My visit to India last month gave me a great opportunity to talk to people and get a first hand assessment of the impact of the global financial crisis on microcredit programs. Yesterday I also happened to read a recent Fitch ratings report on microfinance and it gave me an opportunity to compare its findings with my own observations.
Fitch ratings believes that there is growing evidence that the larger, more integrated players in this sector are experiencing increased pressures. Given the concentrated nature of the industry, with the 100 largest microfinance institutions (MFIs) estimated to account for 80% of sector assets and 70% of sector borrowers, Fitch’s view is that it will be difficult for the microfinance sector to be immune to the global financial crisis.
Talking to banks and some of the MFIs, I did not get an impression that the ability of the larger for-profit MFIs to raise debt (loans) in the short term from local commercial banks was severely affected. Perhaps this may be because banks in India are required to allocate a certain portion of their lending to priority sectors like microfinance. Since most commercials banks do not lend to smaller MFIs, I think the larger for-profit MFIs have multiple banks to shop around for their debt and thus are able to raise commercial debt to a reasonable extent despite the global financial crisis.
I also met with people at AccessDev, an MFI network in India. Through its AmFa initiative, Access supports 110 MFIs, most of which are smaller MFIs working in remote and under-served regions. As per Access and some of the MFIs I spoke to, smaller MFIs are finding it increasingly difficult to get fresh loan approvals. This problem is compounded because only a few banks and development institutions such as SIDBI, FWWB, HDFC Bank and Axis Bank lend to smaller MFIs.
Thus my assessment of the impact of the financial crisis at least in the Indian context is that Microfinance as a whole is likely to see lower growth and smaller MFIs will get impacted more severely than the larger MFIs.
On a separate note while in India, I also attended a Panel discussion where Vijay Mahajan the founder of Basix, India was a panelist. One of the points he mentioned was that MFIs are increasingly finding it difficult to raise equity. Discussions with the team at IFMR trust also gave me the same impression. MFIs need to raise equity because most banks typically lend to MFIs only if their capital adequacy ratio exceeds a certain threshold. Greater equity leads to a greater capital adequacy ratio. (Check http://www.themanagementor.com/enlightenmentorareas/finance/FIFS/CapiAdeq.htm for a more detailed discussion on capital adequacy).
Typical investors in equity include microfinance focused funds like Unitus, foundations like the Michael and Susan Dell foundation, private equity and venture capital firms. I think equity investors are increasingly finding it difficult to raise funds from their investors because of the global financial crisis. If MFIs are unable to raise equity then in due course they will find it increasingly difficult to raise debt from commercial banks and serve their clients.
Given these trying times, I think it is all the more reason that the community at large should increase the support for microfinance and help MFIs and poor entrepreneurs tide over this crisis.