$190 billion bank loan clean-up needed as PM Modi looks to revive growth

Reforms meant to clean up $190 billion of stressed bank loans will be crucial to reviving economic growth during Narendra Modi’s second term as prime minister.

Just days after a landslide electoral victory, Modi is being forced to focus on the economy after the slowest expansion in five years. A crisis among shadow lenders has curbed advances from the sector and hit consumer spending in recent months, coming on top of years of sluggish credit growth at banks hamstrung by non-performing loans. Revitalizing lenders is essential to jump-starting private investments and consumer spending.

Investors expect Modi to complete reforms started during his first term when India instituted a time-bound bankruptcy process, putting the business community on notice by stripping assets off the biggest defaulters and selling them. While the two-and-a-half-year-old law has helped banks improve the rate and pace of bad-debt recovery, prolonged court battles have delayed transactions and deterred some foreign investors.

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“We have to find a way to speed up the process,” said Rajnish Kumar, chairman of State Bank of India Ltd., India’s largest bank. “The results so far — despite the delays — have been good for the system,” he said in a recent interview, adding that the bankruptcy law needs to be periodically reviewed.

As of March, about a third of India’s bankruptcy cases had exceeded the 270-day deadline stipulated by law, according to government data.

In fact, of 12 large debtors — the so-called dirty dozen — that were pushed into bankruptcy courts in 2017 by the banking regulator, only five have been successfully sold with lenders recovering about 39% of dues on average. The rest have been delayed by problems including a slew of challenges by previous owners, losing bidders, financial and operational creditors.

Potential bidders have also become wary of India’s evolving insolvency process after court rulings in the past year allowed late bids to be considered in the interest of greater recovery. The top court also threw out a central bank circular, which mandated a timeline for recasting delinquent accounts or moving to bankruptcy court.

A shortage of judges and lack of adequate infrastructure will probably aggravate these problems as the case load builds further. There were already 1,143 insolvency proceedings at the end of the first quarter, up from 544 at the end of March last year.

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“Not maintaining sanctity of resolution time lines and delays from court battles is a fundamental problem that has to be addressed if you want some serious investors to put in bids for stressed assets,’’ said S. Sriniwasan, who heads Kotak Investment Advisors Ltd., with whom Abu Dhabi Investment Authority has partnered to invest in distressed assets in India. “If you have to revive the economy, you have to first solve the existing pestering problem.”

On Thursday, Gyaneshwar Singh, joint secretary at the Ministry of Corporate Affairs, said the government is planning to build capacity in the courts so bankruptcy cases can be tried more quickly. India also expects to introduce a framework to deal with cross-border insolvency within the next three to four months, he said at a conference in Singapore.

So far, lenders have recovered the equivalent of about $11 billion, or about 43%, of the $25 billion in dues admitted by courts in 94 cases of default, according to a Crisil report. How does that compare globally? The World Bank estimates that recovery rates — accounting for the outcome, time taken and costs of proceedings — range from 20.3% for sub-Saharan Africa to 70.5% for high-income members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, according to its Doing Business report.

First Published:
Jun 06, 2019 13:52 IST

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