How to Run Public Sector Banks Well Without Privatising Them. And Why That’s Not Going to Happen

As of March 31, 2020, the total bad loans of public sector banks stood at Rs 6,78,318 crore. This is a drop of 24.3% from a peak of Rs 8,95,600 crore as of March 2018. Bad loans are largely loans which haven’t been repaid for a period of 90 days or more.

So how did bad loans of public sector banks come down by nearly a fourth? First and foremost, as of March 31, 2018, IDBI Bank, the worst performing bank when it comes to bad loans, was a public sector bank. From January 21, 2019, the bank was categorised to be a private bank. Accordingly, its bad loans moved to the overall bad loans of private banks. But we need to remember IDBI Bank is owned by the Life Insurance Corporation of India, that makes it as close to being a private bank, as Indian Chinese food is close to the real Chinese food.

As of March 31, 2020, the overall bad loans of IDBI Bank were Rs 47,272 crore. If we add this to the bad loans of public sector banks, the real bad loans of public sector banks work out to Rs 7,25,590 crore (Rs 6,78,318 crore + Rs 47,272 crore). This means that the real fall in bad loans of public sector banks in the two-year period has been around 19% and not 24.3%, as we originally calculated.

So, bad loans worth Rs 47,272 crore came down, simply because IDBI Bank got recategorised as a private bank.

Let’s move to the next point. Take a look at the following chart, which basically plots the bad loans of public sector banks over the years. The bad loans of IDBI Bank are included in this chart.

India’s Manhattan

Source: Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy and Indian Banks’ Association.

As I elaborate in detail in my book Bad Money, the RBI practiced regulatory forbearance between 2011 and 2014 and did not force public sector banks to recognise their bad loans as bad loans, even though they had started to appear by then. In simple English, regulatory forbearance, essentially means the central bank looking the other way from the problem.

An asset quality review (AQR) was launched in mid 2015 and this forced banks to recognise their bad loans as bad loans. As you can see in the chart, the overall bad loans of public sector banks take a huge jump post 2014-15. This was the AQR at work.

Now loans which have been bad loans for four years can be dropped from the balance sheet of banks by way of a write-off. Hence, many loans which had been categorised as bad loans in 2015-16 would have spent four years on the balance sheet by 2019-20.

Accordingly, they got written off from the balance sheet of banks. Of course, before such bad loans are written off, a 100 per cent provision needs to be made for these bad loans. This means that banks need to set aside money to meet the losses arising from these loans. This essentially led to the overall bad loans of banks coming down as well.

And over and above this, the banks would have managed to recover a portion of the bad loans (which includes bad loans that have been written off as well). The overall recovery rate for banks through various recovery channels during 2018-19 was around 15.5% of the amounts involved. (Numbers for 2019-20 aren’t currently available or at least I couldn’t find them anywhere).

In fact, a bulk of the current accumulated bad loans will disappear from the balance sheets of public sector banks over the next two to three years, thanks to the fact that bad loans can be written off after they have spent four years on the balance sheet.

Nevertheless, the question is: even after this can the public sector banks operate in a healthy way where they don’t need to be constantly recapitalised. In fact, once public sector banks get around to identifying post-covid bad loans early next year, their balance sheets are likely to come under stress again.

But the basic problem of public sector banks remains interference by the government. This interference can take several forms. As Viral Acharya and Raghuram Rajan write in a research paper titled Indian Banks: A Time to Reform?: “Interference, including appointing favoured candidates to management, expanding lending just before elections, or directing banks to lend to favoured borrowers is obviously harmful.” (Again, something I discuss in great detail in my book Bad Money).

To ensure that public sector banks do not face this kind of interference it has been suggested that they need to be privatised. Over and above this, there have been news reports which suggest that the government is looking to privatise public sector banks.

This remains a difficult decision politically. Also, in an economic environment like the one prevailing, there will be fairly limited number of firms looking to buy government banks saddled with a huge amount of bad loans and a section of employees not used to the idea of working.

Further, unlike other public sector enterprises, the government has to be even more careful while selling a bank. As Acharya and Rajan write:

“The experience in other countries with allowing corporations to own banks is that it increases the possibility of self-dealing within the group – the bank is used to make risky loans to failing group entities, and the bill is paid by the tax payer when the bank is eventually bailed out.”

They further say that the Indian industry is already heavily concentrated. As a recent McKinsey Knowledge Centre report titled India’s turning point An economic agenda to spur growth and jobs points out: “Our analysis shows that just 20 of the country’s roughly 600 large firms contribute 80 percent of the total profit of large firms.” The report defines large firms as firms with an annual revenue of more than $500 million.

If India’s large corporates end up buying its banks, the industry is likely to get even more concentrated. Hence, while privatisation of public sector banks remains a good idea over a long-term, currently, the government can initiate the reform process through the Axis Bank model, wherein the government is an investor in banks rather being a promoter.

The Committee to Review Governance of Boards of Banks in India (better known as the Nayak Committee, after its chairman, PJ Nayak) which presented its report to the RBI in May 2014, suggested the Axis Bank model.

Axis Bank was originally called UTI Bank. It was set up in 1993. It was owned by the Unit Trust of India (UTI) and a clutch of public sector banks. Even though ownership was 100 per cent in the public sector, the bank got a licence to operate as a private sector bank. The bank was listed on the stock exchanges in 1998. UTI Bank was later renamed Axis Bank.

Even at that point of time, the public sector shareholding continued to be the majority shareholding. In early 2000s, when the Unit Trust of India ran into trouble, the government broke it down into two parts. One part became the UTI Mutual Fund and the other was the Specified Undertaking of the Unit Trust of India (SUUTI).

In February 2003, the shareholding of UTI in the bank was transferred to SUUTI. UTI Bank was later renamed Axis Bank.

As the Nayak Committee Report pointed out:

“The Government-as-Investor stance has characterised the control of the Bank, with SUUTI acting as a special purpose vehicle holding the investment on behalf of the Government. The CEO is appointed by the bank’s board, and because the bank was licensed in the private sector, it sets its own employee compensation, ensures its own vigilance enforcement (rather than being under the jurisdiction of the Central Vigilance Commission), and is not subject to the Right to Information Act. SUUTI appoints the non-executive Chairman and up to two directors on the Board, and there is no direct intervention by the Finance Ministry.”

This means that the bank has been run as a proper banking business, without much intervention from the government. Between March 2003 and March 2014, the share price of Axis Bank rose thirty-two times. Over the years, the government has been able to sell its stake in the bank to raise a decent amount of money.

The point being that even though, as per its shareholding, Axis Bank ‘was for many years a public sector bank’, but ‘fortuitously, the bank was licensed at the commencement of its business as a private sector bank’.

The Nayak Committee Report suggests that the government should look at public sector banks as an investment and not as a business it has to run, and follow the Axis Bank model. This essentially means the government reducing the stake in these banks to less than 50 per cent, and letting the bank’s management and its board do their job, like in the case with private sector banks.

But then as the oft-repeated cliche goes, public sector banks are not just about making money. They also need to keep the social objectives of the government in mind. This is something that even Prime Minister Narendra Modi had suggested at the First Gyan Sangam in 2015 (a meeting of bureaucrats, bankers and insurers). As Modi had said on that occasion, while “government interference was inappropriate, but government intervention was needed to further public objectives”.

It’s this line of thought has driven India’s public sector enterprises for seven decades now and gotten them nowhere in the process.

R C Bhargava, the current Chairman of Maruti Suzuki, who was also an IAS officer for a very long time, writes the following in his book Getting Competitive: A Practitioner’s Guide for India:

“The USSR was the pioneer in attempting industrialization along with creating a communist society. It did not succeed. On the other hand, Japan became a highly competitive and industrialized nation and has a high degree of equality and social justice. The policies for regulating and promoting industrial growth do not have any social content in them [emphasis added]. Social equality was a result of the political and industrial leadership understanding that manufacturing competitiveness would be enhanced if there was greater equality and the bulk of the people were enabled to become consumers of manufactured goods.”

What Bhargava, who has worked for long periods of time, both for the government and the private sector, is basically saying is that social objectives of the government shouldn’t become objectives of its enterprises.

This does not mean that the government should do away with meeting its social objectives. Not at all. But what it should do instead is incentivise banks on this front.

As Acharya and Rajan write:

“Perhaps a better approach would be to pay for the mandates (such as reimbursing costs for maintaining branches in remote areas or opening bank accounts for all) so that both private banks and public sector banks compete to deliver on them. This will distance the public sector banks a little from the government. While public sector banks may be given a slightly different set of objectives than private banks (for example, they may put more weight on financial inclusion), their boards should have operational independence on how to achieve the objectives.”

Competition and incentivisation goes a much longer way in delivering services than a government diktat.

The question is, where will the money for all this come from? Allow me to throw a few numbers at you, before I answer this question.

The market capitalisation of the State Bank of India, India’s biggest bank and the biggest public sector bank, is Rs 1.67 lakh crore. The total assets of the bank as of March 2020 were at Rs 41.97 lakh crore. Now compare this to Kotak Mahindra Bank. Its market capitalisation is at Rs 2.53 lakh crore. The total assets of the bank as of March 2020 stood at Rs 4.43 lakh crore.

Hence, in comparison to the State Bank of India, the Kotak Mahindra Bank is a very small bank. But its market capitalisation is almost Rs 86,000 crore more. Why? Simply because Kotak Mahindra Bank is run like a proper bank and the stock market gives it a proper valuation for the same.

Or take the case of HDFC Bank, which has a market capitalisation of Rs 5.80 lakh crore, which is more than all public sector banks put together. Both these well-run banks have much lower bad loans than public sector banks. The overall bad loans of private banks, Yes Bank notwithstanding, are significantly lower than public sector banks even after adjusting for their size.

The point I am trying to make here is that if public sector banks end up being much better run than they currently are, the stock market will give them a higher market capitalisation. And the government can then finance its social objectives by gradually selling the shares it owns in these banks.

Of course for anything like that to happen, the Department of Financial Services in the Finance Ministry which controls the public sector banks, needs to take a backseat. As Rajan writes in I Do What I Do: “Unless PSBs are run like normal corporations, they will not be competitive in the medium term. I have a simple metric of progress here: We will have moved significantly towards limiting interference in PSBs when the Department of Financial Services (which oversees public sector financial firms) is finally closed down, and its banking functions taken over by bank boards.”

But as we all know, bureaucrats don’t take backseats.

Oh and politicians. Let’s not forget them here. Back in 2000, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government tried to push through the move and dilute the government stake in PSBs to 33 per cent. And it failed. Why?

Vajpayee’s finance minister, Yashwant Sinha, had introduced a bill to reduce the government’s stake in PSBs to 33 per cent. It never saw the light of day. In a 2018 interview, Sinha said: “The parliament and the people were not prepared for such [a] kind of step”.

In fact, all these years down the line, we are still grappling with the same issue.

The more things change…

And I sincerely hope, I am proven wrong on this.

Raghuram Rajan’s 10 Solutions to Get Economy Going Again


Summary: This one is for all of you, where are the solutions wallahs. Of course, I have offered many of the solutions that Rajan has offered in a column, but never put them together in one place.

One of the perils of writing on the Indian economy in the last six years has been the repeated comment from a few, don’t tell us about the problems, but give us the solutions. I mean how do you discuss solutions without highlighting problems. How do you come up with a prognosis without coming up with a diagnosis in the first place?

It’s not that one hasn’t highlighted solutions in what one has written over the years, but it’s just that where are the solutions wallahs, don’t seem to notice them. This belief that economics has solutions to everything (particularly among the non-economists, which means most of us), is very strong.

Over the years, I have come to believe that this is primarily because almost all of us are brought up writing exams where every question has an answer and every problem (in the mathematical sense of the term) has a solution. Life and economics don’t work like that. If everything had a solution, the word problem wouldn’t exist in the first place.

Nevertheless, this piece is all about solutions; things that the central government can do right now (and should have been doing by now) to get the economy going again. I have just finished reading Dr Raghuram Rajan’s piece on the Indian GDP (Gross Domestic Product) collapse. GDP is a measure of the economic size of a country.

Dr Rajan, who was the governor of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), has offered many solutions. These are things that the government can do to get the economy going again. I have offered many of these solutions in my writing as well, though never gotten around to writing about all the solutions together at one place.

Let’s take a look at these solutions, one by one.

1) The government needs to expand its resource envelope in every way possible, Rajan writes. At the cost sounding like a broken record, it needs to sell its stakes in many public sector enterprises (how many times have I said this). In fact, in a sense it has already missed out on the current buoyant state of the stock market. The total amount of money collected through the disinvestment route during this financial year, remains close to zero.

Rajan also suggests that the government should be ready for on tap sale of its stakes in public sector enterprises, to take advantage of every period of market buoyancy.

2) Many public sector enterprises own land, in prime areas of India’s cities. And this land needs to be sold (Again, how many times have I suggested this). In fact, in a city like Ranchi, where I come from, the Heavy Engineering Corporation (a public sector enterprise) sits on acres and acres of government land. All this land across all these companies needs to be sold and money be raised. Of course, this isn’t going to happen overnight.

But that’s not the point here. If the government shows serious intent on this front by announcing a time-table to do this, as well as making preparations for the sale, this is something that the bond market will notice and be happy about.

3) Why is it important to keep the bond market happy? With tax collections collapsing by 30%, between April and July 2020 in comparison to the same period in 2019, it is but natural that the government will end up borrowing more. This is likely to push up the return (or the yield) that the market demands on the government borrowings, given that there is only so much financial savings going around. Other factors that will give confidence to the bond market is the publishing of the correct fiscal deficit numbers unlike the massaged numbers that are currently declared (well, well, well, I have been saying this for a couple of years now). Fiscal deficit is the difference between what a government earns and what it spends.

Another important reform suggested by Rajan is the setting up of an independent fiscal council, which can keep an eye on the deficit numbers (This is something that the former deputy governor of the RBI, Viral Acharya, has also been suggesting).

All in all, the government should seem like making serious moves towards restoring fiscal stability, which is currently lacking.

4) The world will recover faster than India, given that the covid-curve has been flattened across large parts of the world. Given this, economic demand in many of India’s bigger trading partners will recover faster than in India (Again, a point I made in a piece I wrote for the Mint on September 7, 2020). This means that faster exports growth can be a way for India to recover, suggests Rajan. But the trouble is that we are looking at import substitution as a policy more and more and imposing tariffs on imports. This raises the cost of inputs that go into goods that are ultimately exported.

Of course, the intermediary goods that go into the making of goods that are exported, can be produced in India, but this will happen at a higher price. Hence, this makes us uncompetitive at the global level (A point I made in a piece I wrote for the Mint in February). Also, reversing the entire import substitution bogey will mean going against the current atmanirbharta campaign, a very successful perception management campaign. (In economics, just because something sounds good, doesn’t mean it is necessarily good). Economics is not the only thing that any government is bothered about.

5) Rajan suggests that the focus on Mahamta Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) as a way of putting money directly into the hands of the poorest, should continue. If this means spending more money under the scheme, then so be it. (Okay, I had suggested this as far back as March in a piece I wrote for the Mint, even before the government had taken this route.)

6) While, MGNREGS takes care of the lack of economic activity in rural areas, the urban areas get left out under the scheme. Hence, the government should be making more efforts to put money into the hands of the urban poor, suggests Rajan.
One of the things that the government has done is to put Rs 1,500 over a period three months into female Jan Dhan accounts. This cost the government around Rs 31,000 crore. I think it is time to put money into male Jan Dhan accounts as well (Again, I have been saying this for months now). This will take care of the urban poor to some extent. I know this isn’t the perfect solution because proper targeting will continue to remain a problem, but it is better than doing nothing.

7) Rajan further suggests that the government and public sector enterprises should clear their dues as fast as possible. This will put more money into the economy and particularly into the hands of corporations and help them survive. (Something I had said in March). A newsreport in The Financial Express today points out that the total amount of money owed by the central government and the public sector enterprises, amounts to Rs 9.5 lakh crore, or a little under a third of the Rs 30.4 lakh crore that the central government plans to spend this year. Of the Rs 9.5 lakh crore, Rs 2.5 lakh crore is owed to the Food Corporation of India (FCI). The remaining Rs 7 lakh crore is a large amount on its own. Even if a portion of this is cleared, the economy will get some sort of a stimulus.

As far as a real stimulus goes, focusing on physical infrastructure is the need of the hour, leading to creation of demand for everything from steel to cement. One area that can really get the Indian economy going again is real estate. I have discussed this so many times before. But for that to happen, so many other things need to happen, including many of the current real estate firms going bust and banks losing a lot of money. Creative destruction needs to be unleashed. Of course, the deep state of Indian real estate is not ready for something like this and will not let it happen.

8) Rajan also suggests that firms below a certain size could be rebated the income tax and the goods and services tax, they paid last year (if not the whole amount, but at least a part of it). This could be an easy and direct way of helping smaller businesses, which have faced the brunt of the pandemic all across the world. (Okay, I haven’t suggested anything like this anywhere, from what I remember).

9) Rajan recommends that public sector banks need to be properly recapitalised as the extent of losses due to covid are recognised. I feel that if the government doesn’t have the money to do so, then it needs to let these banks raise money from the market and in the process, the government should be okay with the idea of diluting its stake. (I have written a book on this )

10) And finally, as the moratorium on repaying loans taken from banks and non-banking finance companies has come to an end, there are bound to be defaults. Here, the government should have a variety of structures in place to deal with the emanating problems, and not have a one size fits all approach. Also, in my opinion, dilution of the entire insolvency and the bankruptcy process, is really not the right way to go forward.

So, to all the where are the solutions wallahs, these were 10 solutions that Dr Raghuram Rajan has offered to the government (Actually, there are more solutions in the piece he has written, but I have stopped at ten. Some of these solutions are about land reforms, labour reforms, genuine ease of doing business reforms, etc., to improve India’s competitiveness, which keep getting made endlessly over and over again). Rajan has also said that the time to do these things is now and not wait for things to get worse.

In my writing over the last few months, I have recommended eight or nine of these solutions as well, though never put all these solutions at one place. One important solution that I think needs to be quickly implemented, is a reduction of the goods and services tax on two-wheelers.

The trouble is that most of these solutions need money to start with. And for that the government needs to come out of its comfort zone and start raising money in ways that it has never done before (like selling land). Also, all reforms need intent and communication clarity to be able to explain these things to the junta at large. Plus, they may not lead to electoral gains immediately, something like a focus on an actor’s suicide may.

You see the government just doesn’t have the incentives to do the right things.

PS: I sincerely hope this should satisfy the appetite of all the where are the solutions wallahs, out there.