economics

April 15, 2010

Banks Making Big Profits From Tiny Loans

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In recent years, the idea of giving small loans to poor people became the darling of the development world, hailed as the long elusive formula to propel even the most destitute into better lives.

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Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times

In Mexico City, Maria Vargas has borrowed larger and larger amounts from Compartamos, a Mexican firm, over the past two decades to expand her T-shirt factory to 25 sewing machines from 5. More Photos »

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Actors like Natalie Portman and Michael Douglas lent their boldface names to the cause. Muhammad Yunus, the economist who pioneered the practice by lending small amounts to basket weavers in Bangladesh, won a Nobel Peace Prize for it in 2006. The idea even got its very own United Nations year in 2005.

But the phenomenon has grown so popular that some of its biggest proponents are now wringing their hands over the direction it has taken. Drawn by the prospect of hefty profits from even the smallest of loans, a raft of banks and financial institutions now dominate the field, with some charging interest rates of 100 percent or more.

“We created microcredit to fight the loan sharks; we didn’t create microcredit to encourage new loan sharks,” Mr. Yunus recently said at a gathering of financial officials at the United Nations. “Microcredit should be seen as an opportunity to help people get out of poverty in a business way, but not as an opportunity to make money out of poor people.”

The fracas over preserving the field’s saintly aura centers on the question of how much interest and profit is acceptable, and what constitutes exploitation. The noisy interest rate fight has even attracted Congressional scrutiny, with the House Financial Services Committee holding hearings this year focused in part on whether some microcredit institutions are scamming the poor.

Rates vary widely across the globe, but the ones that draw the most concern tend to occur in countries like Nigeria and Mexico, where the demand for small loans from a large population cannot be met by existing lenders.

Unlike virtually every Web page trumpeting the accomplishments of microcredit institutions around the world, the page for Te Creemos, a Mexican lender, lacks even one testimonial from a thriving customer — no beaming woman earning her first income by growing a soap business out of her kitchen, for example. Te Creemos has some of the highest interest rates and fees in the world of microfinance, analysts say, a whopping 125 percent average annual rate.

The average in Mexico itself is around 70 percent, compared with a global average of about 37 percent in interest and fees, analysts say. Mexican microfinance institutions charge such high rates simply because they can get away with it, said Emmanuelle Javoy, the managing director of Planet Rating, an independent Paris-based firm that evaluates microlenders.

“They could do better; they could do a lot better,” she said. “If the ones that are very big and have the margins don’t set the pace, then the rest of the market follows.”

Manuel Ramírez, director of risk and internal control at Te Creemos, reached by telephone in Mexico City, initially said there had been some unspecified “misunderstanding” about the numbers and asked for more time to clarify, but then stopped responding.

Unwitting individuals, who can make loans of $20 or more through Web sites like Kiva or Microplace, may also end up participating in practices some consider exploitative. These Web sites admit that they cannot guarantee every interest rate they quote. Indeed, the real rate can prove to be markedly higher.

Debating Microloans’ Effects

Underlying the issue is a fierce debate over whether microloans actually lift people out of poverty, as their promoters so often claim. The recent conclusion of some researchers is that not every poor person is an entrepreneur waiting to be discovered, but that the loans do help cushion some of the worst blows of poverty.

“The lesson is simply that it didn’t save the world,” Dean S. Karlan, a professor of economics at Yale University, said about microlending. “It is not the single transformative tool that proponents have been selling it as, but there are positive benefits.”

Still, its earliest proponents do not want its reputation tarnished by new investors seeking profits on the backs of the poor, though they recognize that the days of just earning enough to cover costs are over.

“They call it ‘social investing,’ but nobody has a definition for social investing, nobody is saying, for example, that you have to make less than 10 percent profit,” said Chuck Waterfield, who runs mftransparency.org, a Web site that promotes transparency and is financed by big microfinance investors.

Making pots of money from microfinance is certainly not illegal. CARE, the Atlanta-based humanitarian organization, was the force behind a microfinance institution it started in Peru in 1997. The initial investment was around $3.5 million, including $450,000 of taxpayer money. But last fall, Banco de Credito, one of Peru’s largest banks, bought the business for $96 million, of which CARE pocketed $74 million.

“Here was a sale that was good for Peru, that was good for our broad social mission and advertising the price of the sale wasn’t the point of the announcement,” Helene Gayle, CARE’s president, said. Ms. Gayle described the new owners as committed to the same social mission of alleviating poverty and said CARE expected to use the money to extend its own reach in other countries.

The microfinance industry, with over $60 billion in assets, has unquestionably outgrown its charitable roots. Elisabeth Rhyne, who runs the Center for Financial Inclusion, said in Congressional testimony this year that banks and finance firms served 60 percent of all clients. Nongovernmental organizations served 35 percent of the clients, she said, while credit unions and rural banks had 5 percent of the clients.

Private capital first began entering the microfinance arena about a decade ago, but it was not until Compartamos, a Mexican firm that began life as a tiny nonprofit organization, generated $458 million through a public stock sale in 2007, that investors fully recognized the potential for a windfall, experts said.

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