Phil Cubeta’s recent post about payday loans got me thinking about our choice to grant a microfinance organization in our Global Poverty cause.
We decided to grant Opportunity International for two reasons:
- The belief that there is likely a significant shortage of access to credit in the developing world.
- The very fact that someone repays a loan with interest likely demonstrates that the loan is used for something that is likely life-improving.
But, doesn’t the same analysis apply to payday loans? I’d bet that there’s a similar lack of credit for very small loans for borrowers with questionable credit-worthiness. And the very fact that lenders run this business likely indicates that borrowers are consistently paying back their loans, even at exorbitant interest rates (400-1000% annualized, according to the Center for Public Policy Research). The same logic that says microfinance is helping people would seem to imply that payday loans are as well.
On the other hand, it’s also possible that many borrowers are only able to repay their loans by taking out another loan – that what we’re witnessing is not a group of people getting back on their feet, but a group of people getting caught in a cycle of debt. Note that this could be numerically consistent with very high (~95%) repayment rates, the statistics commonly cited by microfinance organizations to illustrate their effectiveness in helping people – someone who borrows to pay off another loan 19 times, before finally defaulting, has a 95% repayment rate.
We’re left with two plausible yet conflicting hypotheses about the way in which the practice of making small loans at relatively high interest rates affects those in need. In one case, those in need access much needed credit (albeit at high interests rate) which allows them to weather a difficult financial period and potentially pull themselves out of poverty. In the other, those in need borrow and ultimately find themselves in a debt trap, borrowing more to repay previous loans.
We’ve generally been very frustrated with how little information we’ve been able to get on microfinance operations – who is borrowing, what they’re using the loans for, what their standard of living is, and what happens to that standard of living over time. Without this kind of information, we’re still only guessing at whether microfinance organizations and payday loan operations are helping people pull themselves out of poverty, or simply helping them get caught in cycles of debt.