The JD(U) also won only two seats. The BJP on the other hand won 22 seats whereas its partner LJP won six seats.

As is obvious from the data, the LJP won six seats with 6.5 per cent of the votes polled, whereas the RJD won four seats with 20.46 per cent of the votes polled. This was simply because the LJP got its alliance right.

Obviously Lalu understands this electoral math well enough. And given this, he is ready to let Nitish be projected as the chief-ministerial candidate, his initial reluctance notwithstanding.

Interestingly, in the by-elections that happened for 10 assembly seats in August 2014, the JD(U) came together with the RJD+Congress and took on BJP+LJP. The data from the election commission shows that the RJD+Congress+JD(U) got 45.6 per cent of the total votes polled. The BJP+LJP got 37.9 per cent of the votes polled.

Given that, JD(U) was not fighting the elections separately, the votes polled translated into assembly seats as well, unlike the Lok Sabha polls. The RJD+Congress+JD(U) got six out of the ten Assembly seats. Hence, there is some evidence of the alliance working.

Lalu and Nitish have had an “edgy” relationship for the over four decades that they have known each other. Nitish became the chief minister of Bihar in 2005, after managing to dislodge Lalu, who had ruled directly as well as through proxy (through his wife Rabri) for a period of 15 years and brought the state to the point of an economic collapse.

Ironically, for the first half of his political career, Nitish propped up Lalu, even though he knew that Lalu wasn’t fit to govern. Journalist Sankarshan Thakur put this question to Nitish in his book Single Man: “Why did you promote Lalu Yadav so actively in your early years?” he asked.

And surprisingly, Nitish gave an honest answer. As Thakur writes “‘But where was there ever even the question of promoting Laloo Yadav?’ he mumbled…’We always knew what quality of man he was, utterly unfit to govern, totally lacking vision or focus.'” Given this, what Nitish thinks of Lalu is totally on record.

So why then did Nitish decide to support him? “‘There wasn’t any other choice at that time,’ Nitish countered…’We came from a certain kind of politics. Backward communities had to be given prime space and Laloo belonged to the most powerful section of backwards, politically and numerically.'”

It is now Lalu’s turn to return the favour to Nitish. Also, Lalu knows that with the alliance of three parties, his party will have as many seats in the Bihar assembly as Nitish’s JD(U) or probably even more. This will allow him to extract his pound of flesh on the pretext of allowing the alliance to survive. And that is what he is interested in. Hence, what Lalu has drank is an ‘elixir’ and not poison, as he would like us to believe.

The column originally appeared on DailyO on June 9,2015 

Why real estate Ponzi scheme will continue despite new Real Estate Bill


On April 7, 2015, the union cabinet cleared the Real Estate (Regulation and Development) Bill. The Bill essentially mandates that every state needs to set up a Real Estate Regulatory Authority (RERA), to protect consumer interests.
Every commercial as well as residential real estate project needs to be compulsorily registered with the RERA of the concerned state. Real estate companies need to file project details, design and specifications, with the concerned RERA. They need to put up details concerning the approvals from various authorities regarding the project, the design and the layout of the project, the brokers selling the project etc., on the RERA’s website.
Consumers will be able to check these details on the website of the real estate regulator. Further, only once a project is registered with the RERA will it be allowed to be sold. Also, like is the case currently, a real estate company will not be able to go about arbitrarily changing the design of the project midway through the project. In order to do this the company will need approval of two thirds of the buyers.
If the real estate company makes incorrect disclosures or does not follow what it has stated at the time of filing the project with the RERA, it will have to pay a penalty. There are other provisions also that seek to protect consumer interests. Real estate companies will have to clearly state the carpet area of the home/office they are trying to sell, instead of all the fancy jargons that they come up with these days. Further, the bill allows buyers to claim a refund along with interest, in case the real estate company fails to deliver.
So on paper the bill actually looks great. But there is one provision that essentially makes all these provisions meaningless in a way. The Bill requires real estate companies to compulsorily deposit half of the money raised from buyers for a particular project into a monitorable account. This money can then be spent only for the construction of that project against which the money has been raised from prospective buyers.
This is an improvement from the way things currently are. The way things currently work are—a real estate company launches a project, collects the money and then uses that money to do what it feels like. This might mean repaying debt that it has accumulated or diverting the money to complete the projects that are pending. Given this, at times there is no money left for the project against which the money has been raised. In order to get the money for that, another project will have to be launched. Meanwhile the prospective buyers are stuck.
Developers love launching new projects simply because it is the cheapest way to raise money. Money from the bank or the informal market, means paying high interest. Hence, they raise money for the first project and use it to pay off debt or the interest on it. To build homes under the first project, a second project is launched. Money from this is then used to build homes for the first project.
Now, to build homes promised under the second project, a third project is launched and so the story goes on. In the process, all the buyers get screwed and the builder manages to run a perfect Ponzi scheme. A perfect Ponzi scheme is one where money brought in by the newer investors is used to pay off older investors. In this case money brought in by the newer buyers is used to build homes for the older buyers.
The Real Estate Bill seeks to stop real estate companies from running such Ponzi schemes. As explained above, half the money raised for a particular project needs to be deposited in a monitorable bank account and be spent on the project against which the money has been raised.
The thing is when the Bill was first presented in the Parliament in 2013, the real estate companies had to deposit 70% of the money raised against a particular project in a monitorable account and spend that money on that particular project.
Between then and now the real estate lobby has been able to dilute the 70% level to 50%. What this means that the real estate companies can still use 50% of the money raised against a particular project for other things. And this will essentially ensure that the real estate Ponzi scheme will continue.
Real estate companies will continue to launch new projects to raise money and use half of that money for things other than building the project for which they have raised the money for.
Also, this provision will allow the real estate companies to continue to hold on to their existing inventory and not sell it off at lower prices in order to pay off their debt, given that they can continue to raise money by launching a new project.
The question to ask here is why should a ‘new’ regulation allow money being raised for a particular project to be diverted to other things? It goes totally against the prospective buyers who are handing over their hard earned money(or taking on a big home loan) to the real estate company, in the hope of living in their own home.
A possible answer lies in the fact that if the government had regulated that the money raised for a project should used to build that project, it would have closed an easy way that the real estate companies have of raising money. This would have ultimately led to real estate prices coming down. And any crash in real estate prices would have hurt politicians who run this country, given that their ill-gotten wealth is stashed in real estate.

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

The column originally appeared on Firstpost on Apr 21, 2015 

Management lessons we can learn from Rahul Gandhi, but he won’t

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Vivek Kaul

Rahul Gandhi, the vice president of the Congress party, is on an extended vacation. This at a point of time when the first half of the budget session was under progress.
The Narendra Modi government has been trying to push a lot of new legislation through the Parliament in the recent past. And the fact that it doesn’t have enough MPs in the Rajya Sabha, it has had problems pushing through legislation. The opposition parties have ganged up together and managed to hold up the land acquisition ordinance, for one.
The point is that Rahul should have been in New Delhi during this time and been leading the opposition against the government. Instead, he is out on a holiday.
The bigger worry for Rahul should be that if he wants to keep his family owned Congress party relevant, he needs to reinvent both himself and his party. A good way to look at the Congress party is as an organization which is failing.
As Cass R. Sunstein and Reid Haste ask in Wiser—Getting Beyond Groupthink to Make Groups Smarter: “Suppose that you are a leader of an organization and that is not doing well, perhaps because it is stuck in old ways of thinking…What can you do?”
After asking this question the authors offer the example of Intel: “Intel Corporation, a large American corporation, faced exactly this problem in the 1980s. After fourteen years of profits it was losing a lot of business in the memory chip market, which it had pioneered. In a dramatic move, the company decided to abandon the entire market,” write the authors.
Why did Intel make this decision? Andrew Grove, who at that point of time was the President of Intel and would later become its CEO as well as Chairman recounts in his book Only the Paranoid Survive: “I remember a time in the middle of 1985, after this aimless wandering had been going on for almost a year. I was in my office with Intel’s chairman and CEO, Gordon Moore, and we were discussing our quandary. Our mood was downbeat. I looked out [of] the window at the Ferris wheel of the Great America amusement park revolving in the distance, then I turned to back to Gordon and I asked, “If we got kicked out and the board brought in a new CEO, what do you think he would do?” Gordon answered without hesitation, “He would get us out of memories.” I stared at him, numb, then said, “Why shouldn’t you and I walk out the door, come back and do it ourselves?””
This a very simple story which has a huge lesson. Organizations which are stuck in the old way of doing things need to get rid of their memories. “For Intel, it initiated a spectacularly successful strategy. The story suggests that when a group is aimlessly wandering or on a path that does not seem so good, it is an excellent idea to ask, “If we brought in new leadership, what would it do? Asking that simple question can break through a host of conceptual traps,” write Sunstein and Haste.
This is something that Rahul and the top leadership of the Congress party need to ask themselves. The party’s core idea of socialism and garibi hatao has been rejected by the voters, for the simple reason that it has been espousing the idea for more than four decades now. And even after four decades the ordinary Indian continues to be poor. So clearly what this tells him is that the Congress party was never serious about eradicating poverty. If it was it would have managed to eradicate poverty by now, given that the party has been in power in each of the decades since independence.
Hence, the party needs a new idea. And that will only come if one of the Gandhis comes up with something given that the party revolves around them. At this point of time this Gandhi has to be Rahul.
Nevertheless, it doesn’t seem likely that Rahul will do anything, if his lackadaisical leadership until now is anything to go by. Gurcharan Das makes a very interesting point in India Unbound about family owned businesses. As he writes: “Pulin Garg, the thoughtful professor at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad…used to say, “Haweli ki umar saath saal[The life of a family owned business is sixty years.””
The Congress party in its current form was formed when Rahul’s grandmother, Indira Gandhi, split from the original Congress party in 1969. Since then the party became a family run organization and has constantly been run by the Gandhis except for a brief interlude in the 1990s, when Rajiv Gandhi, Rahul’s father, was assassinated and his mother Sonia did not want to enter politics.
Given this, the party since 1969, or for a period of close to 46 years has been a family run organization, and its approaching the 60 year cut off for survival.
Rahul is the third generation of the Gandhi family running the party. And normally family owned businesses shut-down in the third generation. As Das writes: “Thomas Mann expressed…in Buddenbrooks, arguably the finest book ever written about family business. It describes the saga of three generations: in the first generation the scruffy and astute patriarch works hard and makes money. Born into money, the second generation does not want more money. It wants power…Born into money and power, the third generation dedicates itself to art. So the aesthetic but physically weak grandson plays music. There is no one to look after the business and it is the end of the…family.”
Let’s look at the above paragraph in the context of the Congress party. Indira Gandhi built the party in its current form. Rajiv enjoyed the power in the aftermath of her assassination. Sonia entered politics because the Gandhi family was used to power by then. And now Rahul, the weak grandson, is busy driving it into the ground.

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

The column originally appeared on Firstpost on Mar 24, 2015

Janet Yellen’s excuses for not raising interest rates will keep coming

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The Federal Open Market Committee(FOMC) of the Federal Reserve of the United States, which is mandated to decide on the federal funds rate, met on March 17-18, 2015.
The federal funds rate is the interest rate at which one bank lends funds maintained at the Federal Reserve to another bank on an overnight basis. It acts as a sort of a benchmark for the interest rates that banks charge on their short and medium term loans.
In the meeting the FOMC decided to keep the federal funds rate in the range of 0-0.25%, as has been in the case in the aftermath of the financial crisis which broke out in September 2008. Janet Yellen, the chairperson of the Federal Reserve also clarified that “an increase in the target range for the federal funds rate remains unlikely at our next meeting in April.” The next meeting of the FOMC is scheduled on April 27-28, 2015.
The question is when will the Federal Reserve start raising the federal funds rate? As the FOMC statement released on March 18 points out: “In determining how long to maintain this target range, the Committee will assess progress–both realized and expected–toward its objectives of maximum employment and 2 % inflation. This assessment will take into account a wide range of information, including measures of labor market conditions, indicators of inflation pressures and inflation expectations, and readings on financial and international developments.”
Other than a clear inflation target of 2%, this is as vague as it can get. The inflation number in January 2015 came in at 1.3%, well below the Fed’s 2% target. The Fed’s forecast for inflation for 2015 is between 0.6% to 0.8%. At such low inflation levels, the interest rates cannot be raised.
But the Federal Reserve wasn’t as vague in the past as it is now. In December 2012, the Federal Reserve decided to follow the Evans rule (named after Charles Evans, who is the President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago and also a part of the FOMC). As per the Evans rule, the Federal Reserve would keep interest rates low till the rate of unemployment fell below 6.5 % or the rate of inflation went above 2.5 %.
As the FOMC statement released on December 12, 2012 said: “ the Committee decided to keep the target range for the federal funds rate at 0 to 1/4 % and currently anticipates that this exceptionally low range for the federal funds rate will be appropriate at least as long as the unemployment rate remains above 6.5%, inflation between one and two years ahead is projected to be no more than a half percentage point above the Committee’s 2% longer-run goal, and longer-term inflation expectations continue to be well anchored.”
This is how things continued until March 2014, when the Federal Reserve dropped the Evans rule. In a statement released on March 19, 2014, one year back, the FOMC said: “In determining how long to maintain the current 0 to 1/4 % target range for the federal funds rate, the Committee will assess progress–both realized and expected–toward its objectives of maximum employment and 2 % inflation. This assessment will take into account a wide range of information, including measures of labor market conditions, indicators of inflation pressures and inflation expectations, and readings on financial developments.” In fact, this is exactly the wording the FOMC has used in the statement released on March 18, 2015.
What the FOMC meant in the March 2014 statement was that instead of just looking at the rate of unemployment and the rate of inflation, the Federal Reserve would also take into account other factors before deciding to raise the federal funds rate. So what made the Federal Reserve junk the Evans rule?
In February 2014, the rate of unemployment was at 6.7% and was closing in on the Evans rule target of 6.5%. In April 2014, the rate of unemployment had fallen to 6.2%.
If the Fed would have still been following the Evans rule, it would have to start raising the Federal Funds rate. This would have meant jeopardising the stock market rally which has been on in the United States. In the aftermath of the financial crisis, the Federal Reserve had cut the federal funds rate to 0-0.25%, in the hope of encouraging people to borrow and spend more, to get their moribund economies going again.
While people did borrow and spend to some extent, a lot of money was borrowed at low interest rates in the United States and other developed countries where central banks had cut rates, and it found its way into stock markets and other financial markets all over the world. This led to a massive rallies in prices of financial assets. In an era of close to zero interest rates the stock market in the United States has seen the longest bull market after the Second World War.
Any increase in the federal funds rate would jeopardise the stock market rally. And that is something that the American economy can ill-afford to. So, it is in the interest of the Federal Reserve to just let the stock market rally on.
Interestingly, the Federal Reserve has been changing the so-called “forward guidance” on raising the federal funds rate for a while now. In March 2009, it had said that short-term interest rates will stay low for an “extended period.” In August 2011, it said that short-term interest rates would stay low till “mid-2013.” In January 2012, the Fed said that short-term interest rates would remain low till “late 2014.” And by September 2012, this had gone up to “mid-2015.”
In March 2014, it junked the Evans rule. So, what this means is that the Federal Reserve will ensure that interest rates in the United States continue to stay low. Peter Schiff, the Chief Executive of Euro Pacific Capital, summarized the situation best when he said that the Federal Reserve would “keep manufacturing excuses as to why rates cannot be raised” and this was simply because it had “built an economy completely dependent on zero % interest rates.”
Given this, be prepared for Janet Yellen offering more excuses for not raising the federal funds rate in the days to come.

The column originally appeared on The Daily Reckoning on Mar 20, 2015