Banks Play Risky Game As Covid Loan Truce Ends

India's lenders and their shareholders are playing a dangerous game of hide and seek.

Financial firms need to raise a record amount of capital, something they would like to do before the central bank's Covid-19 moratorium on repayment ends next month and they have to disclose a big jump in bad loans. So they have an incentive to pretend that their borrowers have become miraculously stress-free. Investors know this and are trying to ferret out bad news. Valuations are sliding, and if policy makers have a plan for rescuing this vital industry, they're keeping it close to their chests.

In March, the central bank told lenders they could stop collecting from borrowers for three months after Prime Minister Narendra Modi put a stop to most economic activity to contain the virus. Since then, the regulator has extended the timeout by another three months. But as they announce their June quarter figures, lenders are under pressure from the stock market to show how most of their customer accounts have become regular again after the lockdown was relaxed May 10. 

Axis Bank Ltd. shares jumped more than 7 per cent in Mumbai on Wednesday after it said loans under moratorium were down to 9.7 per cent by value from 28 per cent in May. It wants to raise $2 billion to boost its capital buffers after S&P Global Ratings cut its debt rating to junk. Non-bank financier Bajaj Finance Ltd. disclosed that a little under 16 per cent of advances are frozen, a drop from 27 per cent at the end of April. This improvement, however, failed to cheer investors because at least some of it came from tweaking term loans to “flexi” arrangements where borrowers only need to pay interest for one or two years.

More broadly, analysts are finding it hard to swallow the sudden unfreezing, given that an average of 38 per cent of the book for mortgage financiers and 64 per cent for auto lenders was at a standstill in May. Customers paying just the June installment would get off the list of accounts under moratorium, “even if they have not cleared the past dues,” says Elara Securities India Pvt. 

Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. analyst Gautam Chhugani has identified two other strategies. The first is to simply deny deferment requests and keep auto-debiting customer accounts. The other method is to help wobbly borrowers with fresh funds, so “the underlying health of the loan won't be known for a long time until 2021,” he says. 

The pandemic has given banks tools to do this. Lenders have approved $17 billion out of a $40 billion state-guaranteed small-business credit program. Media reports suggest part of the money has gone to borrowers on the condition that they repay old loans. Shadow banks, especially ones exposed to troubled property developers, are hawking new bonds. Banks can use the monetary authority's funding-for-lending program to buy the notes. Here again, they want financiers to keep servicing existing bank debt.

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At $1.4 trillion, advances by India's top banks and other lenders are broadly unchanged from a year earlier. While stagnation in loan growth is only to be expected in a shrinking economy, what's also worrying is that financiers accounting for three-fifths of the credit are being judged by investors to be worth less than their assets. It's a sharp deterioration from a year ago, when 40 per cent of institutions by total loans were trading below book value.

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Dismal valuations will stop many state-run banks from joining the fund-raising party, which may top $10 billion this year, almost double the record $5.2 billion in 2017. The government must come to the rescue. Economists at State Bank of India suggest lowering the minimum capital norm to 8 per cent from 9 per cent of risk-weighted assets, and deferring the rainy-day capital conservation buffer.

Those two measures will save almost $40 billion. That's not enough capital. Delinquent corporate debt, which was weighing India down even before the coronavirus, is getting heavier. India Ratings and Research Pvt., a Fitch Ratings affiliate, has pegged additional loan-loss costs from 500 heavily indebted firms at $30 billion, a conservative estimate because bankruptcy courts aren't taking new cases and asset buyers are looking to wriggle out of commitments. To this, add the post-Covid slide in small firms' fortunes, as well as losses on micro credit and other individual loans. 

Even if a bad bank is set up to take problem loans out of the financial system, the discounted price at which it will buy them means that private capital will have to absorb chunky losses. No amount of gloss by bankers can hide the stress for too long. The market will eventually find it. 

(Andy Mukherjee is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering industrial companies and financial services. He previously was a columnist for Reuters Breakingviews. He has also worked for the Straits Times, ET NOW and Bloomberg News.)

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