New York Times: India’s rapidly growing private microcredit industry faces imminent collapse as almost all borrowers in one of India’s largest states 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. Indian banks, which put up about 80 per cent of the money that the companies lent to poor consumers, are increasingly worried that after surviving the global financial crisis mostly unscathed, they could now face serious losses. Indian banks have about $4 billion 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 , speaking Tuesday on a panel at the India Economic Summit.
The region’s crisis is likely to reverberate around the globe. Initially the work of nonprofit 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 India 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 companies around the world to extend loans to poor villagers at exorbitant interest rates and without enough regard for their ability to repay. Some companies have more than doubled their revenues annually.
Now some Indian officials fear that microfinance could become India’s version of the United States’ 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 the state of Andhra Pradesh last month passed a stringent new law restricting how the companies 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 per cent 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 a third of its borrowers live. Lenders are also having trouble making 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 laborer from this impoverished village who took a loan from a private microfinance company because she wanted to build a house.