Tuesday, August 13, 2013

RBI Should Clear Stand On Rising NPA in Banks

RBI needs to come out clean on NPAs--Money Life
If NPAs are not curbed effectively, it will not be long before India heads the Greek route.  The Ministry of Finance has to necessarily leave micromanagement of the banking sector to the RBI

Dr KC Chakrabary, deputy governor of Reserve Bank of India (RBI) while speaking in the capital on 26th July at an Assocham Conference on Financial Frauds, very rightly rued –“Many of the frauds are wrong sanctions at the highest level of banks. The problem is, we are not able to take definite action in definite period. Banks are indifferent to monitoring large frauds and whatever fraud reporting was happening, was in silos. Some of the reporting in large transactions happened only after they had been recognized as NPAs (non-performing assets)… While the numbers have not gone up significantly, the quantum has increased manifold… Loan-related frauds are a major concern for the RBI. Over the last ten years, there have been 1.77 lakh frauds, amounting to Rs31, 400 crore. In the last 25 years, 61 fraud cases involving Rs50 crore or more have happened through 208 bank accounts and accounted for a whopping Rs13,000 crore. When the times are good, the rich steal. When the times are bad, the poor also steal. But this means that the rich are stealing more.” 

This was amply substantiated by the Hindu Business Line study of companies’ latest balance sheets of top distressed debts of banks (Rupees in crores):-

  • •Jindal Steel & Power              Rs14,372
  • •Kingfisher Airlines                 Rs8,030
  • •Suzlon Energy                          Rs6,416
  • •Electrosteel Steel                    Rs5,232
  • •HCC                                           Rs4,574
  • •Bharati Shipyard                     Rs3,862
  • •Leela Ventures                         Rs3643
  • •GTL Infrastructures-             Rs3,190  
  • •Tulip Telecom                          Rs.2,175
At the meeting of public sector banks and financial institutions on 4 July 2013, the RBI asked the banks to focus on the top defaulters and take action against them. About 30 top non-performing accounts form bulk of bank NPAs – gross NPAs (GNPAs) of banks rose to 39.7% from 34.5% a year ago. For nine public sector banks, GNPAs have gone up by more than 50%, for those of SBI group and PNB have crossed 4%, the GNPAs as a percentage of gross advances has gone up to 3.78% from 2.32%.

In the west, post-Lehman brothers, new financial jargons like bailout for stressed assetshave come up. But here in India, they are termed as Non Performing Assets or NPAs, both meaning the same-bad or irrecoverable loans/ debts by whatever name called.

Moneylife had carried a cover page report and a series of articles on bad loans, done by a veteran banking analyst. I wish to add another angle to the analysis, arising out of my experience of over four decades as a Central Statutory Auditor on RBI’s Panel, auditingmajor banks, both domestic and foreign.

On 16 December 2012, Dr Chakrabarty, the senior most deputy governor in charge of Banking Supervision and a former CMD of a PSB, in an interview to PTI rightly lamented, “Knowingly, you give money to some unviable projects. In many cases, our PSBs have forgotten to say ‘no’, except to small borrowers…The agricultural loans are not as bad as loans to big corporates. The poorer borrowers are subsidizing the rich. It is not the small borrower who is a threat to banking -his track-record is much better than the larger ones. So long as corporates can pay, they all deal with private sector and foreign banks. But when they are vulnerable, they come to the state-run banks. Unfortunately, a combination of factors is responsible for this. Fundamentally, it is a structural and governance issue. The problem of rising bad debts can be attributed to poor administration and low risk management practices.” He cited examples of the PSBs taking bad decisions that resulting in stressed assets and said that lower risk assessment capabilities in comparison to their counterparts in the private sector and foreign banks is their fundamental problem.

In March 2013, the finance minister informed the Lok Sabha that bad loans amounting to Rs68,000 crores were up, to nearly 7,300 accounts by end-March 2012. Leading the pack were SBI, PNB, IDBI Bank and BoI. A financial journalist rightly reported that the data given in support of statements made in the Parliament does not support the statements. The FM’s Parliamentary statement mentioned mechanisms for early detection of signs of distress, prompt restructuring of viable accounts and a loan recovery policy. This includes norms for permitted sacrifice, waiver and other factors like monitoring of write-offs, waiver cases and valuation of securities including collaterals.  

It needs to be pointed out that no bank loan goes bad overnight, but happens over a longer period. Some of them commence at the sanction and disbursement stages, to begin with. Loans and Lines of Credit are inadequately and badly appraised, approved by the topmost management and are pushed down to disbursing branches with orders to proceed without proper documentation, securities and guarantees. When they do go sour, inadequacies crop up but it is too late to enforce recovery proceedings effectively. This gives the defaulting borrowers an upper hand.

Next, laxities in monitoring processes followed at the branch level play their role- the incipient bad borrowings arise more out of the branch officials’ negligence towards acting promptly to the red signals, leading to irregularities- borrowers exceeding drawing powers and not submitting inventory or debtors security statements, being one example. If only the branch had curbed them and also reported to the controlling authorities, all these could have been taken as warning signals of impending NPAs. Branches tend to take such operational irregularities lightly, only to wake up when the outstandings mount.

The RBI Panel under its executive director, B Mahapatra, in its report, observes that restructuring amounts to an ‘event of impairment’ irrespective of whether it is asset classification or not, undergoes a downgrade. It has rightly recommended that all loans that are subjected to restructuring should be classified as NPAs, since they are alreadySub-standard. This is particularly true when restructuring requires banks to grant concessions like substantial reductions in interest rates, moratorium or elongation of repayment schedule, part waiver of principal and/or interest or converting debt into equity at inflated values a la Kingfisher. There is absolutely no valid justification to make any such distinction that obfuscates the underlying problem of mounting bad debts!

When internationally accepted accounting standards treat restructured advances as impaired, there is no reason for the Indian banking system to deviate from the internationally accepted prudential accounting practices, primarily from the transparency perspective.

The RBI’s suggestion of a two-year “Regulatory forbearance” for withdrawing standard classification benefits has had a change for the better. By recognizing these loans as NPAs, we have kept up with prudent and accepted international accounting practices.

The banks’ statutory auditors, in helping the bank managements to window dress their annual accounts to overstate the profits for the year, have, in my considered opinion, wrongly misinterpreted the RBI guidance for deferrals. This is equally applicable to the RBI guidelines for recognizing and providing for the accrued gratuity and pension liability.The bank auditors are under a wrong impression that they can get away by merely stating in their auditors’ report - “Without qualifying our opinion/report, we draw attention to Note...” This is no qualification, as it does not explicitly state that the liability did and does exist on the date of the balance sheet and that not providing for it impacts the profits for the current year. The RBI’s advisory merely directs them to defer it over a period of time and in no way absolves them from providing for and disclosing the liability from subsisting and existing. The RBI, the banking regulator and the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India (ICAI), the accounting regulator, ought to review this unhealthy practice of window dressing that only results in overstating the profits. The regulatory forbearance certainly cannot exceed its brief!                

In the two years between March 2009 and March 2011, the gross NPAs of our banks shot up from around Rs68,000 crore to Rs94,000 crore. By bringing in so-called restructuring, NPAs had wrongly been classified as standard. They have actually soared from just over Rs60,000 crore to almost Rs1.07 lakh crore. According to a statement laid on Lok Sabha in March 2013, gross NPA in 7,295 accounts rose to over Rs1 crore in March 2013 from Rs68,262 crore in March 2012. In March 2011, the figure for 4,589 accounts has risen to Rs34,633 crore from Rs26,629 crore for 4,099 accounts in March 2010.

The Sick Industrial Companies Act (SICA) has been on the statute books for long.  Companies are invariably rendered sick by the promoters who themselves continue to remain hale and hearty having skimmed the cream from bank funding. Bankers have been dealing with them with kid gloves, hesitating to make demands on large industrial chronic defaulters. The Securitization & Reconstruction of Financial Assets & Enforcement of Security Interest Act 2005 (SARAESI) empowers lending banks to seize mortgaged assets of recalcitrant borrowers to realise the best prices without having to resort to court sanction.  It is most commonly applied to small-time borrowers, who have defaulted on EMIs for home loans, vehicles loans and small time traders-it tantamount to using a sledge hammer to swat a fly and not touch the large chronic defaulters like Kingfisher Airlines.

The big-ticket defaulters manage to keep out bank attachment orders by obtaining court stay orders. This is simply because the banks and the RBI are found to be speaking with forked tongues. They blow hot and cold at the same time and are caught pussyfooting – a case of willing-to-push-but-afraid-to-hurt attitude, not touching big guns, but attaching tiny factory owners or traders. This proves right the good old Hindi adage – Hathi janey dega, magar doom pakad ke baitega - translated letting the elephant pass through only to cling on to its tail.

The standard of toughness of recovery proceedings are high with small retail borrowers, where flats and vehicles are attached with ease. The banks’ attitude generally signifieswhen one small entity borrows a couple of lakhs from a bank, the borrower will be in trouble, but when one big ticket borrows crores, it is the bank which is in trouble. Banks mollycoddle the big time borrowers to collect their dues.

To minimize NPAs, the RBI needs to direct the banks to put in place, tough measures of going for the defaulters’ jugular. Personal guarantees and not dud corporate guarantees should be insisted upon and the promoter-directors of public companies should also be called upon to sign personal guarantees, similar to what is followed for private unlisted entities. This is because the promoter clan takes the company stakeholders and bankers for a ride after collecting money from IPOs. They should be required to bring in margin money in hard cash and not by pledging shares of group companies and/or providing their equally dud corporate guarantees.  They should be asked to cough up not less than 25% of the value of the diminution in the value of securities and/or 10% of the sanctioned limits, before considering any rescheduling / rescue act. The end use of the borrowed money has to be strictly monitored to ensure there is no misuse thereafter.

The rising NPAs call for strong arm-twisting. The RBI should call upon all banks to furnish a listing of their top 100 defaulters with a brief on their ages, causes and steps initiated to effect recoveries. The banks and RBI should make available the listing along with the progress report on the reduction or otherwise, on their websites. Most of the defaulters would be big names with strong pull, right up to the Ministry of Finance, capable of pulling all strings to keep action at bay. The banks should not stop short of opting for strong coercive proceedings under the securitization laws rather than yield to the mirage of corporate debt restructuring.

If NPAs are not curbed effectively, it will not be long before India heads the Greek route.  The Ministry of Finance has to necessarily leave the micromanagement of the banking sector to the RBI.

This oversight task is best assigned to Dr YV Reddy, the tough acting former RBI Governor!

(Nagesh Kini is a Mumbai based chartered accountant turned activist.)

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