Next Meeting: January 21, 2010

January 21, 2010

The next meeting will be Thursday, January 21, 2010, 7:30 PM, 90 Park Avenue, Belmont, MA. Ben Forrest will be leading a discussion on microcredit.

Tiny Loans Have Big Impact on Poor
Some Fear Profit Motive to Trump Poverty Efforts in Microfinance
Does Microcredit Really Help Poor People?

Other websites to visit:
General Microfinance Articles from The New York Times

More Articles:
A place in society
You might suppose that financial innovation had done enough damage. But bankers, investors and philanthropists believe it can help the world’s poor
© The Economist

Sep 25th 2009 | NEW YORK
From The Economist print edition
Acumen Fund

MANY nodded when Lord Turner, the City of London’s chief regulator, said recently that the financial industry had grown “beyond its socially useful size”. The idea that devices such as collateralised debt obligations and credit-default swaps have been a blessing, not least by allowing the less well-off to buy houses, is in tatters: lots of those new homeowners have lost their houses as well as their jobs. It is remarkable, then, that the crisis should have given fresh impetus to “social finance”, a movement based on the belief that financial innovation can be used directly to help society’s neediest people.

Two events this month should give believers in social finance a lift. On September 1st nearly 900 people, from institutional investors to social entrepreneurs, gathered in San Francisco for SoCap09, a conference dedicated to building “social capital markets”. The event was abuzz with novel ideas such as a “social stock exchange” and “sustainable hedge funds”.

And on September 25th, at the meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative in New York, the Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN) was due to be launched. This is, in effect, a commitment to create a new asset class—impact investing—yielding a financial return alongside a social or environmental benefit. The network’s 20 or so members include big banks (Citigroup, Deutsche Bank, JPMorgan), philanthropic institutions (such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation), the Acumen Fund, which invests charitable donations in firms supplying health care, clean water and so forth in Africa and India, and Generation Investment Management, a green-tinged fund manager co-founded by Al Gore.
GIIN and tonic

The GIIN’s goal is to share information on what works and what does not, to agree on common language and measures of performance, and to lobby for helpful laws and regulations. The creation of just such an organisation was a priority set out earlier this year in a report by the Monitor Institute, the research arm of Monitor, a firm of management consultants. If this group succeeds, the report argued, within five to ten years impact investing could grow to $500 billion, around 1% of the world’s total assets under management in 2008.

The rising interest in social finance is the product of several trends. First, the financial industry and its clients spy a way of making money and doing good at the same time. Many impact investments are in emerging economies, which are expected to grow faster than developed ones. They may be uncorrelated with other assets and thus offer diversification and reduced risk. Impact investments such as the Calvert Community Investment Note (a bond) have performed relatively well during the recent crisis, fuelling demand for them. Bankers also detect a chance to give their image a badly needed polish. Philanthropy plays a part too—especially, it seems, for super-rich investors.

Second, more people want to do well by doing good. Specialised intermediaries have sprung up, including several “social investment banks”, such as Total Impact Advisors, which is supported by Calvert Foundation, a pioneer of impact investing, and Social Finance, recently founded in Britain. Social-enterprise clubs are now among the biggest student organisations in leading business schools.

Third, there is a growing demand for private capital and skills to be tapped to supply the basics of life and to get small businesses going. Government spending and philanthropy are not enough. Fourth, governments are providing encouragement. America’s controversial Community Reinvestment Act stimulated investment in poor neighbourhoods (too much, critics say). The State Department is expected to give financial support for the GIIN’s efforts to create useful measures of social impact. The British government has given tax breaks and introduced more helpful regulations for private investment in social projects, as recommended by the Social Investment Task Force it established in 2000. In the Netherlands legislation has encouraged green investing.

Social investing is not new. People have been practising it for years. Perhaps the commonest form has been to apply an ethical screen to a portfolio, filtering out the securities of tobacco firms, arms companies, casinos, big polluters and other sinners. The merits of this are disputed; it may do more to make investors feel good than to make companies do good. But according to the Monitor Institute, almost $7 trillion of assets are screened in some way.

The other main forms of social investment have been “community development” (especially low-cost housing), microfinance (loans and other financial services for the poor) and “clean” technology. Community investment grew at an annual rate of 22% in America in 2001-07, reaching $26 billion. It has been picking up in Europe, too. Microfinance has grown even faster. The total volume of microloans went up by 44% a year in 2001-06, to $25 billion. Clean-tech investment soared by 60% in 2007 alone, to $148 billion—although it has since slipped because of the financial crisis and because cheaper oil made alternative energy less alluring.

What is new is the interest of mainstream financial institutions and investors. Microfinance has been a particular inspiration to the GIIN set, because what was once a charitable activity has become, in some instances, a highly profitable business. More and more microfinance institutions are tapping conventional capital markets through securitisation, arranged by banks such as Citigroup, and even share offerings. Compartamos Banco, a Mexican microfinance firm that became a for-profit company after starting as a charity, had a hugely successful initial public offering in 2007. Sequoia Capital, a prominent Silicon Valley venture-capital firm, is likely to profit handsomely from its investment in SKS, an Indian microfinance company that is expected to float shares soon.

A growing number of investors are trying to repeat the microfinanciers’ success, but in equity rather than loans. One example is IGNIA, an investment firm founded in 2007 by Alvaro Rodriguez Arregui, a former chairman of Accion, a non-profit network of microfinance institutions that did nicely from its stake in Compartamos Banco, and Michael Chu, formerly of Kohlberg, Kravis & Roberts, a blue-chip private-equity firm. IGNIA is raising a $75m fund, which it plans to invest in for-profit businesses in areas such as basic health care (it has already backed Primedic, a Mexican clinic chain), organic food, housing, water purification and energy. Another example is GroFin, which invests mostly in African small businesses. It was incubated by the philanthropic arm of Royal Dutch Shell, a giant oil company, but has since turned commercial. In 2008 it established its biggest fund by far, which had $170m at final closing.
Acumen Fund Tapping social finance

A more innovative idea, perhaps, is the “social impact bond”, the brainchild of Social Finance. The idea is to attract private capital into solving a deep-rooted problem that is soaking up public money. Take, for example, reoffending by released prisoners, which costs the British government millions of pounds a year. A social-impact bond could raise money to pay for the expansion of organisations with the expertise to reduce reoffending rates. The more money the organisations save the government, the higher the return the bond would pay investors. This goes beyond a standard public-private partnership, which is expected to provide the same service as the state, but more cheaply. The social-impact bond would reward better social outcomes and not merely cut costs.

Social Finance thinks that the social-impact bond could be tried out in several public services. Besides being used to tackle reoffending, it could reduce the need for children to be put in residential care, or improve community-based health care, easing the strain on hospitals. The key is to measure performance clearly, so that contracts can be enforced. “With government budgets increasingly tight, this could be a major innovation,” says Sir Ronald Cohen, who made his money in private equity before chairing the Social Investment Task Force as well as the commission, backed by charities, that proposed the creation of Social Finance.

Similar ideas are getting attention around the world. Notably, several efforts are under way to replicate an international finance facility for immunisation known as the GAVI bond. This was created in 2006 to allow the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation, a partnership of public and private sectors, to borrow against government promises of future aid to fund vaccination programmes. So far it has raised more than $2 billion. The World Sanitation Financing Facility has been created to devise financial structures to enlist private investment in seven areas from public toilets to fertiliser production.

The financial industry may be providing the rocket science, but the backing of rich philanthropists is an essential source of fuel. The Rockefeller Foundation has been the principal force behind the creation of the GIIN. Meanwhile, the Gates Foundation, a keen supporter of the GIIN, has begun an experiment in using financial innovation to generate extra investment in its favoured causes. The foundation has created a $400m facility to see if various innovations can entice considerably larger sums (two to five times as much) from governments and private investors to help the organisations to which it gives grants. These innovations do not count as conventional gifts or as loans. They are contingent liabilities against the foundation’s balance-sheet, which in effect cost nothing except in some worst cases.

One idea is to provide a guarantee to charter schools issuing bonds, helping other investors overcome what may be excessive risk aversion. Or the foundation might provide insurance against the non-payment of aid promised by a donor, so that a government will know that, one way or another, the money will come. It is also looking for innovative ways to encourage private-equity and venture-capital investments in, say, infrastructure projects in countries where it is making grants.

The foundation hopes this will encourage other providers of capital to overcome their fears and put their money at risk. Alex Friedman, its chief financial officer, says: “We want to show the private capital markets that there is money in this, that it is a sustainable business.” The new approach will “let the foundation operate almost like a merchant bank for the poor”, a model it believes can be widely imitated.

Whether this idea and the GIIN initiative will succeed remains to be seen. Measuring social impact, for instance, is difficult but necessary. Some investors have naive expectations of the sorts of risks and financial returns of investing in, say, small and medium enterprises in developing countries, says Shari Berenbach, the chief executive of Calvert Foundation—though she sees potential in impact investing.

Sir Ronald is optimistic. “This reminds me of private equity in the early 1980s, just before it started to grow,” he says. It was only when the disparate private-equity firms got together and formed a network that things really took off, not least because they began to standardise and speak with one voice to regulators about what the industry needed to thrive. He hopes the same will now be true of impact investing. As a participant in the GIIN puts it, the real test will be “whether people put their money where their mouth is. Will you see deals done together?”


Froth at the bottom of the pyramid
Is microfinance going the same way as subprime mortgages?

Aug 25th 2009
© The Economist

THE notion, popularised by C.K. Prahalad’s best-seller, “The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid”, that poor people should be seen as potentially profitable customers rather than mere charity cases, has caught on fast in the past few years. Finding profitable ways to meet the needs of poor people, the idea goes, would not only empower them by making them customers rather than supplicants, it would also attract far more capital than would ever be forthcoming from charity. For the providers of this capital, catering to the bottom of the pyramid promised to be good for the soul as well as the wallet.

A growing number of investors have taken the chance, investing in bottom-of-the-pyramid businesses, of which by far the most popular to date is microfinance—providing loans and other financial services to people ignored as too poor by the traditional banking system. Yet as this idea has spread, it has become increasingly controversial.
Reuters Still plenty of demand

The first line of attack, taken up by such luminaries as Muhammad Yunus, the Nobel Peace prize-winning founder of the non-profit microfinance institution, Grameen Bank, is to accuse for-profit providers of charging their poor customers too much. Compartamos Banco, a Mexican microfinance firm that had a successful initial public offering (IPO) in 2007, has been denounced by Mr Yunus and others for charging interest rates of close to 100% a year.

Now a second line of attack has been launched, in which for-profit microfinance firms are accused of lending recklessly to people too poor to repay the loans. An article in the Wall Street Journal on August 13th, “A Global Surge in Tiny Loans Spurs Credit Bubble in a Slum”, reported on a “repayment revolt” by over-indebted borrowers in the Indian shanty town of Ramanagaram, in the state of Karnataka, which had been “carpet-bombed” with loans from microfinance firms. This, the article continued, was evidence of a “credit crisis brewing” in microfinance. Moreover, it continued, ominously, “many of the problems in Indian microlending might sound familiar to students of the US mortgage crisis.”

Are microfinance loans the new subprime mortgages? The Journal article certainly contains plenty of echoes of the American mortgage-lending binge in the middle of this decade, including loans made without any proof of income from borrowers by loan officers on commission. And, in contrast to the classic image of microfinance as a source of credit for “microentrepreneurs” to expand their small businesses and thus grow their way out of poverty, it also described loans being used to finance shopping sprees, or to pay off loans from other lenders, including loan sharks.

Moreover, claims of a bubble are particularly worrying in India at the moment, as it has recently overtaken Latin America as the world’s most dynamic microfinance market, especially for for-profit microfinance. Some 22m Indians are now served by microfinance institutions, and outstanding credit has been growing at over 50% a year.

In a lengthy response to the article, Vikram Akula, founder of SKS, one of India’s largest microfinance lenders, complained that it was “unbalanced and misleading”, making an “absurd” sweeping generalisation based on anecdotal information from one neighbourhood. Mr Akula would say that, especially as his for-profit firm, backed by venture capital from Silicon Valley, is expected to go public soon in a doubtless lucrative IPO. But he makes a compelling case nonetheless.
Microfinance institutions in India have repayment rates of over 95%, suggesting that only a few borrowers are struggling with the debt they have taken on

First, microfinance institutions in India have repayment rates of over 95% (in SKS’s case, 99%), which suggests that only a small proportion of borrowers are struggling with the debt they have taken on. Second, repayment problems in Ramanagaram may reflect specific local issues, ranging from a cyclical downturn in the silk industry to patriarchal opposition to the financial empowerment of women (who account for a majority of borrowers from microfinance outfits around the world). According to the Journal, there was strong opposition to microfinance from Muslim clerics in the town.

Moreover, the authors of an academic study cited in the article themselves admit that it was “difficult” for them to tell the difference between a rise in credit due to excessive supply or surging demand. And if borrowers are using their loans to pay off other loans that charge higher interest rates, “this is not necessarily a bad thing”. Quite.

As for comparisons with America’s subprime mortgage mess, Mr Akula claims that the majority of Indian microfinance institutions, including SKS, do not incentivise their loan officers to make larger loans. SKS requires all its borrowers to undertake three hours of “financial-literacy training”, and to pass a test showing that they understand interest rates, loan instalments and other product features, before the loan is made. Although Mr Akula concedes that not all microfinance lenders are as thorough in ensuring that their borrowers are capable of repaying, there may be lessons here for lenders in America and other rich countries.

Indeed, contrary to the frothy picture painted in the Journal article, one of the reasons that for-profit investors have become interested in microfinance is the evidence that its performance has been far more predictable than many other sorts of lending (although some international investors have been caught out by ignoring warnings about the exchange-rate risk of foreign microfinance securities).

Weighing up the evidence, Jonathan Morduch of New York University, a co-author of “Portfolios of the Poor”, an excellent new book on the finances of people in the developing world, says that “the problem of a microcredit bubble should not be dismissed”. Lenders operate with very limited information—there is an urgent need for credit bureaus in the developing world—and so do sometimes over-lend. Even Mr Yunus’s non-profit Grameen Bank had a repayment crisis in the late 1990s in part because it was “moving too much money out of the door too quickly—and their clients couldn’t absorb it,” says Mr Morduch.

Moreover, he predicts that “there will likely be a big microfinance failure some place, bigger than what we have seen to date.” Yet, Mr Morduch concludes, although today there may be localised bubbles in microfinance, “I don’t see any evidence at all for something like a global bubble.”

Indeed, the real story of the past year may be of a regrettable slowdown in the growth of microfinance. According to ACCION International, a global network of microfinance schemes, although there are isolated pockets of frothy lending—in Bosnia and Nicaragua, for example—the microfinance industry has not been entirely immune from the credit crisis, and growth has slowed due to weaker demand and funding difficulties.

The bottom line at the bottom of the pyramid is that financial services remain shockingly scarce. “I have a hard time to see how there can be a bubble when the microfinance industry still has not served 90% of its clients,” says Álvaro Rodríguez Arregui, a former chairman of ACCION and now chairman of Compartamos Banco. He estimates that there are currently 100m microfinance clients out of one billion poor people who want access to financial services.

Mr Rodríguez thinks that occasional local bubbles may even be better than bubble-free growth. “It is great to have a gold rush because that is the only way to develop a competitive industry. When entrepreneurs rush into an industry, you get innovation, efficiencies, more product offerings and better pricing, with the ultimate beneficiary being the customers.” As he points out, “before the Compartamos IPO, there were 200 microfinance institutions in Mexico, today there are 800. Which is great!”


New York Times:
April 5, 2008
Microfinance’s Success Sets Off a Debate in Mexico

VILLA DE VÁZQUEZ, Mexico — Carlos Danel and Carlos Labarthe turned a nonprofit that lent money to Mexico’s poor into one of the country’s most profitable banks.

But not all of their colleagues in the world of microlending — so named for the tiny loans it grants — are heaping praise on the co-executives of Compartamos. Some are vilifying them as “pawnbrokers” and “money lenders.”

They are the center of a fractious debate: how far should microfinance go toward becoming big business?

At one end stand traditional microlenders, like the economist Muhammad Yunus, founder of the most famous microlender, the Grameen Bank, and winner of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize. At the other are the Two Carloses, as they are widely known in this tight-knit world that gave them their start as starry-eyed idealists.

Microlenders, the original and still the most common type of microfinance organization, help the poor start or expand businesses in places most banks shun, like the slums of Calcutta or these impoverished hills in Mexico’s sugar cane country, three hours south of Mexico City. Their efforts are widely considered successful in transforming the lives of developing-world entrepreneurs, particularly women, and their families.

Many microlending advocates, including Mr. Yunus, say that success is threatened by Mr. Danel and Mr. Labarthe’s market-oriented model, with its emphasis on investor returns.

“Microfinance started in the 1970s with a focus on using this breakthrough to help end poverty,” said Sam Daley-Harris, director of the Microcredit Summit Campaign, a nonprofit endeavor that promotes microfinance for families earning less than $1 a day. “Now it is in great danger of being how well the investors and the microfinance institutions are doing and not about ending poverty.” He said the situation posed the danger of “mission drift.”

Mr. Danel and Mr. Labarthe say microfinance will help more poor people by tapping the boundless pool of investor capital rather than the limited pool of donor money.

“It’s marvelous to have one creditor but it’s marvelous to have one million creditors,” Mr. Labarthe said, “and that’s where we really start to change the face of opportunity.”

Compartamos (“let’s share” in Spanish) expects to reach one million borrowers this year. Its profits are healthy, some $80 million last year, and its portfolio has grown to almost $400 million. Since it went public nearly a year ago, return on equity has been more than 40 percent.

Both sides agree that there is a need for capital, too great to be met by the donor groups that initially financed microlending. Deutsche Bank estimates the global demand for microfinance loans at about $250 billion, 10 times the amount that has been lent.

But Compartamos’s decision to go public last April became a flashpoint in what had been a genteel debate over how microfinance could tap into the financial markets’ vast resources. The initial public offering gets special mention at every microfinance conference, and has been condemned by Mr. Yunus, the Nobel laureate.

Alex Counts, president of the Washington-based Grameen Foundation, said Compartamos’s poor clients “were generating the profits but they were excluded from them.”

Lynne Patterson, a founder of Pro Mujer, a nonprofit microfinance group with branches in several Latin American countries, agrees. “We use the profit to reinvest in the service of the clients,” she said, referring to loan repayment profits.

Since lack of access to credit is just one of the problems the poor face, Pro Mujer also offers services like breast cancer screenings, advice on dealing with domestic violence and financial education.

Still, in three decades microfinance has evolved — from small nongovernmental organizations lending $50 to women to buy sewing machines or fruit to sell at market to, in some cases, formal banks that cover costs and grow through profits, like any business.

On Wall Street, investment banks package microfinance loans to sell to institutional investors, many of them “socially responsible” and looking for steady returns rather than trading profits. A few equity funds have even taken stakes in microfinance institutions.

Critics say that Compartamos manages its business to benefit its investors, not its borrowers. The bank began as a nongovernmental organization in 1990, started by a Catholic social action group called Gente Nueva, whose inspiration was a visit by Mother Teresa to Mexico.

After Compartamos became a for-profit company in 2000, costs fell as efficiencies increased, but the bank kept interest rates high. On average, customers pay an annual interest rate of almost 90 percent, which includes 15 percent in government tax. In much of the world, microfinance interest rates range from 25 to 45 percent. But in Mexico, high costs, inefficiency and limited competition keep interest rates much higher. Compartamos’s rates are only a few percentage points higher than Pro Mujer’s, for example.

Like microfinance businesses around the world, Compartamos makes loans without collateral. Its borrowers, who are nearly all women, are organized in groups, which guarantee the loans. Stop paying and your friends must pay for you: the system keeps default rates down.

Historically, microlenders point out, such borrowers are excellent risks. For instance, Compartamos’s nonperforming loans were just 1.36 percent of its portfolio at the end of last year.

Servicing those loans takes labor and that pushes up rates on such small amounts. A Compartamos collection agent visits each group every week, riding public buses out to villages.

Compartamos is more efficient than other Mexican microfinance institutions and its own borrowing costs are lower, thanks to its strong credit rating. Critics charge that it has not passed those savings on to its customers.

The numbers seem to bear that out. A study last year by the Consultative Group to Assist the Poor, known as CGAP, a microfinance industry group based at the World Bank, estimated that 23.6 percent of Compartamos’s interest income went to profits. Its return on average equity is more than triple the 15 percent average for Mexican commercial banks.

Profit is not a dirty word in the microfinance world. The question is how much is appropriate. CGAP estimates the average return on assets for self-sufficient organizations to be 5.5 percent. The figure for Compartamos was 19.6 percent in the fourth quarter.

Mr. Danel said Compartamos’s interest rates have fallen 30 percentage points over the last five years. “They go down based on efficiencies, and we pass this benefit on to the customer,” he said.

Compartamos grew to 840,000 customers last year, from 60,000 in 2000.

Last April, Compartamos’ owners sold 30 percent of their stock on the Mexican stock market in an initial public offering. The public offering brought in $458 million. Private Mexican investors, including the bank’s top executives, pocketed $150 million from the sale. More than half of the public offering proceeds went back to development institutions that had invested in Compartamos when it moved from being a nonprofit to a commercial venture in 2000.

One of them was Acción International, a Boston-based nongovernmental organization that helps build microcredit institutions and provides them with technical assistance. Acción invested $1 million in Compartamos in 2000. It sold half its 18 percent stake at the time of the public offering for $135 million.

“This is one strategy to address poverty that doesn’t remain small and beautiful,” said María Otero, president of Acción.

Charles Waterfield, a microfinance consultant who has been among the most vocal critics of Compartamos’s model, disagrees. “Not only are they making obscene profits off poor people, they are in danger of tarnishing the rest of the industry,” he said. “Compartamos is the first but they won’t be the last.”

There has not been a rush to market yet. In part, the subprime mortgage debacle and the ensuing selloff on global markets has made this a poor time for initial public offerings. Compartamos has not escaped the turmoil; its stock price is up nearly 17 percent since the offering, but down 32 percent from its high last July.

Those who argue for more such public offerings say that Compartamos set the right example.

“Boy, you got a lot of people’s attention with that I.P.O.,” said Bob Pattillo, who runs Gray Ghost, a fund that invests in microfinance. “This has got Wall Street’s eye, London’s eye, Geneva’s eye — to have one out there to say that if all the dots got connected this can be quite profitable.”

Mr. Danel and Mr. Labarthe argue that successful microlenders in a middle-income country like Mexico should use the capital markets, instead of crowding out donations.

As part of their defense, they argue that Compartamos’s success has prompted a number of institutions, including traditional banks and retailers, to start offering financial products to the poor. “We don’t only see ourselves as a specialist in microfinance but also as the builder of an industry,” Mr. Danel said.

Compartamos estimates that its target market is 14 million households, more than half of the country’s population, most of them with little or no access to banking services.

At the recent weekly meeting of a group of Compartamos borrowers in the village of Valle de Vázquez, the interest rate was not a great concern. Indeed, several women said they had left another microfinance institution because it charged more.

The group was well established, 35 strong and well into its third year of borrowing. The meeting, which took place in the living room of one borrower’s home, was the start of a new four-month borrowing cycle.

A Compartamos manager, Claudia Ayala, began with a pep talk, pointing to a house plant set on a chair beside her. “This plant grows and this group can grow,” she said to the women, who were listless in the afternoon heat. “How? By inviting more compañeras,” or friends. “By fertilizing it with responsibility,” she said.

Though the village depends largely on remittances sent by relatives in the United States, the Compartamos loans have helped some women become self-sufficient.

Silvina Martínez started a little restaurant in her house a year ago to sell her homemade snacks to students at a nearby high school. It has grown steadily since then. With this cycle, she was going to borrow about $1,100 to paint the restaurant and expand her menu. “It’s my own business,” she said. “You are a slave to it, but at least it’s mine.”

Other women were successful entrepreneurs to start with, but the Compartamos credit gives them a push, allowing them to hire an employee or help ease their cash flow.

Alejandra Abúndez, 57, keeps pigs and cattle, and produces 330 pounds of cheese a day, which she sells in the local market. She and her daughter, Micaela Rivera, were borrowing $3,550 from Compartamos to buy animal feed and to stock the tiny store in her front entryway.

“Everything I have, I invest,” said Ms. Abúndez, who was left a widow with five children at 35. “No gadding about for me.”


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