Blames lax regulations for high NPAs when the real cause is widespread corruption in public sector banks
The State Bank of India (SBI) chairperson Arundhati Bhattacharya, in an interview with Financial Times, has called for shake up in the regulatory system, as if SBI and its chairman is an outside to the same system.
In the interview, the SBI chief admitted that rates of bad and restructured assets will keep rising for “at least a couple more quarters”, despite having already hit roughly 10% of loans.
But remarkably for the first time for a chairman of a government-owned bank, she has argued that India needs tougher rules for defaulters, as well as “a proper bankruptcy law to help get orderly resolution of [bad] assets”. “What we need is a little more teeth,” she was quoted while calling for firmer regulations to target indebted tycoons.
There are three things to note about this new, sudden demand for teeth.
1. No chairman of state-run lender has ever raised his or her voice about poor regulations that is failing to curb the ever-rising non-performing assets (NPAs).
2. SBI and other banks have never targeted defaulting corporate borrowers with determination to recover monies. Indian borrowers have always felt safe borrowing from the public sector banks knowing fully well that chairmen of these banks have no accountability.
3. In fact, successive bank chairperson have passed the buck to the next person and retired with full benefits, even as defaults continued to hit the government-owned banks at every economic downturn.
4. The demand for “more teeth” is coming from the State Bank of India but not private sector banks because these banks have negligible bad debts.
5. This merely proves that it is not the recovery laws but lax credit appraisal and totally compromised top management is responsible for abnormally high bad debts in government banks.
Indeed, the same corrupt nexus between public sector banks and it's defaulting borrowers was responsible for band loans reaching 13% of advances in 2001-2002. In response, the government had created Securitisation and Reconstruction of Financial Assets and Enforcement of Security Interest Act (SARFAESI), 2002 designed to help in the recoveries of bad loans. One of the key provisions of the Act is for banks to be able to auction the assets of defaulting borrowers. This law was supposed to wholly aid banks.
Unfortunately, if the bank officials are corrupt and have lent money without adequate collateral, what auctions will they do? This is why spectacular defaults such as Deccan Chronicle and Kingfisher Airlines have led to no action against defaulters, despite the SARFAESI Act. In addition, SBI has been the biggest lender to Kingfisher. Have you heard of any action against any SBI official, including previous chairman, for what is obviously gross negligence in assessing Kingfisher’s creditworthiness and for not ensuring that the bank’s interests are covered?
In May, the All India Bank Employees' Association (AIBEA), while revealing wilful defaults worth Rs70,300 crore in 400 loan accounts in public sector banks (PSBs), has demanded a detailed probe in to the loan sanctioning and loans turning into bad assets.
This is bad lending of epidemic proportions. If banks were not confident of the laws that would land them in this huge soup of bad loans, whom did they point this out to and why did they lend? No, these bad loans have only one root: corruption, something that Ms Bhattacharya does not want to talk about.
According to the bank employee's union, over the past seven years, there were fresh bad loans worth Rs4.95 lakh crore only in government banks, while during the same period, these lenders wrote off bad debts worth Rs1.4 lakh crore. Gross non-performing assets (NPAs) and bad loans in the PSBs have increased to Rs1.64 lakh crore as on 31 March 2013 from Rs39,000 crore as on 31 March 2008.
While the unions were demanding stern action against bank defaulters, not a single bank chairman supported it. Moneylife had asked the SBI chief three questions based on her FT interview. The questions were, did not SBI know that the laws were weak; did banks ever tell the RBI or the Finance Ministry about the problems and is SBI saying that the RBI has failed to act like responsible regulator?
Her office replied: "(the) Chairman in her interview had merely emphasized the need for tougher resolution mechanism to put a check on wilful defaulters. Additionally, she also said banks should work in tandem and more closely in consortiums, while lending only to projects that have government regulatory clearances in hand." It also said, "...to draw a link between the 3 questions that you have posed and the relevant interview is far-fetched."
The bank employee unions have been demanding fix responsibility on banks’ top brass for the loans that have turned bad, allow banks to share information on NPAs and wilful defaulters under the Right to Information (RTI) Act, and declare wilful loan default as a criminal offence.
The fact is despite stringent credit appraisal process and committees to sanction loans, borrowers have siphoned off money from the banking system in connivance with bankers. Once this reaches large proportions that affect the functioning of the banks, the ministry of finance quietly steps in and washes the sins of the banks by recapitalizing them, even as chairman after chairman go scot free.
There is a reason for this perpetual lack of accountability of senior bank officials. Some chairmen are handpicked by ministry and finance minister for their ability to be pliant and sanction dirty loans. The Reserve Bank merely rubber-stamps this selection process. Who will go after the chairman when the MoF is involved and the RBI is hand-off? This is the root of bad loans in India, not lax regulations that Ms Bhattacharya tries to blame.