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 →

Can self-regulation protect microfinance clients?

CGAP, 6 February 2013

Last month the Smart Campaign launched its certification program.  For those who care about client protection, this is an important and welcome milestone in what has been an impressive journey, involving a broad spectrum of activities to promote client protection.

In the first post in this series, Philippe Serres describes one such project by the French development organization AFD and the Cambodian Microfinance Association (CMA) to support implementation of the Client Protection Principles, including support for MFIs seeking to undergo the Smart Certification process itself.  Notably, this support comes alongside client protection requirements that funders like AFD, Proparco and FMO  have been incorporating into their financing agreements with MFIs.  Thus, not only are these funders supporting MFIs in their bid to strengthen client protection, they are increasingly making their funding conditional on the implementation of client protection practices.

In many respects, this is an exercise in self-regulation.  The arrival of Smart Certification presents a unique opportunity to take these efforts to the next level and apply this self-regulation to the entire microfinance market in Cambodia and beyond.  Read full article here.

What’s wrong and what’s right about consumer finance?

Financial Access Initiative, 8 May 2012

It’s the microfinance bête noire.  The great unspeakable.  The furtive shadow slinking down the narrow alleys of poverty.  Yes, the consumer loan.  Has microfinance really come to this, we ask?  Helping the poor buy a TV?  Charging 40% interest for the couch to go in front of that TV?  And what about family celebrations, festivals, dowries?  Is that really what microcredit is for?

Consumption lending has been creeping out from the shadows for some time, but mostly for “good” consumption like school fees, urgent medical care, or basic needs like food during those difficult periods when income is scarce.  Still, for many of us the TV-on-credit notion that represents what is so easy to think of as “bad” consumption remains too painful an idea to swallow.

But how to draw the line?  If not the TV, then what about a microwave?  A motorbike?  Plumbing in the home?  Is there a framework one can use to evaluate when consumer credit is acceptable and when it is not?  No less importantly, how does an institution dedicated to serving poor customers decide what type of funding mechanism – savings or credit – is more appropriate for a given purpose?  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 →

Freedom to Default: dealing with overindebtedness when all else fails

Financial Access Initiative, 11 January 2012; Microfinance Focus, 14 January 2012

If there’s one microfinance word that rose above all others in 2011, it’s overindebtedness. As of the time of writing, it racks up the highest count on CGAP blog’s tag cloud (not counting generic terms like “microfinance”).  It seems fitting, then, to start 2012 with a blog post on this very subject.

When we talk about overindebtedness, it usually comes for the perspective of the industry’s responsibility, whether the MFI, funders, or regulators. Prevention of overindebtedness came up as the most widely evaluated client protection principle in the Smart Campaign’s survey of social rating agencies and microfinance investors.

This is, of course, all right and proper. It is the industry’s job to practice responsible lending, and avoiding overindebting clients deserves a place at the top of that agenda. But no matter the level of diligence on the part of lenders and financial education provided to clients, some borrowers will still become overindebted – be it because of bad business decisions, destabilizing macroeconomic shifts, or simply a string of bad luck. So what becomes of clients that, despite best efforts, still become overindebted? more →

Rethinking Multiple Borrowing

Financial Access Initiative, 14 September 2011; MicrofinanceFocus, 15 September 2011

Some time ago, I had a conversation with a microfinance investor.  What is the greatest challenge facing the sector? – I asked.  His answer:  multiple borrowing – multiple borrowing getting people into too much debt; multiple borrowing transforming micro-enterprise lending into consumer finance; multiple borrowing rewriting the traditional relationship between MFIs and their clients.

Of course, multiple borrowing is present in all of these cases.  But thinking about multiple borrowing along these lines misunderstands the basic situation. Multiple borrowing isn’t a reflection of some recent or extreme developments to be ascribed to runaway growth, greed, or willing ignorance.  And despite press articles to the contrary, it is neither a result of heavy market penetration, nor even saturation. No, multiple borrowing is an intrinsic part of the practice, one that has been with us for years. more →