Podcast | Digging Deeper: Decoding the pre-election sops to MSMEs

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The frenetic election season will bring with it controversies, sops, slogans, rallies and a lot more and media platforms will as always struggle to keep up with it all.

From the time the government reached out to Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) with  overtures to boost their growth, analysts have tried to understand not just the reasons and the implications of the move but the fine print underscoring it.

In this Moneycontrol Deep Dive podcast. we examine whether the 59-minute loan sanction for small businesses  is a gimmick or a masterstroke.

On November 6, Debabrata Das, wrote a piece in Fortune India with this headline, ” With an eye on elections, government gives boost to MSME sector.”

The  article exhibited a pattern of inquiry that is essential to make sense of sweeping economic decisions. It is after all still hard to completely deconstruct the reasons and outcomes of demonetisation. Or successfully  evaluate the management of the goods and services tax (GST). Or even to foretell the impact of Reserve Bank of India’s (RBI) directives that are currently causing panic among ATM operators. But we must try, right?  If only,  because such complex ideas  have the potential of affecting citizenry in a far-reaching  manner.

And in retrospect, demonetisation and GST impositions did adversely impact  among other things, small and medium businesses.  And hence economic policy makers must think of not just the immediate returns of  a momentous announcement but also how it will  pan out in the future, in real time, when implemented.

And that is why it is important that the MSME goody bag is examined in its entirety. Especially because there has been an unprecedented tension between RBI  and the central government over the liquidity issues pertaining to easing credit availability to micro, small and medium enterprises. And as always there is that unavoidable question. Why now?

What about the timing?

 As Debabrata wrote in the Fortune piece, “At a time when the talk of a liquidity crunch in the Indian financial system is rife, it seems odd that micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs) have been promised that loans below Rs 1 crore would be sanctioned in less than an hour. But when you put it in the context of a general election next spring, the government’s efforts to pacify the MSME sector, which been through the wringer in the past two years, starts to make sense.

For nearly two years, the MSME sector has borne the brunt of the government’s policy measures. With demonetisation first and then the haphazard implementation of the goods and services tax (GST), the MSME sector had been left cash-strapped.” Unquote.

The author cites  MSME Pulse report from TransUnion CIBIL and the Small Industries Development Bank of India (SIDBI) to report  how the percentage of non-performing assets in the loans given to the sector grew to 17.2 percent this June, from 14 percent in December 2016. According to the report, he says, the total credit exposure in India to the MSME sector is Rs 22.8 lakh crore.

Adding to the woes of the sector was the fact that loans were tough to come by. This was , says the author, because  11 of the 21 public sector banks are facing lending restrictions as they are under the Reserve Bank of India’s prompt corrective action (PCA) framework.

“With a financing requirement of nearly Rs 4.5 lakh crore over the next two year, it was assumed that the non-banking financial companies (NBFCs) will step up into the space left vacant. However, in the aftermath of the meltdown of the biggest NBFC in the country, Infrastructure Leasing & Financial Services (IL&FS), the entire industry is strapped for cash.”

A political decision?

 As expected , says the piece, traditional support base among MSMEs for the ruling party was getting increasingly antagonised but things took a swift turn when a large support package was announced for the sector.

As the piece elucidates, “Prime amongst the measures was the promise of loans of less than Rs 1 crore being sanctioned in less than an hour. These loans can be accessed through a link on the GST portal. Further, all GST-registered MSMEs would get a 2 percent interest subvention for fresh and incremental loans. And for exporters who receive loans in the pre-shipment and post-shipment period, there would be an increase in interest rebate to 5 percent from the existing 3 percent.

MSMEs with a turnover above Rs 500 crore would be brought on to the Trade Receivables e-Discounting System (TReDS) where entrepreneurs would be able to access credit from banks based on their upcoming receivables.” Unquote.

Additionally,  as the piece informs, public sector companies have been asked to procure 25 percent  of their total purchases from MSMEs and of this 3 percent should be from MSMEs promoted by women entrepreneurs. We quote, “To improve the ease of doing business for MSMEs, clusters would be formed, initially for pharmaceutical sector MSMEs; regulations with regard to labour laws have been relaxed; inspections would be done through a computerised random allotment; and environmental clearance has been simplified.” Unquote.

Vinod Parmar, global head of sales and marketing at Vayana Network is cited and he opines that linking loan approvals to GST returns will encourage more and more MSMEs to become a part of the formalised economy. Besides, any platform which can reduce friction and give convenient access to finance to the MSMEs will see rapid adoption, according to him.

What will be the big gain?

 The bigger question is IF the growth of MSMEs will benefit from these measures. It goes without saying as the piece suggests, that the well-being of 65 million MSMEs in the country that employ  120 million people, will impact which way the election results swing in 2019. As the author says, “Disruption in credit to the sector could affect both jobs and the MSME entrepreneurs. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has a penchant for making mega announcements near the festival of Diwali. This year, the focus clearly is on the elections, which is why the traders who form the BJP’s traditional support base have a lot to cheer about.” Unquote.

The larger picture

 On November 6, Ravi Krishnan wrote a Moneycontrol  piece that also went beyond the optics of the sops to convey that an inordinate price should not be paid for a short -term gain. The central argument being, “It is important that MSMEs get access to credit, but it should not come at the cost of banking sector’s health.”

The piece concedes that access to formal credit is a serious issue for most micro, small and medium firms in India. And on the surface, it seems that the government is seeking to fill this gap with its 12-point programme announced on November 2.

The slip between the cup and lip as far as lending to this sector goes, can be attributed to the fact that about 97 per cent of MSMEs operate in the informal sector and without  formal documentation and records, loans are hard to come by.

We quote, “Bank credit has been slow in recent years. Although it picked up recently, banks have ceded space to NBFCs or  Non Banking Financial Companies who have doubled their share in MSME credit from 5.5 per cent in December 2015 to around 10 per cent by March 2018. That’s why when a liquidity crunch is feared to hit NBFC lending, the government has been pushing the central bank to open a special window for such firms and also be lenient in recognising MSME defaults.” Unquote.

But even good intentions must consider how much they will cost.

As the author says, “While an attempt to help out the MSME sector is commendable, sanctioning a loan of Rs 1 crore in just 59 minutes looks like a gimmick that can have unintended consequences. It could mean subtly putting pressure on state-owned banks to lend to this sector. Public sector banks would do well not to relax their credit appraisal and assessment in a rush to meet this artificial deadline. As it is, in a sector that is reeling from demonetisation and  the imposition of Goods and Services Tax (GST), the level of delinquent loans is pretty high. According to SIDBI’s MSME Pulse, the non-performing assets ratio ranges from 8.7 percent to 19.5 percent depending on the size of the loan taken.” Unquote.

It is now an established fact that public sector banks have been hit badly with about 15. 2 percent of their MSME loans turned sour at the end of June 2018 compared to 5 percent for NBFCs and 3.9 percent for private banks.

Says the author, “Unbridled, forced lending to the sector could reverse the gains made by banks in recognizing and resolving their bad loans. Thus, the government would do well to take steps to help MSMEs beyond opening credit channels. Indeed, some of this has already been done. Asking companies with a turnover above Rs 500 crore to register themselves on the Trade Receivables Discounting System (TReDS) receivables platform will help MSMEs tackle cash flow problems and enhance their access to credit, since banks will have greater security (and documentation) in extending loans.

Indeed, the larger question policymakers should ask is why do MSMEs remain small and operate in the informal economy. The answer lies in complex regulations and lack of infrastructure. The GST, which is supposed to help ease the tax burden, is a case in point.” Unquote.

It is of course important to recognise the unrealised potential  of MSMEs as they contribute to a fifth of the country’s labour force, about 45 per cent of manufacturing output and 40 percent of India’s exports.

However, to help them thrive,  improving infrastructure and ease of doing business are a must. Some steps that have been announced must be lauded as checking unwarranted inspections of factories, simplifying penalties for minor offences under the Companies Act etc but as the piece points out, more such measures are needed rather than directed lending.

The pitfalls

 What could go wrong with populist measures like indiscriminate lending? Well, plenty.  The MSME package promises loan clearances in 59 minutes flat, disbursal within 10 days and concessional interest rates on borrowings. It was a great idea, but a flawed decision, says  consulting editor  RN Bhaskar   in a Moneycontrol piece on November 22. We quote, “The  Banks are already weakened by bad loans. Concessional interest rates and forcing them to increase their allocation of funds to MSMEs from the existing 20-25 percent is not a wise way of strengthening the banking sector. ” Unquote.

The article recognises the importance of the MSMEs in the organised sector work force and cites  The Ministry of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises’ annual report for 2017-18 which pointed out that this sector accounted for Rs 39 lakh crore of gross value added (GVA), or about 31.6 percent of the country’s GVA.

And of the jobs they provide, about five crore  are in rural areas, making its support crucial during elections in states like Uttar Pradesh, which accounts for 14 percent of all MSMEs.

But the author points out that the only dark cloud is that the rate at which they have been growing has been declining consistently. We quote, “They grew by 15 percent in 2012-13, 12.3 percent in each of the two following years, and only 7.62 percent in 2015-16.

Clearly, they needed incentives and a bit of prodding to accelerate their growth rate. Demonetisation had hit them very hard and so did the Goods & Services Tax (GST). The latter has increased their need for working capital because GST must be paid at the time of invoicing, even before the money comes into their kitty.

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