The preoccupation with state and Parliamentary elections that is now manifest may take away attention from the economy. Despite some encouraging developments, major structural problems such as the non-performing assets (NPAs) in banks and stalled projects await resolution. They need urgent attention beyond the din of politics.
First, the good news
Gross fixed capital formation improved to an all-time high of Rs 111.85 billion in the last quarter of 2017-18 from Rs 102.40 billion in the previous quarter.
There was some credit growth, with non-food credit increasing 11.1 per cent in May 2018, compared to 4.1 per cent a year ago. Credit to the services sector also increased by 21.9 per cent compared to 4.0 per cent in May 2017, and personal loans grew 18.6 per cent compared to 13.7 per cent in May 2017. However, areas such as infrastructure, basic metals and metal products, construction, gems and jewellery, and vehicles and transport actually declined.
The Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code (IBC) is apparently being implemented more effectively than it might appear. A Brookings Institute report of a conference of financial experts, including a former Deputy Governor of the Reserve Bank of India, in Mumbai in February states: “50 per cent of all NPAs are currently being resolved through the Code, another 25 per cent will soon be. The judiciary has been following the (very tight) timelines prescribed by the Code.”1
This week, a public sector bankers’ committee recommended potential solutions for NPAs to the finance ministry. These include an asset management company for stressed assets run by the banks, an asset trading platform for loans, an inter-creditor agreement between banks with the lead bank authorised to implement time-bound resolution, and finally, the IBC and sell off. Sceptics may mistrust these as being too cosy. Realistically, however, we have to accept that functioning together for mutual benefit requires trust, built around good organisation with checks and balances, and validation (observed in the breach in the complicit NPAs). In Ronald Reagan’s phrase (actually a Russian proverb), “Trust, but verify”.
So, is the glass half-full or half-empty?
Illustration by Binay Sinha
The bad news
Here are just two of the looming examples of problems.
Stalled projects: An RBI circular of February 12, 2018, was like a guillotine on a number of private power projects with inadequate cash flows because of circumstances beyond their control. The circular directed banks to begin the resolution (sell off) process for all delayed projects, including those where debt restructuring was under way. There’s a school of thought embodied in this directive that uniform criteria must be applied to all defaulters. Another approach advocated by the power ministry is that there can be problems outside the developers’ control for which they are not responsible, such as a shortage of fuel, denial of access to captive mines, financial weakness of distribution companies, or delays in government or regulatory clearances. Developers cannot control these, and therefore such projects should be excluded from the purview of the RBI Circular. A Parliamentary Committee also recommended this in March.2 The Allahabad High Court, hearing a petition by the Independent Power Producers Association of India against insolvency proceedings, ordered that “no action be taken against the power sector under the revised framework, and directed the finance secretary to hold a meeting with his counterparts in the power and coal ministries, along with representatives of the RBI and the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Board of India in June to discuss ways to address the issues faced by stressed power plants.”3
While the RBI held firm at this meeting on June 21, 2018 (e.g., see: https://wap.business-standard.com/article-amp/opinion/why-ibc-must-be-sector-agnostic-118070100732_1.html), the finance secretary reportedly asked for written submissions by the stakeholders. A group of experts will review these to consider next steps. The Allahabad High Court may yet save us from the brink.
Fettered policies: The Wi-Fi example
We have an odd juxtaposition, with the government eager to auction 5G spectrum for revenues, while making it available to operators. The industry wants the spectrum but is overburdened with debt, which it already has difficulty servicing because of hyper-competitive price cutting. In addition, there’s a vast, underserved rural and semi-urban market, which requires even more capital investment. Finally, there are the stressed banks, which have thus far been the major source of funding.
Meanwhile, our fettered approach to 5 GHz for Wi-Fi is an example of policies that need unleashing. India’s National Frequency Allocation Plan (NFAP) has delicensed 380 MHz in the 5 GHz band. This is 200 MHz less than required by the standard, so users have less spectrum. Second, India permits only 50 MHz for outdoor use, and the remaining 330 MHz for indoor use. This severely constrains the use of this band and available devices in India, making it ineffectual for Wi-Fi hotspots in both urban and rural areas. We need an amendment in India's 5G policy to conform to international standards. There need be no indoor/outdoor restrictions and less restrictive power limitations, as in the USA.
It could mean adopting policies in sync with global markets. For users, it means that any compatible device from any market can be used without customisation. This allows easier installation and maintenance because no customised set-up is required. For manufacturers, devices they make that conform to global or large-market standards can be used wherever these standards apply, which gives access to more markets. Both attributes facilitate higher volumes, which help result in lower prices, making devices more affordable. All users benefit from the full capacity of the device provided it is in a compatible system. Unfettering changes like this and for 60 GHz, as another example, will unleash Wi-Fi.
This is the kind of policy change that is required to unfetter ourselves. What’s needed is an attitude of thinking constructively, instead of meanly or restrictively. Without such constructive changes, the way ahead will be hard regardless of who wins the next elections.