There was jubilation in stock markets recently after finance minister Arun Jaitley hinted at a scheme to sort out the messy tangle of bad loans in the banking sector. The equity market’s optimism beggars belief because NPAs—or non-performing assets, as bad loans are called technically—have remained impervious to an alphabet soup of previously attempted schemes. And now, NPAs are expected to acquire a two-tier, federal character with enormous implications for Centre-state relations.
In the post-1991 era, multiple schemes have been conceived and launched to tackle the menace of NPAs: DRTs (debt recovery tribunals, as suggested by Narasimham Committee-I and then subsequently amended in 2012), CDR (corporate debt restructuring), SARFAESI Act (Securitisation and Reconstruction of Financial Assets and Enforcement of Security Interest), CRILC and JLF (Central Repository of Information on Large Credits and Joint Lenders’ Forum), 5/25 scheme, ARC restructuring (asset reconstruction companies, formed as a consequence of DRTs), SDR (strategic debt restructuring), AQR (asset quality review), S4A (scheme for sustainable structuring of stressed assets) and finally the IBC (Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code).
There are multiple reasons for many of these schemes failing, which includes an inadequate legal framework for pursuing resolution; however, the one reason that remains unchanged from pre-reforms period is final policy design always providing corporate borrowers enough protection so that they can reprise the same act all over again. And while public attention has focused on Vijay Mallya—deservedly of course—there are other larger industrial groups which are habitual offenders but manage the system adroitly. Former Reserve Bank of India (RBI) governor Raghuram Rajan was compelled to state: “…it is extremely important that banks do not use the new flexible schemes for promoters who habitually misuse the system (everyone knows who these are) or for fraudsters.”
This raises issues of “moral hazard”; in the Indian context, moral hazard has taken the form of corporates or public sector banks undertaking increasingly riskier behaviour because they know the government is underwriting that risk or bearing the cost of that risk. Post the 2008 financial crisis, moral hazard has acquired some flexibility globally: it has become acceptable to bail out institutions if government feels such failure can lead to widespread systemic risk.
This may have inspired finance ministry’s chief economic advisor Arvind Subramanian to blithely suggest that government should perhaps bail out large corporate borrowers because that is how “capitalism works”. He feels only write-offs can sort out the “mountain of debt” sitting on bank books, or settle the twin-balance sheet problem (over-leveraged companies and NPA burdened banks).
Interestingly, Subramanian has also contributed to the NPA soup cauldron: the annual economic survey recommends the creation of PARA, or Public Sector Asset Rehabilitation Agency. Not to be left behind, even RBI’s recently appointed deputy governor Viral Acharya has gamely added his two-bit: PAMC (Private Asset Management Company) and NAMC (National Asset Management Company).
So, while attempts are being made to untangle the knotted skein of corporate bad loans, albeit through an ever-growing thicket of acronyms, Jaitley has at the same time flatly turned down requests for farm loan waivers. He has received wide support. State Bank of India chairman Arundhati Bhattacharya has warned that fulfilling such pre-election promises might lead to dilution of credit discipline: borrowers might tend to defer repayment till the next elections in the hope of loan waivers. This newspaper also recently pointed out that the Indian agricultural sector needs long-term structural investments, not short-term exchequer-funded loan waivers. There is merit in each of these arguments.
But, here’s a catch: the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party also promised farm loan waivers in its Uttar Pradesh assembly election manifesto. Having won the elections and faced with the prospect of fulfilling that promise now, Jaitley has used an escape hatch to wriggle out of the commitments. Answering the debate on Finance Bill in Rajya Sabha, he has asked individual states to foot the bill for farm loan waivers. He has effectively created a two-tier, federal, moral hazard framework: Centre’s responsibility to bail out large corporates and states get to write off farm loans.
This further complicates attempts at creating a long-term, sustainable set of solutions for controlling and resolving the financial system’s NPAs. It also adds new headaches to the already vexed Centre-state relations. Competitive waiver promises have already weakened the fragile balance sheets of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.
It also raises issues of discrimination. If the Centre wants to bail out some 30-40 large corporate borrowers on the pretext that their debt misery was the outcome of external shocks, does not the same logic or argument apply to farm loans, especially since many states have been victims of droughts, inadequate monsoons and crop failures? There is no doubt the NPA mess needs to be resolved urgently to kick-start investments and the growth process. But then, that solutions framework cannot be built on the foundation of discrimination and selective relief.
Rajrishi Singhal is a consultant and former editor of a leading business newspaper. His Twitter handle is @rajrishisinghal.
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