The issue of Non-Performing Assets (NPAs) in the Indian banking sector has become the subject of much discussion and scrutiny. The Standing Committee on Finance recently released a report on the banking sector in India, where it observed that banks’ capacity to lend has been severely affected because of mounting NPAs. The Estimates Committee of Lok Sabha is also currently examining the performance of public sector banks with respect to their burgeoning problem of NPAs, and loan recovery mechanisms available.
Additionally, guidelines for banks released by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) in February 2018 regarding timely resolution of stressed assets have come under scrutiny, with multiple cases being filed in courts against the same. In this context, we examine the recent rise of NPAs in the country, some of their underlying causes, and steps taken so far to address the issue.
What is the extent and effect of the NPA problem in India?
Banks give loans and advances to borrowers. Based on the performance of the loan, it may be categorized as: (i) a standard asset (a loan where the borrower is making regular repayments), or (ii) a non-performing asset. NPAs are loans and advances where the borrower has stopped making interest or principal repayments for over 90 days.
As of March 31, 2018, provisional estimates suggest that the total volume of gross NPAs in the economy stands at Rs 10.35 lakh crore. About 85% of these NPAs are from loans and advances of public sector banks. For instance, NPAs in the State Bank of India are worth Rs 2.23 lakh crore.
In the last few years, gross NPAs of banks (as a percentage of total loans) have increased from 2.3% of total loans in 2008 to 9.3% in 2017 (Figure 1). This indicates that an increasing proportion of a bank’s assets have ceased to generate income for the bank, lowering the bank’s profitability and its ability to grant further credit.
Escalating NPAs require a bank to make higher provisions for losses in their books. The banks set aside more funds to pay for anticipated future losses; and this, along with several structural issues, leads to low profitability. Profitability of a bank is measured by its Return on Assets (RoA), which is the ratio of the bank’s net profits to its net assets. Banks have witnessed a decline in their profitability in the last few years (Figure 2), making them vulnerable to adverse economic shocks and consequently putting consumer deposits at risk.
What led to the rise in NPAs?
Some of the factors leading to the increased occurrence of NPAs are external, such as decreases in global commodity prices leading to slower exports. Some are more intrinsic to the Indian banking sector.
A lot of the loans currently classified as NPAs originated in the mid-2000s, at a time when the economy was booming and business outlook was very positive. Large corporations were granted loans for projects based on extrapolation of their recent growth and performance. With loans being available more easily than before, corporations grew highly leveraged, implying that most financing was through external borrowings rather than internal promoter equity. But as economic growth stagnated following the global financial crisis of 2008, the repayment capability of these corporations decreased. This contributed to what is now known as India’s Twin Balance Sheet problem, where both the banking sector (that gives loans) and the corporate sector (that takes and has to repay these loans) have come under financial stress.
When the project for which the loan was taken started underperforming, borrowers lost their capability of paying back the bank. The banks at this time took to the practice of ‘evergreening’, where fresh loans were given to some promoters to enable them to pay off their interest. This effectively pushed the recognition of these loans as non-performing to a later date, but did not address the root causes of their unprofitability.
Further, recently there have also been frauds of high magnitude that have contributed to rising NPAs. Although the size of frauds relative to the total volume of NPAs is relatively small, these frauds have been increasing, and there have been no instances of high profile fraudsters being penalised.
What is being done to address the problem of growing NPAs?
The measures taken to resolve and prevent NPAs can broadly be classified into two kinds – first, regulatory means of resolving NPAs per various laws (like the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code), and second, remedial measures for banks prescribed and regulated by the RBI for internal restructuring of stressed assets.
The Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code (IBC) was enacted in May 2016 to provide a time-bound 180-day recovery process for insolvent accounts (where the borrowers are unable to pay their dues). Under the IBC, the creditors of these insolvent accounts, presided over by an insolvency professional, decide whether to restructure the loan, or to sell the defaulter’s assets to recover the outstanding amount. If a timely decision is not arrived at, the defaulter’s assets are liquidated. Proceedings under the IBC are adjudicated by the Debt Recovery Tribunal for personal insolvencies, and the National Company Law Tribunal (NCLT) for corporate insolvencies. 701 cases have been registered and 176 cases have been resolved as of March 2018 under the IBC.
What changed recently in the RBI’s guidelines to banks?
Over the years, the RBI has issued various guidelines aimed at the resolution of stressed assets of banks. These included introduction of certain schemes such as: (i) Strategic Debt Restructuring (which allowed banks to change the management of the defaulting company), and (ii) Joint Lenders’ Forum (where lenders evolved a resolution plan and voted on its implementation). In line with the enactment of the IBC, the RBI, through a circular in February 2018, substituted all the specific pre-existing guidelines with a simplified, generic, time-bound framework for the resolution of stressed assets.
In the revised framework which replaced the earlier schemes, the RBI put in place a strict deadline of 180 days during which a resolution plan must be implemented, failing which stressed assets must be referred to the NCLT under IBC within 15 days. The framework also introduced a provision for monitoring of one-day defaults, where incipient stress is identified and flagged immediately when repayments are overdue by a day.
Borrowers whose loans were tagged as NPAs before the release of the circular recently crossed the 180-day deadline for internal resolution by banks. Some of these borrowers, including various power producers and sugar mills, had appealed against the RBI guidelines in various High Courts. A two-judge bench of the Allahabad High Court had recently ruled in favour of the RBI’s powers to issue these guidelines, and refused to grant interim relief to power producers from being taken to the NCLT for bankruptcy. All lawsuits against the circular have currently been transferred to the Supreme Court, which has now issued an order to maintain status quo on the same. This means that these cases cannot be referred to the NCLT until the Supreme Court’s decision on the circular, although the RBI’s 180-day deadline has passed. This effectively provides interim relief to the errant borrowers who had moved to court till the next hearing of the apex court on this matter, which is scheduled for November 2018.
In the last few years, several states have enacted laws to curb cheating in examinations, especially those for recruitment in public service commissions. According to news reports, incidents of cheating and paper leaks have occurred on several occasions in Uttarakhand, including during the panchayat development officer exams in 2016, and the Uttarakhand Subordinate Services Selection Commission exams in 2021. The Uttarakhand Public Service Commission papers were also leaked in January 2023. The most recent cheating incidents led to protests and unrest in Uttarakhand. Following this, on February 11, 2023, the state promulgated an Ordinance to bar and penalise the use of unfair means in public examinations. The Uttarakhand Assembly passed the Bill replacing the Ordinance in March 2023. There have been multiple reports of candidates being arrested and debarred for cheating in public examinations for posts such as forest guard and secretariat guard after the ordinance’s introduction. Similar instances of cheating have also been noted in other states. As per news reports, since 2015, Gujarat has not been able to hold a single recruitment exam without reported paper leaks. In February 2023, the Gujarat Assembly also passed a law to penalise cheating in public examinations. Other states such as Rajasthan (Act passed in 2022), Uttar Pradesh (Act passed in 1998) and Andhra Pradesh (Act passed in 1997) also have similar laws. In this blog, we compare anti-cheating laws across some states (see Table 1), and discuss some issues to consider.
Typical provisions of anti-cheating laws
Anti-cheating laws across states generally contain provisions that penalise the use of unfair means by examinees and other groups in public examinations such as those conducted by state public sector commission examinations and higher secondary education boards. Broadly, unfair means is defined to include the use of unauthorised help and the unauthorised use of written material by candidates. These laws also prohibit individuals responsible for conducting examinations from disclosing any information they acquire in this role. The more recent laws, such as the Gujarat, Uttarakhand, and Rajasthan ones, also include the impersonation of candidates and the leaking of exam papers within the definition of unfair means. Uttarakhand, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Andhra Pradesh prohibit the use of electronic aids. Maximum prison sentences for using such unfair means range from three months in Uttar Pradesh, to seven years in Andhra Pradesh.
Issues to consider
The Gujarat and Uttarakhand anti-cheating Acts have relatively stringent provisions for cheating. The Uttarakhand Act has a fixed 3-year prison sentence for examinees caught cheating or using unfair means (for the first offence). Since the Act does not distinguish between the different types of unfair means used, an examinee could serve a sentence disproportionate to the offence committed. In most other states, the maximum imprisonment term for such offences is three years. Andhra Pradesh has a minimum imprisonment term of three years. However, all these states allow for a range with respect to the penalty, that is, the judge can decide on the imprisonment term (within the specified limits) depending on the manner of cheating and the implications of such cheating. Table 1 below compares the penalties for certain offences across eight states.
The Uttarakhand Act has a provision that debars the examinee from state competitive examinations for two to five years upon the filing of the chargesheet, rather than upon conviction. Thus, an examinee could be deprived of giving the examination even if they were innocent but being prosecuted under the law. This could compromise the presumption of innocence for accused candidates. The Gujarat and Rajasthan laws also debar candidates from sitting in specified examinations for two years, but only upon conviction.
These laws also vary in scope across states. In Uttarakhand and Rajasthan, the laws only apply to competitive examinations for recruitment in a state department (such as a Public Commission). In the other six states examined, these laws also apply to examinations held by educational institutions for granting educational qualifications such as diplomas and degrees. For example, in Gujarat, exams conducted by the Gujarat Secondary and Higher Secondary Education Board are also covered under the Gujarat Public Examination (Prevention of Unfair Means) Act, 2023. The question is whether it is appropriate to have similar punishments for exams in educational institutions and exams for recruitment in government jobs, given the difference in stakes between them.
Sources: The Rajasthan Public Examination (Measures for Prevention of Unfair Means in Recruitment) Act, 2022; the Uttar Pradesh Public Examinations (Prevention of Unfair Means) Act, 1998; the Chhattisgarh Public Examinations (Prevention of Unfair Means) Act, 2008; the Orissa Conduct of Examinations Act, 1988; the Andhra Pradesh Public Examinations (Prevention of Malpractices and Unfair means) Act, 1997; the Jharkhand Conduct of Examinations Act, 2001, the Uttarakhand Competitive Examination (Measures for Prevention and Prevention of Unfair Means in Recruitment) Act, 2023, the Gujarat Public Examination (Prevention of Unfair Methods) Act, 2023; PRS.