India can learn from Asian bank turnarounds

April 7, 2016

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.

Asia offers lessons for India’s bank sell-off. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley says he is mulling a privatisation of IDBI Bank, a lender with a near-$2 billion market value. A reduction of the government’s stake from around 80 percent to below 50 percent would send a strong signal about India’s resolve to fix its wobbly banks. Previous deals elsewhere in the region offer a template for success.

It is easy to see the attraction of turning one of the country’s more than two dozen state-controlled lenders into a private institution. The former account for around 70 percent of total assets, but are plagued by bad loans and trade on an average of 0.5 times book value. Private sector peers have much healthier balance sheets and trade on anything between two to four times book.

IDBI is also easier to privatise than most of its counterparts. It started off life as a development bank and so does not fall under the outdated Bank Nationalisation Act, which would need to be amended in parliament before the government could cede control of other lenders. Prime Minister Narendra Modi might struggle to win political support to make such changes even if he wanted to.

Foreign buyout groups would be the obvious acquirers. They would probably relish the chance to own a lender in a market where barely half the adult population has a bank account. Yet IDBI will require serious work: gross non-performing assets amounted to 8.9 percent of total assets at year-end. Unions are already protesting any potential large stake sale.

And the government will need to do more than just give up majority ownership. Successful revivals of lenders like Korea First Bank and China’s Shenzhen Development Bank by TPG, the U.S. private equity giant, suggest bank turnarounds work best when new owners can take a sizeable stake and get the freedom to bring in new management.

So India will need to waive foreign ownership limits, both to permit the initial stake sale, and for any subsequent equity injections. Fresh leadership is also particularly important in a country where crony capitalism and bad debts go hand-in-hand. If India can be flexible, IDBI can be fixed.

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