Should government capitalise public sector banks?

by Harsh Vardhan.

What would you say if someone was borrowing money at 8% and investing it to earn around 3%? “Uninformed!”, “financially illiterate!” or even outright “foolish”! And yet this is what our government has been doing with trillions of rupees over the last many years and has committed to continue to do so in the future. The process by which this is done is called capitalisation of public sector (PS) banks. Such capitalization is not only a bad idea economically as it puts enormous stress on the government resources, but also one which affects that behavior of banks and hence the robustness of the whole banking sector.

Commercial banks need capital to grow. Capital adequacy requirements ask all banks to keep a minimum amount of shareholder capital in proportion to their balance sheet size. Currently, in India this requirement is 9% of “risk weighted assets” of banks. Roughly, it means that banks are expected to have equity capital which is 9% of their commercial loans.

As banks grow their business, their risk weighted assets also grow. This means that banks has to increase their capital base in line with the growth of their loan book. Such increase in capital can come from exactly two sources – retained profits that are added to the capital base, or fresh infusion of capital from shareholders (old or new). In India, given the overall profitability of the banks (~1.1% return on assets) and the amount of dividend that they pay (~20%) of post-tax profits, banks do not have enough retained profits to support their business growth. Therefore, every now and then, they go to shareholders to raise fresh capital.

PS banks pose a peculiar challenge for the government. Being the majority owner of these banks and having committed to stay the majority owner, government has to infuse capital into these banks proportional to its ownership stake. Since the government wants to maintain its ownership at 51%, it has to supply atleast 51% of the fresh capital that PS banks need. RBI governor Dr. Subbarao, in a recent speech, said that the capital infusion by government into PS banks over the next decade will be of the order of Rs.0.9 trillion. I have read estimates of other analysts where this number is as high as Rs.2.50 trillion. These estimates depend on the assumptions one makes about a number of factors – the rate of growth of banks (which in turn depends on the growth of the overall economy), the profitability of banks, their dividend policy, their ability to raise other forms of capital (especially tier II capital), regulatory requirements on capital, etc. No matter how you estimate it, the number is very large. In other words, the government will be compelled to invest a very large amount of capital into PS banks over coming years.

Why is this a problem? Let’s look at the some simple public finance issues. India is in a deep fiscal crisis, and it is not easy to find trillions of rupees to put into PS banks. If such resources were injected into PS banks, it is not conducive to healthy public finance, since these injections are not a good deal for the government. The Indian government currently borrows long term money at over 8%. The dividend yield on PS banks shares has been between 2% and 3% over the last decade. This means that the government earns between 2% and 3% on its investments in PS banks. There is a 5% “negative carry” or loss that government bears on these investments.

A private investor also earns a low dividend yield from investing in PS banks, but can benefit from capital gains – a potential increase in the value of shares which the investor can obtain when she sells the shares. Government has never sold shares of PS banks (except when it initially listed some banks) and will not do so if it has to maintain majority ownership which is its stated policy. Hence, for the government, the financial analysis of a proposal to put money into PS banks should hinge on a comparison between the flow of dividends versus the cost of borrowing.

Capitalisation of PS banks is, thus, bad for government finances. It’s a double whammy! On the one had government has to raise vast resources to be invested into banks and then carries a loss of around ~5% on these investments year after year.

Ownership and behavior of banks

Government capitalisation of PS banks is not just a fiscal challenge. It also impacts the competitive dynamics of the banking industry. Most privately owned banks are under constant scrutiny of investors and analysts. When they go to external investors for raising capital, they have to satisfy these investors on number of critical aspects of the business – profitability and its sustainability, efficiency of capital use, quality of management team, cost efficiency, etc. In other words, private banks face a market test; they do not get capital for free. Only well run private banks get equity capital that is required for growth.

None of these questions get asked when government puts capital into a PS bank. One has never heard a senior government official commenting on the Return on Asset (RoA) or Return on Equity( RoE) of PS banks. The decision to put capital into PS banks is treated as a mechanical and administrative decision. This absence of a market test has systemic consequences. PS banks have ~70% share of the Indian market. When the majority owner is asking no or very few questions on performance, and is assuring an almost unlimited supply of capital, these banks have little incentive to improve financial metrics such RoA and RoE. This hurts the overall banking industry. For example, PS banks can underprice loans compared to their private sector peers. Such behavior would migrate the whole business to lower returns. It is hard for a private bank to be profitable when facing rivals that are not concerned about return on capital.

Misplaced obsession with majority ownership

The source of this whole capitalization issue is the government’s obsession with retaining majority (over 51%) ownership of PS banks. This is often explained in terms of the need to maintain the “public sector character” of these banks. While there may be a separate debate on whether we need to maintain public sector character for all the 25 plus PS banks, the fact is that the government does not need majority ownership to achieve this objective.

All PS banks are not companies under the Companies Act. The notion of 51% giving majority control is enshrined in the Companies Act. PS banks were created under the Nationalisation Act (SBI has its own SBI Act). The Nationalisation Act provides the government untrammeled control over these bank. While it does prescribe 51% government ownership in the PS banks, the control of government is independent of the level of its ownership. Furthermore, there is a limit of a 5% (10% with prior approval of the RBI) stake owned by any single shareholder in all banks. There is no chance, therefore, of any external shareholder acquiring control in these banks. Even relatively minor changes to the functioning of PS banks require approval of the parliament. Where is then the question of diluting the public sector character if the government ownership were to drop to, let’s say 26%, which is the threshold for “significant” minority stake in a company?

In the long run, therefore, it makes no sense for the government to commit itself to the capitalisation of PS banks. Precious government resources can be better deployed in critical areas (such as power transmission and distribution) where private capital on large scale is hard to come by. In the medium term, it can use tactical measures such as merging banks where it has significantly high ownership with those where the ownership is already down to 51%. But these tactics will not solve the issue structurally. The only long term solution is to give up the majority obsession, explain to all the stakeholders the fallacy of this obsession and the resulting pressure on public finance, build a political consensus to enact necessary legislative changes and then dilute down to a reasonable level.

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