A capital-constrained economy like India can’t afford a jungle raj in finance.
Snatch-and-grab is the new hallmark of Indian finance. As a banker friend in Mumbai put it to me only half-jokingly, a unit of “grabbed” cash collateral in hand is worth more than two units of hypothetical receivables.
Yet this is no laughing matter. Not only is opportunistic behavior going to worsen India’s $200 billion-plus bad loan crisis, but now that everyone from the government’s sleuths to the courts are joining the melee, the ensuing chaos will limit the recovery for lenders and threaten depositors.
Rajnish Kumar, chairman of State Bank of India, sat down for a chat with me at the Bloomberg Equality Summit in Mumbai this week. He had highlighted the problem last month by blaming what he called the selfishness of one bank for a default by Altico Capital India Ltd., a nonbank lender to property builders. When asked why his HDFC Bank Ltd. had choked Altico by helping itself to the money the shadow financier had raised elsewhere and parked with him, Aditya Puri, the managing director of India’s most valuable lender, replied: “What is out-of- turn? It is my security and I will exercise it.”
Now the regulator, the Reserve Bank of India, will decide whether Kumar’s unhappiness is a case of sour grapes or if Puri did indeed cross a line. For State Bank of India, Altico is just one of the several instances where the taxpayer-funded bank has been at the receiving end.
SBI didn’t drag tycoon Anil Ambani’s Reliance Communications Ltd. to an in-court bankruptcy process, hoping instead that Ambani would be able to sell assets to his brother Mukesh, India’s richest man, out of court. Ericsson AB, an operational creditor, pursued the opposite strategy and got itself a very decent court-enforced settlement by invoking the younger Ambani’s personal guarantee.
More recently, SBI’s Kumar received a fresh blow when India’s enforcement directorate, tasked to fight economic crime, attached the assets of insolvent Bhushan Power & Steel Ltd. on suspicion of money laundering by its previous management. Both the new owner, who won control of Bhushan during bankruptcy, and Kumar, who’s waiting for his check, are impatient. Yet, thanks to the enforcement directorate, the $2.8 billion sale has now been put on hold by an adjudicating authority.