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.
Need for Urban Co-operative Banks
The history of UCBs in India can be traced to the 19th century when such societies were set up drawing inspiration from the success of the co-operative movement in Britain and the co-operative credit movement in Germany. Urban co-operative credit societies, were organised on a community basis to meet the consumption-oriented credit needs of their members. UCBs are primary cooperative banks in urban and semi-urban areas. They are co-operative societies that undertake banking business. Co-operative banks accept deposits from the public and lend to their members. Co-operative banks are different from other co-operatives as they mobilise resources for lending and investment from the wider public rather than only their members.
Concerns regarding the professionalism of urban cooperative banks gave rise to the view that they should be better regulated. Large cooperative banks with paid-up share capital and reserves of one lakh rupees were brought under the scope of the Banking Regulation Act, 1949 with effect from March 1, 1966. Prior to this, such banks were regulated under the scope of state-specific cooperative laws. The revised framework brought them under the ambit of supervision of the RBI. Till 1996, these banks could lend money only for non-agricultural purposes. However, this distinction does not apply today.
The Expert Committee noted that UCBs play a key role in financial inclusion. It further observed that the focus area for UCBs has traditionally been communities and localities including workplace groups. They play an important role in the delivery of last-mile credit, even more so for those sections of the population who are not integrated into the mainstream banking framework. UCBs primarily lend to wage earners, small entrepreneurs, and businesses in urban and semi-urban areas. UCBs can be more responsive than formal banking channels to the needs of the local people.
Over the years, concerns have been raised about non-professional management in UCBs and that this can lead to weaker governance and risk management in these entities. RBI has also taken regulatory action on several UCBs. For instance, in September 2019, RBI placed Punjab and Maharashtra Co-operative Bank under restrictions on allegations of serious underreporting of non-performing assets. The bank could not grant loans, make investments or accept deposits without prior approval from RBI. While these restrictions were originally put in place for six months, the time frame was extended several times and has now been extended till December 31, 2021. In addition, low capital base, poor credit management and diversion of funds have also been issues in the sector.
Shrinking share in the banking sector
There were 1,539 UCBs in the country as of March 31, 2020, with deposits worth Rs 5,01,180 crore and advances worth Rs 3,05,370 crore. Even though 94% of the entities in the banking sector were UCBs their market share in the banking sector has been low and declining and stands at around 3%. UCBs accounted for 3.24% of the deposits and 2.69% of the advances in the banking sector. The Committee noted that state-of-the-art technology adopted by new players, such as small finance banks and fintech entities, along with commercial banks can disrupt the niche customer segment of the UCBs.
Figure 1: Growth in deposits of UCBs (in Rs crore)
Figure 2: Growth in advances of UCBs (in Rs crore)
Burden of non-performing assets
UCBs had the highest net non-performing asset (NNPA) ratio (5.26%) and gross non-performing asset (GNPA) ratio (10.96%) across the banking sector as of March 2020. These levels correspond to around twice that of private sector banks, and around five times that of small finance banks. The Committee noted that, as of March 2020, UCBs have the lowest level of net interest margin (difference between interest earned and interest spent relative to total interest generating assets held by the bank) and negative return on assets and return on equity.
Figure 3: Asset quality across banks (in percentage)
Sources: Report of the Expert Committee on Urban Co-operative Banks; PRS.
Supervisory Action Framework (SAF): SAF envisages corrective action by UCB and/or supervisory action by RBI on breach of financial thresholds related to asset quality, profitability and level of capital as measured by Capital to Risk-weighted Asset Ratio (CRAR). The Committee recommended that SAF should consider only asset quality (based on net non-performing asset ratio) and CRAR with an emphasis on reducing the time spent by a UCB under SAF. The RBI should begin the mandatory resolution process including reconstruction or compulsory merger as soon as a UCB reaches the third stage under SAF (CRAR less than 4.5% and/or net non-performing asset ratio above 12%).
Constraints in raising capital
The Committee also observed that UCBs are constrained in raising capital which restricts their ability to expand the business. According to co-operative principles, share capital is to be issued and refunded only at face value. Thus, investment in UCBs is less attractive as it does not lead to an increase in its value. Also, the principle of one member, one vote means that an interested investor cannot acquire a controlling stake in UCBs. It was earlier recommended that UCBs should be allowed to issue fresh capital at a premium based on the net worth of the entity at the end of the preceding year.
Listing of securities: The Committee recommended making suitable amendments to the Banking Regulation Act, 1949 to enable RBI to notify certain securities issued by any co-operative bank or class of co-operative banks to be covered under the Securities Contracts (Regulation) Act, 1956 and the Securities and Exchange Board of India Act, 1992. This will enable their listing and trading on a recognised stock exchange. Until such amendments are made, the Committee recommended that banks can be allowed to have a system on their websites to buy/sell securities at book value subject to the condition that the bank should ensure that the prospective buyer is eligible to be admitted as a member.
Conflict between Banking Regulation Act, 1949 and co-operative laws
The fundamental difference between banking companies and co-operative banks is in the voting rights of shareholders. In banking companies, each share has a corresponding vote. But in the case of co-operative banks, each shareholder has only one vote irrespective of the number of shares held. Despite RBI being the regulator of the banking sector, the regulation of co-operative banks by RBI was restricted to functions related directly to banking. This gave rise to dual regulation with governance, audit, and winding-up related functions regulated by state governments and central government for single-state banks and multi-state banks, respectively.
2020 Amendments to the Banking Regulation Act: In September 2020, the Banking Regulation Act, 1949 was amended to increase RBI’s powers over the regulation of co-operative banks including qualifications of management of these banks and supersession of board of directors. The Committee noted that due to the amendment of the Act, certain conflicts have arisen with various co-operative laws. For instance, the Act allows co-operative banks to issue shares at a premium, but it is silent on their redemption. It noted that if any co-operative societies’ legislation provides for redemption of shares only at par, then, while a co-operative bank incorporated under that legislation can issue shares at a premium, it can redeem them only at par.
Note that on September 3, 2021, the Madhya Pradesh High Court stayed a circular released by the RBI on appointment of managing director/whole-time director in UCBs. The circular provided for eligibility and propriety criteria for the appointment of such personnel in UCBs. The petitioner, Mahanagar Nagrik Sahakari Bank Maryadit, argued that the service conditions of the managing director and chief executive officer of co-operative banks are governed by bye-laws framed under the M.P. State Cooperative Societies Act, 1960. The petition noted that co-operative as a subject falls under the state list and hence the power to legislate in the field of co-operative societies falls under the domain of the states and not the central government.
Over the years, several committees have looked at the feasibility to set up an Umbrella Organisation (UO) for UCBs. It is an apex body of federating UCBs. In 2011, an expert committee on licensing of new UCBs recommended that there should be two separate UOs for the sector. In June 2019, RBI granted an in-principle approval to National Federation of Urban Co-operative Banks and Credit Societies Ltd to set up a UO in the form of a non-deposit taking non-banking finance company. The UO is expected to provide information technology and financial support to its federating members along with value-added services linked to treasury, foreign exchange and international remittances. It is envisaged to provide scale through network to smaller UCBs. The report of the current Committee recommended that the minimum capital of the UO should be Rs 300 crore. Once stabilised, the UO can explore the possibility of becoming a universal bank. It can also take up the role of a self-regulatory organisation for its member UCBs. The Committee also suggested that the membership of the UO can be opened-up to both financial and non-financial co-operatives who can make contributions through share capital in the UO.
Comments on the report of the Expert Committee are invited until September 30, 2021.