Banking on a course correction


Slippery slope is what banks have been treading on last few weeks by engaging in a price war on deposits. One can understand the soup they are in. Higher interest rates do not bring in significant new deposits, yet they are compelled to raise the rates to retain what they have.

They will also be nervous about upcoming outflow from the banking system towards mid January when first tranche of annual corporate income tax is due for payment. Depositors are happy for now but imagine the plight of businesses dependent on bank debt.

How long will this credit crunch last? Is there light at the end of the tunnel? Obviously, there will be some relief once government starts releasing payments to vendors and suppliers of various goods, services and developmental works – these are normally bundled toward latter half of a financial year. But judging by how banks behaved last three years, there is no guarantee that the crunch will not resurface next October.

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Banks biting off more than they can chew?, Suman Joshi

Why does the credit crisis keep repeating itself?

Band aid solutions will not work anymore. A strong medication must now be administered. It will be painful but, in many ways, banks brought it upon themselves. There are fundamental issues with our economy and banking sector that have direct relationships with monetary equilibrium.

Here are examples of initiatives banks may consider without any support or concessions from the government or the central bank:

Ration credit. Banks resorted to aggressive credit expansion following mandatory increase in paid up capital and in anticipation of rapid economic growth post installation of a stable government. But their reading of monetary environment proved wrong time and again. Deposit mobilisation has not kept pace nor aligned with growth in loan books. The only way forward is to direct credit flow only into areas that will help productivity, until such times that deposit-loan growth mismatch is corrected. In any case, our financial system is banking-heavy and alternative investment options like private equity and venture capital are emerging.

Read also:

Banking crisis explained, Suman Joshi

Crunching the number on credits, Ramesh Kumar and Sikuma Rai

Expansion of formal economy. There is no denying that the Nepali economy is growing, albeit driven mostly by private sector. Private wealth has multiplied in value and people are generally better off than they were. Whilst income disparity may have widened, there are reasons to believe that anticipated government spending on infrastructure and creation of enabling environment will help us continue to grow in the medium term. However, a significant part of the economy is in the shadows of formal transactions. Size of our informal economy is estimated at anything between 50 to 100% of the formal one. And we remain a predominantly cash economy. Regulations aimed at channeling financial transactions through banking institutions must be put to use effectively. Banks, on occasions, have resisted implementing regulatory guidelines on cash transactions for fear of losing deposits. We must expand the formal economy to have more money staying within the banking system. Banks can play a catalytic role in encouraging businesses to avoid cash payments.

E-paymentsDigital banking is also an important tool to help expand formal economy. Banks need to take their ongoing initiatives on digital channels to the next level through deeper collaboration with small businesses. For example, it should be possible for a bank (or a number of banks together) to pilot a No Cash Zone in say Durbar Marg area, or the restaurant district of Jhamel, by getting all shops or restaurants to sign up to a campaign to accept digital or card payments only. These are locations frequented by more affluent customers. It can gradually be replicated elsewhere. Obviously, if people can pay for basic purchases like milk and vegetables conveniently through a credit card or a digital wallet, they will carry less cash. That money will stay as bank deposits until spent.

Cooling period. A casualty of rapid business expansion has been quality human resource within the banking industry. Growth in banks’ business and branch network create new positions which are often filled by people with lesser skills and experience. Many young bankers hop-scotch their way up through a number of banks and assume positions of responsibility without necessary skills and experience. Add to that generally aggressive lending behavior with excessive reliance on real estate collateral. Frankly, potential for sub-standard loan assets and operational risk in many Nepali banks is cringe-worthy. The IMF has already expressed their concern over quality and sustainability of unnatural growth achieved by the sector in recent years. Just like a cooling period has been made mandatory for CEOs, a mechanism must be put in place to arrest the tendency among employees at supervisory and managerial levels to move to another bank at short intervals for quick gains. Why would a bank invest on training and grooming an employee if only for another bank to offer him a higher position? Many organizations in the western world have stringent non-compete clauses in employment contracts.

Writer’s note: I have been a career banker and spent 24 years in the industry. Some may think I’m critical of banks because I’ve retired from banking profession. But I’ve had a fulfilling banking career and I feel deeply indebted to Nepali banking sector for making me who I am. I strongly believe that this sector needs to be understood in correct perspective. Raising contemporary banking issues is my way of giving back to the industry. Also, it sometimes is not feasible for practicing bankers to voice their concerns. All said and done, banking remains the most transparent sector of the economy; its contributions to economic growth have been unmatched. I will continue to share my dui paisa to help regain its stature as a well-respected sector.

Suman Joshi is an ex-banker and Chair of True North Associates, a private equity firm.

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