One of the more difficult things to understand about the microfinance institutions we’ve investigated is the “true” interest rate they’re charging their borrowers. In July 2009, David Roodman of the Center for Global Development wrote:
It appears that many MFIs impose subtle fees that effectively raise interest rates. Some charge one-time loan origination fees. Some require borrowers to deposit a percentage of each loan amount with the MFI in a savings account that pays interest at a rate lower than that on the loan. Some overcharge for credit-life insurance bundled with the loan. Another criticized practice is to charge interest on the full loan amount even as the outstanding balance declines over the repayment cycle. Such “flat-rate” interest effectively doubles the interest rate compared to “declining-balance” interest since the average balance over the cycle is half the starting amount. Also, MFIs may also prefer to quote their rates on a monthly basis, hoping to exploit borrowers’ ignorance of how a seemingly modest 6 percent per month compounds into 100 percent per year.
Our experience with the microfinance organizations we have investigated to date suggests that these are real issues that donors should be aware of when interpreting interest rate data.
To be clear, we don’t think charging a high interest rate signifies wrongdoing on the part of a microfinance bank. High interest rates may be the best way to minimize losses and serve more people, and client participation at high interest rates may be an indicator that they are getting a service they value. We just want to note how striking the difference is between the initial “cited” interest rate donors often hear about and the “effective” interest rate taking all factors into account.
We recently evaluated a microfinance institution (MFI) in Malawi, the Microloan Foundation, as part of our process for distributing a grant to an economic empowerment charity in Sub-Saharan Africa. Its stated interest rate for its most popular loan type is 20%, but:
- 20% is the rate over the course of the 4-month loan. The “nominal Annual Percentage Rate (APR)” (a common way of stating interest rates in standardized terms and the rate which U.S. lenders are required to provide to borrowers) of this loan, with no other costs, would therefore be 60%.
- Interest is calculated as a flat rate. 20% of the whole loan amount is charged each payment, instead of 20% of the remaining loan balance. This method raises the nominal APR from 60% to 93%. On a $100 loan of this type, a borrower would pay $20 in interest compared with only $12.80 on a loan with declining balance interest.
- Payments are due every two weeks, instead of every month, so that the first payment is due only two weeks after the loan is made. Requiring 8 payments instead of 4 raises the nominal APR from 93% to 102%.
- The Microloan Foundation requires borrowers to hold 20% of the loan amount in a savings account which cannot be accessed until the loan is repaid. On a loan of $100, this requirement reduces the effective size of the loan to $80, while decreasing the effective size of the last payment due by $20 (because savings are then accessible). The savings requirement raises the APR from 102% to 149%.
- Arguably, the APR used above (i.e. the “nominal APR”) understates the interest rate people are paying because it does not take into account the compound value of interest. (Wikipedia’s entry on APR has a discussion of the relevant issues.) At relatively low interest rates, such as the interest rates we’re used to in the U.S., the “nominal APR” (what is usually reported) and the “effective APR” (the “mathematically true” interest rate) are usually very close to each other – but at the much higher interest rates charged by microfinance institutions, the “effective APR” can be considerably higher, raising the question of which one should be quoted to give Americans the best picture of what people are being charged. The Microloan Foundation’s nominal APR of 149% is equivalent to an effective APR of 326%.
Not only are these final “effective” interest rates many times bigger than the initial “20%” figure, they’re also significantly higher than would be implied by looking at MLF’s nominal gross portfolio yield according to MixMarket (93% for 2008; Mix Market defines this as interest and fees divided by the gross average loan portfolio ).
MLF doesn’t charge fees on its loans, but other microfinance institutions do, and these can cause further significant increases in the effective interest rate. (For example, adding a 5% fee to the beginning of a loan that without fees would have a nominal APR of 40% raises its nominal APR to 66%.)
From what we’ve seen, fees, compulsory savings, and the flat interest rate method seem to be fairly common among microfinance institutions. Of the 65 MFIs who had submitted a Social Performance Standards Report to Mix Market as of late 2009, 42% use the flat interest rate exclusively, 29% held compulsory savings accounts, and 72% collected fees on at least some loan products (according to their Mix Market profiles).
Understanding the true cost of credit for a borrower is important for reasons discussed previously:
- High interest rates (combined with high rates of repayment and low drop out rates) show that borrowers are willing to pay a high price for the loan, arguably implying that they value this service.
- If interest rates are low, microfinance institutions may be effectively giving cash transfers, at which point the mere fact of participation becomes less meaningful, and it becomes more important to ask whom the handouts are going to.
- On the other hand, the higher the interest rate, the more we worry about whether borrowing is good for the borrowers (and about anecdotes like this one).
A fairly new initiative (started in 2008), MFTransparency, is working to create a more open discussion about microloan pricing, and has compiled and published interest rate data for two countries, Bosnia and Cambodia. We look forward to following the progress of this initiative and to drawing on its data to inform our investigations of microfinance organizations.