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Understanding the purpose of Leasing in the market

Leasing as financial service is a contractual agreement where the owner (lessor) of equipment transfers the right to use the equipment to the user (lessee) for an agreed period of time in return for a rental. At the end of the lease period the asset reverts back to the lessor unless there is a provision for the renewal of the contract or there is a provision for the transfers of ownership to the lessee. If there is any such provision for transfer of ownership, the deal is treated as hire purchase. Therefore, a lease could be generally defined as -

“A contract where a party being the owner (lessor) of an asset (leased asset) provides the asset for use by the lessee at a consideration (rentals), either fixed or dependent on any variables, for a certain period (lease period), either fixed or flexible, with an understanding that at the end of such period, the asset, subject to the embedded options of the lease, will be either returned to the lessor or disposed off as per the lessor’s instructions”.

The equipment leasing industry came into being in 1973 when the first leasing company, appropriately named as First Leasing was formed. This industry however remained relegated to the background until the early eighties, because the need for this industry was not strongly felt in industry. The public sector financial institutions – IDBI, IFCI, ICICI and the State Financial Corporations (SCFs) provided bulk of the term loans and the commercial banks provided working capital finance required by the manufacturing sector on relatively soft terms. Given the easy availability of funds at reasonable cost, there was obvious no need to look for alternative means of financing.

History and development of Leasing in India:

The history of leasing dates back to 200BC when Sumerians leased goods. Romans had developed a full body law relating to lease for movable and immovable property. However the modern concept of leasing appeared for the first time in 1877 when the Bell Telephone Company began renting telephones in USA. In 1832, Cottrell and Leonard leased academic caps, grown and hoods. Subsequently, during 1930s the Railway Industry used leasing service for its rolling stock needs. In the post war period, the American Air Lines leased their jet engines for most of the new air crafts. This development ignited immediate popularity for the lease and generated growth of leasing industry.

The concept of financial leasing was pioneered in India during 1973. The First Company was set up by the Chidambaram group in 1973 in Madras. The company undertook leasing of industrial equipment as its main activity. The Twentieth century Leasing Company Limited was established in 1979. By 1981, four finance companies joined the fray. The performance of First Leasing Company Limited and the Twentieth Century Leasing Company Limited motivated others to enter the leasing industry. In 1980s financial institutions made entry into leasing business. Industrial Credit and Investment Corporation was the first all India financial institution to offer leasing in 1983. Entry of commercial banks into leasing was facilitated by an amendment of Banking Regulation Act, 1949. State Bank of India was the first commercial bank to set up a leasing subsidiary, SBI capital market, in October 1986. Can Bank Financial Services Ltd., BOB Financial Service Ltd., and PNB Financial Services Limited followed suit. Industrial Finance Corporation’s Merchant Banking division started financing leasing companies as well as equipment leasing and financial services. There was thus virtual explosion in the number of leasing companies rising to about 400 companies in 1990. In the subsequent years, the adverse trends in capital market and other factors led to a situation where apart from the institutional lessors, there were hardly 20 to 25 private leasing companies who were active in the field.

Evolution of Leasing in India

Leasing activity was initiated in India in 1973. The first leasing company of India, named First Leasing Company of India Ltd. was set up in that year by Farouk Irani, with industrialist A C Muthia. For several years, this company remained the only company in the country until 20th Century Finance Corporation was set up - this was around 1980.

By 1981, the trickle started and Shetty Investment and Finance, Jaybharat Credit and Investment, Motor and General Finance, and Sundaram Finance etc. joined the leasing game. The last three names, already involved with hire-purchase of commercial vehicles, were looking for a tax break and leasing seemed to be the ideal choice.

The industry entered the third stage in the growth phase in late 1982, when numerous financial institutions and commercial banks either started leasing or announced plans to do so. ICICI, prominent among financial institutions, entered the industry in 1983 giving a boost to the concept of leasing. Thereafter, the trickle soon developed into flood, and leasing became the new gold mine. This was also the time when the profit-performance of the two doyen companies, First Leasing and 20th Century had been made public, which contained all the fascination for many more companies to join the industry. In the meantime, International Finance Corporation announced its decision to open four leasing joint ventures in India. To add to the leasing boom, the Finance Ministry announced strict measures for enlistment of investment companies on stock-exchanges, which made many investment companies to turn overnight into leasing companies.

As per RBI's records by 31st March, 1986, there were 339 equipment leasing companies in India whose assets leased totaled Rs. 2395.5 million. One can notice the surge in number - from merely 2 in 1980 to 339 in 6 years.

Subsequent swings in the leasing cycle have always been associated with the capital market - whenever the capital markets were more permissive, leasing companies have flocked the market. There has been appreciable entry of first generation entrepreneurs into leasing, and in retrospect it is possible to say that specialized leasing firms have done better than diversified industrial groups opening a leasing division.

Another significant phase in the development of Indian leasing was the Dahotre Committee's recommendations based on which the RBI formed guidelines on commercial bank funding to leasing companies. The growth of leasing in India has distinctively been assisted by funding from banks and financial institutions.

Banks themselves were allowed to offer leasing facilities much later - in 1994. However, even to date, commercial banking machinery has not been able to gear up to make any remarkable difference to the leasing scenario.

The post-liberalization era has been witnessing the slow but sure increase in foreign investment into Indian leasing. Starting with GE Capital's entry, an increasing number of foreign-owned financial firms and banks are currently engaged or interested in leasing in India.

Leasing, essentially a US-innovation, entered the country significantly in the early 80s, and was propagated as an alternative to traditional modes of industrial finance. Besides, the early motivation (which continues with a number of players even now) of leasing was capital allowances, more significantly the investment allowance, which was not available for transport vehicles. Hence, the leasing form historically clung to industrial plant and machinery.

For several years, there was no lease of vehicles, because the Motor Vehicles law protection was not applicable to a lease, and there was no investment allowance on vehicles, and for reciprocal reasons, there was no hire-purchase of industrial machinery.

These reasons have vanished over time.

The Motor Vehicles law now treats leases and hire-purchase at par from the viewpoint of financier-protection.

Investment allowance has been abolished, and hence, there are no predominant tax-preferences to a lease.

The RBI treats lease and hire-purchase at par and has stopped giving a distinctive classification to leasing and hire-purchase companies.

The accounting norms lead to the same effect on pre-tax income, as also balance sheet values, be it a lease or hire-purchase transactions.

Factors that contributed to growth of Indian leasing:

With the exception of 1996-97 and 1997-98, the 1990s have generally been a good decade for Indian leasing. The average rate of growth  on compounding basis works out to 24% from 1991-92 to 1996-97. Broadly, the following factors have been responsible for the growth of Indian leasing, in no particular order:

No entry barriers - any one could float a leasing entity, and even an existing company not in leasing business can write a lease purely for tax shelters.

Buoyant growth in capital expenditure by companies - The post -liberalization era saw a spate of new ventures and fresh investments by existing ventures. Though primarily funded by the capital markets, these ventures relied upon leasing as a source of additional or stand-by funding. Most leasing companies, who were also merchant bankers, would have funded their clients who hired them for issue management services.

Fast growth in car market: Needless to state with facts, the growth in car leasing volume has been the highest over these years - the spurt in car sales with the entry of several new models was funded largely by leasing plans.

Tax motivations: India continues to have unclear distinction between a lease that will qualify for tax purposes, and one which would not. In retrospect, this is being realized as an unfortunate legislative mistake, but the absence of any clear rules to distinguish between true leases and financing transactions, and no bars placed on deduction of lease tax breaks against non-leasing income, propelled tax-motivated lease transactions. There was a growing market in sale and leaseback transactions, which, if tested on principles of technical perfection or financial prudence, would appear to be a shame on everyone's face.

Optimistic capital markets: Data would establish a clear connection between bullish stock markets and the growth in both number of leasing entities and lease volumes. Year 1994-1995 saw the peak of primary market activity where a company, even if a new entrant in business, could price itself on unexplainable premium and walk out with pride.

Access to public deposits: Most leasing companies in India have relied, some heavily, on retail public funds in the form of deposits. Most of these deposits were raised for a 1 year tenure, and on promise of high rates of interest, at times even more than the regulated rate (which was lifted in 1996 to be reintroduced in 1998).

A generally go-go business environment: At the backdrop of all this was a general euphoria created by liberalization and the economic policies of Dr. Manmohan Singh.

Players in the Indian Leasing Industry

A) Lessors:

1. Specialized leasing companies:

There are about 400-odd large companies which have an organizational focus on leasing, and hence, are known as leasing companies.

Till recently, most of them were diversified financial houses, offering several fund-based and non-fund based financial services. However, recent SEBI rules on bifurcation of fund-based and non-fund based activities have resulted into hiving-off of merchant banking divisions of these entities. Most of these companies also offer hire-purchase activities, and some of them might have a consumer finance division as well.

These companies are known, in regulator's jargon, as non-banking financial companies, or NBFCs for short. The terms NBFCs includes several other financial concerns too, and all such companies are regulated by the Reserve Bank of India. There were no entry barriers to leasing business till recently, but the January 1997 amendments to the RBI law now require any non-banking finance company to have a prior registration with the RBI, and the conditions of registration virtually amount to authorization by the RBI.

2. Banks and bank-subsidiaries:

Till 1991, there were some ten bank subsidiaries active in leasing, and over-active in stock-investing. The latter variety was ravaged in the aftermath of the 1992 securities scam.

In Feb., 1994, the RBI allowed banks to directly enter leasing. So long, only bank subsidiaries were allowed to engage in leasing operations, which was regarded by the RBI as a non-banking activity. However, the 1994 Notification saw an essential thread of similarity between financial leasing and traditional lending.

Though State Bank of India, Canara Bank etc have set up leasing activity, it is not currently at a scale to make any difference on the leasing scenario. This is different from the rest of the World, where banks are front-runners in leasing markets.

3. Specialized Financial institutions:

There is a wide variety of financial institutions at the Central as well as the State level in India. Apart from the apex financial institutions, viz., the Industrial Development Bank of India, the Industrial Finance Corporation of India, and the ICICI, there are several financing agencies devoted to specific causes, such as sick-industries, tourism, agriculture, small industries, housing, shipping, railways, roads, power, etc. In most States too, there are multiple financing agencies for generic or focused cause.

Most of these institutions are using the lease instrument along with traditional financing instruments. Significantly, the ICICI was one of the pioneers in Indian leasing. At State level also, financial institutions are active in leasing business.

4. One-off lessors:

Some of the companies engaged in some other business which gives them huge taxable profits, have resorted to one-off leasing on a casual basis to defer their taxes. These people are interested only in leasing of high-depreciation items, preferably those entitled to 100% depreciation. The major items eligible for 100% depreciation are gas cylinders, certain energy-saving devices, pollution control devices etc. Severe scrutiny by revenue officials into lease transactions at the time of assessment has dampened the enthusiasm in this line of leasing activity, however it carries on. Mostly such lease transactions are syndicated, at times even funded, by active players in leasing markets.

5. Manufacturer-lessors :

This part of the lessor-industry is in highly under-grown form in India, for simple reasons. Vendor leasing is a product of competition in the product market. As competition forces the manufacturer to add value to his sales, he finds the best way to sell the product is to sell it without the buyer having to pay for it instantly. Product markets so far for most durables were oligopolistic, and good products used to sell even otherwise at a premium. With the economy decisively moving towards market orientation, competition has become inevitable, and competition brings in its wake sales-aid tools. Hence, the potential for vendor leasing is truly great.

Presently, vendors of automobiles, consumer durables, etc. have alliances or joint ventures with leasing companies to offer lease finance against their products. However, there is no devoted vendor leasing of the type popular in most of the advanced markets, where a specific leasing company or leasing program takes exclusive charge of a vendor's products.

 

B) Lessees

 

Corporate customers with very high credit ratings: These essentially look at leasing to leverage against assets which are otherwise not bankable, or for pure junk financing.

Public sector undertakings: This market has witnessed a very rate of growth in the past. With budgetary grants to the PSUs coming to a virtual halt, there is an increasing number of both centrally as well as State-owned entities which have resorted to lease financing. Their requirements are usually massive.

Mid-market companies: The mid-market companies, that is, companies with reasonably good creditworthiness but with lower public profile have resorted to lease financing basically as an alternative to bank/institutional financing, which to them is time-consuming and tedious.

Consumers: Retail funding for consumer durables was frowned-upon at one point of time, but recent bad experience with corporate financing has focused attention towards consumer durables which incidentally, is all the all-time favorite of financiers World-over. Most of the larger companies have expressed interest in consumer funding, with ticket size going as low as Rs. 5000.

Car customers: Car leasing World-over is a very big market, and the same is true for India. So long, most car leases were plain-vanilla financial leases but one now finds few instances of value-added car lease services also being offered.

Commercial vehicles: Commercial vehicles customers have always relied upon funding by hire-purchase companies. The customer profile ranges from large fleet owners to individual truckers.

Earth-moving machinery customers: These customers have also traditionally relied upon lease financing. Their requirements are generally large - each excavators costs more than Rs. 25 lacs. The income-stream is based on contracts they have - at times, the income generation may be sporadic, or the need might itself be temporary. In fact, operating leases would have been ideal in this market, but they are yet to be launched to any serious degree.

Govt. deptts. and authorities: One of the latest entrants in leasing markets is the Govt. itself. The Deptt. of Telecommunications of the Central Govt. took the lead by floating tenders for lease finance worth about Rs. 1000 crore. In its reforms programme, India has limits to the extent to which it can resort to deficit financing, and leasing is easily going to appeal to the Govt. , if not for cost reasons, at least for the fact that it will not feature in national accounts as a commercial financing. As a spin-off, it might even help reducing the reported deficit, as the Govt. resorts to what is loved World-over as a tool of off-balance-sheet financing.

Current Status

Leasing has great potential in India. However, leasing in India faces serious handicaps which may mar its growth in future. The following are some of the problems:

1. Unhealthy Competition: The market for leasing has not grown with the same pace as the number of lessors. As a result, there is over supply of lessors leading to competitor. With the leasing business becoming more competitive, the margin of profit for lessors has dropped from four to five percent to the present 2.5 to 3 percent. Bank subsidiaries and financial institutions have the competitive edge over the private sector concerns because of cheap source of finance.

2. Lack of Qualified Personnel: Leasing requires qualified and experienced people at the helm of its affairs. Leasing is a specialized business and persons constituting its top management should have expertise in accounting, finance, legal and decision areas. In India, the concept of leasing business is of recent one and hence it is difficult to get right man to deal with leasing business. On account of this, operations of leasing business are bound to suffer.

3. Tax Considerations: Most people believe that lessees prefer leasing because of the tax benefits it offers. In reality, it only transfers; the benefit i.e. the lessee’s tax shelter is lessor’s burden. The lease becomes economically viable only when the transfer’s effective tax rate is low. In addition, taxes like sales tax, wealth tax, additional tax, surcharge etc. add to the cost of leasing. Thus leasing becomes more expensive form of financing than conventional mode of finance such as hire purchase.

4. Stamp Duty: The states treat a leasing transaction as a sale for the purpose of making them eligible to sales tax. On the contrary, for stamp duty, the transaction is treated as a pure lease transaction. Accordingly a heavy stamp duty is levied on lease documents. This adds to the burden of leasing industry.

5. Delayed Payment and Bad Debts: The problem of delayed payment of rents and bad debts add to the costs of lease. The lessor does not take into consideration this aspect while fixing the rentals at the time of lease agreement. These problems would disturb prospects of leasing business.

The current problems of Indian leasing could be listed as follows:

Asset-liability mismatch: Most non-banking finance companies in India had relied extensively on public deposits -this was not a new development, as the RBI itself was constantly encouraging and supporting the deposit-raising activities of NBFCs. If the resulting asset-liability mismatch, to everybody’s agreement, is the surest culprit of all NBFC woes today, it must have been a sudden realization, because over all these years, each Governor of the RBI has passed laudatory remarks on the deposit-mobilization by NBFCs knowing fully well that most of these deposits were 1-year deposits while the deployment of funds was mostly for longer tenures. It is only the contagion created by the CRB-effect that most NBFCs have realized that they were sitting on gun-powder all these years. The sudden brakes put by the RBI have only worsened the mismatch.

Generally-bad economic environment: Over past couple of years, the economy itself has done pretty badly. The demand for capital equipment has been at one of the lowest ebbs. Automobile sales have come down; corporate have found themselves in a general cash crunch resulting into sticky loans.

Poor and premature credit decisions in the past: Most NBFCs have learnt a very hard way to distinguish between a good credit prospect and a bad credit prospect. When a credit decision goes wrong, it is trite that in retrospect, it invariably seems to be the silliest mistake that ever could have been made, but what Indian leasing companies have suffered are certainly problems of infancy. Credit decisions were based on a pure financial view, with asset quality taking a back-seat.

Tax-based credits: In most of the cases of frauds or hopelessly-wrong credit decisions, there has been a tax motive responsible for the transaction. India has something which many other countries do not- a 100% first year depreciation on several assets. Apparently, the list of such assets is limited and the underlying fiscal rationale quite holy and sound – certain energy saving devices, pollution control devices etc qualify for such allowance. But that being the law, it is left to the ingenuity of our extremely competent tax consultants to widen the range with innovative ideas of exploiting these entries in the depreciation schedule. Thus, there have been cases where domestic electric meters have been claimed as energy saving devices, and the captive water softenizer in a hotel has been claimed as water pollution control device! As leasing companies were trying to exploit these entries, a series of fraudsters was successful in exploiting, to the hilt, the propensity of leasing companies to surpass all caution and all lending prudence to do one such transaction to manage its taxes, and thus, false papers for non-existing wind mills and never-existing bio-gas plants were fabricated to lure leasing companies into losing the whole of their money, to save the part that would have gone as government taxes!

Extraneous problems – frauds, closures and regulation: As they say, it does not rain, it pours. Several problems joined together for leasing companies – the public antipathy created by the CRB episode and subsequent failures of some good and several bad NBFCs, regulation by the RBI requiring massive amount of provisions to be created for assets that were non-performing, etc. It certainly was not a good year to face all these problems together.

In spite of all these troubles, it can be said with confidence that the leasing business has a bright future in India. Due to certain tax concessions and benefits to the lessor, many leasing companies have been established. Many leasing companies have raised considerable funds through public deposits. Many industrialists are temped to take benefit of this facility looking to the ease with which leasing facility is available. Car finance companies have done a considerable ground work in this field. If they pass on the benefits which they get in respect of tax benefit on depreciation etc. and reduce their rentals, they can develop business substantially. But the government, financial institutions and leasing companies all should join hands in respect of developing leasing on right lines.

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