The real story behind the bad loans of Indian banks

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In several previous columns in The Daily Reckoning newsletter, I have talked about the bad loans that are accumulating with banks in general and government owned public sector banks in particular. A major portion of these bad loans is from corporates who had borrowed and are now not repaying the loans.

A standard explanation from the corporates is that these are tough times for the economy and given that they are not in a position to repay. The trouble is that this is not always true. As a recent research brought out by EY and titled Unmasking India’s NPA issues – can the banking sector overcome this phase? points out: “While corporate borrowers have repeatedly blamed the economic slowdown as the primary factor behind it[i.e. defaulting on bank loans], periodic independent audits on borrowers have revealed diversion of funds or wilful default leading to stress situations.”

Nevertheless, despite many wilful defaults, banks don’t declare such defaulters as wilful defaulters. The RBI defines “wilful default” as a situation where a borrower has defaulted on the payment/repayment obligations despite having the capacity to pay up. Or the borrower hasn’t utilised the loan amount for the specific purpose for which the loan was disbursed and diverted the money for other purposes. Or the borrower has siphoned off the funds. Or the borrower has defaulted on the loan and at the same time sold off the immoveable property which acted as the collateral against which the loan had been granted.

The EY report explains quoting bankers, why banks and bankers don’t declare borrowers as wilful defaulters: “It is more or less certain that if we declare a borrower a “wilful defaulter,” he will approach the court. Then it becomes our responsibility to justify our action with supporting evidence. It is not always possible to establish that the borrower has siphoned off the money or used it for a purpose other than the one which loan has been taken. Hence, we need to be extremely cautious before we declare someone a “wilful defaulter.” Otherwise, we will not only lose the case, but we will also let the defaulter off the hook.”

What the survey does not point out is that unlike the corporate defaulters, public sector banks do not have the best lawyers on their speed dial.

As on December 31, 2014, the top 30 defaulters accounted for nearly one third of the bad loans of close to $47.3 billion, which is clearly worrying. Also, many high value loans have gone bad. And they keep piling up. In fact, in a survey carried out by the EY Fraud Investigation & Dispute Services found that 87% of the respondents that included bankers stated that diversion of funds to unrelated business through fraudulent means is one of the root causes for the NPA crisis.

Also, 64% of respondents believed that these bad loans resulted primarily because of lapses in the due-diligence carried out by banks before the loans were sanctioned. In fact, the report also talks about third party agencies that banks need to depend on while figuring out whether a borrower is good enough to be lent money to, as well as what he is doing with that money, once the loan has been given out.

As the report points out: “Third party agencies such as surveyors, engineers, financial analysts, and other verification agencies, etc., play a critical role in assuring financial information, proposals, work completion status, application of funds, etc. Lenders rely significantly on the inputs issued by such third parties.”

The trouble is that the system can and is being manipulated. “Reports are made as a routine, with little scrutiny. In some situations, the reports may be drafted under the influence of unscrupulous borrowers,” the EY report points out.

For the entire process of loan disbursal as well as monitoring mechanism to work well, the third party system needs to work in a transparent manner, which it currently doesn’t. As per the EY survey, two out of the three respondents agreed that third party reports could be manipulated in the favour of the borrower.

Further, 54% of the respondents attributed the bad loans to the inefficiencies in the monitoring process, after the loan had been given out.

And if all that wasn’t enough 72% of the respondents claimed that the crisis in banking because of bad loans is set to worsen before it becomes better. The reason for this is very simple—many loans which have gone bad have not been recognised as bad, and instead have been restructured i.e. the borrower has been allowed easier terms to repay the loan by increasing the tenure of the loan or lowering the interest rate.

As the EY report said quoting the bankers who had participated in the survey: “The stressed accounts that have been hidden till now would keep the NPA [non-performing asset] level rising at least for the next 2-3 years.” In simple English what this means is that many restructured loans will turn bad in the years to come, as borrowers will default.

The EY report further pointed out: “The reported numbers are quite high, and there are fresh additions every quarter, leading to further deterioration in asset quality. The portfolio of restructured accounts is adding to the problem at hand, thereby resulting in crisis.”

In fact, the corporate debt restructuring numbers have jumped up big time over the last few years. The number of cases has jumped from 225 to 647 between 2008-09 and December 31, 2014. This is a jump of 187%. In fact, in terms of the amount of loans, the jump is 370% to over Rs 450,000 crore.

The bankers that EY survey spoke to made several interesting points. Several borrowers go through the corporate debt restructuring mechanism just to ensure that they can drive down the interest rates on their loans or increase the repayment period. Also, even in cases where the borrower is in trouble nothing really comes out of the restructuring scheme. As the report points out: “These schemes are often used to soften the pricing terms, elongation of repayments, without improving the basic viability of the business.”

What all this clearly tells us is that the Indian banking system will continue to remain in a mess over the next few years, as restructured loans keep turning into bad loans.

Stay tuned and watch this space.

This column originally appeared on The Daily Reckoning on Sep 9, 2015

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About vivekkaul
Vivek Kaul is a writer who has worked at senior positions with the Daily News and Analysis(DNA) and The Economic Times, in the past. He is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. Easy Money: The Greatest Ponzi Scheme Ever and How It Is Set to Destroy the Global Financial System , the latest book in the trilogy has just been published. The first two books in the trilogy were published in November 2013 and July 2014 respectively. Both the books were bestsellers on Amazon.com and Amazon.in. Currently he works as an economic commentator and writes regular columns for www.firstpost.com. He is also the India editor of The Daily Reckoning newsletter published by www.equitymaster.com. His writing has appeared across various other publications in India. These include The Times of India, Business Standard,Business Today, Business World, The Hindu, The Hindu Business Line, Indian Management, The Asian Age, Deccan Chronicle, Forbes India, Mutual Fund Insight, The Free Press Journal, Quartz.com, DailyO.in, Business World, Huffington Post and Wealth Insight. In the past he has also been a regular columnist for www.rediff.com. He has lectured at IIM Bangalore, IIM Indore, TA PAI Institute of Management and the Alliance University (Bangalore). He has also taught a course titled Indian Economy to the PGPMX batch of IIM Indore. His areas of interest are the intersection between politics and economics, the international financial crisis, personal finance, marketing and branding, and anything to do with cinema and music. He can be reached at vivek.kaul@gmail.com

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