Indian banks are dangerously close to reliving the Kingfisher disaster with Jet

Image: REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui
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Having burnt their fingers with the now-defunct Kingfisher Airlines, it’s déjà vu for India’s banks.

And this time, it’s with Jet Airways.

While the lenders are looking for a way to salvage the debt extended to India’s oldest private carrier by picking up a stake in the company, they’d be well-advised to recall their bad experience of taking the same route when Kingfisher Airlines defaulted on payments, say many analysts that Quartz spoke to.

“Traditionally, banks are lenders and are not meant to be business-owners. Therefore, the fundamental principle behind this doesn’t make sense,” said a banking analyst at a rating agency, requesting anonymity. “Banks are much better off getting their money back instead of being equity shareholders as they may not be able to reap the benefits of it.”

The spectre of NPAs

On the last day of 2018, the financially embattled Jet defaulted on repayments to a consortium of lenders led by the State Bank of India (SBI). As per central bank norms, repayments not initiated within a 90-day window from the default must be classified as a bad loan—a non-performing asset (NPA) in industry speak—in the banks’ financial books.

The Naresh Goyal-promoted Jet owes over Rs10,900 crore ($1.52 billion) to 26 entities, including the Dubai branch of ICICI Bank and the Hong Kong branch of Punjab National Bank, besides SBI, the country’s largest lender.

The airline must pay back nearly Rs1,700 crore by March 31, else the loan will turn into an NPA

The banks, saddled with a mountain of NPAs, are desperate to avert a further deterioration of their loan quality. Hence, they are undertaking a restructuring exercise, converting a part of their debt into equity. On Jan. 28, Jet said it will call an extraordinary general meeting (EGM) of its shareholders to seek approval for such conversion, which will partially resolve the airline’s financing problems.

Stripped of jargon, it means that in exchange for trimming Jet’s debt, the company will cede some stake to the lenders, making them part owners. Jet’s board will also seek to appoint new nominees and issue fresh preference shares, at the EGM on Feb. 21, it said in a filing to the stock exchanges.

Jet controls a sixth of India’s aviation market and it is in everyone’s interest to keep it airborne. Higher fuel prices, a weak rupee, and cut-throat competition have added to its losses. The government has refused a bailout and its efforts to find a strategic investor have come to naught.

As a result, banks have been forced to step in.

Does it make sense?

Media reports now suggest that SBI is likely to take an at least 15% stake in Jet after it converts its loans into equity shares.

While this may save SBI and other banks, from the burden of additional NPA, on the flip side, they are exposed to the vagaries of the aviation business.

Consider their experience with Kingfisher Airlines. In an urgent bid to prevent the airline from folding up, banks, including SBI, undertook a similar restructuring exercise in 2011.

Now, Kingfisher owes over Rs9,000 crore to several banks and it has been nearly impossible to recover the money. Its promoter, the liquor baron Vijay Mallya, fled the country in 2016. Lenders labelled him a “wilful defaulter” and an extradition trial in the UK to bring the fugitive back has not met with success.

As with Kingfisher, the debt-to-equity swap in the case of Jet is not a permanent solution, say experts. “This restructuring exercise is nothing more than window-dressing and is meant only to postpone the problem,” said an aviation analyst, requesting anonymity.

Right now the main focus of the airline should be to get more capital. After all it is not just the banks but also lessors, and employees that are owed money. “The restructuring exercise of debt to equity conversion should not be limited to just that. If the banks are taking in the stake at the moment they should look at selling it to another investor who can pump in capital into the airline or get the existing promoters to bring in more capital and that needs to be the main focus,” said Ashish Nainan, research analyst at CARE Ratings.

So, do the banks have an alternative?

If Jet is unable to pay back its dues before March 31, banks can approach the National Company Law Tribunal (NCLT) and initiate bankruptcy proceedings. Here, buyers can take over the carrier through a bidding process.