The microfinance sector has been abuzz with the implications of the “final word” study on microcredit impact. For many, including myself, this has been an opportunity to consider a trend that’s been taking place for several years now – from microfinance to financial inclusion. In my last blog, I touched upon the subject of metrics that this new shift requires. I would like to delve deeper.
The verdict is out. Final publication of six randomly-controlled studies (RCTs) has drawn a pretty thick line under the words of David Roodman: the average impact of microcredit on poverty is about zero. The notion that microfinance lifts the poor out of poverty is officially dead.
Now, the caveats. The studies evaluated microcredit only – not savings or payments or insurance. Nor did they cover so-called microfinance-plus programs, which provide training, health care or other interventions, along with credit. It’s quite possible that these or other specialized branches of microfinance practice do raise the living standards of the poor. But, if I may be so bold, even the best of these initiatives are probably less effective than we might have supposed.
This is good news. We in the microfinance community could use some humility. We’re financiers, not doctors, scientists, or teachers. To think that we can alter the lives of millions is hubris.
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.