The Reserve Bank of India’s decision to keep corporates away from bank licences will help the government sidestep allegations that it is selling banks to big business. However, the number of prospective buyers for public sector banks (PSBs) will shrink.
In the absence of any deep-pocketed corporate house, the bidders for PSU banks would have to be either private or multinational banks, or private equity investors who would be in a position to come up with a couple of billion dollars to buy a bank. The challenge in the case of private equity investors is that they would look for an exit after a few years, while multinational banks are increasingly reducing their retail exposure as retail banking is becoming a domestic activity because of compliance costs.
Private players like HDFC Bank, Kotak, ICICI and Axis have the equity-raising capacity, but the pension liabilities would be a deterrent. In March this year, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman had said that the salary and pension of bank employees will be protected in the case of privatisation. “The deal-breaker would be the pension liabilities of these banks,” said a private banker. The fact that the pension is inflation-linked makes it worse for any buyer.