Banking and Monetary Policy in 2010
Pakistan faced serious economic difficulties in the last few years particularly in 2008 due to high inflation, large current account deficit, dwindling foreign exchange reserves and excessive borrowing by the Government from the Central Bank. Monetary policy was therefore tightened throughout 2009 to bring inflation under control. Policy rate was cut only when signs of moderation in inflation began to appear. It is only in the last few months that macro stability has been achieved with the assistance of the IMF. But paradoxically the global financial crises had very little to do with the domestic economic problems. The trouble in Pakistan started because of mis-governance, policy failures to cope with the fuel, food price increases for the sake of short term political expediency, the assassination of the most popular leader and the resulting political instability, fall out of terrorism and a flawed transition from the Military to the democratically elected regime. As a mater of fact, the financial sector reforms carried out for more than a decade was able to insulate the economy from the adverse spill over effects of the global financial crisis. In this respect Pakistan just like China and India has demonstrated for the second time in the last 12 years some essential ingredients that can act as a safety valve against the onslaught of the tidal waves of globalization and financial integration.
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Why was Pakistan’s banking sector relatively insulated from the adverse effects of the global financial crisis.
First, Pakistan followed a ”cautious liberalization” strategy. The current account transactions were made fully convertible but the controls on capital controls remained intact. Only foreign direct investment inflows into certain sectors of the economy were encouraged while portfolio investment flows were regulated. Residents were not able to freely convert their domestic savings into foreign currencies and businesses were allowed to invest abroad under tightly restricted conditions. Exotic foreign currency denominated securities and derivative products were not allowed.
Second, the capital adequacy ratios were enhanced beyond the prescribed level of Basle I and financially engineered products having the potential of value erosion were not permitted. Variable capital ratios were introduced to reward the sound and efficient banks and penalize the weak and inefficient banks on the basis of objective indicators determined by the Central Bank.
Third, incentive structure for branch expansion and new business product offerings were linked to the performance of each bank. This in-built transparent mechanism held back the weaker or relatively unsound banks from mobilizing retail deposits. This mechanism was applied across-the-board and if the big banks failed to meet the soundness criteria they met the same fate. Thus the bias towards “Too big to fail” was indirectly contained in this manner.
Fourth, the banks were encouraged to clean up their balance sheets by removing long standing non performing loans that had low or no probability of recovery. The Central Bank evolved a generalized scheme under which the collaterals possessed by the lenders were allowed to be liquidated at their forced sale value and adjusted against the principal amount outstanding. Loan loss provisions were then invoked to set off the residual value of loans outstanding. The Gross NPL ratio of the banking system declined from 25 percent to 6 percent within five years giving a big boost to the profitability of the banks.
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Fifth, the cleaning up of the balance sheets, strict restrictions on the off balance sheet contingent liabilities, and the increased profitability of the banks attracted strong international players to Pakistan. As foreign banks were treated at par with the domestic banks and had no restriction on the limit to which they could own equity they rushed in with capital, acquisitions of weaker banks, expansion of distribution channels, new technology and products. Financial services industry was the second largest recipient of FDI and in the peak years the annual flows averaged more than $ 1 billion. Despite the presence of these international banks the domestic regulatory environment kept them away from excessive risk taking and undesirable innovation.
Sixth, the introduction of the private sector into the banking changed the whole human resource profile. There was a gradual transformation from low productivity manual unskilled workers to high productivity educated knowledge workers. This up-gradation and substitution of human resource base, hardly noticed, has made a lot of difference in the service standards to the customers, reduction in transaction costs, provision of value added products, separation of back and middle office functions from the front line interaction and on the bottom line of the banks. Along with wide dispersal of automation and technology across the network the efficiency levels of the banks improved significantly.
Finally, last but not the least the Central Bank invested in developing its own capacity as a regulator, watch dog, supervisor and monitor of a largely private sector owned banking system. The natural tendency of the private owners and managers to maximize their profits and bonuses by taking excessive risks with the depositors’ money had to be kept under control. The SBP took effective enforcement actions shunning all political interference that resulted in cancellation of licenses, removal of top managers, supercession of the Board of Directors, forced change in the ownership of the banks. The fit and proper criteria were strictly enforced. This added to the credibility of the regulator and induced a strong deterrent effect which restrained the behavior of the players in the industry. The regulators’ philosophy that a market based banking system should always be accompanied by a strong and credible regulator is the crux of this problem.
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Looking forward, the Central Bank has to pay greater attention to asset price bubbles, exceptional credit growth, unusual stock market movements, and heating up of real estate markets. As the shares, stocks and property account for most of the collaterals for the banking system any diminution in the value would have serious repercussions on the financial health of the banks. Price stability and financial stability have to be taken together in designing the monetary policy.
Non-banking financial institutions and capital markets have not kept pace with the banking system. Their share in the total assets of the financial system has remained fairly low. Strengthening of these institutions and markets would deepen the financial sector. Regulatory and supervisory framework for NDFIs has to align itself to meet this goal.
Despite some modest progress in the last decade the outreach of the financial sector has remained quite limited. Although the number of borrowers has multiplied from one million to seven million during this period the penetration ratio is only 12 percent. Inclusive finance in which micro-enterprises, SMEs, low cost housing, small farmers have better access would contribute to mitigation of income inequalities as well reduction of poverty. The banks would have to design new products, new delivery channels and cost effective technology solutions to reach out the clients in the rural and backward districts of Pakistan.