Column : Liquidity or solvency

Written by Jayanth R Varma | Updated: Nov 12 2008, 07:41am hrs
During the last month, Indian policymakers have responded with a series of measures including cuts in interest rates and in cash reserve ratios to improve liquidity in the financial sector. These measures were certainly necessary, and I believe we would and should get more such measures.

However, lurking behind the current liquidity problems is a deeper problem of solvency that needs to be addressed quickly and decisively. It appears to me that India is now where the US was a year agothe measures that we saw in India in October 2008 were broadly similar to what the US and Europe undertook in August and September 2007. In terms of the deflation of the real estate bubble also, India seems roughly where the US was a year ago.

One difference is that the US had early warning signals in the form of house price futures and ABX indices that provided valuable information on asset prices and credit quality. These measures combined with stringent mark to market accounting enabled analysts to make reasonable guesses about which financial institutions would be hit severely and which were likely to remain solvent. In India, we do not have these markets and the health of financial intermediaries has become the subject matter of rumours and gossip rather than reasoned analysis.

The only market signal of solvency that is available in India is the stock price. The majority of the 17 listed private sector banks for which information is available in the CMIE database are today quoting at a price to book ratio of 1.0 or below which is a crude signal of potential solvency issues. Of the same set of 17 banks, only two traded at a price to book of 1.0 or below at the beginning of last year.

At this point of time, accounting data is not quite reliable because the carrying values of assets do not reflect their fair value. This is a serious problem for banks and non-bank finance companies that have exposures to real estate and to other stressed borrowers. It is also difficult to assess the exposure of banks to troubled non-bank finance companies and weak banks. But the problem is much wider and extends also to debt mutual funds that have exposures to real estate, banks and non-bank finance companies.

Mutual fund net asset values have become unreliable for two reasons. First in respect of short-term financial instruments, mutual funds have the ability to carry the assets at amortised cost rather than market value. Second, some of the really distressed paper does not trade at all and this makes the valuation judgmental. SEBI has allowed greater freedom to mutual funds to mark down the valuation of debt paper by using higher discount rates rather than the rating based spreads that were mandated in the past. This is a good step, but its usefulness depends on the voluntary decisions by funds to mark down the net asset values of their funds.

Solvency problems should be addressed at the earliest possible stage because the longer the corrective action is delayed, the greater the eventual costs of solving the problem. It is necessary to move swiftly to triage financial intermediaries into three categories: those that are financially sound, those that need to be recapitalised or restructured and those that should be shut down. This requires price discovery for stressed assets. Indian policy makers should therefore move swiftly to put in place structures similar to what the Americans and Europeans have done in the last couple of months to restore the health of the financial sector.

A strong financial sector is essential to confront the challenges of a slowing world economy. Unlike during the Asian crisis, this time, emerging economies face a shrinking world market for their exports. The threat of a beggar thy neighbour policy of competitive currency depreciation is very real.

The Korean won today trades lower than it did as it was emerging out of the Asian crisis in 1999. The news coming out of China is also quite bad, and the Chinese seem determined to boost their economy through all possible measures. At some stage, these measures will probably include a depreciation of their currency. To make matters worse, many East European currencies are also in danger of going into free fall, and some of them could be formidable competitors in the IT and BPO industries despite a language handicap.

All of this could make the economic slowdown even worse than it would be otherwise. A slowing economy increases non-performing assets and induces financial sector weakness that in turn impacts credit availability and weakens the economy further. The way to stop this vicious spiral is through aggressive recapitalisation and restructuring of the financial sector. We have a window of a few months to do this before India enters election mode.

The author is a professor of finance at IIM-Ahmedabad