Overindebtedness is like the unwelcome spectre at the feast. Amidst robust and exciting discussions about technology, product development, distribution innovations, client protection and rural finance at a conference like European Microfinance Week, overindebtedness is always there – hovering. It’s the underlying trigger of market crises. It’s what outsiders who’ve read a few alarmist headlines think about microfinance.
I’ve been poring over the data collected by the Angelucci, Karlan & Zinman study of Compartamos clients. To recap from my previous blog, with an average monthly loan payment of 2,100 for the loans in the study (and for Mexican MFIs generally), the figure of 1,572 pesos as the average client income poses a seemingly impossible debt-to-income ratio of 130%.
My latest post on the credit bubble in Mexico had one especially interesting comment. Jose Manuel asked to consider the loan sizes in the country as a factor that might explain the prevalence of multiple borrowing.
The comment is highly relevant. What Jose Manuel suggests is that loans in Mexico are unusually small. And in a way, he is right. On a per capita GNI basis, Mexico's loans are smaller than in any other country. By contrast, India's loans are nearly three times larger. This has two potential implications: first, small microfinance loans put less of a burden on Mexican borrower incomes, and second, their inadequate size encourages clients to borrow from multiple lenders in order to meet their requirements. And yet, I find that both implications are incorrect and that multiple borrowing levels in Mexico continue to point to a very large bubble.
Last week, as its football team was preparing for its match with the Netherlands, Mexico hosted the International Forum for Financial Inclusion. It was an important event, opened by the President of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto, and attended by such notables as Christine Lagarde. By all accounts, it was an excellent meeting where representatives of financial regulators from around the world shared their experiences and strategies to promote financial inclusion in their countries.
But one thing stood out.
Last week, MFIN, received official recognition from the Reserve Bank of India as a Self-Regulatory Organization in charge of regulating the activities of its members. This is the first time a financial organization received such official recognition in the country. Indeed, I'm not aware of any other countries that have a similar arrangement, so this may well be a global milestone as well.
This is a big deal that bodes well for the future development of the Indian microfinance sector. It also reminded me of an article co-authored by M-CRIL's Sanjay Sinha and myself back in January 2010, nearly a year before the onslought of the Andhra Pradesh crisis. MFIN had been formed just months before, and had developed a Code of Conduct that included many important features, including strong limits to multiple lending - a maximum of 3 concurrent loans or combined amount of 50,000 rupees (~€750 at the time). However, we felt that as a purely self-regulatory institution, MFIN lacked the teeth to effectively monitor its members, and we made the case for a system quite similar to the one that's just been implemented in India. I look forward to seeing it thrive and set an example for others.