“The use of public-sector banks to revive credit growth to support the economy is fraught with risks. Relaxed lending practices would adversely affect the lenders’ asset quality and capitalisation,” said Geeta Chugh, an analyst at S&P Global Ratings.

Same old same old

No lessons seem to have been learnt from the past.

When the pandemic stuck, Indian banks were already wounded. Yet, the government decided to rely heavily on banks to pull the economy out of a deep slumber. A major part of the Indian government’s $266 billion stimulus is routed through banks.

The government, along with India’s central bank, has opened the liquidity taps, infusing cheap capital into the market and urging banks to lend more.

With the economy set to contract for the first time in four decades, analysts believe providing liquidity is necessary but it shouldn’t be “stretched.”

“If the liquidity measures are taken too far and indefinite refinancing of unworthy borrowers begins then it definitely increases the NPAs down the road,” said Vinod Karki, head of strategy at ICICI Securities.

Bad loan mess

Facing a surge of liquidity and the government’s coaxing, state-owned banks are caught between the devil and the deep sea. This comes at a time when they haven’t fully recovered from the bad loan mess of the past and the situation is expected to worsen further due to a sharp slowdown in the economy.

Chugh of S&P Global expects the NPA-to-loan book ratio to spike to 13%-14% by March 2021 from 8.5% in the last financial year. “We anticipate credit costs (provisioning for bad loans) will rise to about 3.7% of average loans in fiscal 2021. As credit costs surge, profitability will likely worsen,” said Chugh. She also predicts that public sector banks will suffer more losses than their private-sector counterparts as they have weaker loan book quality.

As losses mount, public sector banks will need capital to plug the hole. The government-owned banks will need fresh capital infusion of around Rs350 billion to Rs400 billion this year, predicts Chugh.

It means once again, India’s financial sector is heading down the familiar path of piling bad loans, followed by the need for capitalisation. All at the cost of the financial health of banks.

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