Does It Really Make Sense to Merge Public Sector Banks?


The government of India owns twenty-seven public sector banks(PSBs). It has often been suggested that the government should not be owning so many banks. Many of these banks are very small and hence, they should be merged so that they benefit from the economies of scale.

The situation was summarised by R Gandhi, deputy governor of the Reserve Bank of India, in a recent speech. As he said: “[The] banking system continues to be dominated by Public Sector Banks (PSBs) which still have more than 70 per cent market share of the banking system assets. At present there are 27 PSBs with varying sizes. State Bank of India, the largest bank, has balance sheet size which is roughly 17 times the size of smallest public sector bank.”

Gandhi further said: “Most PSBs follow roughly similar business models and many of them are also competing with each other in most market segments they are active in. Further, PSBs have broadly similar organisational structure and human resource policies. It has been argued that India has too many PSBs with similar characteristics and a consolidation among PSBs can result in reaping rich benefits of economies of scale and scope.”

The first thing that needs to be mentioned here is that most mergers fail. There is enough research going around to prove that. As the Harvard Business Review article titled The Big Idea: The New M&A Playbook points out: “Companies spend more than $2 trillion on acquisitions every year. Yet study after study puts the failure rate of mergers and acquisitions somewhere between 70% and 90%.

Hence, it is safe to say that most mergers fail and it is best to start with this assumption when any merger is proposed. And there is no reason to believe that the story for Indian public sector banks will be any different.

There have been two kinds of bank mergers in India. The first kind is when a bank which is about to fail is merged with a strong bank. The Sector 45 of the Banking Regulation Act 1949 empowers the RBI to “make a scheme of amalgamation of a bank with another bank if it is in the depositors’ interest or in the interest of overall banking system.”

The merger of Global Trust Bank with Oriental Bank of Commerce in 2004 is a good example of this. As Gandhi said in his speech: “Prior to 1999, most of the mergers were driven by resolution of weak banks under Section 45 of Banking Regulation Act 1949. However, after 1999, there has been increasing trend of voluntary mergers under Section 44A of Banking Regulation Act 1949.”

The second kind of merger is the voluntary merger. As far as voluntary mergers go, a good example is the recent merger of ING Vysya Bank with Kotak Mahindra Bank. This merger had the so called synergy necessary for a merger to take place.

As Gandhi said: “One and most obvious has been voluntary merger of banks driven by the need for synergy, growth and operational efficiency in operations. Recent merger of ING Vysya Bank with Kotak Mahindra Bank is an example of this kind of consolidation. ING Vysya Bank had a stronger presence in South India while Kotak had an extended franchise in the West and North India. The merger created a large financial institution with a pan-India presence.

The merger of Bank of Madura and Sangli Bank with ICICI Bank in 2001 and 2007, and the merger of Centurion Bank of Punjab by HDFC Bank in 2008, are other good examples of synergy based mergers.

But what does the word synergy really mean? One of former professors used to say that: “Since we are all born on this mother earth, there is some sort of synergy between us.” That was his way of saying that synergy is basically bullshit. Once a merger has been decided on then people go looking for reasons to justify it and that is synergy. While that may be a very cynical way of looking at things, there is some truth in it as well.

Nevertheless, author John Lanchester does define synergy in his book How to Speak Money. As he writes: “Synergy: Mainly BULLSHIT, but when it does mean anything it means merging two companies together and taking the opportunity to sack people.” He then goes on to explain the concept through an example.

As he writes “If two companies that make similar products merge, they will have a similar warehouse and delivery operations, so one of the two sets of employees will lose their jobs. The idea is that this will cut COSTS and increase profits, though that tends not to happen, and it is a proven fact that most mergers end by costing money…When two companies merge, the first thing that ANALYSTS look at when evaluating the deal is how many jobs have been lost: the higher the number, the better. That’s synergy.”

If two public sector banks are merged there are bound to be situations where both the banks have a presence in a given area. Synergy will demand that one of the branches be shut down. But given that the banks are government owned something like that is unlikely to happen.

Over and above this, there will be multiple people with the same skill at the corporate level. Will this duplicity of roles end, with people being fired? Highly unlikely.

Hence, the merger of two public sector banks, will give us a bigger inefficient bank. Further, there are very few examples of public sector banks being merged in the past.  So, there is nothing really to learn from.

As Gandhi said: “Recent merger of State Bank of Saurashtra and State Bank of Indore into State Bank of India may be seen as basically merger among group companies. The only example of merger of two PSBs is merger of New Bank of India with Punjab National Bank in 1993. However, this was not a voluntary merger.”

Also, it is worth remembering that public sector banks are facing huge bad loan problems. Many corporates who had taken on loans are not repaying them. In this scenario, if banks are merged without the bad loan problem being solved, we will have a situation where problems of two banks are basically passed on to one bank. That doesn’t make the situation any better.

As Gandhi summarises the situation: “PSBs as a group have not been performing well during the last few years. There has been a large increase in Non-Performing Assets (NPAs). As a part of managing large NPAs, some suggestions have been made that perhaps a consolidation of PSBs can render them more capable of managing such challenges relatively better…Merger of a weak bank with a strong bank may make combined entity weak if the merger process is not handled properly. The problems of capital shortages and higher NPAs may get transmitted to stronger bank due to unduly haste or a mechanical merger process.

The column originally appeared on the Vivek Kaul Diary on April 27, 2016

Why merger of United Bank with another bank makes no sense

Vivek Kaul
Nothing works like the formula. And the formula to rescue a bank which is in trouble is to merge it with another bank. Reports in the media seem to suggest that there might be plans to merge the troubled United Bank of India with the Union Bank of India.
In fact, on February 24, 2014, the share price of United Bank jumped by 13.75% on this possibility, in the early morning trade. It finally closed the day 6% higher at Rs 25.8 , from its closing price on February 21, 2014.
As has been reported before, the United Bank of India is in major trouble. For the period of three months ending December 2013, the bank reported a loss of Rs 1,238 crore. This, after it had provided Rs 1,858 crore against bad loans.
During the period, the bank’s gross non performing assets (NPA) increased by a whopping 36% to Rs 8,545.5 crore. This amounted to nearly 10.8% of the total loans given out by the bank. In fact, in December the Reserve Bank of India(RBI) had asked United Bank not to give a loan of greater than Rs 10 crore to any single borrower.
A recent report in the Mint newspaper points out that the bank has issued an internal directive not to make any fresh loans, unless they are backed by the mortgage of fixed deposits.
In this scenario it is not surprising that there is speculation of the bank being merged with the Union Bank of India. Having said that, the United Bank has denied any such possibilities.
But given the past record of the government merging a bank in trouble with another bank, the merger of the United Bank with the Union Bank(or any other public sector bank) is a possibility that remains. The troubled Global Trust Bank was merged with the state run Oriental Bank of Commerce in 2004. In 2002, the Benares State Bank was merged with the Bank of Baroda. Before this, in 1988, the Hindustan Commercial Bank was merged with the Punjab National Bank. The Punjab National Bank also came to the rescue of Nedungadi Bank in 2003.
So there is a clear trend of a failing bank being merged with an existing bank. In the examples given above, all the failing banks were private sector banks and they were taken over by public sector banks. The United Bank of India is a public sector bank in which the government has a stake of 88%.
This makes it even more likely that the government will try and do everything to save the bank. The total assets of the United Bank as on March 31, 2013, amounted to Rs 1,14,615 crore. The Union Bank is around 2.7 times bigger and has total assets of Rs 3,12,912 crore.
If the banks had been merged on March 31, 2013, the total assets of the new bank would amount to around Rs 4,27,527 crore. The assets of the United Bank would form around 26.8% of the merged entity. Given this, the erstwhile United Bank would form a significant part of the merged entity.
Hence, with nearly 10.8% of its total loans being classified as gross non performing assets, it is possible that the bad loans of United Bank may dramatically pull down the performance of the merged entity.
Let’s take the case of Oriental Bank of Commerce. In August 2004, the Global Trust Bank, which had run into trouble due to bad lending, was merged with the Oriental Bank of Commerce. For the year ending March 31, 2004, the Oriental Bank of Commerce had reported a profit of Rs 686 crore.
The merger destablized Oriental Bank of Commerce and the net profit fell to Rs 557 crore for the year ending March 31, 2006 and took a few years to recover.
A similar thing will happen with the Union Bank of India, if the United Bank is merged into it. Also, it is worth pointing out that most public sector banks are already in trouble, given the mounting amount of bad loans on their books.
As the latest RBI Financial Stability Report points out “Among the bank-groups, the public sector banks continue to have distinctly higher stressed advances at 12.3 per cent of total advances, of which restructured standard advances were around 7.4 per cent.”
So, merging United Bank with Union Bank or any other public sector bank for that matter means destablizing the Union Bank as well and in the process creating more trouble for the entire banking sector.
It will also bring to the fore the issue of “moral hazard”. Before we get into discussing this, it is important to understand what moral hazard means. As Alan S Blinder writes in
After the Music Stopped “The central idea behind moral hazard is that people who are well insured against some risk are less likely to take pains ( and incur costs) to avoid it. Here are some common non financial examples: …people who are well insured against fire may not install expensive sprinkler systems; people driving cars with more safety devices may drive less carefully.”
Given this, insurance companies must take into account the fact that insurance may induce people to take on more risk. “In financial applications, moral hazard concerns arise whenever some third party—often the government—intervenes to insure against or lessen the consequences of, the risk of loss,” writes Blinder.
In fact, the American economy is a great example of all that can go wrong because of moral hazard. Since the 1980s, scores of financial institutions in trouble have been rescued by the government. The signal this sends out to the participants in the financial system is that they can take on more and more risk, and if something does not work out well, the government will come to their rescue.
This is precisely what happened in the United States, where banks took on more and more risk, confident of the fact that if something went wrong, the American government would come to the rescue.
If the United Bank is merged with the Union Bank (or any other public sector bank), this is the signal that will be sent out. Hence, it is important the United Bank not be rescued by the government.
This does not mean that the bank should be allowed to fail. The government needs to protect the depositors of the bank.
As has been suggested before here the government should look to sell the bank to any private businessman for Re 1, who can then run it. Also, India currently has 21 public sector banks, and one less public sector bank will really not make much of a difference to the overall financial system.
The article originally appeared on on February 25, 2014
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek)