RBI Guidelines on Compromise Settlements: Demystifying the Stakeholders’ Concerns

[By Vaibhav Gautam]

The author is a student of NALSAR University of Law.

 

INTRODUCTION

Earlier last month, the Reserve Bank of India released a comprehensive circular (“Circular”), on the compromise settlements and technical write-offs, to provide the lenders with multiple options to recover the maximum possible amount from their distressed assets without delay. The RBI’s primary objective behind this move appears to ensure greater transparency in the process of resolving distressed assets. However, this circular can also be seen as an attempt to widen the applicability of the compromise settlements as envisaged under the Prudential Framework for Resolution of Stressed Assets, 2019, (“Prudential Framework”).

At the same time, the circular has stirred controversy and invited criticism from several stakeholders, such as major bank unions, like, All India Bank Officer’s Confederation (AIBOC), and All India Bank Employees Association (AIBEA), which are representative of around 6 lakh bank employees. There is a genuine concern among bank unions that a willful defaulter’s refusal to pay the owed amount might potentially lead to a loss of the general public’s money and confidence in the banks. Through this article, the author aims to analyze the said circular, as envisioned by the RBI and also attempts to demystify some of the concerns that have been associated with the circular.

BACKGROUND

The term “compromise settlement,” as explained by the RBI, basically means that the Regulated Entities (“REs”), primarily the banks, can enter into a negotiated agreement with the borrowers. The main purpose of such a resolution process is to effectively streamline the resolution process and also to rectify the problems that are caused by the distressed assets, such as huge losses for the lenders, financial instability in the economy, etc. Compromise Settlements resolve this by allowing the lender to recover the maximum possible amount of such distressed assets by reaching a mutually beneficial agreement involving a waiver of claims by the borrower, and a partial waiver of the amount by the banks.

This is not the first instance of the RBI introducing such a concept. In 2007, RBI provided for compromise settlements as a valid resolution practice, where the banks were allowed to enter into compromise settlements with the borrowers, contingent on the decision of the management board of the bank.

In the present circular, RBI has clarified its position regarding the compromise settlements, however this time they have also taken other REs into account, such as cooperative and local area banks. It has also reiterated the prescriptive cooling period of a minimum of 12 months, where the borrowers can take fresh loans after the said period. Later, on June 20, RBI published FAQs on the circular, where it provided clarification that this process of compromise settlements is not a major overhaul of the current resolution framework but rather it has been in practice for more than 15 years, with the earliest guidelines being released in the year 2007.

CONCERNS OF THE STAKEHOLDERS

One of the major concerns raised by the stakeholders, particularly bank unions has been that this circular will unduly advantage the defaulters by condoning their fraudulent or default act, thereby, eroding the public’s confidence in the banking system. Furthermore, it might set a dangerous precedent by allowing the defaulters to settle their large defaults by paying a minuscule amount of their original debt.

Secondly, bank unions have further argued that these guidelines bring a sudden change into the process of clearing distressed assets from banks’ accounts, and will lead to the reversal of the guidelines that are provided under the Prudential Framework of 2019. Additionally, there is an apprehension that this reversal might entail major implications for the overall economy, such as systemic instability in the financial institutions, adverse market behavior, etc.

Lastly, there is a concern that the circular would allow the defaulters to restructure their loan records to keep their reportable Non-Performing Assets (NPA) levels lower than they are, through the process of “evergreening.” This process allows for additional adjustments to be made to the existing debts of the borrowers, to make the repayment more feasible. However, instead of constituting a concrete solution to the recovery of distressed assets, evergreening is a temporary measure and different from compromise settlements.

UNRAVELLING THE BANK UNIONS’ CONCERNS

The concerns of the bank unions are seemingly contrary to the purpose envisioned by the RBI. These guidelines as provided by the circular impose the liability on the REs, primarily the banks to create and enforce a comprehensive framework that would be contingent on the approval of the management board of the bank. This requirement aligns with the ultimate goal of the circular, i.e., to increase the transparency and accountability between the lenders and the borrowers.

The circular also clarifies the position on the minimum cooling period of 12 months. Accordingly, it will be the discretion of the banks to decide the upper limit of the cooling period. And only after that period has ended can the fresh loans be issued to the respective borrower. It is crucial to understand that rather than setting a dangerous precedent, this requirement puts a reasonable and justifiable restriction on the willful defaulter who seeks to get a fresh loan from a bank. The compromise settlements that are undertaken in consonance with these guidelines would be without prejudice to criminal proceedings and other penal matters. Hence, the argument that it unduly advantages the willful defaulters and the fraudsters, is not tenable. With respect to maintaining the integrity of the process, the permission of the board plays an imperative role, as it is provided in the circular, such borrowers might get debarred from issuing a fresh loan for 5 years.

It is largely a misplaced concern of the bank unions to assume that the present circular would bring major changes to the process that is provided under the 2019 framework. It is pertinent to note that the Prudential framework deals with the illegibility of the defaulters for restructuring their debts whereas the current circular concerns compromise settlements. So, essentially, they are fundamentally different from each other and there is no reversal of the process that was enshrined in 2019. It is rather an amplification of the already existing procedure, by taking into consideration other new categories of REs, such as local area banks and cooperative banks.

In the author’s opinion, the concerns with respect to evergreening have essentially equated the restructuring of the debts with the process of evergreening. It is important to understand that while compromise settlements can lead to a restructured debt which might resemble evergreening, however, if the resolution process is exercised with careful discretion by the banks, it can potentially make the debt more sustainable for both the parties involved in the transaction. This will not only make the debt more feasible to be discharged, but it will also contribute to the overall stability of the economy.

THE WAY FORWARD

It would thus be right to conclude that the circular is not detrimental; instead, it is more instrumental in the broader prevailing market conditions. Although critical scrutiny is necessary, it should not come at the cost of overlooking the practical necessity of such a process in the banking market.

As of 2022, the amount owed to the banks by the top 50 defaulters amounted to around 88,000 crore rupees. Concepts like compromise settlements are the need of the hour as they go a long way in helping the banks and Regulated entities to recover the maximum possible amount from the defaulted borrowers. However, it is also advised that the RBI provide comprehensive instructions on the question of preventing the evergreening of newly restructured debts by way of compromise settlements, rather than leaving them completely open to the discretion of the banks.

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