Muhammad Yunus, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for founding the Grameen Bank and pioneering the concepts of Microfinance, said:
“I did something that challenged the banking world. Conventional banks look for the rich; we look for the absolute poor”
The Microfinance industry, despite being hailed as a saviour of the poor, has had a turbulent ride in many parts of the world. There have been various incidents in the emerging markets where farmers have committed suicide when they haven’t been able to pay off their debts.
As a result, the industry was regulated in some parts of the world, and institutions offering Microfinance had to adopt different credit strategies. While the focus of many of these institutions has moved away from achieving volumes to offering affordable micro-credit, the global average rate of borrowing is about 30%. Microfinance in India has been no different and has had its ups and down. The Demonetisation (DEMON) drive in November 2016 looks like a setback to the primarily cash-based Microfinance industry.
Microfinance in India:
In India, pioneer Micro Finance Institutions (MFI) operated as non-profit, non-governmental organisations with a strong social focus. They developed new credit techniques; instead of requiring collateral, they reduced risk through group guarantees, appraisals of household cash flow and small initial loans to test clients. In recent times, MFIs have transitioned from non-government organisations to nonbanking finance companies (NBFCs). As a result, once primarily donor-led, MFIs are now increasingly funded by banks and private and shareholder equity.
The Indian Microfinance industry hit its peak in 2010, when SKS Microfinance, one of the industry leaders had its IPO. Muhammad Yunus, hailed as the father of the industry, criticised the move as the IPO was fundamentally conflicting with the principles of Microfinance. The IPO offered at $350 million was 13 times over-subscribed. But due to reckless lending and strong-arm collection tactics that followed, strict controls were imposed on the business and loans written off which resulted in a slump. However, over the past few years, regulation of MFIs has been centralised in India and the industry growth stabilised. By 2016 the size of the industry in India was about $8.2 Billion serving over 40 Million customers. About 40% of this industry thrives in the four southern states of India.
In a country traditionally notorious for lack of women empowerment measures, MFI has been a shining light. About 70-80 per cent of the customers are women with a repayment rate of about 95 per cent against repayment rates of about 70 per cent for middle-class men who form the primary borrowers for commercial banks.
In November 2016, the Indian government launched a huge DEMON drive when they banned 500 and 1000 Rupees notes. In a country where 69% of the population lived in rural areas and 90% of the transactions are cash-based, the move was paralysing. For the Microfinance industry, this came as a blow too. Most of the borrowers of the MFIs are based in rural areas; they borrow in cash and repay in cash. Typically, MFIs that have had a repayment rate of 99% have had a fall of up to 12% in repayment rates. For many MFIs the non-performing assets (NPA) have risen by 7-10%.
For a discussion of the impact of DEMON in India please go to this thread on the Fintech Genome.
What does this mean for the MFIs? It might just be a short-term blip, rather than a long-term trend. However, these MFIs could be affected by the DEMON drive, and the resulting non-payments by their borrowers. While the borrowers will have some negative effect on their credit scores, it might be a bigger issue, if that affected the creditworthiness of the MFIs themselves.
What does this mean for the borrowers? Particularly farmers and SMEs that make up most of the customers are affected in a big way. The drying up of liquidity that the DEMON drive has caused has affected cash dependent rural communities in a big way. Especially in the southern states of India, the drought this year has made matters worse. In Karnataka, about 800 farmers committed suicide in the 12 past twelve months due to the drought and mounting debt, although what percentage of that is due to pressures from MFIs is unknown. In TamilNadu, my home state, farmers-suicide due to debt issues is almost a daily occurrence. There have been several cases where farmers have had to borrow from local lenders at higher rates, to pay off the MFIs, as MFIs tend to be stricter on their debt collection dates.
What can be done about all this? While these are certainly tragic incidents, there are various avenues the government and the MFIs have explored and continue to explore. One positive outcome of it all is that the top 8 MFIs in India – which hold about 40% of the market share – have now been provided with small finance bank licenses. This means they can have their own cash out points and the DEMON drive is very likely to increase usage of their accounts. MFIs have also been lobbying with the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) to extend deadlines for the usage of the banned currency notes and farmers have had some special exemptions to this extent. RBI has also provided MFIs with a further 90 days extension before classifying loans as NPAs, if payments were due in November and December 2016. There have been some signs of recovery in certain parts of the country where repayments had fallen immediately after DEMON. However, most industry experts expect that there would be a further increase in NPAs before the industry recovers.
While the industry shows every sign of recovery, the livelihoods of drought-stricken farmers are still up in the air.
PS: I am a big fan of Narendra Modi and his DEMONetisation measures. However, these were some of the unintended effects of such a huge initiative in a land of 1.3 Billion people. The human cost is clearly terrible, yet we have not seen the final chapter in DEMON. If it leads in the end to a more efficient digitized Microfinance industry, it will have a positive impact on the poor in India and will be studied by other countries facing a similar mission.