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 →

Debt, Greece, and Microfinance

e-MFP, 23 March 2015

The microfinance sector has many actors with many different objectives, but if there is one common element that all agree on, it’s that microfinance should not harm the clients. And one of the most important elements of client protection is responsible collections.

To operate as viable enterprises, MFIs must collect on their loans. Inevitably, some clients prove unable to repay. Some cases seem easy – a client has suffered an unexpected tragedy, so an MFI will work to understand her situation and make alternative arrangements to repay the debts, be it a grace period, rescheduling, or even extension of a supplemental loan. But what to do with those cases where a client has simply borrowed too much? What if she did it for a “bad” reason – say, to buy a television? What if a borrower lied by denying that she had other debts? Unfortunately, such situations do happen.

In such cases recovery is still the goal. But one cannot recover money that’s not there. Responsible MFIs don’t press their clients to sell key income-generating assets that they depend on for survival. The key is to find the middle path – maintain pressure to repay, but not so high that the client is pushed into destitution.

So what about Greece? Does the experience of microfinance have any useful lessons for the Greek government and its creditors? more →

The biggest gap in Financial Inclusion? Metrics.

 e-MFP, 27 February 2015

The microfinance sector has been abuzz with the implications of the “final word” study on microcredit impact. For many, including myself, this has been an opportunity to consider a trend that’s been taking place for several years now – from microfinance to financial inclusion. In my last blog, I touched upon the subject of metrics that this new shift requires. I would like to delve deeper.

To use the definition of the Center for Financial Inclusion, “Financial inclusion means that a full suite of financial services is provided, with quality, to all who can use them, by a range of providers, to financially capable clients.”  That encompasses many things, but perhaps more intuitively, financial inclusion means providing serving those who aren’t being served – whether they are too poor, too informal, or too remote.

It’s a compelling goal. Yet the metrics we use to measure progress came from a time when microfinance meant making loans to the poor. They simply are not up to the task of measuring financial inclusion. more →

Microfinance is dead. Long live Microfinance!

e-MFP, 12 February 2015

The verdict is out. Final publication of six randomly-controlled studies (RCTs) has drawn a pretty thick line under the words of David Roodman: the average impact of microcredit on poverty is about zero. The notion that microfinance lifts the poor out of poverty is officially dead.

Now, the caveats. The studies evaluated microcredit only – not savings or payments or insurance. Nor did they cover so-called microfinance-plus programs, which provide training, health care or other interventions, along with credit. It’s quite possible that these or other specialized branches of microfinance practice do raise the living standards of the poor. But, if I may be so bold, even the best of these initiatives are probably less effective than we might have supposed.

This is good news. We in the microfinance community could use some humility. We’re financiers, not doctors, scientists, or teachers. To think that we can alter the lives of millions is hubris. more →

The Mystery of Mexican Microfinance: Client Incomes, Expenses and Debt

e-MFP, 31 October 2014

I’ve been poring over the data collected by the Angelucci, Karlan & Zinman study of Compartamos clients.  To recap from my previous blog, with an average monthly loan payment of 2,100 for the loans in the study (and for Mexican MFIs generally), the figure of 1,572 pesos as the average client income poses a seemingly impossible debt-to-income ratio of 130%.

The immediate question is whether the income figure is reliable. It does seem extremely low, putting the clients below the 3rd income percentile in the country.  Can we get anything more from that data? more →

To Mexico: Days 2-3 and beyond

e-MFP, 24 October 2014

This is part 3 of a 3-part installment from my brief visit to Mexico in October 2014.  Read parts one and two.

The biggest mystery about Mexico is understanding the numbers. They just don’t quite seem to add up. And that’s what was dogging me throughout the visit, including the two days spent in Mexico City talking to various actors in the sector.

I was lucky – it just so happened that ProDesarrollo was releasing its 2013-14 Sector Benchmarking, and I managed to get myself invited to the event.  A great opportunity to network with many actors in the sector at once. I also got to see the presentation of the market figures. At the outset of the trip, I laid out several hypotheses.  It seems to me that there are really only two that matter more than all the rest:  1) the number of unique clients and number of loans they hold, and 2) the profile of the MFI clients on which the market rests. more →

To Mexico, Day 1: Tapachula, Chiapas

e-MFP, 24 October 2014

This is part 2 of a 3-part installment from my brief visit to Mexico in October 2014.  See: parts one and three.

My first stop in Mexico was a place I first heard about nearly two years ago:  Chiapas.  The state is in many ways one of the centers of Mexican microfinance.  According to ProDesarrollo’s 2013-14 Benchmarking, Chiapas is tied with much larger Veracruz for the largest number of the network’s members (32).  The number of MFI branches per population is nearly double the national average.  It’s also Mexico’s least developed state.

In all, I spent about 22 hours in Chiapas.  But even that paltry amount of time can prove revealing. more →