RBI looking at banks’ ability to tackle bad debt burden

Kolkata, December 11

The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) said today it would look at the way banks use regulations intended to help them tackle a crippling bad debt burden, as concerns grow that lenders are using the measures to camouflage troubled loans instead.

Grappling with more than $110 billion of stressed loans, India’s banks have faced questions this week over their use of one of the most high profile tools offered to the sector by the RBI — strategic debt restructuring (SDR).

The SDR helps banks swap unpaid debt for majority control in troubled companies.

Crucially, it allows debt in the process to be classed as ‘standard’, without extra provisions or write-downs, for 18 months.

Analysts argue that encourages banks to use the provision to downplay the extent of the sour loans on their books, delaying recognition of the problem.

“We have spent much of the last few quarters creating a variety of bank powers to deal with stressed assets. SDR is just one of them,” Rajan said. “Having given those powers, we are now looking at how those powers are implemented.”

“These are meant not so much to postpone the day of reckoning but to actually deal with stressed assets in an effective way,” he told reporters, adding the central bank will hold talks with lenders.

So far, since SDR was introduced in June, it has been invoked by banks in nine cases, with at least one other due. Total SDR debts amount to some INR 641 billion ($9.6 billion), or about one per cent of all loans.

But none of these cases have seen banks swap debt for equity, take control or significantly cut debt. The RBI has yet to say what steps it will take if banks are found to be misusing tools like SDR or 5:25, a refinancing option intended for the infrastructure sector.

But concerns over potential demands for extra provisions hit bank stocks, with State Bank of India shares down 2.5 per cent and ICICI down 4.3 per cent.