Admission of errors and bad bank loans

I have a policy that whenever I make a mistake, I admit it. I believe that suppressing an error does more harm than good in the long run, and it is superior to admit it at the time of discovery and correct course rather than keeping things under wraps until the shit hits the fan (a la Nick Leeson, for example).

There is another reason I like to admit to my mistakes – by doing so frequently, I want to send the signal that I’m self-aware and self-critical and aware of what I’ve done wrong. This, I believe, sends a signal that I should be trusted more, since I have a grip on rights and wrongs.

It doesn’t always work that way. There was a company I once worked for, where my responsibilities meant that my errors had an immediate material impact on the company. I don’t know if this (direct material impact) mattered, but my signalling went horribly wrong there.

The powers-that-were came from a prior belief that people would suppress their mistakes as much as they could, and that I was admitting to them only because I couldn’t suppress them further. Their reaction to my constant admission of mistakes (I was writing production code, a bad bad idea given my ADHD) was that if I were admitting to so many mistakes, how many more of my mistakes were yet to be discovered?

In other words, the strategy backfired spectacularly, possibly given the mismatch of our priors, and I later figured I might have done better had I tried suppressing (or quietly fixing) rather than admitting. That, however, hasn’t led to a change in my general strategy on this issue.

I was reminded of this strategy when State Bank of India and Punjab National Bank released their quarterly results last week. Their stocks got hammered on the back of drastically reduced profits on account of higher provisions – an admission that a significantly higher proportion of their loans had gone bad compared to their earlier admissions.

The question that comes to mind is whether the increase in provisioning and admission of bad loans should be taken as a credible signal that these banks are cleaning up their balance sheets (which is a good thing) or whether it only indicates a bigger tip of a bigger iceberg (in which case I’d be paranoid about my deposits).

Not knowing what strategy these banks are playing (though statements from the RBI suggest they’re likely to be cleaning up), I guess we have to wait for results over the next couple of quarters to learn their signals better.

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