FE Editorial : NPA saga hits SBI

Written by The Financial Express | Updated: Nov 10 2012, 08:37am hrs
More disappointing than the poor profit numbers that SBI reported on Fridaypre-provisioning profits slipped 1.6% yoywere the woefully inadequate provisions that the bank made for loan losses. Propping up the bottom linenet profits jumped 30% yoyby not planning for future contingencies doesnt seem like the right philosophy in the current environment and one expects the top team at SBI to be a lot more circumspect and to not succumb to peer pressure. The SBI management might believe it has its flanks coveredit claims it has up-fronted provisionsbut the pace at which the bank is adding toxic assets as also recasting loans suggests the management is being less than prudent. In the three months to September 2012, both gross and net NPAs have gone up by about Rs 2,000 crore each while restructured loans have increased by close to R4,700 crore compared with just R560 crore in the June quarter. Asset quality is clearly slipping; as a share of loans, SBIs gross NPAs have crossed 5% while net NPAs rose to 2.44%, the second consecutive quarterly rise. Yet the bank has chosen to set aside only R1,837 crore by way of provisionslower by 34% compared with the June quarterand its provision coverage ratio is just 63%.

To put it in perspective, peers like HDFC Bankwhich has the cleanest book in the businesshave a PCR of over 80% for net NPAs of less than 1%. The sharp jump in SBIs restructured assets is also surprising because the management had indicated in August that the pipeline of assets that could be recast was smaller at around R3,000-4,000 crore and one was under the impression this would happen over the rest of the year. But, clearly, companies are in more trouble than imagined and since the economy isnt showing signs of an improvement just yet, SBI may want to rethink its provisioning strategy. As for business, the bank may also want to stop chasing volumes by pricing loans too competitively because in the current business environment that might simply result in higher credit costs.

Its true SBI is sitting on surplus liquidity and it must be tempting to grow the top line but its probably better the bank lets go of market share right now in a risky environment. Even if top line growth remains sluggishnet interest income grew an anaemic 5% yoy in the September quarterthe bank would be able to protect its margins which contracted slightly to 3.77%. That the SBI stock tanked close to 4% on Friday was not surprising, as the results were decidedly poor. More importantly, though, analysts would be wondering how the management got it so horribly wrong. For its part, the SBI management would do well to remember that downplaying downsides to the business can be risky; it can cost you not just market capitalisation but also your reputation. Thats something the countrys top bank needs to be careful about.