Indian leasing by Vinod Kothari

Evolution and status of Indian leasing industry:

Evolution of Leasing

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 specialised 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-liberalisation 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.

Evolution of Hire-purchase

The British concept of hire-purchase has, however, been there in India for more than 6 decates. The first hire-purchase company is believed to be Commercial Credit Corporation, successor to Auto Supply Company. While this company was based in Madras, Motor and General Finance and Instalment Supply Company were set up in North India. These companies were set up in the 1920s and 1930s.

Development of Hire-purchase took two forms: consumer durables and automobiles.

Consumer durables hire-purchase was promoted by the dealers in the respective equipment. Thus, Singer Sewing Machine company, or Murphy radio dealers would provide instalment facilities on hire-purchase basis to the customers of their products.

The other side developed very fast – hire-purchase of commercial vehicles. The dealers in commercial vehicles as well as pure financing companies sprang up. The value of the asset being good and repossession being easy, this branch of financing activity flourished fast, although until recently, most of automobile financing business was in hands of family-owned businesses.

Leasing and Hire-purchase: A vanishing distinction:

Essentially, asset-based financing in India particularly by non-banking financial companies is split in two documentation modes – lease and hire-purchase. These two are technically different instruments, but in essence, there is not much that differs between the two, except for the caption. Click here for more on comparison between lease and hire-purchase.

In spite of the substantive similarity, historically, there has been a diametric separation between these two forms. The assets usually subject matter of hire-purchase have been different from those generally leased out. Leasing has been used mostly for plant and machinery, while hire-purchase has commonly been used for vehicles. Even the players have been different.

The reasons for this diametric distinction are more historical than logical. Hire-purchase, essentially a British form, entered India during the Colonial era, and thrived as almost the only form of external finance available for commercial vehicles. For the financiers, as witnessed World-over, commercial vehicles was the natural choice for several asset-features he loves: lasting value, ready secondary market, self-paying feature, etc. Hence, the industry of hire-purchase became synonymous with truck-financing. Besides, the motor vehicles laws gave the surest legal protection any law could give to a financier: the financier would not have to carry any of the operational risks of a motor vehicle, and yet, any transfer of the vehicle would not be possible without the financier’s assent.

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.

Therefore, income-tax and sales-tax treatment apart, there is not much that is different between lease and hire-purchase. The choice between the two is by and large open, subject to tax consequences.