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Thursday, February 17, 2011

Mission Accomplished

By Abhijit Lele

Despite his run-ins with RBI, the State Bank of India chairman has managed to keep the public sector behemoth ahead of peers


Chairman, State Bank of India (At the World Economic Forum in Davos recently)

Despite his run-ins with RBI, the State Bank of India chairman has managed to keep the public sector behemoth ahead of peers.

The chairman’s angst sums up the public display of the uneasy relationship between the country’s largest bank — State Bank of India — and the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), in the last couple of years over several issues, including the so-called teaser home loan rates (Bhatt, of course, has serious reservations over the term. He says he is not teasing anybody), higher provisioning coverage, guarantee to bonds issued by Tata Motors, etc. But more of that, later.

Even his worst detractors can’t deny that Bhatt, who is due to retire in March after a five-year term, has been able to turn SBI from a lethargic elephant to one that can dance.

When he took over the reins in June 2006, the usual lament about SBI was: “It is too slow and past its prime. Soon, the nimble-footed private banks will go ahead.”

The numbers supported this argument. ICICI Bank was a serious threat.

In June 2006, SBI’s total business stood at Rs 639,817 crore. ICICI, though behind, was closing in with a much faster growth rate. Its total business stood at Rs 330,490 crore. Analysts assumed it was only a matter of time – may be, another five years – before the private sector bank became the number-one bank in the country.

Bhatt’s appointment wasn’t a smooth affair, either. Yogesh Agarwal, then managing director of State Bank of Patialia, was considered a strong contender for the top position. But Bhatt pipped him to the post. Though Agarwal became the managing director of SBI in October, he moved to head IDBI Bank in July 2007.

Internally, the bank was grappling with many issues. For one, it had serious software problems that were not allowing it to roll out core banking solutions. This had to be addressed on a war footing, since core banking solutions were the backbone required for any scaling up and offering value-added services to corporate clients. Bhatt evaluated the situation for the first three months. Then, he asked the software vendor, Tata Consultancy Services, to rectify the glitches.

Then, the business process re-engineering process plan was started at branches. This involved training every staff and redesigning the layout of branches to make work a little better, faster and cheaper.

He put in place capital-raising plans to support growth for the next four-five years. SBI raised Rs 16,000 crore in March 2008 through rights issue. At present, the bank has been working on another rights issue to raise about Rs 20,000 crore by March. Banking analysts say this capital should support its growth plans for another five years. “SBI has recorded a consistent growth in business in the last four years. The credit to deposit ratio of 77 per cent indicates efficient deployment of resources,” said D R Dogra, managing director of ratings agency CARE.

Other important measures include an aggressive focus on the retail customer (the introduction of teaser loans being one such example); Parivartan I and II — programmes for employee motivation and skill set improvement; Udan — preparing a pipeline of future leaders at both senior and middle levels. These have improved the perception of SBI among both peers and analysts.

He resumed clerical recruitment, which had been frozen for over a decade, in view of growing business. Importantly, the process of consolidation within the SBI associates was started. He merged State Bank of Saurashtra and State Bank of Indore with SBI. “This will improve the bank’s operating efficiencies,” added CARE’s Dogra.

Many, however, say the SBI chairman could have handled his relationship with the regulator with a little more finesse. “He could have easily avoided the in-your-face and aggressive approach with the regulator. That had to deal with the banking industry as a whole,” said an observer.

But Bhatt remains adamant and says he has done nothing wrong. “Many Indians own homes because of SBI. I am not fighting with RBI, but only clarifying... we only gave discount on the rate for the first two-three years and at higher than the cost of my funds. So what is wrong in what SBI does?” Bhatt said, while admitting that there were quite a few other issues on which he “differed” with the regulator.

Besides the teaser loan, the bank faced regulatory ire for guaranteeing Tata Motors’ debenture issue of Rs 10,000 crore and overall provisioning of 70 per cent for bad loan portfolio.

The empire struck back. RBI was highly critical of the bank’s performance, including its financial health. Consequently, it downgraded the bank’s CAMEL (capital, asset quality, management, earnings, liquidity and systems and control) ratings from B to B- in an internal report for the year ended March 2009.

There were internal rumblings too. When Bhatt restructured operations at state-level units, popularly known as circles, by dismantling a decision-making layer (zone) headed by deputy general managers, there was again a lot of criticism. While work would be sped up by cutting on red tape, it put immense pressure on general managers. The jury is out on whether or not this has made the bank more efficient.

A top official of the bank, under condition of anonymity, says: “Bhatt has improved the bank’s image and introduced aggressiveness. The performance, in terms of market share, speaks for itself.”

In the same breath, however, the official admits that the down side of his leadership style has, perhaps, weakened the collective decision-making culture at SBI.

The good news: SBI continues to be at the top of the table. In December 2010, SBI’s total business stood at Rs16,19,950 crore, compared to ICICI Bank’s Rs 424, 439 crore. Of course, ICICI Bank took a conscious decision to shrink its balance sheet size to manage the adverse effects of exponential growth and global financial crisis.

Jamal Mecklai, chief executive of Mecklai Financials, says: “During Bhatt’s regime, SBI has become more competitive in a market (like money and foreign exchange markets, and advisory services) where foreign banks and Indian private banks were very active. This helps expand the revenue base.”

The fear: His aggressive style may have compromised the bank’s standing with RBI. In addition, some of the asset quality, especially the restructured portfolio (part non-performing assets and part standard assets) may be concerns in the future and hurt profitability – a big challenge for the next chairman.

But on March 31, when Bhatt retires as chairman, he will have one satisfaction – no one calls SBI laid back anymore.

Courtesy: Business Standard

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