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Banking on Risk
Banking is all about risk as the world learnt to its cost in 2008 when the shenanigans of a few big banks brought entire economies to their knees.

India escaped a meltdown, widely credited to the ‘safe’ banking practised by its banks, but the question remains as to how banks have actually fared in risk management and what the future holds.

The basic features of the sector, namely the dominance of government, owned banks (PSBs), continued reliance on the narrow banking model and the overarching role as the prime supporter of the government’s borrowing programme. All three are inter-related and have a deep bearing on their performance as well as in understanding risk management.

First, PSB dominance (over 75 per cent of total assets, deposits and advances) has meant a massive branch banking structure and a high-volume, low-value business model. Over 83 per cent of total borrowing accounts are small (under Rs 0.02 mn) and constitute about 10 per cent of total credit outstanding, with deposits and advances constituting about 75 per cent of the balance sheet, the cost of doing business is high, though it has led to the widespread reach of banking.

Secondly, a ‘narrow’ banking business model has led to a large reliance on interest spreads for profitability: about 88 per cent of income is from interest; foreign banks and private banks score over the PSBs in this regard- they have larger proportions of fee-based income that not only insulates them somewhat from credit risks but gives them better market valuations; the narrow banking model clearly limits profitability, since it is an accepted fact that banking is a low value-added activity commanding. This is amply borne out by the slim RoAs recorded by the sector (0.81 in 2013 and 1.04 in 2013), caused largely by PSBs ( RoA of 0.5 in 2014, down from 0.88 in 2013).

Unduly risk averse?

This brings us to the question of whether the narrow banking model has served us well or whether Indian banks have been unduly risk averse and forgone higher returns in the quest for safety. We can look at a few ratios to gauge the risk appetite of the sector.

The table represents averages over the past 5 years (2010-14). Overall Investment Deposit Ratio at about 35 is significant, considering the much lower statutory requirement (25 per cent), (over 75 per cent of investments are in government and approved securities). Non-approved securities were quite low for PSBs, while foreign and private banks had much higher shares. Consequently the CD ratio has remained around 77 (again, largely due to PSBs, while other banks had higher CD ratios).

Preference for safety…

There are several reasons for this apparent risk aversion. Historically, banks have been financing the bulk of the government’s market borrowing programme, which is why SLR ratios were as high as 35-40 per cent in the past. As if to offset this, these investments were allowed zero risk weights, which helped boost the CRAR, without actually raising additional capital. Further, there were restrictions on exposure to risky products (equity, derivatives and OTC products). Finally, with government as the owner of the major part of the system, there was no real shareholder pressure to improve returns on equity; nor was there a ‘culture’ of risk-taking, so to speak. The need to support government borrowing and other mandated forms of lending (priority sector), pre-empted resources for other avenues. This has become so operationally embedded that even with continuous lowering of SLR, investment ratios are well in excess, indicating preference for safety.

The subdued demand for bank credit and the mounting levels of NPAs also have much to do with the cautious approach to lending; but the fact remains that decades of narrow banking have dented innovation and risk taking. An important reason has been the need to shore up CRR for Basel 3 compliance, without raising massive amounts of capital, for which cutting down risk weighted assets was a softer-option.

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