Microcredit: sorting out where the problems lie

The introduction of for-profit operations set the stage for problems. What happened in poor communities began to mirror troubles seen with the U.S. banking system.

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Muhammad Yunus speaks at in Wiesbaden, Germany, in 2009.

The introduction of for-profit operations set the stage for problems. What happened in poor communities began to mirror troubles seen with the U.S. banking system.

For more than 20 years, microcredit has been widely heralded as the remedy for world poverty. Recent news stories, however, have sullied microcredit’s glowing reputation with reports on scandals, exorbitant compensation to managers, skyrocketing interest rates, and aggressive marketing schemes.

Once praised as a universal panacea, microlenders are now being widely attacked as predatory loan sharks. In December 2010, Sheik Hasina Wazed, the prime minister of Bangladesh and former microcredit advocate, accused microcredit programs of “sucking blood from the poor in the name of poverty alleviation.”

What happened?

It turns out there are two very different models of microcredit. As Muhammad Yunus, winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize, pointed out in his Jan. 15, 2011 New York Times op-ed, one type of microcredit program is designed to serve the poor; another to maximize financial returns to program managers and Wall Street investors.

The differences raise crucial questions for the future directions of microfinance. They also help us see where the banking system here in the United States went off course and how we must restructure it to support prosperous Main Street economies.

In 1983 Yunus founded the Grameen Bank, universally cited as the inspiration and model for the global microcredit movement. His purpose was to improve the lives of millions of poor Bangladeshis by making small loans to poor women to fund income-generating microbusinesses.

The basis for the Grameen Bank’s worldwide renown lies in a number of key characteristics that are not widely understood. 

  • Most local branches are self-funded by deposits of their local members in taka, the Bangladesh national currency.
  • By serving as a depository for its members, Grameen Bank allows the poor to build their own financial asset base.
  • The bank extends loans to its members at a maximum interest rate of 20 percent, a fraction of what many other microlenders charge.
  • Operating on a cooperative model, profits are redistributed to the Grameen Bank’s owner-members or are invested in community projects.

These features root the Grameen Bank in the community it serves and keep money, including interest payments, continuously circulating locally to facilitate productive local exchange and build real community wealth.

Microcredit programs seeking to replicate the Grameen model have spread rapidly across the globe. Most, however, replicate only the loan feature. Few provide their members with depository services or replicate the Grameen Bank’s other defining features, though these features are central to its commitment to community wealth building.

As microlending programs became increasingly focused on repayment rates and growing the size of their loan portfolios, they looked for new sources of capital to expand their reach. With encouragement from foreign philanthropists, many turned to foreign commercial equity investors. Since private equity conflicts with the nonprofit model, sometime around 2005 many nonprofit microcredit programs changed their status to for-profit enterprises and converted their philanthropic nonprofit assets into private for-profit assets.

One such micro-finance program was Compartamos in Mexico, which in 2007 launched an initial public stock offering. According to a New York Times article, it charged its borrowers an annual interest rate of near 90 percent, producing a return on equity of more than 40 percent, nearly three times the 15 percent average for Mexican commercial banks. This made Compartamos highly attractive to private equity investors. The public offering brought in $458 million, of which “private Mexican investors, including the bank’s top executives, pocketed $150 million.”

For the groups that turned to Wall Street for financing, the line between social purpose microcredit and predatory loan sharking began to disappear.

Another example is SKS Microfinance in India, whose initial public offering in August 2010 raised $358 million from international investors and yielded its founders stock options worth more than $40 million.

Yunus describes the consequences of such conversions and public sales:

To ensure that the small loans would be profitable for their shareholders, such banks needed to raise interest rates and engage in aggressive marketing and loan collection. The kind of empathy that had once been shown toward borrowers when the lenders were nonprofits disappeared.

For the groups that turned to Wall Street for financing, the line between social purpose microcredit and predatory loan sharking began to disappear, with some programs charging annual interests rates of more than 100 percent. Programs that had raised philanthropic funding to help put money into poor communities became vehicles for sucking wealth out of them to generate financial profits for already wealthy people.

Apologists argue that so long as the Wall Street-funded microcredit programs charge interest rates lower than the local money lenders, they still benefit the poor.

Tara Thiagarajan, Chairperson of Madura Micro Finance, a for-profit microcredit program in India, followed the money and challenged this premise in a thoughtful and self-critical blog:

The local moneylender … may charge a higher interest rate, but being local will probably spend most of that income in the village supporting the overall village economy. So potentially, local lending at higher rates could be more beneficial to the village if the money is in turn spent in the village, compared to lower rates where the money leaves the village.

Because foreign private equity investors expect to recover their investment plus a perpetual flow of profits, the contradictions go even deeper than what Thiagrarajan outlined.

Say an equity investor in the United States buys shares in a microcredit program in India. The investor pays for the shares in U.S. dollars and in turn expects to be paid in U.S. dollars. The microlender, however, does business in Indian rupees.

The dollars, therefore, are exchanged for rupees in the foreign exchange market and become part of India’s foreign exchange pool, which funds consumer imports, machinery, foreign scholarships, capital flight, arms imports, foreign travel, and whatever other uses India may have for dollars—virtually none of which benefit the poor.

A small short-term economic gain can come at a large long-term cost when it is funded with outside debt or equity.

If the microlender meets its profit projections, this creates claims by the foreign investors on India’s foreign exchange reserves potentially many times the amount of the original investment. To fulfill this obligation, India must produce goods and service for sale abroad or sell or mortgage additional assets to foreigners, which creates still greater claims against future foreign exchange earnings. The community in which the borrowers reside will be dealing only in rupees, but faces a similar external drain on its resources to meet the borrowers’ obligations to the lending organization.

Say the microlending supported an increase in village food production. Rather than improving the diets of the workers who produce it, however, a portion of their additional production must be sold to outsiders to generate the rupees to repay their debts.

In return for a short-term inflow of money, both India and the village bind themselves to a long-term outflow of money and real wealth. It is an insidious dynamic that supports a classic pattern of colonization and wealth concentration long characteristic of foreign equity investment and loan funded foreign aid. A small short-term economic gain can come at a large long-term cost when it is funded with outside debt or equity.

The microcredit experience brings to light a larger principle: The institutional structure of a financial system determines where money flows and who benefits. In short, structure determines purpose.

The transformation of microcredit institutions from a model that serves communities to a model that is “sucking blood from the poor in the name of poverty alleviation” mirrors a similar transformation of the U.S. banking system, which occurred through the process of banking deregulation that began in the United States in 1970s.

Throughout the 1940s, 50s, and 60s the United States had a system of locally owned and strictly regulated community banks, mutual savings and loans, and credit unions, many of them organized on a cooperative ownership model much like the Grameen Bank. They were organized and managed to serve the financial needs of the communities in which they were located and kept money flowing within the community in service to community needs.

Banking deregulation over the past 30 years led to a wave of banking mergers and acquisitions that created too-big-to-fail Wall Street banks devoted to maximizing financial returns to Wall Street bankers and financiers. Rather than supporting local wealth creation, the system now sucks money and real resources out of the community. Both the microcredit experience and the aftermath of the 2008 Wall Street financial crash vividly reveal that the values and interests of Wall Street stand in fundamental opposition to those of Main Street.

Financial institutions can serve communities in pursuit of a better life for all or they can serve global markets to maximize financial returns to Wall Street bankers and financiers. They cannot serve both.

The world does not need more predatory lenders in service to Wall Street. We all need more local, cooperatively owned community banks on the model of Grameen.

This article is reprinted with permission from YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization based on Bainbridge Island.


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