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admin | Category: Trace A Phone Number | 15.01.2014
XSubscribe to CGD’s weekly newsletter below, and watch for an email with the option to receive more of what interests you. As I blogged before, one of the last articles Daniel Pearl wrote for the Wall Street Journal before he was abducted and murdered---coauthored with Michael Phillips---exposed financial woes at the Grameen Bank. In his autobiography, Banker to the Poor, Muhammad Yunus describes how Grameen grew from an idea, to a project with his students, to a formal branch of a state bank, to an independent bank. Arrears on loan repayments began to grow, and more and more clients stopped attending the village-level weekly meetings where bank business is conducted. They were protesting Grameen's handling of a fund it created for each group, using 5% of each loan and additional mandatory deposits.
A second legacy: Grameen overhauled its metrics of loan delinquency and began posting them monthly on its web site. Third, and far less important, when I started at the Center for Global Development in early 2002 and listed topics I could work on, my new boss Nancy Birdsall lit on "microfinance"; I think the recent Pearl and Phillips article was in the back of her mind.
Indeed, multiple borrowing is widespread in Bangladesh now, and it has raised concerns that some Bangladeshis are juggling microcredit loans the way some Americans juggle credit card debt, in a merry-go-round that must one day stop. If Bangladeshi microcredit was approaching a train wreck---or at least a bumpy stretch---where would we see it first? I spoke last night with the leading foreign observer of Bangladeshi microfinance, Stuart Rutherford, and he strongly favored the second explanation. It is tempting to link the degradation in the Bank's portfolio to the mysterious dismissal of Deputy Managing Director Dipal Barua in December. A crisis in Bangladesh, akin to recent ones in Bosnia, Morocco, Pakistan, and India, would tarnish the image of microcredit worldwide, perhaps permanently. Other microcreditors should quickly match Grameen's standards of financial disclosure so that we can get a better read on the extent of trouble. Yet the Bank and its competitors have not quite proved that they can thrive without growth, as they must for permanence. CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise.
Appearing on page 1 on November 27, 2001, under the headline Grameen Bank, Which Pioneered Loans For the Poor, Has Hit a Repayment Snag, the piece described how some Bangladeshis were juggling loans from several microcreditors at once, how others had banded together to protest and resist the Bank's policies, and how the Bank's loose accounting standards and slow disclosure hid a decline in loan repayments. The Grameen Bank, indeed all big microcreditors in Bangladesh, may be finding it harder to collect on loans. Then in 1998 Bangladesh suffered its worst floods in living memory, disrupting the bank’s work in almost two thirds of the country and dealing its balance sheet another severe blow.
In two northern districts of Bangladesh that have been used to highlight Grameen's success, half the loan portfolio is overdue by at least a year, according to monthly figures supplied by Grameen.
Imitators have brought more competition, making it harder for Grameen to control its borrowers. In Tangail, signboards for rival microlenders dot a landscape of gravel roads, jute fields and ponds with simple fishing nets.
The "group fund" was meant for emergencies, but many borrowers wanted to withdraw money from the group fund.


First, even before Pearl and Phillips got onto the story, Grameen embarked upon a program of transformation eventually called "Grameen II." Its hallmarks were simplification (of the various loan products), computerization, flexibility, and the taking of voluntary savings deposits.
It thus set a standard of transparency that its main rivals, ASA and BRAC, are far from matching.
ASA and BRAC kept pace---in fact, closed the gap---so that that all the big three clustered around 6 million borrowers at end-2008. Whether or not Grameen Bank is yet in the red zone, it seems likely that something bad is happening. The blue line is the same as that above, but flipped for comparability from a collection to a non-collection rate. To the (unclear) extent that the individuals who owe the bank the most are those who save the most with it, Grameen should be in reasonable shape: defaulters will lose their savings.
This one shows what may be a problematic pattern in the evolution of the Bank, and perhaps microcredit generally in the country.
But the phone number on its Contact Us page has yet to answer, messages to the posted e-mail address bounce, and the web-based e-mail form produces an error message.
However, growth then slowed and the Bank ran into trouble persuading its borrowers to pay back. Once a borrower fell off the track, she found it very difficult to move back on, since the rules which allowed her to return, were not easy for her to fulfill.
To put pressure on "lazy" group members who were slow making payments, she says she used to start removing the tin roofs of their homes.
After a protest movement, complete with placards and amplified speeches, Grameen finally agreed to give borrowers easier access to the fund. In response to the article, Yunus publicly regretted the Journal's failure to tell this story of positive change (and published all his e-mail exchanges with Pearl and Phillips!). So strong is the convergence that one wonders whether the three are lending to the same 6 million households. In 2007, Shafiqual Haque Choudhury, founder and head of ASA, which is known as the most commercially savvy of the big three, worried aloud about a "train crash." And that was before the global financial crisis, which has probably been transmitted into poor Bangladeshi households via lower exports of clothing made in Bangladeshi factories and fewer construction jobs in the Middle East for Bangladeshi workers.
In the last year, Portfolios of the Poor has depicted microcredit as a source of stability for Bangladeshi families more than instability. In Rosenberg's language, the on-time collection rate graphed above is an excellent red flag indicator because it plummets as soon as borrowers start struggling. This is why Rosenberg recommends the microlenders also compile indicators of more protracted difficulties---and why Grameen does so. The two added indicators are for Grameen's core credit product, the basic loan, which can last from 3 months to 3 years and has weekly payments. One is that the global financial crisis is mainly to blame and little is fundamentally wrong with microfinance in Bangladesh. However, when a financial institution forces out its head of operations while key indicators are going south, it raises questions. But the combination of years of rapid growth and accelerating declines in key indicators of delinquency are so reminiscent of the lead-up to the global financial crisis that the broad implications hardly need explaining.


Grameen itself defines a loan as delinquent if it still isn't paid off two years after its due date. He lacked credibility since Grameen's forthrightness had just been called into question; yet he was substantially right.
And Rich Rosenberg implicitly leaned on the high repayment rates in microcredit's exemplar nation in arguing that since people keep repaying loans over many years, and there have been only scattered credit meltdowns, most poor people must be avoiding gross over-borrowing. Its monthly tables list total amounts owed by people that have missed 5--9 consecutive payments (1--2 months of weekly installments). At least until very recently, there has been no national ID system, so creditors have been unable to share information in order to track how much debt people are juggling, the way creditors in rich countries do through credit bureaus. It stopped opening new branches in 2007 and went into reverse, closing or amalgamating some. Shareholders---mainly the Bank's members---donors, and other stakeholders deserve an explanation. A partial meltdown in the Mecca of microcredit would not sow the same economic destruction---microfinance is not the heart of Bangladesh's economy in Schumpeter's sense---but it could have lasting implications for microcredit worldwide. Under those terms, 10% of all the bank's loans are overdue, giving it a delinquency rate more than twice the often-cited level of less than 5%.
And Rich Rosenberg, in his authoritative field guide to delinquency metrics (quoted by Pearl and Phillips) and in a recent post, explains that a 95% collection rate can spell disaster. By this measure, if you miss the first 5 payments on a $100,000 mortgage, the entire $100,000 is counted as at risk.
BRAC borrows its capital more than the others, which may make it vulnerable, but also receives more support from donors for the way it integrates microcredit with other activities to help the poor.
Adding the 38.4 billion taka in savings of non-members puts Grameen in a net savings position, and the earnings on its net savings are going down. On a one-year loan with weekly repayments, lent taka (the Bangladeshi currency) return to the microcreditor over 0--12 months, so the average taka makes a lender-borrower round trip in 6 months, and can be immediately relent. Both of these stories are about Bangladeshi microcredit in general, not just the Grameen Bank. Portfolios of the Poor extols the flexible new "topping up" system that lets people borrow back loan balances after 26 weeks of on-time payment.
Thus a 95% collection rate can lose 5% of capital in 6 months, and 10% in a year---maybe manageable if interest rates are high enough, but not trivial.
I focus on the Bank only because it does such a good job of publishing delinquency indicators. Once delinquency starts feeding on itself, the costs of cajoling and pressuring for repayment can skyrocket.



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