Home / Opinion / At this rate, fintech will slaughter India’s banks

In the match for India’s financial services future, fintech just scored twice while banks are still struggling to retrieve the ball they scuffed into their own net. It’s just the start of what looks like a bruising battle for traditional lenders.

India’s banks, which still dominate the country’s financial landscape, appear to have hardly a kick left in them. Stressed assets without any loan-loss cover now exceed $96 billion, McKinsey & Co. said last week. An overwhelming 91%, or $87 billion, of the provisioning gap is at state-run lenders, whose net worth would be wiped out if they took the hit on their capital.

Also read: The big dreams of small finance banks

Even as McKinsey was delivering this sobering reality check, fintech was running a victory lap of sorts. Paytm, a digital payments company, announced a $1.4 billion investment by Masayoshi Son’s SoftBank Group Corp. on Thursday, the largest funding round by a single investor in an Indian start-up.

In another vote of confidence, Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund GIC Pte, which is partly liquidating a disappointing decade-long stake in UBS Group AG, bumped up its holding in Capital First Ltd to 14%. The Mumbai-based financier makes loans to small entrepreneurs and shopkeepers for everything from air conditioners and bikes to working capital after analyzing their cash flows.

It’s an opportunity that a lazy banking system, obsessed with the collateral it’s lending against rather than the business it’s lending for, has handed on a platter to data miners. Capital First’s retail assets have grown 24-fold in six years to about $3 billion. Its bad-loan ratio of less than 1% compares with almost 10% for banks. And the latter figure is an official estimate; the reality is probably a lot worse.

McKinsey has several suggestions on how Indian banks can deal with the mess: by quarantining assets that would eventually find their footing, liquidating those that won’t, and working with professional asset managers to turn around debtors that lie in between. But even if the delicate surgery is successful, banks—especially state-run ones—will end up ceding a lot of ground to fintech.

As Gadfly as argued before, banks are underestimating the threat. Who can blame them? Even now, when they’re collectively in the doghouse, the Reserve Bank of India is keeping their lunch warm. The central bank’s draft guidelines, for instance, propose locking all customer balances with non-bank digital wallets in escrow accounts at lenders.

Banks’ own wallets, however, won’t have this restriction. Public policy researchers are puzzled by this stifling of innovation.

Still, the hefty checks that SoftBank and GIC wrote last week send a clear signal. All that India’s banks have to show for decades of mollycoddling is a combined balance sheet on which taxpayers’ equity has effectively dwindled to zero.

Only a handful of the 21 public-sector lenders have a rightful claim on survival; and even they had better raise their game. Bloomberg

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