Bank stocks are usually the biggest reflection of economic reality. If things on the horizon look dicey, these are the first ones to feel pressure. And so they have so far this year with the BSE-Bankex down around 28% since the start of the year, practically mirroring the 24% fall in the BSE-Sensex.
Globally, economies are weak and growth is stagnant. The Chinese dragon is breathing smoke instead of fire. The American eagle's wings have been clipped. What was just a Greek tragedy earlier has now spread like an epidemic across the continent. Domestically also the situation isn't any better. The rupee is depreciating rapidly. Oil marketing companies are also finding it increasingly difficult to reduce their losses. Companies like Kingfisher Airlines and state electricity boards are faltering. Export oriented sectors like textiles, gems and jewellery etc are also seeing slower demand.
All this bad news hasn't helped the Indian banking system much. It caused leading credit rating agency Moody's to revise the system's rating from stable to negative. It also downgraded India's mammoth public sector bank State Bank of India (SBI). But usually when bad news comes to the fore for the sector, it can turn out to be good news for investors. PSU banks are now trading at rock bottom prices and most have reached their yearly lows. Indian PSU banks are a classic case of entities that have an ability to flourish despite the government and their strict regulator, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI). Keeping this in mind, we find no reason why some of the biggest and well managed PSU banks deserve abnormally low valuations. Bank managements also are scratching their heads trying to figure this one out.
The banking sector itself and PSUs especially, have several concerns on the fore. This cannot be denied. Most important among them is the risk of rising non-performing assets (NPAs), thanks to the steep interest costs. NPAs from restructured agricultural loans and the beleaguered power sector are in fact a given over the next few quarters. Margins and loan growth too cannot be a big boost to the bottomline given the poor demand for credit. In fact, credit growth for the first six months of this year has been a disappointing 3.5%. Capital constraints and social obligations like loan subsidy and financial inclusion targets may hold back the profitability prospects of PSU banks.
But PSU banks have now finished the process of shifting from a manual recognition of NPAs to an automatic recognition through the core banking system (CBS) software. This was one of the major reasons for deterioration in asset quality seen over the past two quarters. As bank managements have admitted, the focus earlier was mainly on disbursement of loans and growing the balance sheet. Quality was a secondary issue. Now with even the smaller accounts of Rs 5 lakh and below being shifted onto the system, managements have to increase their focus on monitoring and recovery. This new system helps prevent manipulation, and leads to a more accurate picture of bank's asset quality. We expect that going forward there will be more focus on recovery efforts. However the infrastructure, export oriented and power sector loan books need to be watched carefully for signs of stress.
But all said and done, the entities that control 70% of India's banking assets cannot lose value permanently. As and when the economy shows signs of resurgence, these stocks will be the first to recover.
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