The management/resolution of NPLs has acquired renewed focus with banking sector under stress for many years. The Economist comments on it this time about Italy's NPL problem. More significant is the commentary on various approaches, IMF recommendations, KKR's Pillarstone initiative etc. making it a must read. But it misses some quite important issues with respect to NPLs in general.
Failure of NPL liquidation - some blame lies with Accountants
The PwCs, EYs, Deloittes and their ilk must take some blame. Many of the bad loans have accounting folly at its heart - some deliberate and some not, some before loans are made and some after. Time and again, accounting firms have washed their hands off their audit responsibility and liabilities arising therefrom. Recently some firm has sued PwC for their failure to report material issues. If auditors completely trust the company managements they are auditing, then the purpose of the audit is not satisfied.
The shady entrepreneurs
The proportion of shady, shifty characters in this distressed assets pool is quite high. Some distressed loan assets are deliberately impaired on the books for tax fraud or money laundering. Data mining algorithms cannot detect this - even analyst cannot easily detect this. Such frauds have to be sniffed out - at least till Artifical intelligence becomes more robust.
Slow courts and costly Alternate Dispute resolution (Arbitration, mediation etc.) mechanisms
Invariably, a fair proportion of the distressed asset pool goes for legal resolution. NPL problems are higher in countries with weaker judicial controls, higher cost dispute resolution. The process of dispute resolution quickly unravels both the ability to pay and gives a remarkbly clear insight as to the intention to repay. However if the process is too slow and too costly, it defeats the purpose. This is a problem in Italy and also in India.
Much blame lies on Incompetent Banks
The substantial blame though must lie with the bankers:
- Lack of accounting analysis skills: Many banks which make loans cannot make proper assessment of accounting statements. Data mining algorithms are good at assessing the "ability to pay". They cannot assess the "intention to pay". Lack of Intention to Pay has created many NPLs.
- Illogical the use of collaterals: Banks are notorious in having collateral that is highly correlated with loan asset itself, over-valued or pledged in part to many. This is a childish mistake to make for a professional setup. At times, an intellectually superior form of syndicated lending (the whole syndicate holds one collateral) is used. When trouble strikes the legal disputes arise within the syndicate itself.
- Poorly-constructed contracts with borrowers: Such contracts make the payments unpredictable in quantum and timing thus surprising the borrower. It quickly cascades into penalties and surcharges and it goes downhill from there.
- Too Centralized decision making as to loan eligibility: Most borrower eligibility tests are done centrally these days. Thus it leaves no incentive for the bank manager / officer to dig deeper into the borrower's records. It makes the incentives wrongly aligned.
- Flawed loan portfolio construction: Loan portfolios are too correlated This is a result of too much market focus. Banks push certain products that they find easy to sell - consumer loans, credit cards, personal loans etc. When the lending starts concentrating they do not quickly take corrective actions to balance the portfolio. If the banks' entire portfolio comes under stress at the same time, it cascades into more distress.
Basics of borrower assessment
Any borrower assessment has two component - ability to pay AND the commitment or the intention to pay. Sometimes the last two differentiated. The ability to pay is well understood which refers to the capacity to bear the repayment of the loans. The intention to pay tries to determine if the borrower intends to cheat or not. The commitment to pay points to whether the borrower intends to pay but disputes the computation of the payment and hence may have withheld the payments - committed but not paying, or the borrower does not intend to pay at all and is finding loopholes to delay the foreclosure process.