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Indians pawning family gold amid credit crunch

There is an unprecedented demand for cash as they struggle to get loans from banks grappling with bad debt, and a credit-starved shadow-lending sector

Muthoot Fincorp, a leading gold financing shadow bank with 2.98 million customers, says its gold loans rose 6.6 per cent between Apr 1 and July 24 this year to 358 billion rupees.


REFUSED a loan by a state-run lender and desperate for funds to buy cotton seeds before the summer sowing season window closed, Indian farmer Babasaheb Mandlik ran out of choices - he pawned his wife's gold jewellery.

Mr Mandlik, who owns a cotton farm in western India, pledged 70 grammes of gold, almost all of his wife's precious trinkets, in June in return for 150,000 rupees (S$2,915).

"Pawning the jewellery was a difficult decision as my wife likes to wear it at festivals and weddings," the 50-year-old told Reuters. "I convinced her that we didn't have any other option."

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Mr Mandlik is not alone. While pawning gold has long been an option for quick funds in a country that is the world's second-biggest consumer of the yellow metal, several lenders told Reuters of unprecedented demand as people struggle to secure loans from banks grappling with bad debt and a shadow-lending industry stung by a liquidity crunch.

The trend, which has prompted some lenders to impose restrictions as risks and borrowing costs rise, has been accelerated by record gold prices.

Indians' penchant for gold spans centuries and is rooted in the Hindu religion. Households own an estimated collective 25,000 tonnes of gold, which passes from one generation to the next.

Domestic gold prices have risen more than a fifth this calendar year, hitting a record high of 38,666 rupees per 10 grammes earlier this month amid a global rise.

"As a lot of NBFCs (non-bank financial companies) have become cautious of giving unsecured or even secured loans, we are seeing more customers opting for gold loans instead," said Sumit Bali, chief executive officer of IIFL Finance. "One can obtain a gold loan and walk out of the branch in just 30 minutes."

IIFL's gold loan portfolio stood at 65.83 billion rupees at the end of the June quarter, up 46 per cent compared to a year earlier.

Those pawning their precious possessions are most often independent workers, including farmers and small shop owners.

Muthoot Fincorp, a leading gold financing shadow bank with 2.98 million customers, said its gold loans rose 6.6 per cent between Apr 1 and July 24 this year to 358 billion rupees.

"Pledging gold is becoming more lucrative with rising prices. We have seen healthy demand for gold loans in the last few months," said George Muthoot, director at Muthoot Fincorp.

Ashutosh Khajuria, the chief financial officer of Federal Bank Ltd, a private lender, said its gold loan portfolio was at an all-time high of around 80 billion rupees and is expected to grow further.

Indian shadow banks began to face a liquidity crunch following the collapse late last year of Infrastructure Leasing & Financial Services, a major player in the non-banking financial companies space.

That led to a surge in borrowing costs, forcing NBFCs to freeze or tighten lending practices.

Some gold lenders which are also NBFCs have not been immune, despite their increased popularity with borrowers and the solid commodity backing their loans.

Manappuram Finance, which has 2.5 million gold loan accounts, last week revealed its cost of funds in the April-June quarter rose to 9.34 per cent from 8.77 per cent a year earlier.

Muthoot has independently decided to trim the maximum loan amount of 75 per cent of gold value imposed by India's central bank to 70 per cent, citing higher borrowing costs and the need to shield itself from any future volatility in gold prices. "We are still expecting growth of 15 per cent to 20 per cent in gold loans in 2019/20," said Mr Muthoot.

Mr Mandlik, meanwhile, is hoping to be able to buy back his pawned gold, which includes pieces gifted to his wife by her parents, after the cotton harvest in October.

But the success of his crop - and the future of his wife's jewels - is at the mercy of India's monsoon rainfall.

"You can sow the seeds, but yield depends on monsoon rains," said Mr Mandlik, who lost his 2018 crop to drought. REUTERS