There is discontent about larger banks striking bilateral deals with promoters of firms with stressed assets
While the Reserve Bank of India does not prohibit a bank from conducting bilateral dealings with a borrower, it doesn’t seem to have foreseen private deals struck outside the joint lenders’ forum. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Cracks in the joint lenders’ forum (JLF) experiment, aimed at timely resolution of stressed loans, are beginning to show and the picture isn’t pretty.
According to at least four people in the know, there is discontent among factions of lenders about larger banks in the forums striking bilateral deals with promoters of firms with stressed assets, making it difficult for JLFs to effectively implement a resolution or recovery procedure.
“In some large cases, larger banks have taken possession of land parcels or other fixed assets, reducing the outstanding debt of the company. This allows them to maintain a standard asset classification on the asset for some time,” said a senior official at a large public sector bank, the first of the four people quoted above. The banker spoke on condition of anonymity as discussions at JLFs are confidential.
These decisions are usually taken outside the JLF in direct discussions with borrowers, said the banker quoted above. What such deals end up doing is reducing the pressure that the JLF would put on an errant borrower and delaying the resolution process further.
Indian banks have gross bad loans of Rs.5.8 trillion, a number which bankers expect to rise.
“The JLF mechanism is a time-bound process; so, any delays in it will only hurt the bankers involved. We have issued a clear mandate that if any such bilateral dealings are discovered from now, they will be reported to the regulator immediately and action will be requested,” he added.
To be sure, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) does not prohibit a bank from conducting bilateral dealings with a borrower.
In January 2014, the central bank issued norms that require banks to form a JLF as soon as an account delays repayment by over 60 days. The JLF will be organized by the lead lender in a consortium lending case and by the largest lender in cases with multiple lenders. The JLF is then required to come up with a corrective action plan within 30 days and a majority of the lenders are required to sign off on the plan within 30 days.
Delays in decision-making or implementation of the plan are met with accelerated provisioning on the case, according to the regulatory norms.
But RBI doesn’t seem to have foreseen private deals struck outside the JLF.
In April, private sector lender Axis Bank acquired control over Jaypee Group’s headquarters in Noida, in exchange for reducing debt. In the same month, IDBI Bank Ltd and State Bank of India (SBI) were also offered parcels of land to reduce the debt. At the beginning of the year, ICICI Bank, too, had taken over 275 acres from Jaiprakash Associates Ltd and reduced nearly Rs.1,800 crore worth of debt of the company.
Eventually, the promoter was forced to offer an option to other lenders as well to take over unencumbered land. The proposal is still under discussion and yet to be approved, the first person confirmed.
SBI, IDBI Bank, Axis Bank, ICICI Bank and a spokesperson from the Jaypee Group did not respond to e-mails seeking comment.
In the case of Bhushan Steel Ltd, according to a public sector banker who is the second of the people quoted above, most public sector banks had moved to classify the account as a non-performing asset (NPA) in April. However, some of the private sector banks continued with a standard asset classification on the account.
“Divergence in asset classification tends to work against any recovery measures as lenders won’t ever be on the same page. Besides, if a majority of the banks in the consortium have classified the account as NPA, it is unfair that others continue with it as standard,” the second person said.
While it is unclear why some banks continued with a standard asset classification in this case, a probable reason could be some short-term repayments which were received by them, added the second person.
Bhushan Steel has over 40 lenders, most of which are public sector banks. SBI and Punjab National Bank (PNB) are the lead lenders. Calls and text messages to spokesperson for PNB and Bhushan Steel remained unanswered till the time of going to press.
“Some smaller private banks and foreign banks who have small loan exposures in certain cases also break protocol and threaten to file winding-up petitions, even as the JLF process is going on. If lenders are quibbling among themselves, then you cannot force the borrower to do anything,” said the second person.
However, the blame for any delays in JLF proceedings does not just lie upon private sector or foreign lenders. According to a senior official at a large private sector bank, state-owned lenders often have an elaborate and rather slow decision-making process, which makes the JLF resolution very cumbersome.
“There have been cases where smaller state-owned lenders agreed to give additional working capital loans to a borrower and then never sanctioned it because the head office differs from what the banker at the JLF has agreed to. If the borrower cannot run daily operations, it would be unfair to expect them to pay back their dues,” the private sector banker said.
According to RBI’s financial stability report released last month, gross non-performing assets of banks rose to 7.6% of total advances in the March compared with 5.1% in September 2015. The top 100 borrowers accounted for nearly a fifth of these bad loans. A large number of these top borrowers have a JLF looking at possible solutions to ensure recovery.
“These differences among lenders point to the fact that probably the JLF system is not working to the extent that it was meant to. Bankers will have to sit together and resolve their differences themselves. It is likely that the deadlines that were talked about earlier will be stretched further,” said Saswata Guha, Fitch India Services Pvt. Ltd.
In December, RBI governor Raghuram Rajan said that banks would be required to clean up their balance sheets by 31 March 2017. This meant recognizing visibly stressed assets, providing for them and coming up with a resolution plan.