Thursday, 7 July 2016

NPAs: Need For A Holistic Approach To Resolution

The banks have been given time till March 31, 2017 by RBI to clean up their books while the gross non performing assets have reportedly ballooned to over Rs 5.5 lakh crore by end of March 2016

Banking system faces enormous challenges as the spectre of gargantuan non-performing assets (NPAs) is haunting them even as the regulator is coming out with new schemes to address the NPA menace head-on.

The banks have been given time till March 31, 2017 by RBI to clean up their books while the gross non performing assets have reportedly ballooned to over Rs 5.5 lakh crore by end of March 2016. This Herculean task needs to be addressed in a holistic manner, keeping the Indian ecosystem in mind, so as to minimise future slippages in the accounts. To begin with, it would be pertinent to recognise that all borrowers are not ‘chors’ and that all lenders cannot be accused of not having done the due diligence and then try to find a resolution before the problem starts eating into the very growth of economy.

Aggravating Factors
The list of factors that caused a jump of more than 475 per cent in NPAs in a matter of 5 years are many. However, factors like commodity cycle downturn, delays in approval from government be it environmental clearance, land acquisition process, obtaining right of way, forest clearance and lack of dispute redressal mechanism in a business-like manner, besides, policychanges like cancellation of telecom licences, withdrawal of coal and iron ore mines, dumping by some countries which made local products unviable, were other contributory factors which were further compounded by the indecisiveness of the decision makers who simply did not take any timely decisions fearing political backlash.

Just to elaborate this point further, let me draw on the steel sector. According to RBI’s Financial Stability Report, June 2015, five out of the top 10 private steel producing companies are under severe stress on account of delayed implementation of their projects due to land acquisition and environmental clearances among other factors. And then the operational units in the steel sector lost their cost competitiveness. As is well-known, some of the critical factors affecting the competitiveness of this industry, particularly in economic downturn, include government’s support (tax incentives), tariff protection, raw material security at competitive prices and availability of infrastructure and logistics. Who would have seen this coming when the projects were set up.

Five Sectors-Demand Upside Holds The Key
It is interesting to note here that five sectors-iron and steel, infrastructure, EPC, mining and textile account for bulk of the reported NPAs which had their share of external factors responsible for accumulation of NPAs in the last 4-5 years. While wilful defaulters need to be dealt with strictly, it is also a fact that all these sectors play key role in the growth of the economy-both at the domestic level and in international trade. A robust revival of demand would enable the companies in these sectors to generate enough cash flows to not only service the debt but return to growth path in a short time.

RBI’s S4A Scheme-May Not Meet With Enough Success
During the last few years, the corporates have piled on an unmanageable mountain of debt without commensurate increase in the earning capacity. In this backdrop, the caveats attached relating to limiting the lenders from changing any of the terms of repayment and interest rate in respect of the sustainable debt portion as also the high level of equity dilution that could be expected with the implementation of the scheme, may lead to limited success and may not meet with the desired results.

Financial Health-palliative Care
As RBI Governor rightly put it, ‘band aid’ approach would not work over a long term. What is needed is a major surgery. While it is a good sign that banks are finally willing to acknowledge the problem, it does not mean that the issue is resolved. The real task begins only now. It is not DRT or CDR or SDR or S4A or Bankruptcy laws alone which can cure this malady. What we need is a macro view taken on the entire economy and then arrive at a resolution strategy which could unlock fair value from the distressed assets for the benefit of all stakeholders. 

The success of the above will to a great extent depend on pro-active measures taken in a co-ordinated manner by Govt. and the Regulator to quickly respond to the challenges being faced by the industry and ensure long term stability in policies which are critical to their well-being. To address the existing NPA problem and protect the economic value of their loan, it is imperative that banks go for a holistic resolution. It is the right time that pain is acknowledged, loan book is corrected, and assets are rightly priced and nurtured further by infusing new money for revival and operations by inviting a new promoter or special situation fund who can bring in their portion of equity or risk capital.

We all understand that without removing the extra flab of debt, the brides may not find any suitors. Further, the investors willing to take over stressed assets are well informed and fully aware of the inherent risks and challenges associated with reviving a distressed company without the support of the old promoters. The new promoter/investor will not be able to bring in the entire equity since Indian businesses cannot sustain superlative returns as they are not very competitive. Thus, it essentially means that the project/company would need to be supported mostly by the existing lenders who have access to cheaper funds in the form of low cost deposits and can manage risk of recovery in the hands of new management/special situation fund who have proven track record of success with higher credibility. When this happens as also with the bankruptcy laws coming in place, the business of investment in distressed assets will become more mature and there will be good interest among serious investors and business assets will be put back to use.

Unlike in other parts of the world, where business successes and failures are taken with equanimity and promoters do not mind shutting the business and moving on, Indians hate ‘failure’ and see failure as a stigma and leave no corner to project success. This die hard belief in making the venture successful and running might turn out to be a blessing in disguise in turning around the stressed assets and resolving the NPAs.

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