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Alok Prasad, chief executive officer of Microfinance Institutions Network (MFIN), a lobby group for the Indian microfinance industry that recently got the status of a self-regulatory organization from the banking regulator, says “we did not waste a good crisis", on the fourth anniversary of the microfinance crisis that originated in Andhra Pradesh.

This statement is generally attributed to Rahm Emanuel, a former White House chief of staff, in response to the Wall Street meltdown, but actually comes from a comment made by Niccolo Machiavelli, a well-known Italian political thinker of the 15th century, who wrote, “Never waste the opportunity offered by a good crisis."

“That’s exactly what the microfinance industry has done. It took a hard look at itself; it reformed and moved on, doing what it knows best—providing micro-loans to low-income households," Prasad told me, sitting at his Gurgaon office. In a nation of 1.2 billion people, half of whom are not served by the formal banking system, the microfinance industry acquired a halo in the early part of last decade. A highly successful listing of SKS Microfinance Ltd in July 2010, and strong all-round growth of loan assets created a situation when new funding was on demand in an industry that was then lightly regulated by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI). Then in October 2010, the cookie crumbled, with the Andhra Pradesh government promulgating an ordinance to curb the activities of microfinance companies. The provocation was allegedly the coercive collection policy of microfinance institutions (MFIs) that drove many borrowers to commit suicide. It mandated MFIs to specify their area of operation, rate of interest and recovery practices. It also became mandatory for MFIs to seek the state government’s approval before issuing any fresh loans.

Following the liberalization of India’s economy in 1991, the private sector increasingly started extending credit to fill the gaps created by banks’ reluctance to step in. In the five years between 2005 and 2010, the Indian microfinance sector emerged as one of the largest in the world with Andhra Pradesh—dubbed by The Economist as “the state that would reform India"—as its hub. However, the autumn of 2010 changed the face of the industry; the Andhra Pradesh ordinance was a death warrant and the operations of all MFIs in the state came to a grinding halt. The ripples created by the crisis were felt in almost every state, with bad loans piling up as borrowers refused to pay back and banks declining to give loans to MFIs.

The crisis triggered a strong response from RBI. Based on the recommendation of a high-powered committee, headed by Y.H. Malegam, a member of the central bank’s board, RBI put in place regulations for the industry in December 2011. The margin between the cost of borrowing and the price at which loans were given was capped, interest rates were regulated and loan norms were defined. The central government, too, chipped in by introducing a Bill in Parliament. Over the past four years, the industry has seen more changes, including the creation of two credit bureaus—Equifax Credit Information Services Pvt. Ltd and CRIF High Mark Credit Information Services Pvt. Ltd—to help it take appropriate credit decisions and arrest multiple lending; the introduction of a code of conduct; diversification of the product basket; and adoption of new practices to focus on customers’ needs. The code of conduct ensures governance and client protection, and creates an ethos for responsible lending, something many MFIs did not do till the crisis broke out. The credit bureaus are now a repository of at least 100 million loan records.

The inevitable fallout of the Andhra Pradesh crisis was that the industry spread out to other geographies. The latest regional exposure data is indicative of the spread, with the west and the east accounting for 23% and 28%, respectively, of the gross loan portfolio of MFIs in 2013-14. Loan disbursements are evenly spread out in Maharashtra, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu. I will not be surprised if some of the entities plan to morph into small banks, the draft licensing norms for which have already been circulated by RBI.

That said, it is absolutely critical for microfinance firms, particularly those MFIs that operate as non-banking financial companies (NBFCs), to be continuously on guard and not succumb to the greed of expanding business at any cost—something they did to keep their private equity investors happy before the Andhra Pradesh crisis broke out. There are around 50 such companies, less than one-fourth of the MFIs that exist in India, but they account for at least 90% of the business. Rapid growth always carries high risks and the industry will not be able to live through another crisis, if that happens. Responsible lending has to be the mantra, now and always.

As of 30 June 2014, NBFC-MFIs had a client base of at least 28 million, with the base growing 23% in the first quarter of the current fiscal year from a year earlier. The aggregate gross loan portfolio in June stood at 27,000 crore, a growth of 44% over the first quarter of 2013-14. Disbursements of loans in the first quarter of the current fiscal year increased by 48% and the number of loan accounts grew by 34%. The good news for the industry is that the political risks seem to be diminishing, with states including Assam and Kerala accepting RBI as the sole regulator for the industry. Unlike in 2010, microfinance today is a highly regulated industry with the segment of clients, size of loans, purpose and even price being regulated. Microfinanciers are in dialogue with RBI for relaxation of the tight framework of rules and regulations, but it should take a while as the central bank needs to be convinced about the maturity that the industry claims to have attained.

Tamal Bandyopadhyay, consulting editor of Mint, is adviser to Bandhan Financial Services Pvt. Ltd, India’s newest bank in the making. He is also the author of Sahara: The Untold Story and A Bank for the Buck. Email your comments to bankerstrust@livemint.com

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