How does the piling up of non-performing assets affect the functioning of a bank? Have bad banks been set up in other countries?
Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on Monday announced that the National Asset Reconstruction Company (NARCL) along with the India Debt Resolution Company (IDRCL) will take over the first set of bad loans from banks and try to resolve them. While the problem of bad loans has been a perennial one in the Indian banking sector, the decision to set up a bad bank was taken by the Union government during the Budget presented last year in the aftermath of the nationwide lockdowns, and the moratorium was subsequently extended to borrowers by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI).
It should be noted that the health of the balance sheets of Indian banks has improved significantly over the last few years with their gross non-performing assets (GNPA) ratio declining from a peak of 11.2% in FY18 to 6.9% in Q2FY22.
What is a ‘bad bank’?
A bad bank is a financial entity set up to buy non-performing assets (NPAs), or bad loans, from banks. The aim of setting up a bad bank is to help ease the burden on banks by taking bad loans off their balance sheets and getting them to lend again to customers without constraints. After the purchase of a bad loan from a bank, the bad bank may later try to restructure and sell the NPA to investors who might be interested in purchasing it.
A bad bank makes a profit in its operations if it manages to sell the loan at a price higher than what it paid to acquire the loan from a commercial bank. However, generating profits is usually not the primary purpose of a bad bank — the objective is to ease the burden on banks, of holding a large pile of stressed assets, and to get them to lend more actively.
What are the pros and cons of setting up a bad bank?
A supposed advantage in setting up a bad bank, it is argued, is that it can help consolidate all bad loans of banks under a single exclusive entity. The idea of a bad bank has been tried out in countries such as the U.S., Germany, Japan and others in the past.
The troubled asset relief program, also known as TARP, implemented by the U.S. Treasury in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, was modelled around the idea of a bad bank. Under the program, the U.S. Treasury bought troubled assets such as mortgage-backed securities from U.S. banks at the peak of the crisis and later resold it when market conditions improved. It is estimated that the Treasury through its operations earned a nominal profit of anything between $11 billion to $30 billion, although some contest these figures.
Many critics, however, have pointed to several problems with the idea of a bad bank to deal with bad loans. Former RBI governor Raghuram Rajan has been one of the fiercest critics of the idea, arguing that a bad bank backed by the government will merely shift bad assets from the hands of public sector banks, which are owned by the government, to the hands of a bad bank, which is again owned by the government. There is little reason to believe that a mere transfer of assets from one pocket of the government to another will lead to a successful resolution of these bad debts when the set of incentives facing these entities is essentially the same.
Other analysts believe that unlike a bad bank set up by the private sector, a bad bank backed by the government is likely to pay too much for stressed assets. While this may be good news for public sector banks, which have been reluctant to incur losses by selling off their bad loans at cheap prices, it is bad news for taxpayers who will once again have to foot the bill for bailing out troubled banks.
Will a ‘bad bank’ help ease the bad loan crisis?
A key reason behind the bad loan crisis in public sector banks, some critics point out, is the nature of their ownership. Unlike private banks, which are owned by individuals who have strong financial incentives to manage them well, public sector banks are managed by bureaucrats who may often not have the same commitment to ensuring these lenders’ profitability. To that extent, bailing out banks through a bad bank does not really address the root problem of the bad loan crisis.
Further, there is a huge risk of moral hazard. Commercial banks that are bailed out by a bad bank are likely to have little reason to mend their ways. After all, the safety net provided by a bad bank gives these banks more reason to lend recklessly and thus further exacerbate the bad loan crisis.
Will it help revive credit flow in the economy?
Some experts believe that by taking bad loans off the books of troubled banks, a bad bank can help free capital of over ₹5 lakh crore that is locked in by banks as provisions against these bad loans. This, they say, will give banks the freedom to use the freed-up capital to extend more loans to their customers.
This gives the impression that banks have unused funds lying in their balance sheets that they could use if only they could get rid of their bad loans. It is, however, important not to mistake banks’ reserve requirements for their capital position. This is because what may be stopping banks from lending more aggressively may not be the lack of sufficient reserves which banks need to maintain against their loans.
Instead, it may simply be the precarious capital position that many public sector banks find themselves in at the moment. In fact, many public sector banks may be considered to be technically insolvent, as an accurate recognition of the true scale of their bad loans would show their liabilities to be far exceeding their assets. So, a bad bank, in reality, could help improve bank lending not by shoring up bank reserves but by improving banks’ capital buffers. To the extent that a new bad bank set up by the government can improve banks’ capital buffers by freeing up capital, it could help banks feel more confident to start lending again.
Source: The Hindu