If Jet is close to shutting down, putting all loans at risk, bankers are to blame for not taking control much earlier.
At the risk of sounding harsh, it must be said that many Indian promoters have, over the last couple of decades, behaved most irresponsibly and have caused irreparable damage to the banking system and to society at large. Some like the Singh brothers, Ramalinga Raju and Mehul Choksi are outright fraudsters, while others have defaulted on their loans; the NCLT is replete with instances of businesses going bust even as a crack team tries to salvage the `1 lakh crore of loans piled up by IL&FS. How the regulators allowed debt of this magnitude to be accessed by an NBFC is hard to understand. Indeed, how they watched while companies borrowed from all over—banks, mutual funds, the bond markets and overseas—is inexplicable. Some of the problems are due to adverse turns in the business cycle and the lack of infrastructure facilities, but the reason why promoters didn’t take their jobs seriously enough was that, till now, few ever paid for their mistakes; companies close down and thousands of employees are left jobless, but life doesn’t change much for the promoters.
The latest casualty in this sordid saga is Jet Airways, an early entrant to the country’s aviation space and once the market leader. Its owner, Naresh Goyal, must accept full responsibility and blame for the airline going bust, though no harm will ever come to him. It is the banks that would have lost some `8,000 crore and the taxpayers who will be forced to cough up more so that the government can capitalise the state-owned banks. Goyal even had the gall to bid for the bankrupt business, much like the Ruias of Essar Steel who, at the eleventh hour, discovered they could rustle up `50,000 crore to pay back the bank loans.
But if the promoters are the culprits, the banks and regulators, too, must accept their share of the blame. They lent recklessly without enough due diligence and too little collateral. If promoters have taken the banks for one long ride, the bankers have no one else but themselves to blame. It is no use lamenting the state of the judicial system in India; they needed to have been aware of its shortcomings and made sure they had to use it as little as possible. The attitude has been all too cavalier, especially in the case of big corporate borrowers where bankers, for some reason, were unable to demand the necessary collateral or to restrict the exposure to reasonable levels. Despite having directors on the boards of companies, banks have been unable to take steps to rein in promoters’ ambitions or to keep track of the cash flows which have been diverted away from the core business.
In the case of Jet Airways, banks were unable to get the promoters out of the way fast enough; else, by now, a deal could have been sewn up with one of the prospective buyers and the airline need not have wound down its operations. It is surprising that despite the Kingfisher episode, bankers were not able to prevent Jet from collapsing. The writing has been on the wall for a long time now—the airline has been losing market share, even as the costs have remained elevated – but for some reason, the bankers chose not to step in sooner. The enormous destruction of wealth and franchises across corporate India won’t stop unless bankers are more watchful and regulators more vigilant.