Rolling out recapitalisation
India needs a clear roadmap for the recapitalisation of banks with emphasis on firmly penalising chronic defaulters.
We have been hearing about the recapitalisation of banks for some time now. Further, banks have been infused with fresh capital funds in driblets as well. There is nothing extraordinary about it as there are two distinct aspects of raising banks' capital.
Banks' capital has to rise in keeping with the rise in its business. Capital should happen as banks receive more deposits, their loans (which are their assets) rise and overall business increases. Banks have to do this to maintain their capital to assets ratio, as a safety norm. The Bank for International Settlement (BIS) has routinely enlisted capital requirement ratios.
But, the current talk on the urgency of raising capital of Indian banks has a different orientation. This is the second aspect of the issue. As the non-performing assets of banks increased recently and banks were directed by the Reserve Bank of India to recognise their bad loans, their capital base was subsequently eroded. This called for immediate capital replenishment. This is directly related to the issue of non-performing assets of Indian banks and how the banks are going to resolve this.
The dilemma over capital replenishment stemming from the erosion of capital from bad debts is not unique to India. This has happened before and it could safely be predicted that this would happen in the future. Thus, there are existing models for handling this issue.
The most celebrated of these episodes of bank capital erosion was witnessed as recently as in 2008 when the Holy Grails of global banking were contaminated with bad loans. Largest of the US banks were facing the prospects of liquidation as their assets portfolios simply evaporated in the aftermath of the financial meltdown. The detection of the toxic assets, the so-called derivative products in the portfolio of the US banks, made clear that most of their capital was being wiped out. The options were two-fold: either face liquidation or close down. This happened to one of the greatest institutions of the US financial world: Lehman Brothers.
In an afterthought following the collapse of Lehman, the US government decided to step in and thus pumped hundreds of billions of dollars as capital into the beleaguered banks. The home of high capitalism which abhorred government interference in the private sector corporations, the decision to allow the US government to fund banks raised questions on "Moral Hazard" and basic principles. But this was done to save the financial system. The troubled banks were thought to be too large to be allowed to fail.
Similarly, earlier Japanese banks had also faced a similar dilemma when the big banks in the country had put large funds into realty companies and the property prices slumped. To safeguard their interests and stay away from declaring their property loans to be bad, the banks kept on funding the companies in trouble and thus acquired more of the doubtful debts. This had given rise to what has been termed by monetary economists as "misallocation of credit."
The term misallocation of credit was coined because instead of giving their funds to more productive and profitable sectors, the banks continued to fund the unviable and uneconomic property companies to save themselves from bankruptcy. Obviously, the process could not have gone on and the financial authorities had to step in.
But in Japan's case, the entire operation was instead kept under the wraps and bank recapitalisation was done surreptitiously. The fear was that the open admission of the extent of the trouble would result in complete erosion of confidence in the financial system and thus, will have serious repercussions. Therefore, banks were given funds in small tranches and after long delays. That had defeated the purpose of the entire operation.
In our case, the issue of bad loans has been known forever. But the pitch was rather queered by the former governor of the Reserve Bank, Raghuram Rajan. Until then, while it was often admitted that banks have bad debts, open admission of the huge and debilitating impact of the issue was not publicly admitted. In a speech now considered to be a landmark, he had hinted that unless the problem is fully recognised and provisions duly made, this had the potential of resulting in a major financial sector collapse, so to say.
Ever since we are talking about the humongous amount of bank recapitalisation needs. The government is committed to putting more than Rs 1.3 lakh crore into the public sector banks as fresh funds out of Rs 2.5 lakh crore which is estimated to be required in the medium term. Various alternatives are being evaluated, including the issue of recapitalisation bonds. Some had also suggested using a part of the foreign exchange reserves for shoring up bank capital.
Large budgetary support for recapitalisation cannot be reasonably expected as that could upset the fiscal arithmetic. There are other constraints like minimum holding norms for the government. That means that the banks cannot make public offers indiscriminately as government holding cannot be diluted to less than 52 per cent. But, there is no doubt that the requirement of funds is massive.
Some global rating agencies estimate that the recapitalisation requirements of Indian banks to be around Rs five lakh crore. However, this could at best be an estimate because the trend in bad loans accumulation, resolution of some of the bad loans through the process of debt restructuring and turning around the economy could have a critical impact.
Even then, recapitalisation is not such an insurmountable matter. Funds could be raised in various combinations with flexibility and a clear roadmap can be drawn up. The issue is that the episode of bad debts and subsequent capital erosion must stop. We cannot afford to have a relapse. An institutional and severe penal mechanism should be in place to ensure that.
It has been now at least been identified that a handful of big defaulters account for a quarter of the total bad loans. The RBI has now set in place an elaborate mechanism for resolving the bad loans, which the banks' boards and management had earlier refrained from doing. Additionally, the starting of operation of the bankruptcy code and the trigger to bankruptcy proceedings have also made a huge difference. Because of these developments, now it is no longer possible for promoters of defaulting companies to sit tight over their bank money. They also have to be active as otherwise, they would lose the control of their companies.
Hopefully, with the current emphasis on resolving this and the preventive mechanism now in place, it should be possible to overcome the intertwined twin-problem of capital erosion from bad loans of the public sector banks.
(The views are strictly personal.)