Indian banks' asset quality pressure may last for at least 2 years: Fitch

Illustration: Binay Sinha

Indian banks are looking at significant asset quality challenges for at least the next two years despite regulatory measures, according to Fitch Ratings.

Fitch estimates that the impact on impaired loan ratios could be anywhere between 200 to 600 basis points depending on the severity of stress and banks' individual risk exposures.

The latest set of measures announced by Reserve Bank of India (RBI) includes an extension of the 90-day moratorium on recognition of impaired loans to 180 days in addition to several relaxations in bank lending limits including allowing banks to fund interest on working capital loans.

"These measures will put a heavy onus particularly on public sector banks (with already-weakened balance sheets) to bail out the affected sectors due to their quasi-policy role, considering that much of the state's recently announced stimulus measures is in the form of new loans," said Fitch in the report titled 'Major Indian Banks Peer Review 2020.'

The nationwide lockdown to contain the spread of coronavirus -- which has been extended for the third time until May 31 -- has taken a severe toll on businesses, supply chains and individual incomes. The impact for many micro and SME sectors is structural, and a meaningful revival is unlikely even when the lockdown ends.


"We assume that both consumer demand and manufacturing are likely to remain tepid until the rising cases of coronavirus patients are brought under control, which are nearing 160,000 (active cases 86,110) as per the latest count. The stress is occurring across sectors, but SME and retail are likely to emerge as higher risk due to both stressed industrial activity and rising unemployment," said the report.

Impaired loans recognition will now take longer and the more relaxed lending norms for banks could mean rising balance sheet risks if banks acquiesce under pressure despite their heightened risk aversion. State banks are more at risk due to their weak earnings and limited capital buffers.

The state banks also have a much higher percentage of their loan books under moratorium than private banks at about one third, as per reported data.

"We expect this share to rise across banks in the next few months. Indian banks have struggled with poor recoveries for a long time. There is a risk that banks may now extend credit to even structurally weak borrowers with dimmer recovery prospects, due to a one-year moratorium on registering fresh insolvencies amid weaker future incomes."

However, delays in resolution will potentially exacerbate future losses once risks manifest over FY21 and FY22, the report added.

Government announcements so far have been conspicuous by the absence of a recapitalisation plan for its banks which are likely to shoulder the maximum burden of lending under various regulatory and stimulus plans. State banks' common equity tier 1 ratio is nearly 400 basis points lower than comparable private banks.

They also face a higher risk of losses and capital erosion as income buffers ranging between 30 to 90 basis points are not sufficient even for the 10 per cent provisioning that banks are expected to provide for loans under moratorium.

Fitch said it believes that capital support from the state is therefore critical for state banks -- given heightened risks to solvency from future losses and most state banks' inability to raise fresh equity on their own due to their sharply discounted equity valuations.

Several of the state banks also have the added challenge of executing mergers and integrating other weaker banks. Fitch took negative rating action on the viability rating of several banks in late April to reflect the sector's vulnerability to a pandemic-related downturn.

"Since then, banks have reported deterioration in earnings and a rising share of loans under a moratorium, as we had expected. Fitch-rated banks have maintained sufficient liquidity coverage and have stable deposit franchises, but recent developments could add further to asset quality and capital challenges amidst fragile operating conditions."

Fitch's economic growth forecast for India for the fiscal year ending March 2021 (FY21) was revised downward to minus 5 per cent earlier this month.

"Our outlook on the operating environment for India's banks is 'negative' due to the uncertainty surrounding the duration and severity of the impact of the pandemic which will ultimately affect asset quality and earnings.

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