Sunday, October 5, 2008

The Ugly Side of Mircolending (part 1 of 5)

Reproduced from an article in Business Week, December 13, 2007.
Full article http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/07_52/b4064038915009.htm
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In a gleaming office tower in Mexico City secured with retinal scanners, bulletproof glass, and armed guards, dozens of workers in white lab coats dart around a large operations center monitoring long rows of computers. Along one wall, 54 enormous screens flicker dizzyingly with numbers, graphs, and fever charts: a relentless stream of data. You'd think the urgent mission involved tracking the trajectory of a spacecraft or the workings of a national power grid, not tiny amounts of cash and credit for Mexico's working poor.

The transactions are so minuscule they hardly seem worth the bother. The average loan amounts to $257. But for Banco Azteca, a swiftly growing bank affiliated with Latin America's largest household retailer, the small sums represent a torrent of revenue that has caught even its founders by surprise. For three decades, micro-lending was seen as a tool of nonprofit economic development. Now poor people are turning into one of the world's least likely sources of untapped profit, primarily because they will pay interest rates most Americans would consider outrageous, if not usurious.

With no legal limits on interest levels and little government oversight, for-profit banks in Mexico impose annual interest rates on poor borrowers that typically range from 50% to 120%. That compares with a worldwide average of 31% among nonprofit micro-lending institutions, and the 22% to 29% that Americans with bad credit histories incur on credit-card debt. Azteca's business model succeeds not only because it can charge credit-starved clients almost whatever it wants. Equally important is that low-income Mexicans anxious about maintaining their reputation tend to pay back what they owe, regardless of the hardship. Those who slip behind receive frequent visits from motorcycle-riding collection agents. Default rates are infinitesimal. "We lend to them as much as they can borrow," says Azteca Vice-Chairman Luis Niño de Rivera, "and they can borrow as much as they can pay."

WHIFF OF PROFITS

In a Mexico that is modernizing economically even as most people still struggle to make ends meet, Azteca has discovered an improbable market for financial services. Much larger companies based in the U.S. and Europe also have picked up the whiff of profits. Wal-Mart Stores, which obtained a Mexican banking license a year ago, began offering loans for purchases at 16 of its 997 Mexican outlets in November. In the U.S., the retailer markets itself as a friend to the budget-conscious. In Mexico, it charges interest rates that might set off popular and political revolts back home, although Wal-Mart describes its terms as appropriate to the Mexican market. At one store west of Mexico City, a 32-inch LG plasma TV with a price tag of $957 can ultimately cost as much as $1,474, thanks to a 52-week payment plan that carries an annual percentage rate (APR) of 86%.

Banamex, Mexico's second-largest bank and a wholly owned unit of Citigroup, is stepping up its pitches of personal loans to the working poor in 127 cities where it operates shops called Crédito Familiar, or Family Credit. HSBC Holdings last year bought a 20% stake in Financiera Independencia, a high-interest consumer lender that went public on Nov. 1. The Swiss insurer Zurich Financial Services is underwriting term life insurance policies that are sold along with small loans in Mexico. And homegrown nonprofit Compartamos morphed into a full-fledged commercial bank last year; it went public in April, reaping hundreds of millions of dollars for investors. All are examples of how financial players worldwide are pursuing profits by putting loans within reach of deprived borrowers.

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