Column : Need to rethink priority sector lending

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SummaryA major issue confronting our financial system is the quality of assets.

Inclusive banking is desirable, but by forcing it on financial institutions, we could be making it tough for banks

A major issue confronting our financial system is the quality of assets. This has been exacerbated by the economic downturn, which is typically when loans stop performing. While restructuring is a way out for some cases, it poses conundrums for the lending institution as well as the regulator. An issue that comes up here is asset quality and priority sector lending. So far, with all the talk of inclusive growth, there are fixed norms for lending to vulnerable sectors. But, if one looks beyond the conventional commercial banking system, this problem is even scarier.

Within commercial banks, a little less than half of the non-performing assets (NPAs) originate in the priority sector (whose share in total credit is around 31-33%), and given that this sector is held sacrosanct, seldom do bankers raise objections and instead defend the concept as being necessary. In FY12, 4.4% of outstanding priority sector advances were classified as non-performing, while the same for non-priority sector was 2.4%. Further, growth in these NPAs was much higher than that in loans to this sector. Clearly, there are problems associated with such finance.

The accompanying table provides the picture of NPAs for various cooperative banks that are seldom analysed, which provide support to the rural economy and the small & medium enterprise (SME) segment.

The table shows that we have a large network of cooperative banks in the urban and rural spaces that offer various credit facilities to agriculture and SMEs. These banks have assets equivalent to around 12-15% of the commercial banking system, which is quite significant given that they address sections that would not qualify with commercial banks. Further, while the urban cooperative banks are profitable, the same does not hold at the rural level.

The significant aspect is the high levels of NPAs, which, at the level of rural development banks, is quite disastrous. Clearly, the business model does not work well at this level. The recovery ratios are also quite low and vary between 39.4% for PACs to 91.8% for SCBs. Given that these loans are directed mainly to farm-based borrowers, the problem is actually with the sector rather than the banks.

Two questions may be posed here. The first is whether the concept of priority sector lending is anachronistic in a regime where banks are answerable to

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