Recent coverage of microfinance has had a sharp focus on interest rates, implying some line between “reasonable” interest (associated with “social investment”) and “excessive” interest (associated with “loan sharking”).
- In Nicaragua, President Daniel Ortega, outraged that interest rates there were hovering around 35 percent in 2008, announced that he would back a microfinance institution that would charge 8 to 10 percent, using Venezuelan money …
Damian von Stauffenberg, who founded an independent rating agency called Microrate, said that local conditions had to be taken into account, but that any firm charging 20 to 30 percent above the market was “unconscionable” and that profit rates above 30 percent should be considered high.
Mr. Yunus says interest rates should be 10 to 15 percent above the cost of raising the money, with anything beyond a “red zone” of loan sharking. “We need to draw a line between genuine and abuse,” he said. “You will never see the situation of poor people if you look at it through the glasses of profit-making.”
It seems very important that interest rates be transparent, i.e., clearly communicated to and understood by clients. It also is clearly important that there be no coercion, i.e., that clients not be pressured to take loans they don’t want to take. More debatable, but something that we support strongly, are additional measures to assess and improve the client experience, including monitoring overindebtedness, examining dropout rates, etc.
But if/when such things are in place, it is unclear to me on what grounds anyone can complain about interest rates being “too high.” If the terms of loans are clearly communicated, then I see no explanation for why clients would take out loans – unless they feel they have no better alternatives.
What objection can be raised to a 100% interest rate, if the next-best alternative is a 500% interest rate (as I have been told some informal moneylenders charge)? What objection can be raised to a 500% interest rate, if there is no other way for people to get credit? When a loan could result in a sick child’s being treated, or a profitable micro-business, what fee is too high for that benefit?
When MFIs charge more than they need to in order to make a profit, that’s an opportunity for someone else to come in and undercut them. If no one else is coming in, that implies that the costs and difficulty of providing credit in an area may be higher than they appear to an outsider. For an outsider to declare profit margins “too high” strikes me as ungrounded and unproductive, especially when that outsider has not tried to provide credit for less in the same area.
Microfinance exists to improve the lives of the poor. Ideally, then, microfinance institutions would be judged by their effects on people’s lives. Instead, they’re being judged by simplistic financial metrics that crudely attempt to get at the moral uprightness of the organizations. To me that’s a very familiar situation.
I believe the ideal way to evaluate an MFI is to look directly at its impact. When this isn’t possible, proxies for client participation and satisfaction may (debatably) be appropriate. I don’t see any place for universal rules about how much interest can be charged.