By allowing asset reconstruction companies (ARCs) to convert a company’s debt into equity, the framework of management of non-performing assets is likely to undergo a fundamental change.
Amendments to the Securitization and Reconstruction of Financial Assets and Enforcement of Security Interest Act (SARFAESI) that allow these changes can potentially alter the landscape of asset reconstruction.
Till now, banks and lenders in general had access and recourse only to the assets of the borrowers. The debt of a company was directly linked to the physical assets created by it. Equity was kept out of these arrangements unless it was specifically earmarked or borrowed against. It was not available for recovery of overdue debts.
With the new amendment passed by both Houses of Parliament, debt and equity have been made fungible as far as recovery from defaulting companies is concerned. ARCs have been given complete and unbridled access to the equity of a defaulting company. With no restrictions on it, either in terms of size or type, this amounts to powers of changing the ownership and, with that, the management and leveraging not just of financial equity but also the business, brand and other types of equity of a company. This has enormous implications not only for lenders and borrowers but the entire financial architecture of the economy.
The biggest problem for ARCs was their ability to extract value from assets. Apart from all the litigation, procedural problems and unreal pricing of impaired assets by banks, ARCs often face a situation where the value of the asset is lower than that of the debt of the defaulting company. In such a case, the enterprise value of a company is less than its asset value. As such, ARCs can’t make much from the assets that they buy.
Despite a situation where the rate of growth of non-performing assets (NPAs) has been higher than the rate of growth of credit and the consequent high levels of NPAs, ARCs have been asset-starved for the past two years. No wonder then that despite permitting the formation of securitization companies and asset reconstruction companies in 2003, the market for impaired assets in India is far from developed.
Even though a number of ARCs have been set up that have been purchasing NPAs from banks, they haven’t been able to develop a robust stressed asset market or an active distress and restructured debt paper market in India. At best, ARCs have functioned as asset-recovery centres that are primarily into asset stripping rather than asset reconstruction and business revival.
This amendment which gives them recourse to equity has the potential to trigger the development of a healthy market for non-performing and impaired assets. The move seems to have been timed well. It comes at a point when the gross non-performing assets of the banking system are at a decadal high and are likely to be around 4% of the gross advances at the end of this fiscal. If one adds restructured assets, one-time exemptions and evergreen ones, the level is almost twice as much. Seen from a stressed asset market perspective, it is a business worth Rs 5 trillion.
If private equity participants—globally there are specialist distressed asset private equity firms—can team up with local ARCs, this can be a great business opportunity. Not only that, it will also be a systemic gain as their ability to turn around companies will be much higher as India seems to be nearing the end of the downturn. This is an ideal time for investments in distressed assets. From next year, interest rates will start declining and as and when growth picks up, the pricing of these assets will improve faster than their prospects of revival.
At the transactional level, the ability to convert debt into equity will be especially useful as it will reduce interest costs for companies. This is a frequent reason for firms getting into default. In addition to this, reconstruction and revival becomes easier with innovative and quick structuring of the debt component.
These possibilities, including those of changing owners, promoters or managements, will enable ARCs to offer better packages to banks for bad loans.
Now, for the first time there exists a legislative framework that allows ARCs to focus on revival and reconstruction. The efforts will be, or rather should now be, on buying an impaired asset based on business viability, using specialized skills and tools to turn it around and then reselling the stake the moment the company recovers. Apart from making profits for themselves, ARCs will have contributed to the national economy by preventing capital waste.
Haseeb A. Drabu is an economist, and writes on monetary and macroeconomic matters from the perspective of policy and practice. Comments are welcome at email@example.com. To read Haseeb A. Drabu’s earlier columns,go to www.livemint.com/methodandmanner-