Time for Caution in Financing Microfinance?

Back in 2007 BusinessWeek had carried an article describing how low-income credit in America was driving the poor to indebtedness. The same thing is now happening in microfinance. Friday’s edition of The Wall Street Journal (hat tip FBD) describes how microfinance is fueling consumption and indebtedness in at least one Indian city.

The result: Today in India, some poor neighborhoods are being “carpet-bombed” with loans, says Rajalaxmi Kamath, a researcher at the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore who studies the issue. In India, microloans outstanding grew 72% in the year ended March 31, 2008, totaling $1.24 billion, according to Sa-Dhan, an industry association in New Delhi.

This development should hardly be surprising as commentators have long warned of the perils of too much credit chasing too few good candidates. That, and poor governance, were identified last by the MF Banana Skins 2008 report as key challenges for the future of the industry.

There is a parallel here with the sub-prime crises which had its origins in these same twin problems – too much credit and moral hazard on the part of those doing the lending (see this post for more). Yet, despite these problems, microfinance continues to grow.

According to the Monitor Institute microloan volume grew from USD 4 billion in 2001 to USD 25 billion in 2006. And new microfinance investment vehicles (MIVs) are going beyond debt financing to take equity stakes as well (e.g. the DWM Microfinance Equity Fund I closed this summer with USD 82 million from four institutional investors), illustrating a growing confidence in this sector.

An interesting observation is that loan volume growth seems to be outpacing actual investment growth by a large margin. While loan volumes were USD 25 billion in 2006, a CGAP brief estimates assets in MIVs in Europe and the US at only USD 6.5 billion. The remaining money must be coming from savings, public equity (e.g. Compartamos), philanthropic grants, IOs, and other public institutions. Nevertheless, MFIs must still be heavily leveraged to have such large loan books.

A second observation is that while private MIVs have the most incentive to ensure quality of microloans they also have the most incentive to charge higher interest rates. This is particularly so now that microfinance advocates have advertised themselves as a new and uncorrelated asset class resilient to the economic recession.

This makes microfinance doubly vulnerable compared to housing finance before the sub-prime crises. While the latter was only vulnerable to defaults from below, microfinance is also vulnerable to ethical pressures. Having sold itself as a “social investment,” microfinance cannot be seen to create indebtedness. Should that happen the flood of money in this sector will likely dry up quickly, putting pressure on the MFIs and in turn on the borrowers.

It is time that social investors and microfinance proponents scaled back their optimism – both on the impact of microfinance and on its investment potential. Microfinance cannot be immune to the basic rule of finance that risk and return are correlated. Moreover, such high expectations provide incentives to actually undermine both the social impact and potential returns of microfinance. An expectation of growth incentivizes providing loans even to those that cannot use them for anything other than consumption. And an expectation of higher or more consistent returns provides incentives for higher rates, which in turn can lead to indebtedness.

Microfinance investors may be doing damage to their own investments in this manner, by compromising the sustainability of the model. It is time for some realism, because regardless of whether microfinance is good or not endless growth cannot be without consequences – as the subprime crises showed.

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