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The death of a sunrise industry?

The death of a sunrise industry?
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First Published: Fri, Nov 19 2010. 01 15 AM IST
Updated: Sat, Nov 20 2010. 12 16 AM IST
Madoor (Andhra Pradesh)/ Mumbai: India’s rapidly growing private microcredit industry faces imminent collapse as almost all borrowers in Andhra Pradesh have stopped repaying their loans, egged on by politicians who accuse the industry of earning outsize profits on the backs of the poor.
The crisis has been building for weeks, but has now reached a critical stage. Banks, which put up around 80% of the money that the firms lent to poor consumers, are increasingly worried that after surviving the global financial crisis mostly unscathed, they could now face serious losses. The banks have around $4 billion (around Rs 18,000 crore) tied up in the industry, banking officials say.
“We are extremely worried about our exposure to the microfinance sector,” said Sunand K. Mitra, a senior executive at Axis Bank Ltd, speaking on Tuesday on a panel at the India Economic Summit.
The region’s crisis is likely to reverberate around the globe. Initially the work of non-profit groups, the tiny loans to the poor known as microcredit once seemed a promising path out of poverty for millions. In recent years, foundations, venture capitalists and the World Bank have used the country as a petri dish for similar for-profit “social enterprises” that seek to make money while filling a social need. Like-minded industries have sprung up in Africa, Latin America and other parts of Asia.
But microfinance in pursuit of profits has led some microcredit firms around the world to extend loans to poor villagers at exorbitant interest rates and without enough regard for their ability to repay. Some firms have more than doubled their revenues annually.
Now some officials fear that microfinance could become India’s version of the US’ subprime mortgage debacle, in which the seemingly noble idea of extending home ownership to low-income households threatened to collapse the global banking system because of a reckless, grow-at-any-cost strategy.
Responding to public anger over abuses in the microcredit industry—and growing reports of suicides among people unable to pay mounting debts —legislators in Andhra Pradesh last month passed a stringent new law restricting how the firms can lend and collect money.
Even as the new legislation was being passed, local leaders urged people to renege on their loans, and repayments on nearly $2 billion in loans in the state have virtually ceased. Lenders say that less than 10% of borrowers have made payments in the past couple of weeks.
If the trend continues, the industry faces collapse in a state where more than one-third of its borrowers live. Lenders are also having trouble giving new loans in other states, because banks have slowed lending to them as fears about defaults have grown.
Government officials in the state say they had little choice but to act, and point to women like Durgamma Dappu, a widowed labourer from this impoverished village who took a loan from a private microfinance company because she wanted to build a house.
She had never had a bank account or earned a regular salary, but was given a $200 loan anyway, which she struggled to repay. So she took another from a different company, then another, until she was nearly $2,000 in debt. In September she fled her village, leaving her family little choice, but to forfeit her tiny plot of land, and her dreams.
“These institutions are using quite coercive methods to collect,” said V. Vasant Kumar, the state’s minister for rural development. “They aren’t looking at sustainability or ensuring the money is going to income-generating activities. They are just making money.”
Reddy Subrahmanyam, a senior official who helped write the Andhra Pradesh legislation, accuses microfinance companies of making “hyperprofits off the poor”, and said the industry had become no better than the widely despised village loan sharks it was intended to replace.
“The moneylender lives in the community,” he said. “At least you can burn down his house. With these companies, it is loot and scoot.”
Indeed, some of the anger appears to have been fuelled by the recent initial public offering of shares by SKS Microfinance Ltd, the country’s largest for-profit microlender, which is backed by famous investors like George Soros and Vinod Khosla, a co-founder of Sun Microsystems Inc. SKS and its shareholders raised at least $350 million on the stock market in August. Its revenue and profits have grown around 100% annually in recent years. This year, Vikram Akula, chairman of the firm, privately sold shares worth around $13 million.
He defended the industry’s record before the India Economic Summit meeting, saying that a few rogue operators may have given improper loans, but that the industry was too important to fail. “Microfinance has made a tremendous contribution to inclusive growth,” Akula said. Destroying microfinance, he said, would result in “nothing less than financial apartheid”.
Indian microfinance firms have some of the world’s lowest interest rates for small loans. Akula said SKS had reduced its interest rate by 6 percentage points, to 24 % , in the past several years as volume had brought down expenses.
Unlike other officials in his industry, Vijay Mahajan, chairman of BASIX, an organization that provides loans and other services to the poor, acknowledged that many lenders grew too fast and lent too aggressively. Investments by private equity firms and the prospect of a stock market listing drove firms to increase lending as fast as they could, he said. “In their quest to grow, they kept piling on more loans in the same geographies,” Mahajan said. “That led to more indebtedness, and in some cases it led to suicides.”
Still, he said, the number of borrowers who are struggling to pay off their debts is much smaller than officials have asserted. He estimates that 20% have borrowed more than they can afford and that just 1% are in serious trouble.
One of India’s leading social workers, Ela Bhatt, who heads the Self-Employed Women’s Association, said microfinance firms had lost sight of the fact that the poor needed more than loans to be successful entrepreneurs. They need business and financial advice as well, she said.
Mahajan, who is also the chairman of the Microfinance Institutions Network, said the industry was now planning to create a fund to help restructure the loans of the 20% of borrowers in Andhra Pradesh who were struggling.
He also said the industry, which has been reluctant to accept outside help, would share its client databases with the government and was negotiating restrictions on retail lending that did not go through the non-profit self-help lending groups.
The collapse of the industry could have severe consequences for borrowers, who may be forced to resort to moneylenders once again.
Still, it is tough to find a household in Madoor that is not deeply in debt to a for-profit microfinance company.
K. Shivamma, a 38-year-old farmer, said she took her first loan hoping to reverse several years of crop failure brought on by drought. “When you take the loan they say, ‘Don’t worry, it is easy to pay back,’” she said.
The man from Share Microfin Ltd, the company that made her first loan, did not ask about her income, Shivamma said. She soon ran into trouble paying back the $400 loan, and took out another loan, and then another.
Now she owes nearly $2,000 and no idea how she will repay it. “I know it is a vicious circle,” she said. “But there is no choice, but to go on.”
©2010/The New York Times
Hari Kumar contributed to this story from Madoor.
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First Published: Fri, Nov 19 2010. 01 15 AM IST