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 →

A Giant Stumbles: Why did investors abandon Blue Orchard?

Microfinance Focus, 10 December 2012; microDinero (Spanish), 12 December 2012

Over the past 18 months, one of the microfinance sector’s largest and most prominent funds, Blue Orchard’s Dexia Micro-Credit Fund (recently renamed Blue Orchard Microfinance Fund), saw a major outflow of investor capital, with some $268 million or nearly 50% of the fund’s peak value having been redeemed.  The scale of these outflows is unprecedented in the sector.  For years, investment capital largely flowed one way:  in.  The exit doors were there, but rarely used.  That is no longer the case.  The pioneer of the microfinance investment industry has now crossed another milestone in the industry’s development.

Like Dexia, many microfinance funds (commonly referred to as Microfinance Investment Vehicles or MIVs) are subject to unscheduled redemptions.  For those funds, their investors, as well as others in the sector, BlueOrchard’s experience holds important lessons, and it is those lessons that this article hopes to convey. more →

Repairing a Tarnished Image: a Plea for Transparency in Indian Microfinance

MicrofinanceFocus, 28 March 2012

Last month, the headlines of the world’s papers read déjà vu.  “Suicides in India linked to microfinance debt.”  “SKS Microfinance implicated in farmer suicides.”  The headlines may have differed, but the article was one and the same, penned by Erika Kinetz of the Associated Press.  SKS was appalled, calling the report “libelous” and “scurrilous.”

For what it’s worth, the damage has been minimal.  SKS stock slid 4.25% on the day of the article, but recovered within a few days of trading.  The slide shows little distinction from its already volatile trading pattern (Figure 1).  Of course bad news can also cause lenders and investors to take a second look, or simply slow things down.  One MFI manager told me of exactly this very reaction on the part of an Indian bank in the immediate days after the AP article.  But the story got relatively little press in India, and no follow-up of significance.  By now it’s reasonable to say that the microfinance sector in India can breathe a sigh of relief. Seeing bad news get swept back under the carpet can be quite satisfying, even if the stink remains. more →

Unstable Core: is the funding of the Indian microfinance sector structurally flawed?

MicrofinanceFocus, 27 December 2011

On October 14, 2010, the Andhra Pradesh government issued an Ordinance that effectively shut down the microfinance market in the state.  That shutdown continues to this day, with collections at negligible levels.  It’s clear that the AP microfinance market is dead and will not recover for years.

Important as AP has been to India microfinance, it is not everything.  Despite the year-long crisis, repayment rates in other states remain strong.  And though AP-oriented MFIs have been seriously or even terminally wounded, others have remained unscathed.

Despite this, in the intervening period funding for MFIs – largely dependent on a handful of Indian state and commercial banks – has persisted in a state of severe liquidity deficit.  more →

Microfinance in Crisis: the Case of the Hidden City

Co-authored with Karuna Krishnaswamy; MicrofinanceFocus, 25 January 2011

Hyderabad has gone missing.  And it seems nobody has noticed the absence.  While academics and the press were scouring the villages of Andhra Pradesh in search of over-indebted borrowers and debt-induced suicides, and while politicians in the villages and government halls were busy protecting their beloved SHGs (and the vote banks they provide), Hyderabad up and vanished, leaving apparently no trace of its prior existence.

Naturally, we are referring not to the physical city, but to its microfinance market, as well as those of other cities in Andhra Pradesh.  Make no mistake – microfinance lending in urban AP has been widespread, outpacing even that of the countryside.  And yet, there seems to be little recognition of its existence and how it has been affected by the current crisis.  more →

Preparing for Failure: Strategies for Challenging Times

MicrofinanceFocus, 8 November 2010

The crisis in Andhra Pradesh has highlighted how exposed MFIs are to mass non-payments.  Industry insiders have suggested that even some of the largest MFIs simply might not survive if the crisis is not resolved soon.  And if that were to happen, is the industry prepared to deal with the process of unwinding one of these giants?

The top MFIs in India are large by any standard, with assets in the multiple $100s of millions, most of which are held in the form of outstanding microcredits.  Once an MFI is hobbled to the point that it cannot survive as a going concern, what happens to these assets?  Experience from other MFIs suggests that prospects for recouping them are not good. more →