Saturday, March 25, 2017

Politics and Economics of Crop Loan Waivers

Cost of Crop Loan Waivers

SBI Chairman Arundhati Bhattacharya’s impromptu remarks on loan waiver promises of the States to the farmers have attracted the politicians’ ire. Equity and discipline are two sides of the coin of farm lending. If the Banks maintain equity, and care for lending discipline more, borrower discipline would not take a toll.

Loan waivers announced by the State Governments should be met by the state exchequer and not the centre, Venkayya Naidu, the Union Minister said. But when the BJP announced it, decrying the earlier moves of AP and Telangana Governments, it gained political traction and the states demanded a cake in the bargain from the centre with several like Maharashtra, Tamilnadu, Karnataka joining the chorus. Have farm loans become unviable and farmers untrustworthy borrowers? Are there no alternatives to rescue the farmers’ woes?

Unfortunately, lending discipline is lax. Roll over of crop loan with interest as a new loan (this we call book adjustment) and a small incremental credit for crops that take more loan component than that is actually grown on the field has become the order of the day. In South India, it is jewel loans that get accounted for as crop loans. Otherwise one cannot find an explanation for only 20.9% of crop loans getting insurance cover against the mandatory debit of premium for all the crop loans disbursed.

Some grameen banks are debiting processing fee and inspection charges for crop loans and that too without the borrowers knowing it. On top, they charge interest on those debits if not able to recover them.

Arm chair lending even for farm sector has become the order of the day due to inadequate or lack of field staff. Earlier, controlling authorities and even top management used to visit the adopted villages as a semblance of identifying with rural credit activity. One is hard put to find such visits. These are not wild allegations, but facts that came out during the crop loan waiver evaluation done in Telangana by the Development and Research services private limited.

Farmers did not fail the nation in spite of failure of the monsoons, failure of governments not releasing the promised incentives in time, insurance failing them year after year and markets ditching them on the price front. But bankers failed the farmer and the nation with absolute impunity. Any crop loan target set for them by the government is shown to be achieved.

Earlier Loan write offs of 1990 for Rs.10000cr and Rs.70000cr of 2008 were a political stroke and were criticised for lax implementation by the CAG Audits placed before the Parliament.
Telangana Government waiver scheme covers only institutional crop loan including jewel loans outstanding as on 31st March 2014 up to Rs.1,00,000 per farmer family, spouse and dependent children. It defined eligible short term production loan as loans given for raising crops that are to be repaid within 18months and includes working capital loan for traditional and non-traditional plantation and horticulture. Claims are reimbursed by the Government on the basis of a certificate from the bank that the waived amount has been actually credited into the farmer’s account.
Every lending institution is mandatorily responsible for the correctness and integrity of the list of eligible farmers under the scheme and the particulars of loan waiver in respect of each farmer. All the bankers are expected to provide fresh loans as the existing liability up to Rs.1lakh per farmer family has been picked up by the state government under the scheme.

Evaluation exercise revealed that the farmers to the extent of 70% are happy with the reprieve given to them particularly because they were affected by severe drought for two years in a row although they were unhappy that the waiver instalments were released late leading to delay in release of fresh crop loans by the banks. Fresh crop loans were inordinately delayed in 60 to 70 percent cases during 2014.They wished that the state government would have released in one single go the announced benefit.

55.5% was the share of the crop sector in the total agriculture loans. Government of Telangana agreed for writing off crop loans to an extent of Rs. 16,160crores constituting 76.19% and gave detailed instructions to the banks after consulting the SLBC.
The State having more than 80 percent of small and marginal farmers with loans from multiple institutions and also from private lenders and traders faced problems in addressing the competing demands on the claims for waiver.

Banks’ loan books and farmers’ land record passbooks proved equally non-transparent. Borrowers as well as their parents with identical names figuring in different banks posed impregnable identification issues requiring over six months for resolution at the sub-district level before the first instalment was released.

Average loan amount subject to waiver was a little less than Rs.55000 per farmer family against the announced Rs.1lakh.
Major Public Sector Banks had gross NPAs in Short term crop loans of the order of 2.4% in 2016 as against nearly 8% in 2015.

DRS study came to the conclusion that loan waivers are not a permanent solution to the recurring problems of the farmers either due to man-made or natural calamities.

Solution lies in appropriate insurance mechanisms with individual farmers and income insurance as focus and not the crop insurance that takes threshold limits of crop yields based on area affected historically.

South Korea that supports agriculture sector ranking top among the world’s highest subsidy providers, offers excellent example in this direction.

Korean farmers also get the benefit of a comprehensive agricultural insurance scheme managed by the National Agricultural Cooperative Federation (NACF) with reinsurance support on a quota share basis from a group of domestic reinsurers. The government supports the scheme in four different ways i) provides 50 percent premium subsidies for crops and livestock; ii) acts as a reinsurer of last resort for the liability in excess of 180 percent local market loss ratio;(iii) 100 percent of the NACF’s crop insurance operational expenses and 50 percent of livestock insurance operational expenses are subsidized by federal government budget; and (iv) It participates in product research and development. The insurance coverage in Korea is voluntary.

It will be worthwhile investment on the part of government both in terms of time and resources to provide sustainable income insurance to the farmers on a pan India platform on similar lines, so that the recurring demand for the loan write offs can be warded off.
*The author is an economist and risk management  specialist and part of the DRS Study Team.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Pre-merger SBI on the verge of bankruptcy?

Customers of State Bank of India (SBI), especially in south India, are forced to ask whether SBI is headed for bankruptcy as they find 99% of the automatic teller machines (ATMs) shut down and all branches declining withdrawals from the depositors’ savings account beyond a limit. Bank branches are refusing to honour cheques drawn on them, either their own or on third party, in spite of sufficient balance in the account. To top it, the bank’s branches refuse to give written objection for returning the cheque across the counter.  

In February, SBI, in a regulatory filing had stated, “…the entire undertaking of State Bank of Bikaner & Jaipur (SBBJ), State Bank of Mysore (SBM), State Bank of Travancore (SBT), State Bank of Patiala (SBP) and State Bank of Hyderabad (SBH) shall stand transferred to and vested in the State Bank of India from 1 April 2017.”

What does the rule-book say? Is it because of systemic failure or management failure? Does the blame rest with the SBI, or with the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) as well, as it has been a silent spectator for the last 15 days? Just last week, when Bandaru Dattatreya, the Union Minister for Labour, approached the RBI’s office at  Hyderabad, the central bank said that it has pumped in Rs1,170 crore worth of currency into the system, with half of it in the ATMs of banks and the rest to the bank branches.

Section 5 (c) of the Banking Regulation Act, 1949 defines a banking company as any company that transacts ‘banking business’ in India. 

The Act clarifies, in clause (b) of the same section, that the expression ‘banking’ found in the definition should mean accepting, for the purpose of lending or investment, of deposits of money from the public, repayable on demand or otherwise, and withdrawable by cheques, drafts, order or otherwise. To constitute the business of banking today, the banker must also undertake to pay cheques drawn upon himself (the banker) by his customers in favour of third parties up to the amount standing to their credit in their ‘current accounts’, and to collect cheques for his customers and credit the proceeds to their current accounts. Lending by itself does not constitute banking business, clarifies ML Tannan. 

A recall to all this became necessary, for the banks, even of the ilk of the SBI, seem to have forgotten the basics of banking. Yesterday I paid a carpenter for the work done at my house, by way of a ‘bearer’ cheque drawn on my savings bank account, Rs13,750, which was presented at the counter. The official at the counter and the accountant refused to pay the amount, saying that they can pay cash only up to Rs5,000 as they do not have enough cash. This is not a solitary instance. During the last fortnight, many customers faced this situation. Many members of the Resident Welfare Association, Kalyanapuri, Hyderabad, brought up this issue and demanded its resolution.

The payee asked for written objection, which the bank officials refused to provide. The cheque was otherwise in order in all respects – with proper date, proper signature, with no difference between words and figures and on top of all adequate balance in the account.  Negotiable Instrument Act requires that if a cheque or Bill of Exchange, is returned either on the counter or in clearing, an objection memo duly signed by the authorised official of the bank shall be provided with relevant reason.

In case a bank branch declines to honour the cheque in writing for want of cash in its vaults it would amount to the bank going bankrupt. In the case of SBI it is also the Agent of Reserve Bank of India and operates currency chest at number of branches. Whenever one branch falls short of the cash, the Bank is supposed to make arrangement for filling the vault with the required quantum depending on the needs of the branch. The transaction between the branches on such count can form internal cash management of the bank and only information to the RBI is adequate.

Contrary to this entire practice if the bank chooses to tell its customers that since there are not enough deposits coming into its vault and is therefore restricting payments to its customers withdrawals up to whatever limit it decides surely amounts to sheer mismanagement and frustrates the customers.

Since the bank is shutting off the ATMs and refusing to pay cash either in full or in part, the customers seem to have stopped depositing cash into their accounts and preferred to keep cash for the rainy day and meeting their essential cash requirements. This sets the vicious circle into play.

Whenever creditors’ demands are not met and assets do not support liabilities of a bank, that bank is said to be on the verge of bankruptcy. But by statute, the SBI cannot go into liquidation at its will.

Customers are losing faith in the banks with which they have been transacting for decades!! Bad banking and good economy can never co-exist. Let not SBI declare bankruptcy ahead of its merger.