Time to go to FRDI Bill’s roots
Much has been said and written about the Financial Resolution and Deposit Insurance Bill, 2017. The FRDI Bill was scheduled for discussion in Parliament this winter session but will now have to yield to more immediate concerns such as the Gujarat election results and the Central Bureau of Investigation special court’s verdict on 2G spectrum allocation. In addition, the joint committee of both Houses is yet to submit its report on the bill.
Public discussions on the FRDI Bill have focused on the formation of a resolution corporation and its bail-in powers in the event of a financial company going bust. The said corporation will monitor financial services companies, in coordination with regulators, and resolve them in case of failure. Bail-in implies using the company’s various existing liabilities—different debt categories or deposits not covered by deposit insurance (all deposits over Rs1 lakh)—to resolve impending failure. This is different from bailout, which implies external help, such as government using taxpayer money.
There may be some merit in constructing a resolution regime, given the financial system’s broader linkages. But there are other equally larger issues that also need highlighting, especially because they explain how we got here.
First, there is a need to discuss the relevance of an imported idea, a palliative designed for a different disease in a different body. Soul-searching after the 2008 financial crisis and its broader systemic impact through economic linkages led to the idea of a resolution corporation. It was felt necessary to design shock absorbers to insulate the economy and other financial sector institutions in the event of one single organization going bust, à la Lehman Brothers. The idea was discussed in various global governance institutions and rules were framed.
Some of the global credit rating agencies have been following up assiduously on the progress of implementation. Eyebrows are raised at jurisdictions, especially emerging economies, continuing to defer a resolution regime or designing a custom-built framework suited to their economy. In the meantime, the US, the epicentre of the crisis—which used taxpayer money to bail out all banks, including ensuring hefty bonus payouts to bankers—continues to enjoy the highest credit rating. Irony has, of course, been missing from the global credit rating lexicon.
In India, the idea of a resolution corporation was advocated in 2013 by the Financial Sector Legislative Reforms Commission. This was followed up in 2014 with a Reserve Bank of India (RBI) working group report on crafting a resolution regime for financial institutions. Finally, in 2016, a Union finance ministry committee submitted a draft code on the resolution of financial firms.
Speaking in Parliament on 21 December, Union finance minister Arun Jaitley defended the FRDI Bill, claimed that depositors’ money in public sector banks would be protected and said that the bill was the outcome of a commitment made by the previous government to G20. Jaitley is right. The resolution framework was part of the G20 leadership’s final declaration at the 2011 Cannes summit. Ironically, there’s also a segment in the same communique that’s titled ‘Avoiding Protectionism and Reinforcing the Multilateral Trading System’; see where that’s got us.
This goes to the heart of the issue. The Indian government’s willingness to accept a cut-and-paste formula is curious, coming as it does on the back of similar decisions in the past which seemed alien to the peculiar complexion of India’s financial services—salary cap for financial sector chief executive officers and tightening regulation of “shadow banks”, leading to a squeeze on non-banking financial corporations which provide a unique last-mile solution to the Indian banking system, among others. In a system where banks (with an overwhelming public sector presence) dominate the financial system and are extensively regulated by RBI, there should be some discussion about whether importing regulatory frameworks, in universum, makes sense. More pertinently, whether the bail-in provisions recommended in the Financial Stability Board’s October 2014 guidelines are applicable to India.
By the way, all those fond of citing Singapore’s examples of good governance should look at the city-state’s proposed resolution regime, which excludes all deposits and senior debt from bail-in.
Secondly, there’s the issue of democracy and fundamental rights. In its current form, the FRDI Bill disallows the proposed corporation’s resolution process from being challenged in courts. This might be necessary to avoid undue delays in the resolution process and to avoid failure of wobbly financial companies. But it’s also like a slippery slope: the overwhelming presence of government representatives on the corporation’s board (including regulators’ representatives) can convert the corporation into a blunt tool of vengeful political action. It also disregards the RBI working group’s recommendation that a grievance mechanism be built into the process.
The larger, moral question is: Why does the FRDI Bill have to start off by being ham-fisted and draconian? Add poor drafting to that list; think tank PRS Legislative Research demonstrates how clauses 58 and 62(1) regarding governance of a firm declared critical are inherently conflicting. There are other similarly inconsistent clauses.
Finally, there’s the spectre of new regulators chipping away at the powers of old regulators, such as RBI. It raises the question: Does it really remedy anything?
Rajrishi Singhal is a consultant and former editor of a leading business newspaper. His Twitter handle is @rajrishisinghal.
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