Financial Sector reforms initiated in the country as a part of the economic reforms since the year 1991, has brought about revolution in the structure of bankingÂ environment. While deregulation has opened up new opportunities for banks, liberalization has intensified competition in the banking industry by opening the market to new foreign and private sector banks. Declining interest rates and reduced lending margins have thrown up new challenges to banks, particularly public sector banks.
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While the financial sector reforms helped strengthening institutions, developing markets and promoting greater integration with the rest of the world, the recent growth phase suggests that if the present growth rates are to be sustained, the financial sector will have to intermediate larger and increasing volume of funds than is presently the case. It must acquire further sophistication to address the new dimensions of risks. Post-WTO, competition will only get intensified, as large global players emerge on the scene. Increasing competition is squeezing profitability and forcing banks to work efficiently on shrinking spreads. A positive fallout of competition is the greater choice available to consumers, and the increased level of sophistication and technology in banks. As banks benchmark themselves against global standards, there has been a marked increase in disclosures and transparency in bank balance sheets as also greater focus on corporate governance. India has been a witness to a sea change in the way banking has been done in the past more than two decades. Since 1991, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) took steps to reform the Indian banking system at a measured pace so that growth could be achieved without exposure to any systemic risks. Some of these initiatives were deregulation of interest rates, dilution of the government stake in public sector banks (PSBs), guidelines being issued for risk management, asset classification, and provisioning. Technology has made tremendous impact in banking. ‘Anywhere banking’ and ‘Anytime banking’ have become a reality. The financial sector now operates in a more competitive environment than before. Now the biggest challenge before the regulators is of avoiding instability in the financial system.
Financial sector reforms encompassed broadly institutions especially banking, development of financial markets, monetary fiscal and external sector management and legal and institutional infrastructure. Reform measures in India were sequenced to create an enabling environment for banks to overcome the external constraints and operate with greater flexibility. Such measures related to dismantling of administered structure of interest rates, removal of several preemptions in the form of reserve requirements and credit allocation to certain sectors. Interest rate deregulation was in stages and allowed build up of sufficient flexibility in the system. This is an important component of the reform process which has imparted greater efficiency in resource allocation. Parallel strengthening of prudential regulation, improved market behaviour and gradual financial opening helped the liberalisation process to run smooth. The interest rates have now been largely deregulated except for certain specific classes, these are: savings deposit accounts, non-resident Indian (NRI) deposits, small loans up to Rs.2 lakh and export credit. Without the dismantling of the administered interest rate structure, the rest of the financial sector reforms could not have meant much. As a part of the reforms programme, initially there was infusion of capital by Government in public sector banks, which was subsequently followed by expanding the capital base with equity participation by private investors up to a limit of 49 per cent. The share of the public sector banks in total banking assets has come down from 90 per cent in 1991 to around 75 per cent in 2008: a decline of little less than one percentage point every year over a seventeen-year period. Diversification of ownership, while retaining public sector character of these banks has led to greater market accountability and improved efficiency without loss of public confidence and safety. Another major objective of banking sector reforms has been to enhance efficiency and productivity through increased competition. Establishment of new banks was allowed in the private sector and foreign banks were also permitted more liberal entry. Nine new private banks are in operation at present, accounting for around 10-12 per cent of commercial banking assets. Yet another step towards enhancing competition was allowing foreign direct investment in private sector banks up to 74 per cent from all sources. Beginning 2009, foreign banks have been allowed banking presence in India either through establishment of subsidiaries incorporated in India or through branches. Impressive institutional reforms have also helped in reshaping the financial marketplace. A high-powered Board for Financial Supervision (BFS), constituted in 1994, exercise the powers of supervision and inspection in relation to the banking companies, financial institutions and non-banking companies, creating an arms-length relationship between regulation and supervision. The system has also progressed with the transparency and disclosure standards as prescribed under international best practices in a phased manner. Disclosure requirements on capital adequacy, profitability ratios and details of provisions and contingencies have been expanded to include several areas such as foreign currency assets and liabilities, movements in non performing loans (NPLs) and lending to sensitive sectors. The range of disclosures has gradually been increased. The legal environment for conducting banking business has also been strengthened. Debt recovery tribunals were part of the early reforms process for adjudication of delinquent loans. More recently, the Securitisation Act was enacted in 2003 to enhance protection of creditor rights. To combat the abuse of financial system for crime-related activities, the Prevention of Money Laundering Act was enacted in 2003 to provide the enabling legal framework. The Negotiable Instruments (Amendments and Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2002 expands the erstwhile definition of ‘cheque’ by introducing the concept of ‘electronic money’ and ‘cheque truncation’. The Credit Information Companies (Regulation) Act 2005 has been enacted by the Parliament which is expected to enhance the quality of credit decisions and facilitate faster credit delivery.
What are the unique features of our reform process? First, financial sector reform was undertaken early in the reform cycle in India. Second, the banking sector reforms were not driven by any immediate crisis as has often been the case in several emerging economies. Third, the design and detail of the reform were evolved by domestic expertise, while taking on board the international experience in this regard. Fourth, enough space was created for the growth and healthy competition among public and private sectors as well as foreign and domestic sectors. How useful has been the financial liberalization process in India towards improving the functioning of institutions and markets? Prudential regulation and supervision has improved; the combination of regulation, supervision and safety nets has limited the impact of unforeseen shocks on the financial system. The dismantling of the erstwhile administered interest rate structure has permitted financial intermediaries to pursue lending and deposit taking based on commercial considerations and their asset-liability profiles. The financial liberalisation process has also enabled to reduce the overhang of non-performing loans. Financial entities have become increasingly conscious about risk management practices and have instituted risk management models based on their product profiles, business philosophy and customer orientation. Additionally, access to credit has improved, through newly established domestic banks, foreign banks and bank-like intermediaries. Government debt markets have developed, enabling greater operational independence in monetary policy making. The growth of government debt markets has also provided a benchmark for private debt markets to develop. There have also been significant improvements in the information infrastructure. The accounting and auditing of intermediaries has improved. The technological infrastructure has developed in tandem with modern-day requirements in information technology and communications networking. On the asset quality front, notwithstanding the gradual tightening of prudential norms, non-performing loans (NPL) to total loans of commercial banks which was at a high of 15.7 per cent at end-March 1997 declined to 3.3 per cent at end-March 2009. Net NPLs also witnessed a significant decline and stood at 1.2 per cent of net advances at end-March 2009, driven by the improvements in loan loss provisioning, which comprises over half of the total provisions and contingencies. Operating expenses of banks in India are also much more aligned to those prevailing internationally, hovering around 2.1 per cent during 2004-05 and 2005-06. These numbers are comparable to those obtaining for leading developed countries which were range-bound between 1.4-3.3 per cent in 2005. Bank profitability levels in India have also trended upwards and gross profits stood at 2.0 per cent during 2005-06 (2.2 per cent during 2004-05) and net profits trending at around 1 per cent of assets. Available information suggests that for developed countries, at end-2005, gross profit ratios were of the order of 2.1 per cent for the US and 0.6 per cent for France. The extent of penetration of our banking system in our country as measured by the proportion of bank assets to GDP has increased from 50 per cent in the second half of nineties to over 80 per cent a decade later.
While we have made a significant progress, let me highlight a few issues that I believe would need significant attention in the near term.
The future of banking will undoubtedly rest on risk management dynamics. Only those banks that have efficient risk management system will survive in the market in the long run. The effective management of credit risk is a critical component of comprehensive risk management essential for long-term success of a banking institution. Although capital serves the purpose of meeting unexpected losses, capital is not a substitute for inadequate decontrol or risk management systems. Coming years will witness banks striving to create sound internal control or risk management processes. With the focus on regulation and risk management in the Basel II  framework gaining prominence, the post-Basel II era will belong to the banks that manage their risks effectively. The banks with proper risk management systems would not only gain competitive advantage by way of lower regulatory capital charge, but would also add value to the shareholders and other stakeholders by properly pricing their services, adequate provisioning and maintaining a robust financial structure.
Consolidation, which has been on the counter over the last year or so, is likely to gather momentum in the coming years. When the restrictions on operations of foreign banks will go, the banking landscape is expected to change dramatically. Foreign banks, which currently account for 5% of total deposits and 8% of total advances, are devising new business models to capture the Indian market. Their full-fledged entry is expected to transform the business of banking in many ways, which would be reflected in terms of greater breadth of products, depth in delivery channels and efficiency in operations. Thus Indian banks have less than three years to consolidate their position. Despite the stiff resistance from certain segments, consolidation holds the key to future growth. This view is underpinned by the following: 1. Owing to greater scale and size, consolidation can help save costs and improve operational efficiency. 2. Banks will also have to explore different avenues for raising capital to meet norms under Basel-II 3. Owing to the diversified operations and credit profiles of merging banks, consolidation is likely to serve as a risk-mitigation exercise as much as a growth engine. Though there is no confirmation yet, speculative signals arising from the market point to the prospect of consolidation involving banks such as Union Bank of India, Bank of India, Bank of Baroda, Dena Bank, State Bank of Patiala, and Punjab and Sind Bank. Further, the case for merger between stronger banks has also gained ground – a clear deviation from the past when only weak banks were thrust on stronger banks. There is a case being made for mergers between banks with a distinct geographical presence coming together to leverage their respective strengths.
There is an imperative need for not mere technology upgradation but also its integration with the general way of functioning of banks to give them an edge in respect of services provided to their constituents, better housekeeping, optimizing the use of funds and building up of management information system (MIS) for decision making, better management of assets & liabilities and the risks assumed which in turn have a direct impact on the balance sheets of banks as a whole. Technology has demonstrated potential to change methods of marketing, advertising, designing, pricing and distributing financial products and services and cost savings in the form of an electronic, self-service product delivery channel. These challenges call for a new, more dynamic, aggressive and challenging work culture to meet the demands of customer relationships, product differentiation, brand values, reputation, corporate governance and regulatory prescriptions. Technology holds the key to the future success of Indian Banks. Internet, wireless technology and global straight-through processing have created a paradigm shift in the banking industry. The explosive growth of both the Internet and mobile and wireless technology is revolutionizing the way the financial industry conducts business. The overall wireless technology market is expected to grow profoundly in the coming years. Improving profitability: The most direct result of the above changes is increasing competition and narrowing of spreads and its impact on the profitability of banks. The challenge for banks is how to manage with thinning margins while at the same time working to improve productivity which remains low in relation to global standards. This is particularly important because with dilution in banks’ equity, analysts and shareholders now closely track their performance. Thus, with falling spreads, rising provision for NPAs and falling interest rates, greater attention will need to be paid to reducing transaction costs. This will require tremendous efforts in the area of technology and for banks to build capabilities to handle much bigger volumes. Reinforcing technology: Technology has thus become a strategic and integral part of banking, driving banks to acquire and implement world class systems that enable them to provide products and services in large volumes at a competitive cost with better risk management practices. The pressure to undertake extensive computerisation is very real as banks that adopt the latest in technology have an edge over others. Customers have become very demanding and banks have to deliver customised products through multiple channels, allowing customers access to the bank round the clock. Risk management: The deregulated environment brings in its wake risks along with profitable opportunities, and technology plays a crucial role in managing these risks. In addition to being exposed to credit risk, market risk and operational risk, the business of banks would be susceptible to country risk, which will be heightened as controls on the movement of capital are eased. In this context, banks are upgrading their credit assessment and risk management skills and retraining staff, developing a cadre of specialists and introducing technology driven management information systems. Sharpening skills: The far-reaching changes in the banking and financial sector entail a fundamental shift in the set of skills required in banking. To meet increased competition and manage risks, the demand for specialised banking functions is set to go up. Special skills in retail banking, treasury, risk management, foreign exchange, development banking, etc., will need to be carefully nurtured and built. Thus, the twin pillars of the banking sector i.e. human resources and IT will have to be strengthened.
In today’s competitive environment, banks will have to strive to attract and retain customers by introducing innovative products, enhancing the quality of customer service and marketing a variety of products through diverse channels targeted at specific customer groups.
Besides using their strengths and strategic initiatives for creating shareholder value, banks have to be conscious of their responsibilities towards corporate governance. Following financial liberalisation, as the ownership of banks gets broadbased, the importance of institutional and individual shareholders will increase. In such a scenario, banks will need to put in place a code for corporate governance for benefiting all stakeholders of a corporate entity.
Introducing internationally followed best practices and observing universally acceptable standards and codes is necessary for strengthening the domestic financial architecture. This includes best practices in the area of corporate governance along with full transparency in disclosures. In today’s globalised world, focusing on the observance of standards will help smooth integration with world financial markets.
Growing integration of economies and the markets around the world is making global banking a reality. The surge in globalization of finance has already begun to gain momentum with the technological advancements which have effectively overcome the national borders in the financial services business. Widespread use of internet banking will widen frontiers of global banking, and make marketing of financial products and services on a global basis possible. In the coming years globalization will spread further on account of the likely opening up of financial services under WTO. India is one of the 104 signatories of Financial Services Agreement (FSA) of 1997. This gives India’s financial sector including banks an opportunity to expand their business on a quid pro quo basis. As per Indian Banks’ Association report ‘Banking Industry Vision 2010’, there would be greater presence of international players in Indian financial system and some of the Indian banks would become global players in the coming years. So, the new mantra for Indian banks is to go global in search of new markets, customers and profits.
Supporting institutional and regulatory framework at home is vital for domestic banks aspiring for global operations. RBI has suitably changed the country’s regulatory framework from time to time to support Indian financial institutions to withstand the competitive pressures placed on them by increasing globalization. Proper steps have been taken to guide the banking sector to see that the banks pass through this transition phase by and large successfully. The reforms initiated in the banking sector have now reached a crucial stage. Government’s stake in some PSBs is reduced and as a consequence public equity in these PSBs is enlarged. This led to greater responsibility on the bank managements since the level of accountability has increased. Pressures of performance and profitability will keep them on their toes all the time as the public shareholders expect good performance along with good returns on their equity. Many PSBs have already started the exercise of cleaning up of their balance sheets by shedding the excess baggage. The VRS scheme in the recent past in some of the banks was aimed not only at downsizing the manpower but also at cutting down the staff costs and increasing the performance levels of the staff in the long run. Some of these banks are able to run the show to certain extent by low cost funds that are available thanks to the branch network spread over the length and breadth of the country.
There will be a sea change for employees too. Secure jobs will be replaced by contractual appointments, for a specified period of time. The unions will merge into the shadows and bank managements will turn effective. As a result there will be swifter turn over of personnel in banks. But at the same time, skilled personnel from other disciplines will enter banks in increasing numbers. Factors like skills, attitudes and knowledge of the human capital play a crucial role in determining the competitiveness of the financial sector. The quality of human resources indicates the ability of banks to deliver value to customers. Capital and technology are replicable but not the human capital which needs to be valued as a highly valuable resource for achieving that competitive edge.
With respect to the future of Indian banking it is increasingly evident that the economy offers opportunities but no security. Therefore, the future will belong to those who develop good internal controls, checks and balances and a sound market strategy. Business Growth, Cost Efficiency and Evolution are therefore regarded as key drivers which will have to be addressed. The face of banking is changing rapidly. Competition is going to be tough and with financial liberalisation under the WTO, banks in India will have to benchmark themselves against the best in the world. For a strong and resilient banking and financial system, therefore, banks need to go beyond peripheral issues and tackle significant issues like improvements in profitability, efficiency and technology, while achieving economies of scale through consolidation and exploring available cost-effective solutions. These are some of the issues that need to be addressed if banks are to succeed, not just survive, in the changing milieu.
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