It is a 25-year old idea, but anger about the loot of public funds and fear of adverse court orders may finally lead to mergers among public sector banks
The more things change, the more they remain the same. When it comes to legal and economic reforms or infrastructure projects, we discuss issues for decades, without any urgency to implement even the most obvious reforms. Consolidation of public sector banks is one such issue. The finance ministry closed its second Gyan Sangam by pulling this rabbit out of the hat. Finance minister Arun Jaitley announced, on 5th March, that an expert group would be set up to look into the issue of consolidation.
We learn that bank consolidation was discussed, and buried, at the earlier Gyan Sangam because chiefs of public sector banks (PSBs) were not in favour of such mergers. This seems strange, because nearly a dozen banks were headless those days and it was probably the best time to undertake reconstruction and consolidation before the separation of the posts of chairman and managing director, which was done subsequently. The more likely scenario is that the government was so focused on getting PSBs to focus on opening millions of jan dhan accounts that everything else was relegated to the background.
Why did this Gyan Sangam adopt a different tone? There are multiple reasons. One, several PSBs have declared embarrassing losses, or a significant erosion in profits; two, there is public outrage over bad loans burgeoning to Rs8 lakh crore; three, a massive illegal forex transfer scam engulfing several top banks has been unearthed (Rs6,100 crore in Bank of Baroda alone, but no estimate of the total size of this scam involving over a dozen banks); and four, the judiciary has expressed repeated displeasure at national resources being used to paper-over non-performing assets (NPAs).
Bankers were told that infusion of capital by the exchequer would be linked to their willingness to merge and consolidate, effectively leaving them with no choice. In this situation, industry would have lobbied to scuttle the plan; but, with public anger against bad loans at such a high, it will be politically disastrous for the government to give in to such pressure.
But why set up an expert group, again, to discuss bank consolidation? Why not dust down the second Narasimhan committee report (Nara-II), the PJ Nayak committee report and check out what worked, what failed and what is still needed and feasible?
One newspaper reports that the Bank Board Bureau, set up under Vinod Rai, former Comptroller & Auditor General, may be asked to look into the issue of bank consolidation, in addition to selection of the board of directors of PSBs. This is beyond the board’s current mandate; but given Mr Rai’s background and record, he is capable of delivering a workable plan in a very short time without being influenced by corporate lobbies.
Here is a quick update on Nara-II which was set up in 1997 for banking reforms.
The committee frowned on recapitalisation of banks. Yet, in the past two decades, recapitalisation of PSBs by the exchequer is almost an annual feature with no attempt to increase accountability and responsibility of top management for bad loans.
It recommended that the 27 PSBs should be reconstituted into three-tiers. Strong Indian banks should be merged to create three or four large banks, capable of supporting international trade; there should be a second level of 8-10 large national banks and a larger number of smaller banks. After the global financial crisis, the world has become wary about very large multinational banks, so the second tier, of 8-10 national banks, has become more attractive. These may not necessarily be PSBs anymore. While PSBs have been piling on bad loans while resisting consolidation, the ‘new’ private banks licensed in the early 1990s, have grown rapidly through mergers & acquisitions. HDFC Bank, ICICI Bank and, more recently, Kotak Mahindra Bank (licensed in 2002) grew bigger and stronger by acquiring other private banks (Times Bank, Centurion Bank, Bank of Punjab, ING Vysya, etc) and, in the process, also covered up embarrassing licensing decisions of RBI.
Nara-II wanted the government to move away from the pre-1998 practice of forcibly merging weak banks with strong ones as a bailout measure. This, too, was ignored. Bailout mergers continued. Global Trust Bank (GTB), which was deeply embroiled in the Ketan Parekh scam, was force-merged with Oriental Bank of Commerce and the promoters of GTB were allowed to go scot-free; United Western Bank was similarly merged with IDBI Bank, which is itself under investigation today for dubious lending to Vijay Mallya’s Kingfisher Airlines.
Nara-II had identified ‘priority’ sector lending as the main reason for bad loans. The All India Bank Employees Union (AIBEA) has recently opposed privatisation of IDBI Bank with the claim that most NPAs are due to loans to private-sector companies. Clearly, behest-lending and crony capitalism only mushroomed in the semi-liberalised environment following half-hearted financial reforms.
Nara-II recommended the creation of asset reconstruction companies to take over bad debts of banks and allow them to clean up their balance sheets from time to time. This was promptly implemented, but is largely ineffectual, like the SARFAESI Act 2002 was, in handling bad loans. So the government has now cobbled together a flawed Bankruptcy Law and is holding it up as the answer to our bad loan problem. Hopefully, it will not be cleared by parliament in this form.
Nara-II had also deliberated on which banks are best suited for a merger, based on their corporate culture and geographical spread. This part of the report was subsequently dropped from the official version. And the idea of bank mergers was itself abandoned by policy-makers in the face of opposition by aggressive bank unions.
Why has the government always given in to banks’ reluctance to merge or consolidate? The answer is crony capitalism. It is no secret that Indian industrialists lobby and fix bank chairmanships as well as post-retirement sinecures, including board directorships, with lucrative perks and sitting fees. The quid pro quo is for their repeated support for corporate debt restructuring (CDR), issue of fresh loans, ever-greening of non-performing accounts and turning a blind eye to siphoning of funds or their diversion to other projects.
Banks and industry have also colluded to ensure that there is no formal process to share data on bad loans and borrowings by industry groups, despite all the hand-wringing about this issue for 25 years. RBI has also been complicit in not pushing for it; after all, credit information companies to monitor individual borrowing have been operational for over a decade. This time, however, things are different. The finance ministry estimates that PSBs will need capital infusion to the tune of Rs1.8 lakh crore for the four years ending March 2019 while the government plans to infuse only Rs70,000 crore in these four years. The recent Economic Survey has also offered a solution in the form of four ‘Rs’: recognition, recapitalisation, resolution, and reform. The government needs to think differently now and show some quick results.
We have a very capable governor in Dr Raghuram Rajan. If the political establishment is supportive, the consolidation of banks with implementation of the four ‘Rs’ is possible. But it requires strong government will to accept recommendations of the Bank Boards Bureau, clean up the boards of PSBs and give more autonomy to the top management, making them accountable. This is the fount of crony capitalism and neither politicians nor industrialists will give it up very easily. A lot depends on how the Supreme Court responds to the Vijay Mallya case. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, despite its pious posturing, is as keen on retaining its hold on PSBs as were all political formations since bank nationalisation. Although public outrage over bad loans is high at the moment, experienced politicians know that it will die down as soon as Mr Mallya stops featuring on ‘breaking news’ on prime-time television. What happens thereafter will be worth watching.