* Q4 net loss of 21.89 bln rupees
* Gross non-performing assets at 6.77 pct
* Sees bad loan additions slowing, stable margins
* Smaller rival Yes Bank posts better-than-expected Q4 profit rise (Adds management comment, more details on results)
By Devidutta Tripathy and Vishal Sridhar
MUMBAI, April 26 (Reuters) - India’s Axis Bank Ltd reported its first ever quarterly loss on Thursday after a surge in bad loans, capping a troubled year for the country’s third-biggest private sector lender by assets.
While the bulk of India’s 9.5 trillion-rupee soured-loans as of end-2017 were with the country’s dominant state-run banks, among the private sector lenders Axis and its bigger rival ICICI Bank also account for large chunks.
Stricter rules enforced by the central bank in February are set to push the industry’s non-performing loans even higher.
Axis’ net loss was 21.89 billion rupees ($328 million) for the fiscal fourth quarter to March 31, the Mumbai-based bank, which was founded in 1993, said.
The results were a reflection of the bank’s desire to accelerate non-performing asset (NPA) recognition, said Chief Executive Shikha Sharma, who is due to step down at the end of December after being at the helm for nine years.
“With this accelerated recognition, we believe the NPA recognition phase of this credit cycle is now nearly complete and the focus shifts to resolution,” she told a news conference at the bank’s headquarters.
Axis has seen its non-performing loans jump more than eight times in the past three years to 342.49 billion rupees, or 6.77 percent of its loan book, at the end of March. In the March quarter alone, it added 165.36 billion rupees in incremental bad loans, which finance chief Jairam Sridharan said was driven by the recent central bank rule changes.
Sridharan predicted net non-performing loans additions in the year to March 2019 will be “significantly lower” than the previous year, while lending growth will be in the “high teens”.
For the March quarter, the bank’s loans grew 18 percent, driven by a 23 percent rise in loans to retail customers. Its net interest income growth was flat in the quarter, and rose 3 percent for the full year leading to a net interest margin of 3.44 percent.
Last week, the bank appointed leadership advisory firm Egon Zehnder to help it search for a new chief executive, and said its board would ensure that the process is completed before Sharma’s term ends.
Sharma, who had been originally given a three-year term to begin from June 1, sought to shorten her tenure after the central bank reportedly expressed concerns.
Axis Bank has also faced other problems.
A central bank audit last year found more bad loans than the bank had originally reported for the year ended March 2017.
In December, the bank was ordered by India’s markets regulator to conduct an internal investigation into a suspected leak of financial information and to strengthen its handling of such data, after a Reuters report documented messages about company results being circulated on private WhatsApp groups ahead of official release.
The bank has submitted its report on the investigation to the capital markets regulator, but has yet to hear back, Sharma said on Thursday.
Axis Bank’s smaller rival Yes Bank, which also reported on Thursday reported a better-than-expected 29 percent rise in fourth-quarter profit as its bad-loan ratio narrowed.
Shares in Axis Bank, valued at about $19 billion, closed 0.9 percent lower ahead of the results in a Mumbai market that gained 0.5 percent. The stock is down 12.4 percent so far this year, underperforming a 2 percent fall in the banking sector index and a 0.8 percent rise in the main index.
Yes Bank shares have gained 11.8 percent in 2018. ($1 = 66.8000 Indian rupees) (Reporting by Devidutta Tripathy and Vishal Sridhar; Editing by David Evans and Elaine Hardcastle)