Interest rate cap will hurt rural families

Phnom Penh Post, 21 March 2017

On March 13, the National Bank of Cambodia announced a major new policy. Starting April 1, all microfinance institution operating in Cambodia will be required to lend at interest rates no higher than 18 percent per year. This is a deeply misguided regulation that will undo over a decade’s worth of successful financial policies.

At the dawn of this century, Cambodia’s financial sector was largely nonexistent. There were no ATMs, few bank branches, and equally few customers. In rural areas, there were no banks at all, and moneylenders held a monopoly on lending.

How times have changed!

Today’s village household has far greater control over its finances and is deeply connected to Cambodia’s growing economy. A farmer can borrow from a microfinance lender to buy seeds and fertiliser and set aside savings to help pay for his kids’ school fees. He can finance a solar panel to charge the phone that lets the family stay in touch with older children in the city, who themselves can send money home to the parents cheaply and reliably. None of this even requires the three-hour trip to town – a loan officer from a microfinance institution visits the village each week, while the village shopkeeper doubles as a microfinance agent who can send and receive payments. This picture is repeated in house after house, village after village, from the outskirts of Phnom Penh to the remotest corners of Cambodia. Today, in rural areas alone, half a million clients hold savings at microfinance institutions, and over a million borrow from them.

The new regulation puts all that under threat. more →

Why 2017 is our Year of Housing

e-MFP, 3 February 2017

Financial Inclusion. Housing.

How often have you seen the two concepts appear together? If you think rarely – you’re not alone. Housing finance is that mysterious niche that crops up from time to time, but rarely makes headlines in our sector. And that’s both a conundrum and a shame.

Housing is a core human need and a top investment priority for families anywhere. Whether rich or poor, housing is often the single largest capital investment these families will ever make, that is to say, it cries out for effective products to help finance it. Unsurprisingly, housing finance is a core of financial services in wealthy nations. Indeed, if you’re over 40, chances are that a home mortgage is the single largest loan that you, dear reader, ever held. And yet in the financial inclusion and microfinance sector, housing gets notoriously short shrift. Habitat for Humanity, the world’s leading NGO dedicated to housing, estimates that while 1.2 billion people need improved shelter, just 2% of microfinance portfolios are dedicated to housing. more →

A Tale of Four IPOs: Is Public Investment in Microfinance Becoming OK Again?

Next Billion, 25 January 2016

Podcast with Anna Kanze, Grassroots Capital Management. more →

Preventing client over-indebtedness in Cambodia

e-MFP, 20 October 2016

This week marks Financial Inclusion Week. In support of this effort to highlight what Financial Inclusion means for the Platform, e-MFP would like to highlight the work being done in Cambodia by its members and partners, including ADA, BIO, FMO, Incofin, and Proparco, as well as by the MIMOSA Project.

From its beginnings as a hotbed of NGO activity to one of the world’s most active microfinance markets today, Cambodia has always traced its own path in the sector. A decade ago, access to finance in Cambodia was minimal. Today, the Cambodia Microfinance Association counts 2 million loans outstanding for a population of 15 million, along with a growing number of deposit accounts, remittances, and other financial products. The Symbiotics MIV 2016 survey reports Cambodia receiving nearly 10% of microfinance investments in the world, second only to India – a country whose population is nearly 100 times larger.

What happens in Cambodia affects across the entire microfinance sector. And on that front, Cambodia is once again tracing its own path. more →

Fake deposits faking microfinance outreach

e-MFP, 20 September 2016

Last week saw two nearly identical financial scandals hit two very different parts of the world. One was the revelation that Wells Fargo, one of the leading US banks, had falsely created some 2 million accounts for customers who never asked for them and were largely unaware of their existence. The other was about banks in India secretly depositing 1 rupee (0.015 euro) into their customer’s accounts.

What’s remarkable is the sheer silliness of the scandals – for the most part, this was not a case of money being stolen or fraudulently taken from customers. Instead, the scandals were being driven by the need to meet targets. In the case of Wells Fargo, staff were under pressure to meet sales goals. In the case of India, the banks needed to comply with government targets aimed at expanding savings accounts to financially excluded populations. In both cases staff managed to meet the targets, while completely missing the objectives the targets were meant to achieve. The financial writer Matt Levine put this brilliantly: “Measurement is sort of an evil genie: It grants your wishes, but it takes them just a bit too literally.”

Naturally, in our line of work, it’s the India scandal that’s most relevant. And frankly, we at e-MFP are not one bit surprised. more →

Opportunity International and MyBucks: The Future of Digital Microfinance?

nextBillion, 21 June 2016

Co-authored with Gabriela Erice Garcia, e-MFP

Back in November 2015, a press release briefly made the rounds, announcing that “Opportunity, Inc. . . . has entered into a share purchase agreement to sell six banks serving sub-Saharan Africa to the MyBucks Group, a Luxembourg-based financial technology (fintech) company.” This generated some comments on LinkedIn and a blog by consultant Hannah Siedek, who recognized how unusual a deal this was and wondered if she should consider it “a good (or not so good) operation.” But aside from this, reaction has been surprisingly muted.

By all accounts, this should have been bigger news for the microfinance sector. One of the major microfinance networks selling six subsidiaries to a fintech startup, and doing so in sub-Saharan Africa – the global hub of innovation in mobile banking. At a time when technology and mobile money are the talk of the sector, how does a story like this pass under the radar? more →

Inexorable growth in Cambodia: Like a rolling stone?

MIMOSA, 10 May 2016

Some lessons are unexpected. Back in 2000, during the height of internet stock craze, I was an amateur manager of a small stock fund consisting of 8 smalltime shareholders who were all my relatives. Being a bit of a contrarian, the fund focused mainly on biotech stocks, which were enjoying quite a strong run, even if not quite as exuberant as dotcom stocks. The fund did well – a roughly 250% return over 3 years, but as always, the lesson was not from this relative success, but from a far larger failure – the missed opportunity to bank a 750% return.

One stock stands out in my mind: Incyte Pharmaceuticals, which I had bought variously when it was trading in the $10-$20 range during 1998-99. By early 2000, it had crossed $100/share and was rapidly heading higher. At the time, I was well aware that there was no fundamental reason behind this runup – it was classic speculation. The question was when to sell? Internally, we had set a target of $150 (at a time when it was nearing $140 and rising rapidly). It was not to be. We sold some weeks later when it had slid down to the $60s…

Call me greedy and stupid. But I learned my lesson – I’m not made for stock trading! More importantly, it was my first introduction to the dangers of inexorable growth, which creates expectations that are difficult to reset and that far too often lead to disaster. more →

Living on the edge in Cambodia – is it worth it?

MIMOSA, 20 January 2016

Since publishing the first MIMOSA report – on Cambodia – I’ve heard one persistent critique.  We say that the market is saturated, yet none of the current indicators appear to support it: repayments are great, there’s no field evidence of widespread overindebtedness, and the major MFIs are all undergoing a process of Smart Certification. How can we assert that Cambodia is at risk of overindebtedness, let alone a credit crisis, when no other indicators seem to support it?

These are important and reasonable questions. But here’s the rub – all the factors that point to a healthy market are either lagging indicators or are too vague or too poorly understood to be used as benchmarks. more →

Is the Global Findex survey overstating growth in financial inclusion?

NextBillion, 11 May 2015

Since it was published a few weeks ago, the 2014 Global Findex financial inclusion report has made a splash in media around the world. The headlines may have differed, but the articles all mention the key finding from the press release published by the World Bank: Massive Drop in Number of Unbanked. According to the Findex survey, which covered more than 150,000 people in 143 economies, the number of people with financial access grew from 51 percent to 62 percent between 2011 and 2014, a shift that reportedly represents a total of 700 million people worldwide.

While we highly appreciate the survey and the light it shines on the state of financial inclusion across the world, we are concerned about the accuracy of this headline finding. The growth it suggests is almost certainly overstated. To illustrate this concern, we suggest an alternative news headline, also based on the survey findings:

Number of Unbanked in U.S. and Eurozone Cut in Half

U.S. unbanked population drops from 12% to 6% in 2011-14; Eurozone cuts number of unbanked from 9 percent to 5 percent, according to report.

If this headline seems removed from reality, that’s because it is. more →

 

Financial Inclusion 2011-14: Massive growth or a mirage?

e-MFP, 27 April 2015

The press release from the World Bank did not hold back:  “Massive Drop in Number of Unbanked,” reads the headline. In just three years, the number of adults with a bank account has grown from 51% to 62% — an increase of 700 million people. That’s a fantastic number!

And that’s the problem. Fantastic is good for children’s bed-time stories. It’s a bit more concerning when it comes to survey data. What’s the story behind this incredible, utterly unprecedented growth?  What happened in these past three years that might explain it? more →