IF INDIA is indeed the world’s fastest-growing big economy, as its government once again claimed this week, no one told its bankers and business leaders. In a nation of 1.3bn steadily growing at around 7% a year, the mood in corner offices ought to be jubilant. Instead, firms are busy cutting back investment as if mired in recession. Bank lending to industry, growth in which once reached 30% a year, is shrinking for the first time in over two decades (see chart). If this is world-beating growth, what might a slowdown look like?
India’s macroeconomy chugs along (though the quality of government statistics remains questionable), but its corporate sector is ailing. The sudden and chaotic “demonetisation” of 86% of bank notes in November hardly helped. But the origins of India’s troubles go much deeper. After India dodged the worst of the financial crisis a decade ago, a flurry of investment was made on over-optimistic assumptions. Banks have been in denial about the ability of some of their near-bankrupt borrowers to repay them. The result is that the balance-sheets of both banks and much of the corporate sector are in parlous states.
After years of burying their heads in the sand, India’s authorities now worry that its “twin balance-sheet” problem will soon imperil the wider economy. Both the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) and the government have nagged banks to deal with their festering bad loans. Around $ 191bn-worth, or 16.6% of the entire banking system, is now “non-performing”, according to economists at Yes Bank. That number is still swelling.
Given the linkages between them, companies and banks often run into trouble concurrently. But countries where banks’ balance-sheets resemble Swiss cheese usually have no choice but to deal with the issue promptly, lest a panicked public start queuing up at ATMs. India is different. State-owned lenders make up around 70% of the system, and nobody thinks the government will let them go bust. As a result, what for most economies would be an acute crisis is in India a chronic malaise.
That doesn’t make it any less painful. Investment is a key component of GDP, and it is now shrinking, thanks to parsimonious firms. India runs a trade deficit and the government is seeking to cut its budget shortfall, which leaves consumption as the sole engine of economic growth. Indeed, until demonetisation, consumer credit was booming, up by about 20% year on year. Some may wonder whether those are tomorrow’s bad loans, or when consumers will run out of stuff to buy.
Meanwhile, banks’ profits are sagging, even without the impact of fully accounting for dud loans. State-owned lenders collectively are making negative returns. Thirteen of them are described in a recent finance-ministry report as “severely stressed”. Demonetisation did indeed bring in lots of fresh deposits, but the bankers were then browbeaten into slashing the rates at which they lend, further denting their margins.
The dearth of investment is in part due to a lack of animal spirits. Sales outside the oil and metals sector are up by a mere 5% year on year, compared with nearer 25% at the start of the decade. Capacity utilisation, at 72.4%, is low by historical standards: even if money were available, it is not clear many would want to borrow.
Bankers, companies and policymakers once hoped the twin balance-sheet problem would eventually solve itself. Everyone’s incentive has been to look away and hope economic growth cures all ills. It has not: profits are in fact shrinking at the large borrowers, many of them in the infrastructure, mining, power and telecoms sectors. But banks have cut credit across the board, including to small businesses.
Fixing this is not easy. Much of the hard work repairing corporate balance-sheets needs to be done by public-sector bank bosses, who should (yet seldom do) restructure and partly forgive loans. Many of them inherited the problems. Most defaulting tycoons are politically connected, which is how some got the loan to start with. Accepting that they cannot pay it back, and waiving part of the debt, might be seen as abetting crony capitalists. This can attract the attention of the many zealous agencies probing public spending.
So it is far easier for a banker to make no decision—which often means having to extend further loans to keep the borrower afloat—and pretend all is well. It hardly helps that one former bank boss is languishing in jail while authorities probe a loan to Kingfisher Airlines, whose former boss is skulking in a mansion in Britain.
Writing off loans would be easier if banks could foreclose on companies, and take equity in them instead. Many potential investors are eager to work with banks to recapitalise good companies with bad balance-sheets. But without a proper bankruptcy code, which is only now coming into force and will take years to become effective, that is a fool’s errand.
If banks help fix corporate balance-sheets, the large resulting losses will highlight how weak their own capital positions are. The government has promised to inject more money in the banks, but has put in only a small fraction of the $ 90bn Fitch, a ratings agency, argues they need to get onto an even keel. Nor will it countenance having less than a majority stake in the state-owned banks, limiting their ability to raise funds from private investors.
One way to break the logjam would be to set up a “bad bank” that would take the dodgiest loans off banks’ balance-sheets, leaving them free to focus on making new loans. Viral Acharya, a new deputy governor at the RBI, recently proposed ways to facilitate the transfer of non-performing loans off banks’ balance-sheets—essentially, giving cover to bankers who cut sensible deals. The government’s chief economic adviser, Arvind Subramanian, has suggested a bad bank run by the private sector.
Problematic as it is, at least the Indian banking sector is relatively small compared with the size of the overall economy, and its bad debts are concentrated. A database put together by Ashish Gupta at Credit Suisse, a bank, shows that over $ 100bn of the dud loans lie with just ten borrowers. That should simplify the co-ordination of any deal, even if the loans are spread across many banks.
However, the crucial element in deciding who bears the losses—setting the price at which the bad bank would buy the assets—is fiendishly difficult. What price a loan secured against a half-built bridge in Gujarat? Lots of people would have to make decisions they have expertly dodged for years. Worse, federal elections are due in 2019, and setting up bad banks takes time. Bailing out banks and tycoons would not play well at the polls. The temptation will be to give it more time—and pay a yet higher bill later.