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Monday, April 22, 2019

Unsophisticated households and banks versus securities

by Ajay Shah.

The borrowing of banks through deposits

When a household deals with a bank, there is a clear promise by the bank, that the deposit will be redeemable at par with some interest that is known up front. But how is a household to verify that the promise will be met at future dates? Monitoring a bank every day is hard for unsophisticated investors. Unsophisticated households face asymmetric information, a market failure.

In order to address this market failure, we do two things in financial regulation. First, we have micro-prudential regulation. The regulator coerces banks to bring down their failure probability to an acceptable level. A good thumb rule for Indian conditions is to aim for a failure probability of 2% on a one-decade horizon. This requires two elements of work: forcing banks to mark their assets to market so that bad loans are valued at fair market value, and a leverage rule which caps the leverage of banks. Second, we require a Resolution Corporation to deal with bank failure: a specialised bankruptcy process, which pays out deposit insurance to households (Rai, 2017).

This is the well understood regulatory apparatus that is brought into play when banks borrow through bank deposits, which go alongside high intensity promises.

Resource mobilisation by firms through the securities markets

How should we think about households and investment in securities (equity or debt)? Conversely, what should a financial regulatory apparatus do when a firm (a bank, an NBFC or a non-financial firm) wants to issue shares or bonds on the primary market?

A key difference on the stock market or the bond market is the lack of a promise. No promise is made, either about liquidity or about the price at which a future transaction will take place. This immediately improves the situation from a regulatory standpoint. Investors walk into buying bonds or shares with their eyes open, no promises are made to them.

Hence, we do not need to worry about micro-prudential regulation of the issuer when an investor buys shares or bonds on an exchange.

What about the primary market? In a primary issue, there is the risk of an advertising campaign that makes lurid promises to unsophisticated investors. This is addressed nicely by having a rule which requires that a minimum x% of the primary issue (of either bonds or shares) be purchased by sophisticated investors, and these investors be locked in for a certain short period. A good definition of a `sophisticated investor' for this purpose is a person who invests a minimum of Rs.10 million in the issue. Once the issue passes the market test of appealing to such investors, it is safe for households to participate directly in the primary market for securities.

Under such conditions, the gatekeepers for resource mobilisation through the primary issuance of shares or bonds are sophisticated investors and not the state. If a firm had poor prospects, or mispriced its securities, it would not get the support of these investors, and the issue would fail. How much leverage, and what debt characteristics, are appropriate for a highway or a steel company or an NBFC? There is no need for the government to get involved in terms of micro-prudential regulation or interference in the price. The only role of the state is in the adequacy and truthfulness of disclosures that are made at the time of the issue.

As there is no high intensity promise by an NBFC, failed NBFCs should go to the ordinary IBC process. The need for the Resolution Corporation, in handling firm default, is only when a systemically important NBFC fails.

When a bank borrows using the bond market, this changes the overall leverage of the bank, and the bank would of course have to comply with micro-prudential rules that cap its leverage. But there is nothing special about the primary issue of a bank, when compared with the reasoning above.


NBFCs in India are facing many difficulties. However, micro-prudential regulation of NBFCs is not the answer. There is no need for the state to get involved, or engage in micro-prudential regulation, of bond issues by banks, NBFCs (Roy, 2015; Shah 2018) and non-financial firms.

The sophisticated investors on the primary market are the gatekeeper; unsophisticated households free ride on their price discovery.

The Companies Act should not interfere in the bond issuance of companies, and RBI should not micro-prudentially regulate NBFCs.

The reticence of the bond market in lending to some NBFCs, from August 2018 onwards, is market discipline at work.


The regulatory difficulties of NBFCs in India, Shubho Roy, The Leap Blog, 24 December 2015.

Movement on the law for the Resolution Corporation, Suyash Rai, The Leap Blog, 19 June 2017.

Financial regulation for the Fintech world, Ajay Shah, The Leap Blog, 21 March 2018.

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