Budget bats for key policy measures in the banking sector: Implementation is the key

Editor: Samir Pius George
February 5, 2021

The Union Budget for FY 2021-22 presented on February 1, 2021 has the distinction of being the first budget after Covid-19 devastated much of the world, including India. India registered a historic contraction of nearly 24% in its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the first quarter of the current financial year, unemployment surged, small enterprises suffered acutely and vulnerable households slipped into poverty. During the course of the year, the government announced a series of measures to alleviate the Covid-19 induced stress. Since then, there have been signs of a nascent recovery in the economy. In this context, there has been tremendous anticipation around this budget to put India firmly back on the growth path. 

Towards this end, the budget has made many noteworthy announcements. Two key announcements stand out viz., a push to the privatisation agenda by announcing the privatisation of two public sector banks and an insurance company, and the establishment of an asset reconstruction company to take over the Non-Performing Assets (NPAs) of banks. 

Privatisation of public sector banks

Signalling a clear and key policy shift, the government has announced an ambitious and strategic privatisation policy by proposing to disinvest/strategically sell public sector entities (PSEs). Towards this end, the government has approved four sectors as strategic, where it will retain a minimum number of entities. It will pare down its presence above this minimum in strategic sectors, and completely in non-strategic sectors. Notably, banking, insurance and financial services have been identified as  strategic sectors.  

A number of central PSEs (including Air India, Shipping Corporation of India and the Container Corporation of India) have also been identified by the budget for divestment this fiscal year. Further, the NITI Aayog has been tasked with identifying the next pipeline of central PSEs for disinvestment.  Within this overall context, the current budget has also proposed to privatise two public sector banks (PSBs) in addition to Industrial Development Bank of India (IDBI), and a general insurance company.  

Privatisation of PSBs is not a new idea. It was attempted earlier as well.  The former Finance Minister, Yashwant Sinha, proposed to bring government stake below 51% in PSBs in early 2000s. However, this did not garner enough support. Given the burgeoning requirement of capital by PSBs and the limited fiscal space with the government, it has now become imperative to find other avenues to bridge the gap.  The proceeds of the disinvestment could help release government resources to more productive uses, particularly as government finances too have come under tremendous pressure in the wake of the pandemic.  

Moreover, with the approval of banking as a strategic sector, and the maintenance of public sector presence, the government should be able to avoid any compromise on its social agenda – a key concern that has been flagged earlier on privatisation of banks. 

Resolution of bad assets

Flow of credit is an imperative to meet the needs of a growing economy. A surge in bad or non-performing assets impedes the flow of credit. This is because banks must make higher provisioning to cover their bad assets, reducing the overall credit available to firms and households. It also makes banks risk averse. 

Measures to provide relief to borrowers such as the moratorium on loans – could exacerbate the problem of bad loans. An improvement in the NPA ratio of the banks was visible before the pandemic but the policy support extended to borrowers could impact the asset quality of banks through postponement in recognition of bad assets. 

The Financial Stability Report released by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) in January this year estimates a sharp rise in the stressed assets on the banks’ books, particularly in the case of public sector banks. A number of measures were taken by RBI to improve the flow of credit by banks; however, the offtake of credit is still slow. The need of the hour therefore is to resolve these bad assets and clean up banks’ balance sheets so they can begin to lend more freely. 

The budget tries to address the problem of bad loans by announcing an asset reconstruction company (ARC) and an asset management company (AMC). This mechanism is expected to take over the stressed assets from banks, manage and eventually dispose them for value. The assets may be disposed of to potential buyers which include alternative investment funds (AIFs).  

The idea of a “bad bank” has apparently been inspired by the experience of countries such as the US and Malaysia. The Malaysian government, for instance, set up “Pengurusan Danaharta Nasional Burhad” – a government-backed AMC – that successfully bought and resolved bad assets in the Malaysian financial system in the aftermath of the Asian Financial Crisis in late 90s. 

While details on the Indian initiative are sparse at this point, the proposed mechanism is understood to not be a government owned entity. Instead, this mechanism would be primarily led by banks, with the government offering some support – perhaps in the form of a guarantee. The success of this proposal would depend on how well the proposed entity is managed. It will also depend on the capital allocation strategy by banks and how much money the government sets aside for this entity.

The reference to Alternate Investment Funds (AIFs) and other entities as potential buyers perhaps hints at measures for improving the efficiency of the stressed assets market – an important step that must go hand in hand with the creation of a “bad bank”.  However, a pitfall that the proposed mechanism must guard against is the potential “moral hazard”. It must disincentivise, rather than incentivise, poor decision making by the banks that led to the bad assets in the first place. 

Both the above announcements mark important interventions in the banking sector. Their success will however depend on the actual details – of the institutional structures and enabling frameworks put in place. Implementation will also be key, given the competing interests when it comes to privatisation and the government’s own poor track record on divestment.  This will, therefore, be a keenly watched space in the coming year.  

The views expressed in the post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the ISPP Policy Review or the Indian School of Public Policy. Images via open source.

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