In the opening chapters of The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald describes a party thrown by Jay Gatsby where the who’s who of New York were invited. No one really knew who Gatsby was, yet everyone came to the party.
The Life Insurance Corporation of India (LIC)—the government-owned insurer that towers over the Indian insurance space—is a lot like Gatsby’s party. You probably don’t know much about it. At least not specifics, anyway. But despite your general lack of familiarity, by virtue of LIC controlling 70% of the Indian life insurance market, the chances are that, if you’re in India, either you or your parents own an LIC policy. So, you’re part of the party. This, though, is as far as the party analogy goes. This is not a ‘fun’ story. For the last few months, things at LIC have been murky.
On 1 August, India’s Union Cabinet approved LIC’s acquisition of a 51% stake in IDBI Bank Ltd, a debt-ridden bank which has been seeking a buyer for the last two years. LIC currently already owns 7.98% of the company, and the upcoming acquisition is set to infuse over Rs 11,000 crore (~$1.6 billion) into the ailing bank.
The move raised more than a few eyebrows. You see, from hiring consultancy firms to selling non-core assets, the government and IDBI had tried every trick in the book to sell IDBI. Banks, distressed asset funds, general private equity funds. Any buyer would do. But nothing worked out. Most business wouldn’t touch IDBI with a bargepole. And for good reason—IDBI Bank reported bad assets of Rs 55,588 crore (~$8 billion) for FY18, about 27.95% of its gross advances. In the end, it fell to LIC to pick up a majority stake in the bank. To be fair, the valuations aren’t clear yet. But even as we wait for details to emerge, the deal has already caused an uproar amongst experts and policyholders, with bank employee unions even staging a strike.
With the deal mostly done, subject to Reserve Bank of India (RBI) and Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority of India (IRDAI) approval, it raises more than a few questions. Questions about the viability of the deal, and whether LIC has done its due diligence. Questions about government influence over LIC and LIC’s own bandwidth to run a bank. Even if LIC wanted a bank, why not buy something good? Something stable?
But more than this specific deal, it highlights a worrying trend in recent years—LIC seems to be the de-facto government tool to save every failing state-owned asset. Indian public sector banks are in no shape to fund government projects. As a result, the government is looking at any nook and cranny from where it can find money to fund their projects, and one simply cannot miss a pile of cash as large as the LIC.
However, LIC is not a bottomless goldmine. As of FY18, the cash and bank balances on LIC’s books stood at Rs 15,541 crore (~$2.2 billion), as against Rs 30,057 crore (~$4.3 billion) during the end of FY17, a drop of 48.29%.