The performance of the State Bank of India (SBI), the country’s largest lender, is in a way similar to that of the Indian Railways. Both, because of their size and critical positioning, are significantly linked to the overall health of the economy. It is, therefore, not surprising that in the first quarter of the current year the bank has reported a sharp rise in non-performing assets (NPA), indicating borrowers’ inability to service their loans in the present economic environment. This has overshadowed the large year-on-year rise in the bottomline, which has, in any case, benefitted from the earlier low base then caused by catching up in provisioning. The bank’s Chairman, Pratip Chaudhuri, has highlighted the deterioration in the portfolio for mid-corporates and small and medium enterprises, which underlines the adverse conditions at the grassroots level. The agricultural and large account portfolios have also deteriorated, but Mr Chaudhuri has held out the hope that with the monsoon picking up somewhat and a chance of two large loans getting back on track, the outlook may not be all that depressing.
What cannot, however, be explained by the overall deterioration in the economic situation, which has been gradual, is the sharp setback in performance compared to the picture it had projected just three months ago. In the last quarter of 2011-12, gross NPAs had actually fallen by a small amount, compared to the sequential previous quarter. This had been made possible by upgrading of assets, more cash recoveries and low additions to non-performing assets. The hope that the bank would be able to sustain this effort in order to combat the tough year that lay ahead has been belied. Gross NPAs have gone up by a massive nearly Rs 7,500 crore and taken the ratio of gross NPA to total assets up to 4.99 per cent from 4.44 per cent. There has also been a sequential deterioration in performance across the board covering interest income, net interest margin (down by 28 basis points), other income and operating profit. Poorer operating performance, combined with higher provisioning, has led to a fall in return on assets by 12 basis points to touch 1.03 per cent.
If non-performing assets have gone up sharply then so should provisioning. However, quite perplexingly, provisioning on that account has actually gone down marginally. This amounts to making the bottomline look better than it actually is. The bank may have good reason to believe that by the end of the financial year improvement will be made in asset quality, but it is always better to first provide and then write back if you get the chance to. After Mr Chaudhuri took over, he earned appreciation by cleaning up the balance sheet and then posting improved performance. That is the trend that needed to continue.