Saturday, August 15, 2009

Micro-finance bubbles and more 

I have argued on this blog against romanticizing micro-finance, especially the notion that MFI's create vast armies of entrepreneurs etc. If it wasn't bad enough that do-gooders cannot get enough of the hype, in recent times capital flows into the sector have led to a bubble building in the market. Sure, Sequoia will make a major exit next year via SKS, but I am not so sure about all the late-comers and insane valuations. The bubble has led to large-scale rollovers, higher levels of indebtedness and so on. I have meant to write about this (time has become an enemy), when I came across two pieces, one in the WSJ and the other in the Economist about the hype machine and the disconnected reality. First, the WSJ has an anecdotal piece from India about a credit bubble.
Today in India, some poor neighborhoods are being "carpet-bombed" with loans, says Rajalaxmi Kamath, a researcher at the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore who studies the issue. In India, microloans outstanding grew 72% in the year ended March 31, 2008, totaling $1.24 billion, according to Sa-Dhan, an industry association in New Delhi. "We fear a bubble," says Jacques Grivel of the Luxembourg-based Finethic, a $100 million investment fund that focuses on Latin America, Eastern Europe and Asia, though it has no exposure to India. "Too much money is chasing too few good candidates."

Here in Ramanagaram, a silk-making city in southern India, Zahreen Taj noticed the change. Suddenly, in the shantytown where she lives, lots of people wanted to loan her money. She borrowed $125 to invest in her husband's vegetable cart. Then she borrowed more. "I took from one bank to pay the previous one. And I did it again," says Ms. Taj, 46 years old. In four years, she took a total of four loans from two microlenders in progressively larger amounts -- two for $209, another for $293, and then $356.

At the height of her borrowing binge, she says, she bought a television set. The arrival of microfinance "increased our desires for things we didn't have," Ms. Taj says. "We all have dreams." Today her house is bare except for a floor mat and a pile of kitchen utensils. By selling her TV, appliances and jewelry, she cut her debt to $94. That's equal to about a fourth of her annual income.
Many of the problems in Indian microlending might sound familiar to students of the U.S. mortgage crisis, which was worsened by so-called "no-documentation" loans and by commission-paid brokers. Similarly in India, microlenders' field officers are often paid on commission, giving them financial incentive to issue more loans, according to Ms. Kamath. Lenders are aware that applicants often lie on their paperwork, says Ujjivan's founder, Samit Ghosh. In fact, he says, Ujjivan's field staffers often know the real story. But his organization maintained a policy of "relying on the information from the customer, rather than our own market intelligence."
It's tough to monitor how borrowers spend their money. Ujjivan used to perform regular "loan utilization checks," but stopped because it was so costly. Now it only checks in with people borrowing more than $310, Mr. Ghosh says.
The Economist piece is not anecdotal and busts a few myths about the "miraculous curing powers" of microfinance. Some background first.
Despite growing interest from private investors, 53% of the $11.7 billion that was committed to the microfinance industry in 2008 still came at below-market rates from aid agencies, multilateral banks and other donors. Given that there are other things that aid money could be spent on, and that the rationale for subsidising microcredit is its effectiveness as an anti-poverty tool, it is important for donors to know whether it has the advertised effects.
Two new papers* apply this idea to measure the effect of access to microcredit. Researchers from the Poverty Action Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) worked with an Indian microfinance firm to ensure that 52 randomly chosen slums in the city of Hyderabad were given access to microfinance, while 52 other slums, which were equally suitable and where the lender was also keen to expand, were denied it. This allowed the researchers to see clearly the effect of microcredit on an entire community. Dean Karlan of Yale University and Jonathan Zinman of Dartmouth College carried out a similar exercise in the Philippines, this time at the level of the individual borrower. They tweaked the credit-scoring software of a microfinance firm so that only a random subset of people with marginal credit histories were accepted as clients. These clients could then be compared with those who sought credit but were denied it.

Broadly speaking, neither study found that microcredit reduced poverty. There was no effect on average household consumption, at least within a year to 18 months of the experiment. The study in the Philippines also measured the probability of being under the poverty line and the quality of food that people ate, and again found no effects. Microcredit may not even be the most useful financial service for the majority of poor people. Only one in five loans in the Hyderabad study actually led to the creation of a new business. Providing people with safe places to store their (small) savings may help them more in the long run.
So, the next time you hear someone mouth off about how micro-finance is going to eradicate poverty, hit that pause button. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.