This past weekend, my sister and I had lunch with a UC Berkeley student, Cyrus C, who wants to form a microfinance club and win an initial small operating monetary grant from the Associated Students' Union. Listening to her desires and needs for her group, I came to the conclusion that trying to fully form an MFI in one semester, 16 weeks, was impossible to achieve especially since the group wants to find funding and is very transient. I've never seen it done in such a short time period. It's taken me over 8 years to establish a really solid MFI in Honduras.
The desire is to have very small loans, $50 to $100, to start home-based businesses. A member of the group has done that and is a real inspiration for the other group members. The group doesn't even have enough time to form a solid group lending environment which is often the first step in forming an MFI.
Earlier in my career when I was a Credit Union Development Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal, I dealt with quite a few female groups using the ancient Tontin system where a group of 12 individuals had monthly savings meetings where each came to deposit a set sum - perhaps $5 to $10. At each meeting during a one year or 12 months cycle, a member won the whole pot, $60 to $120.
I suggested that this group try for 8 members and do a 16-week cycle or one semester. The suggestion was absolutely doable for the group. They're off and running. I wish them the best of success.
Prisma Honduras had a very good 2011. ROA and ROE of over 6.0% and 16.0% respectively. Assets grew by 35.0%. Extremely low delinquency of 2.6% while our competitors are all fighting the 8.0-12.0% levels. We've become the leaders amongst small MFI's in green and solar energy loans with over 1000+ loans having been granted during the last 3 years. 20.0-25.0% of our clients fall into the very poor category while 35.0% are first time entrepreneurs, and the rest continuing to build their businesses. We partnered with the World Bank and the Honduras government to push green loans, thus our early hegemony in the field.
We are now completing the 3rd and final year of training in preparation for certification to become a regulated financial entity. Lots of work ahead in 2012, especially in governance and ownership issues/requirements. A big thanks to our General Manager and her able staff for such a fine performance.
I'm headed down to Honduras in March for strategic planning sessions. The consultant has been hired to lead the sessions and all supervisory employees and up will be in attendance.
Our General Manager in Honduras, Orbelina Valeriano, and her husband just spent Thanksgiving 2011 at my home in the San Francisco Bay Area. What a fun and loving couple. A pleasure to host them.
Orbelina said that over the last few months she had heard from 3 former interns that they were able to find good positions in the international development field. Two came via Kiva and spent several months working in our Honduras office. A third intern from the University of Maryland just spent the summer with us. Hopefully our internships, now added to their resumes, were of big help to them. We really teach them how to interview loan applicants, underwrite loans, and collections - all valuable skills. They get to work with actual clients in the field.
We also recognize that we have 25 full time employees. We pay them decent industry wages and comply with all government mandated benefits. In addition, we provide enhanced medical insurance for all our employees. They seem to be be a very happy group as our competitors continually try to entice them with juicy job offers. That they chose to stay with us is testimony and complement to Orbelina's great personnel management administration.
We're really looking forward to 2012 when we have some truly exciting news to announce with enhanced products and services for our clients and employees.
Our GM, Orbelina Valeriano, is in Executive Management Training at INCAE (originally Harvard-related) in Managua, Nicaragua. Her class has been doing some case studies. This week it concerned the failure of some well known MFI's in the region despite showing improvement in balance sheet equity.
One financial transaction that is not usually highlighted is moving loans from the Liability Section of the Balance Sheet to Equity. Here's how it could happen. The institution borrows $1.0M from a foreign fund or similar with a 5-year payback. At the end of 5 years, the debt should be repaid, or if there is not enough cash, the company and the lender may opt to covert the debt to equity in the company. Instantly your $1.0M debt obligation on the liability side of the balance sheet becomes an increase of $1.0M in equity.
No new cash has entered the company to be used productively in operations. However, your balance sheet shows more equity and mostly will continue to attract other lenders who are looking for good potential borrowers The original lender didn't get back his/her funds, but there is always the possibility that the new shares will have more value in the future. You don't have to write-down or claim a defaulted loan right away and book a big lost on your P&L.
This is what happened with a big MFI in Central America. However, the scheme didn't last long as auditors finally caught on to what happened. The original investors were really leary of putting more money into a bad situation and opted to try this type of financial transaction. The odd thing about it - it's not illegal. Just be aware.
There's been a lot of chatter about measuring poverty alleviation. I'm often asked if Prisma is contributing to poverty alleviation through its micro-credit loans. I've given a lot of thought to how a subject that has so many parts (financial, educational, social, physical living conditions, market interest rates, and so forth) can be neatly packaged and scored in a simple rating scale.
I sat down with my staff in Honduras to decide how we as a small micro-credit institution could approach the measurement of poverty alleviation. Articles I've read and many one-on-one discussions with other practitioners often left me a little bewildered and asking myself how any of the great claims about the success of poverty alleviation could be proved.
I went back to my academic roots. It felt more like a setup for a doctoral dissertation,...... and we did eventually come to the conclusion that YES, we as a micro-credit organization do help about 60-70% of our clients rise above the poverty level.
Here's how we approached the question. THE HYPOTHESIS: the success of poverty alleviation measurement (the dependent variable) is based upon the interplay of various independent variables such as good financial underwriting statistics, education levels, physical living conditions, size of families, family health, urban or rural, market interest rates, and so forth.
My staff and I had to decide which of the various independent variables we would control or had major impact over. It became obvious that we had control over financial underwriting statistics and little else. Sad to say, we had no power nor control over the rest of the independent variables. We as a small financial institution could be active in country associations to advocate fair banking laws, foreign aid, better schools, electricity, etc. However, our impact as an organization would be indirect and relatively minor. A very humbling realization.
With that reality in mind, we attacked financial underwriting. We came up with the following:
1. Our underwriting is based upon a DEBT-TO-INCOME RATIO calculation. We comb through a client's monthly expenses and divide it by monthly income. We set up 3 major categories.
2. Those with debt-to-income ratios of 90% or higher fell into the absolute poverty category. Hardly any margin of extra money over monthly expenses. Any little emergency or unforeseen expense would completely devastate these borrowers. Our loans for simple businesses such as food production to sell on the streets, used clothing, ambulatory sale of other cheap products - would produce the only income for the borrower and his/her family. What little money is made goes to feed the family and perhaps a little leftover for education. These clients represent about 20-25% of our clients. Poverty alleviation rarely touches this category of clients. We do our part to grant them loans because the government and private industry do not.
3. Those clients who fall into the 80-70% of debt-to-income ratio where someone in the family probably has a regular income be it from farming, government job, or low wage job in the private sector. The family now wants to mount a little grocery store in its garage, sell food items, etc. to supplement income. These clients represent 30-35% of our clients. They are pulling themselves above subsistence level living by mounting a small business that will add to their overall earnings. Yes, we are helping this category of clients rise above poverty.
4. Clients who have debt-to-income ratios of 70% or less. They already have small businesses and need lines-of-credit for maintenance or expansion. They have at least a 30% margin of income and don't live on the poverty line. They are still poor, but really moving beyond poverty. They represent about 30-35% of our clients.
5. We have another category of clients who borrow to improve their living conditions, mainly solar electricity where the national electrical grid does not reach. They are usually small merchants who need the electricity for their businesses, and clients who have enough income to support loans for solar installations that will improve their daily living conditions. We do not include this category in poverty alleviation statics.
In summary, we can say that we are helping between 60 and 70% of our clients rise above poverty levels while 20-25% remain so poor that all we are able to do is help put food on the table. This is our DIRECT IMPACT.
As to the INDIRECT IMPACT, we are active on the board of directors of our MFI country association, dedicate many volunteer hours, and strongly advocate better education, social services, etc. However, we do not declare any miracles of poverty alleviation from this category of activity.
Two weeks ago, I spent an evening with about 30 SEAM members (students for engagement and activism in micro-finance) at Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA. We got down to the realities of the current micro-finance scene. The failure of several large MFIs and what contributed to their downfalls. We followed that with how to run a smaller MFI, serve customers' needs, and still produce good and reasonable net income and return for investors. I call it the $1.0M model.
Lastly, we discussed how to break into the micro-finance industry. The attendees really appreciated the discussion as most of their speakers extol the wonders of micro-finance, but never address the current situation after the recession.
Last night, I returned to UC Berkeley to have the same discussion with about 30 students in a DECAL (democratic education at CAL.) It was a very fast-paced talk as we only had 50 minutes to cover everything that I spoke about in 90 minutes at Stanford University.
It occurred to me that as I contemplate full retirement and approach 65, we really have a need to train the next generation of managers as we step off the stage. There is much work to be done and speaking to these students is just a very small step toward the goal.
Currently we have a new intern in Honduras who just graduated from Tufts University. Diana Baide will be spending 3 months with us in the position of Junior Loan Officer. When she completes her internship, she'll be followed by a graduate student in Public Policy from the University of Maryland, Adrian Carroll. Hopefully another graduate student from UC Berkeley's Goldman School of Public Policy will join him.
I spent the last week of December 2010, in Honduras. What a great week, filled with financial triumphs and visits to great clients.
We ended 2010 in the black and recorded a phenomenally low delinquency level of less than 2.0% for our total loan portfolio. Competitors are running at the 15.0+% level.
We welcomed a new Prisma friend, Kevin Brinkman of Colorado, who explored the latest techniques for debt financing with us. Thank you Kevin for spending a week with us getting to know the company and its clients.
We visited 6 solar electricity projects which we financed 1.5 hours up in the hills surrounding Danli, Honduras. It was incredible to visit adobe homes and little grocery stores with electricity. They are located so far away from the government electricity grid that the possibility of electricity was only an unfulfilled dream. Now they have enough power for 3 to 12 light bulbs, a TV, and a radio.
We visited a dozen clients in San Lorenzo and Choluteca, Honduras. Little businesses - restaurants, grocery stores, t-shirt printing, charcoal sellers, and tortilla makers/sellers. All of the businesses making enough money to put food on the table for the family and to educate the children.
A new intern, a recent graduate of Tufts University will be spending about 3 months with us. Diana Baide - welcome to the Prisma Honduras family.
I met our most recent past intern who came by to see her old friends and to meet me. I was honored. Thanks Annie for dropping by.
The staff in our main office threw a BBQ for me. Thanks Marilu, Susan, Vicky, Roberto, Carlos, Orbelina, Doris, Annie, and many more for the tasty food and company. It was much appreciated.
Even our Nicaragua problem child seems to have righted itself although we still have a few more legal steps to get through before we can declare a win.
Well here we are in December and not all is well in the Micro-finance world, especially in East Asia. Lots of Internet chatter about the negative happenings in India and the SKS IPO. Now comes a charge from a Norwegian documentary that Dr. Yunus moved $100+millions from the Grameen Bank to another organization called Grameen Kalyan 12 years ago.
Where did the $100+millions go? Why was it done? and did he really steal that amount of money for his own use? I'm not qualified to opine on the 3rd question. However, I would like to add my 2 cents to the first two questions.
The Grameen Bank had received donor funds to support housing loans. Someone or several people in the organization was/were worried that the money once used would not be fully reused for the same purpose. To assure an on-going regard for the original purpose of the funds, a second organization called Grameen Kalyan was formed. The funds where transferred out of the Grameen Bank and into the new Grameen Kalyan. Grameen Kalyan would then make a non-interest loan to the Grameen Bank for the same amount. This would obligate the Grameen Bank to pay back the funds and the funds would be preserved for housing loans. Furthermore, if the money had been received in the form of a donation, it would be reported in the equity section of the balance sheet and subject to the free use or allocation by the board and management. Moved to Grameen Kalyan, the Grameen Bank's equity would have been reduced, but the funds' purpose would have been maintained.
In the industry, we would call Grameen Kalyan a level 2 lender. Usually cooperatives and MFIs overseas apply to private banks or government development banks for big loan (2nd tier or level) which would then be used to lend to their individual borrowers (1st tier or level.) This is a frequent transaction for institutions needing funds. In the case of the Grameen Bank, it already had the funds. WHO ADVISED the Grameen Board to take such action? Apparently it was their CPAs or Chartered Accountants who devised the strategy. Did they have weak management or no faith in the management that the funds could not be used correctly without having to go through such an elaborate scheme? Was it really safer? It might have been politically necessary to keep transparency in transactions and on the books. However, tier 1 borrowers can also default on loans granted by tier 2 insitutions.
Assuming the best intentions, it appears that the move was a good political move to maintain integrity within the Grameen Bank. It was probably to guard against embezzlements, co-mingling of funds, and incorrect usage of funds within the organization by board members and management. If Grameen Kalyan was completely controlled by Dr. Yunus and honest board members, they could assure integrity of the funds.
In the end, you can find a full explanation from Grameen as to what happened - this should be the end of the controversy. Find the explanation at: http://bit.ly/gJA9sd
I just got back from a month in France. Still suffering from a bit of jet lag, I spoke at Sean Foote's Microfinance Seminar at the Haas School of Business, University California, Berkeley. It's a wonder I didn't fall asleep while talking.
At any rate, I gave a rundown on the operating environment in Central America where Prisma Microfinance has operations in Honduras and Nicaragua. The last 2 years have been very hard on the microfinance industry. Our icons, the 2 largest MFIs in Honduras and Nicaragua ran into trouble. The former was put up for sale while the later was liquidated. They both followed the Tier 1 model of fast and big growth with lots of foreign loan capital debt. Too big to fail - where have we heard that before? You need to be the biggest to be strong and survive. The recession and some not so great strategic decisions by the board and management proved otherwise. In addition, the largest German MFI just sold off its $75.0M small loan portfolio in El Salvador to a local MFI - what's up with this? Too hard to continue serving the poor?
What we saw:
Extremely high overhead costs. Over 30% of total assets when a 10% or under amount is recommended by CAMEL.
High amounts of agriculture loans (almost 40% of total loan portfolio) with low liquidity to support the lack of inward cash flows during the life of the loans as full repayment would come only after the harvest season and sale of the product.....and you don't even know if they will be delinquent by the time the end of the loan period occurs. You may have been asleep at the wheel for 18 months!!!
High delinquency reaching almost 40% of the loan portfolio. These are non-productive loans as no income is derived from them when the borrowers are not paying.
Pushing loans in the > $2000 range. Moving upscale and leaving behind the small borrowers in the under $500-range.
Low population countries needing cross boarder strategies to accomplish aggressive growth strategies. Not enough good customers/borrowers. So far no large MFI has been able to do successful cross boarder expansion. There is only one Credit Union from El Salvador which is taking a slow, cautious approach in Honduras on the Pacific coast. Just because you all speak Spanish doesn't mean that it will be easy to do cross-boarder growth. There are lots of cultural and political differences that exist which cause obstacles and conflicts.
Weak management and board. How could the board let the situation get so out of hand that the largest MFI in Nicaragua had to be liquidated? Were they asleep, getting the wrong financial information, or just not up to par about asking the right questions?
Political unrest. A coup in Honduras, the socialists in Nicaragua. Not easy environments in which to operate.
As a small but profitable MFI, Prisma looks to the future and wonders if pursuing the Tier 1 strategy the best way to go in a low population arena. An alternative would be for a company to create several small, but very profitable MFIs and join them together in a privately owned network. Less need for high-powered financially sophisticated management on the ground and continue to serve your very poor and poor clients needing loans of < $500. Playing the high financial sophistication game with offshore holding and shell companies may just be a little too much for MFIs designed to exclusively serve the very poor.