The Risks From India’s Rotten Banks
Imagine a central bank tweeting that, yes, there are rumours of “certain” banks facing deposit runs but “there is no need to panic”. Would you feel reassured? That is the unenviable position Indians found themselves in last week as a financial storm rumbled on in the world’s fifth-biggest economy with no sign of the authorities getting a firm grip. In the latest fiasco a co-operative bank, pmc, is accused of fraud, prompting depositors to yank their cash out. Meanwhile shares in Yes Bank, a private lender, have collapsed by 40% in the past month as rumours swirl. These are not isolated incidents. Roughly a third of the financial system is on crutches or under suspicion. Dazed by the scale of the task, the government and the Reserve Bank of India (rbi) are dithering. Until they act, India’s economy will not perk up—and there is a danger of a full-blown crisis.
The origins of this mess go back to 2005. In the first phase conventional banks, which control about four-fifths of the system’s assets and are mostly state-run, lent too freely to infrastructure and industrial projects, sometimes ones backed by well-connected tycoons. The plight today is a continuation of the second phase: a boom-and-bust in lightly regulated shadow banks, which control the remaining fifth of the system. The danger grew in 2016 when the government temporarily abolished large banknotes, leading many people to deposit money in banks and mutual funds. These, in turn, used the windfall to make loans to shadow banks, which went on their own lending binge, often using the money to finance property projects.
Photo courtesy of Satish Krishnamurthy.