(The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The
opinions expressed are his own)
By Andy Mukherjee
SINGAPORE, March 20 (Reuters Breakingviews) - India's banks
are stuck in a monetary trap. The Reserve Bank of India's
interest rate cut on March 19 should enable them to offer
cheaper loans to customers, helping spur the economy. Instead,
they have little choice but to keep the benefit for themselves.
Banks need all the income they can get to keep depositors.
Growth in savings is already failing to keep pace with lending.
Deposits have grown an anaemic 14 percent over the past year,
according to central bank data. That's below the 17 percent
growth in loans, which has slowed down from 20 percent a year
Not only can't banks pay depositors less on their savings -
they ought to be paying more. With inflation at an annual 11
percent in February, small savers earn a real interest rate of
minus 4.5 percent on money parked for up to a year at the State
Bank of India, the largest state-owned bank. Depositors thus
face what amounts to a raid on their savings.
Lenders still make a positive, if diminishing, spread
between loans and deposits - 3.4 percent between April and
December 2012 for the State Bank. But there are other claims on
that margin, like laying aside provisions for bad debts. Net
non-performing assets of publicly traded lenders surged to 924
billion rupees ($17 billion) in the quarter ended December 31, a
50 percent jump in just nine months, according to NPAsource.com.
There are two ways out of the trap. One is to address the
bad debts, by recapitalising the state-controlled banks. A 140
billion rupee ($2.6 billion) equity infusion was promised in the
Feb. 28 budget, but it is far from enough. Even without an
increase in bad loans, the government needs to find 1.5 trillion
rupees by 2018 to prepare them for the new Basel III bank rules.
The other way is to take a firmer grip on consumer prices, so
that negative deposit rates turn positive.
With a broken credit channel, it's harder to revive GDP
growth, which was just 4.5 percent in the December quarter.
Until the banks are working properly, rate cuts from the RBI
seem like throwing good money after bad.
- The Reserve Bank of India cut its target for overnight
interbank rates by a quarter percentage point to 7.5 percent on
May 19. Following the latest cut, interest rates have fallen one
percentage point in the past year in an economy growing at its
slowest pace in almost four years.
- Deposits at Indian banks have grown less than 14 percent
in the past year, according to the central bank's data, compared
with a 17 percent increase in bank credit. The credit-to-deposit
ratio is 78 percent, the highest since at least 2001.
- Reuters: India cuts interest rates, warns of limited room
for more easing
- For previous columns by the author, Reuters customers can
(Editing by John Foley and Katrina Hamlin)