This time with feeling: RBI's new power must be accompanied by wider reform

The Centre has empowered the Reserve Bank of India to get banks to take tougher steps, including insolvency and bankruptcy proceedings against defaulters, to address the growing volume of bad loans on their books. An ordinance to amend the Banking Regulation Act of 1949 has been issued to quell doubts whether the existing provisions allowed the RBI to direct banks to deal with specific stressed assets. The RBI has also been vested with the power to form oversight committees wherever it deems fit. Currently such committees exist only for loans brought into a scheme for sustainable structuring of stressed assets, also known as S4A. Now the RBI can bring in such panels to monitor the alphabet soup of other mechanisms for tackling non-performing assets (NPAs) such as SDR (strategic debt restructuring) through the JLFs, or joint lenders’ forums. The hope is that this will let bankers take decisive calls on loan accounts that have turned bad, as an independent oversight committee’s approval could keep investigative agencies off their backs. Bankers may not always have the sectoral expertise to monetise or leverage assets underlying bad loans in the best possible way. Yet, their paralysis on the NPA front, with its collateral impact being the worst bank credit growth recorded in decades, is driven by the fear that they could get themselves implicated for poor lending and monitoring decisions. The success of this latest salvo against bad loans will depend on the fine print on how the ultimate decision — whether to take a haircut on a loan and restructure it or invoke bankruptcy clauses — is arrived at.

Perhaps of equal significance is the reshuffle of certain public sector bank officials announced on Friday. This is a clear signal that the NDA government is losing its patience with bankers persisting with a status quoist approach. The ordinance is the latest attempt to resolve the twin balance sheet problem (of indebted borrowers and NPA-burdened lenders) plaguing India’s domestic investment cycle. In 2015, the Prime Minister launched a Gyan Sangam conclave with bankers, and an Indradhanush road map to revitalise public sector banks. Last year, a Banks Board Bureau was set up to recommend the appointment of top bosses at banks and help them develop strategies and plan raising of capital. If the government wants to see a spurt in investment and job-creation, it needs to do more than just pin its hopes on new oversight committees. It must amend the anti-corruption law as has been promised for a while now, and accept the need to fix the policy-level stress affecting sectors such as telecom, power and highways. Above all, the government cannot in the same breath argue that the political cost of reforms is dissipating, but that the ‘re-privatisation’ of banks as mooted by the RBI recently is still a holy cow for the Indian polity.

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Printable version | Aug 9, 2020 6:22:45 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/this-time-with-feeling/article18404974.ece

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