Thu, Apr 15, 2010 - Page 13 News List

Big banks swallow up profits from microloans to the poor

With some operators charging interest rates of 100 percent or more from their impoverished clients, the microcredit industry is coming under increased scrutiny

By Neil MacFarquhar  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

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IN recent years, the idea of giving small loans to poor people became the darling of the development world, hailed as the long elusive formula to propel even the most destitute into better lives.

Actors like Natalie Portman and Michael Douglas lent their boldface names to the cause. Muhammad Yunus, the economist who pioneered the practice by lending small amounts to basket weavers in Bangladesh, won a Nobel Peace Prize for it in 2006. The idea even got its very own UN year in 2005.

But the phenomenon has grown so popular that some of its biggest proponents are now wringing their hands over the direction it has taken. Drawn by the prospect of hefty profits from even the smallest of loans, a raft of banks and financial institutions now dominate the field, with some charging interest rates of 100 percent or more from their impoverished customers.

“We created microcredit to fight the loan sharks; we didn’t create microcredit to encourage new loan sharks,” Yunus recently said at a gathering of financial officials at the UN. “Microcredit should be seen as an opportunity to help people get out of poverty in a business way, but not as an opportunity to make money out of poor people.”

The fracas over preserving the field’s saintly aura centers on how much interest and profit are acceptable and what constitutes exploitation. The noisy interest rate dispute has even attracted congressional scrutiny, with the House Financial Services Committee holding hearings this year focused in part on whether some microcredit institutions are scamming the poor.

Rates vary widely across the globe, but the ones that draw the most concern tend to occur in countries like Nigeria and Mexico, where the demand for small loans from a large population cannot be met by existing lenders.

Unlike virtually every Web page trumpeting the accomplishments of microcredit institutions around the world, the page for Te Creemos, a Mexican lender, lacks even one testimonial from a thriving customer — no beaming woman earning her first income by growing a soap business out of her kitchen, for example. Te Creemos has some of the highest interest rates and fees in the world of microfinance, analysts say, a whopping 125 percent average annual rate.

The average in Mexico itself is around 70 percent, compared with a global average of about 37 percent in interest and fees, analysts say. Mexican microfinance institutions charge such high rates simply because they can get away with it, said Emmanuelle Javoy, the managing director of Planet Rating, an independent Paris-based firm that evaluates microlenders.

“They could do better; they could do a lot better,” she said. “If the ones that are very big and have the margins don’t set the pace, then the rest of the market follows.”

Manuel Ramirez, director of risk and internal control at Te Creemos, reached by telephone in Mexico City, initially said there had been some unspecified “misunderstanding” about the numbers and asked for more time to clarify, but then stopped responding.

Unwitting individuals, who can make donations of US$20 or more through Web sites like Kiva or Microplace, may also end up participating in practices some consider exploitative. These Web sites admit that they cannot guarantee every interest rate they quote. Indeed, the real rate can prove to be markedly higher than advertised.

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