Time to put on the brakes
India isn't the only country where microcustomers have become overextended. Indebtedness has also been a problem in Bosnia, Nicaragua and Morocco, says Elisabeth Rhyne, managing director at the Centre for Financial Inclusion at the global microfinance non-profit ACCION.
Until lately, the sector has been all about growth, a goal made easier by a global economic boom. Now that some markets are getting saturated, the focus must shift to “putting the brakes on the industry … to look more at quality of what you're giving than just expanding the numbers,” she says.
A number of measures may mend the situation in India: the start of credit bureaus, more transparency, closer co-operation between the government and the private sector, and a stronger ethical and regulatory framework. Some, like Ms. Rhyne, are spearheading efforts to create a global set of principles on how to treat microfinance clients.
It's tempting to compare Andhra Pradesh with closer-to-home payday lending, or the U.S. sub-prime crisis. Lending money to lower-income and sometimes less-educated clients attracts big investor money. Borrowing costs rise, and debtors get in over their heads. Some companies sink. In the end, the poor suffer the most.