With a jump in the Indian economy from a manufacturing sector, that never really took off, to a nascent service sector, Banking as a whole is undergoing a change. A larger option for the consumer is getting translated into a larger demand for financial products and customisation of services is fast becoming the norm than a competitive advantage. With the Retail banking sector expected to grow at a rate of 30% [Chanda Kochhar, ED, ICICI Bank] players are focussing more and more on the Retail and are waking up to the potential of this sector of banking. At the same time, the banking sector as a whole is seeing structural changes in regulatory frameworks and securitisation and stringent NPA norms expected to be in place by 2004 means the faster one adapts to these changing dynamics, the faster is one expected to gain the advantage.

In this article, we try to study the reasons behind the euphemism regarding the Retail-focus of the Indian banks and try to assess how much of it is worth the attention that it is attracting.

Potential for Retail in India: Is sky the limit?

The Indian players are bullish on the Retail business and this is not totally unfounded. There are two main reasons behind this. Firstly, it is now undeniable that the face of the Indian consumer is changing. This is reflected in a change in the urban household income pattern. The direct fallout of such a change will be the consumption patterns and hence the banking habits of Indians, which will now be skewed towards Retail products. At the same time, India compares pretty poorly with the other economies of the world that are now becoming comparable in terms of spending patterns with the opening up of our economy. For instance, while the total outstanding Retail loans in Taiwan is around 41% of GDP, the figure in India stands at less than 5%. The comparison with the West is even more staggering. Another comparison that is natural when comparing Retail sectors is the use of credit cards. Here also, the potential lies in the fact that of all the consumer expenditure in India in 2001, less than 1% was through plastic, the corresponding US figure standing at 18%.

But how competitive are the players?

The fact that the statistics reveal a huge potential also brings with it a threat that is true for any sector of a country that is opening up. Just how competitive are our banks? Is the threat of getting drubbed by foreign competition real? To analyze this, one needs to get into the shoes of the foreign banks. In other words, how do they see us? Are we good takeover targets?

Going by international standards, a large portion of the Indian population is simply not “bankable” – taking profitability into consideration. On the other hand, the financial services market is highly over-leveraged in India. Competition is fierce, particularly from local private banks such as HDFC and ICICI, in the business of home, car and consumer loans. There, precisely lie the pitfalls of such explosive growth. All banks are targeting the fluffiest segment i.e. the upwardly mobile urban salaried class. Although the players are spreading their operations into segments like self- employed and the semi-urban rich, it is an open secret that the big city Indian yuppies form the most profitable segment. Over-dependence on this segment is bound to bring in inflexibility in the business.