It is now four years since the National Democratic Alliance government announced a package of reforms to make the public sector banks (PSBs) efficient and healthy.
After the Gyan Sangam, a conclave of top executives of the PSBs, the Reserve bank of India (RBI) officials and the representatives of the government held in January 2015, the government unveiled a slew of measures intended to nurse the banks back to health. The measures encompassed seven areas namely,
A. Appointment of heads of PSBs,
B. Setting up of Bank Boards Bureau,
C. Capital infusion,
D. De-stressing of non-performing assets (NPAs),
E. Empowerment of managements,
F. Framework for accountability and
G. Governance reforms.
Picking a key alphabet of every area—the first seven alphabets of English—the policy makers coined the term Indradhanush. What is the progress achieved during these four years and what are the plans NDA II has unveiled to carry forward the reforms?
First, let us have a quick look at the specific steps taken by the erstwhile NDA government under the package.
Out of the seven, three were in the public domain: bank boards bureau, capital infusion and de-stressing of NPAs. On the remaining four, hardly any forward movement has so far taken place, barring some change in the appointment of bank chiefs.
In pursuance of the recommendations of the PJ Nayak Committee on Governance, the government constituted the Bank Boards Bureau (BBB) in April 2016 with former Comptroller & Auditor General of India, Vinod Rai as its chairman. A finance ministry press note of August 2015 had declared that BBB;
….will be a body of eminent professionals and officials, which will replace the appointments board for appointment of whole-time directors as well as non-executive chairman of PSBs. They will also constantly engage with the board of directors of all the PSBs to formulate appropriate strategies for their growth and development. ….” (emphasis added).
In March 2018, Vinod Rai demitted his office with a series of recommendations to the government. Admittedly, much of what BBB had done during the two years was ‘work in progress’. More about this later.
One tangible measure implemented by the government, like the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) governments earlier, was to recapitalise PSBs to shore up their capital. According to one source, during the four years from 2015, PSBs were recapitalised to the extent of Rs3,12,000 crore, through Budgetary allocation, recapitalisation bonds and market borrowings. In the first Budget of NDA II, the government has announced a booster capital injection of Rs70,000 crore.
The second major step taken by the NDA is to reduce the number of PSBs by two instalments of mergers. This was not in the package, though. The process of bank mergers started by the erstwhile UPA government by merger of two associate banks with State Bank of India (SBI) in 2008-2009 was continued: in 2016-17 the remaining five associates and the Bharatiya Mahila Bank were merged with SBI itself. During 2018-19, the government announced the merger of the ailing Dena Bank and the profit-earning Vijaya Bank with the loss-making Bank of Baroda.
The third measure taken by the NDA government was to split up the post of chairman & managing director into two: with a non-executive part-time chairman and a whole-time managing director (MD) who would be the chief executive officer (CEO) of the PSB. This was in line with the recommendation of PJ Nayak Committee.
Apart from these steps, some legislative measures were also undertaken by the government. At the statutory level, in 2016, the government enacted The Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, 2016 (IBC, 2016). It was a comprehensive legislation consolidating the existing laws related to reorganisation and insolvency. It was intended to create a framework for quicker winding up or strategy for the turnaround of sick companies. Earlier in 2015, through a statutory enactment the Micro Units Development Refinance Agency Ltd (MUDRA Bank) was established to promote refinancing to small units.
More Serious Issues:
While on three out of the Indradhanush package, a forward movement was made, on the remaining four not much of serious efforts are visible. These have long-term implications and could have helped the PSBs to lay the foundations to surmount future risks. These issues need greater deliberation.
Non-performing assets (NPAs) continue to hog the limelight even after launching the package of reforms. The latest annual reports of PSBs recorded further addition to the already bloated NPAs compelling them to make higher provisioning towards the stressed assets denting their net profits; some banks are in deeper red than they were in the preceding years. The merger of Dena Bank, which has been in the red for successive three years without seriously addressing its NPA problem, invited a criticism that the government wanted to put the stressed assets of the Bank under the carpet. Bank of Baroda which was to absorb the sick Dena Bank was already under losses in 2016 and then again in 2018.
The ministry of finance (MoF) claimed in June this year that the gross NPAs of PSBs declined from Rs8,95,601 crore in March 2018 to Rs8,06,412 crore in March 2019 (press release dated 25 June 2019). The bulging NPAs necessitated regular write-offs. It is on record that while during the 10 years ended 2018 about Rs7,00,000 crore were written off by PSBs, and between 2014 and 2018 the amount was as much as Rs5,55,603 crore accounting for about four fifths of the write-offs of the decade.
In the other three areas which could have triggered a qualitative difference in the functioning of the PSBs, not much has been heard during these four years. On the empowerment of boards, on the issue of accountability and on governance reforms, we do not see pathbreaking changes. The CEOs continue to be posted for short terms, in some cases for a term of 15 months. Boards are not fully constituted with the mandatory appointments of two employee directors not appointed since 2016; the appointment of other directors continues to be non-transparent. Most PSBs mention in their annual reports the backgrounds of their directors. A perusal of the profiles does not reassure us about their independence as well as professional competence to guide large national level banking corporations.
The issue of corporate governance continues to remain unaddressed. No specific measures have been carried out although the annual reports of PSBs carry longish narrations of ‘corporate governance’.
Had some measures been taken in right earnest from 2016, the decline in the performance of PSBs could have been arrested or reversed. There is no indication of the measures the government has in its armory which can bring in a qualitative change in their performance.
Spurt in Frauds:
An area of major concern is how to prevent or reduce the incidence of frauds in PSBs. According to a senior RBI official, during FY18-19 the total value of reported frauds amounted to Rs71,543 crore as against Rs41,167 crore reported in FY17-18, recording a 73 per cent jump in a year (PTI report published on 5 July 2019).
The cumulative total of the amount involved in frauds from FY14-15 through FY18-19 was of the order of Rs1,74,798 crore. The same official reveals: “the most expensive frauds are committed by management teams who have the ability to override control systems and collude to cover their tracks.” (emphasis added). This underlines the collusion between the senior bank officials and the borrowers.
In October, last year, the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) had come out with a study of top-100 frauds. According to that document, failure of internal control and monitoring, failure of controllers to pick up the alert signals in time, poor risk management and inadequate standards of corporate governance were the major factors contributing to frauds. The current spurt in frauds underscores the urgency in addressing the issue.
BBB was set up in 2016 as part of the Indradhanush package, with a broad mandate for evolving appropriate strategy for development and growth of PSBs. The compendium of recommendations (CoR) submitted to the government by Vinod Rai while demitting his office in March 2018 as chairman focused on the major areas requiring urgent and serious attention from the government.
The areas were:
a.) Appointments of directors
c.) Performance assessment
d.) Governance reforms
e.) Code of conduct and ethics
f.) Strategy and
g.) Human resources
The CoR had documented the problems faced by the PSBs under each head and had recommended the way forward. But as it happens in our system, the CoR has apparently gone into the archives! A successor was appointed last year but currently BBB’s role is limited to selecting executives for the top two posts of MDs and executive directors in PSBs.
The New Plan:
It is learnt that the MoF has now a plan to evaluate the performance of PSBs through a comprehensive questionnaire encompassing 16 key performance indicators. This exercise is essentially to collect data from the banks. The ministry claims that it “will cover eight thematic papers by domain experts and will also include a review of the banks” performance during the past five years. The process will be aimed at alignment of banking with national priorities, stimulating ideas and inculcating a sense of involvement among bankers down to the branch level. By its very nature it suffers from two drawbacks: for banks it will be another elaborate form-filling exercise as it spans five years and, second, it will be an exercise in micro-management. The more fundamental issues are not on the radar of the government.
It may not be out of place to recall that, during the late-1980s every bank was asked to prepare a two-year action plan and submit it to the RBI. At the end of every quarter, the CEO and his team would meet the RBI to interact with its senior officials. At the regulator level it could be fine, but at the government level it becomes an exercise in micro-management. Government should limit itself to laying the policies and periodically reviewing their efficacy.
The Way Forward:
The results of the first quarter of FY19-20 have not been reassuring. Nor does the Budget speech of the new finance minister made on 5 July 2019. In the meantime, RBI governor Shaktikant Das waxed eloquent about the governance reforms needed during his June address at National Institute of Bank Management, Pune as well as in his foreword to the RBI’s Financial Stability Report, June 2019.
While as the majority stakeholder and owner, the government has a duty to shore up the capital of PSBs through recapitalisation, it should be simultaneously followed by structural reforms. Following areas cry for urgent attention:
1. Professionalise the boards of banks, streamline the appointment of CEOs and EDs with longer terms, say three years, as recommended by many committees.
2. Evaluate their performance and introduce accountability at the top level.
3. Address the current serious shortcomings in human resources policies by introducing a collaborative organisational culture
4. Promote an organisational culture with emphasis on knowledge, right skills and aptitude which can take care of the problems of poor credit appraisal, risk identification and timely diagnosis.
In 2013, UK’s parliamentary commission on banking standards had identified five themes to enable restoration of trust in banks. Among them, two are of particular relevance to us:
a. making individual responsibility in banking a reality, especially at the most senior levels;
b. reforming governance within banks to reinforce each bank’s responsibility for its own safety and soundness and for the maintenance of standards.
These themes need to be incorporated in our approach to reforms in PSBs. Five years between 2014 and 2019 have been nearly lost. Mergers of banks and fresh capital induction do not address long term structural issues. And as ICICI Bank’s trouble revealed last year, privatisation of ailing PSBs is not a panacea either. The current government has a major challenge to address in reforming the PSBs.