Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Inclusive financial systems, though generally good, could also be dangerous for the poor

If you have to pay a higher interest rate than what the average borrower pays, you should be extra careful with what you borrow for, as this could otherwise set you back even more.

For instance, if you want to buy a house that has a market value of $100.000 and have the $12.000 for a down-payment, you need a credit for the balance of $88.000. Let’s suppose that you could for that purpose access a 15 years fixed rate mortgage but, because you are considered a subprime risk, your lender requires a very high interest rate of 11 percent, which would require you to pay 1.000 dollars per month.

Had you qualified as a good risk and therefore could have access to for instance a rate of only 6 percent, then your $1.000 monthly sacrifice for the next 15 years would, in present value terms, be worth $118.500. From this we can deduct that if you bought your house under current conditions, at 11 percent, and did not wait until you could access to a 6 percent rate, then you will in fact have paid $130.500 for the house ($12.000+$118.500).

This is a sad truth often forgotten. Of course broad-based and inclusive financial systems can significantly aid financial development, reduce poverty, and expand economic opportunity in developing countries… but sometimes their embrace can also be a bit too rough for many of the poor.

Every time anyone pays a rate higher than the risk-free rate in order to purchase goods or services he is in fact accepting paying a higher price for these and which is of course not the surest way to get out from poverty. If anyone needs to be made aware of this it is the poor in the world.

Many subprime mortgage borrowers in the US are currently suffering from too much inclusiveness and will be made poorer as a result. They harbor no doubts on that they would have been much better of had they been excluded, and there are important lessons to be learned from that.

The World Bank, CGAP and other who share the mission of fighting poverty, after so many years of focusing almost exclusively on the access to finance and the stability of the financial system, need to pause, take a breather, and completely rebalance their approach to these issues.

As a bare minimum we need real proof that these programs have indeed reduced poverty in a sustainable way and not just opened up new opportunities for financiers. As a bare minimum “Financial education of the poor” needs to appear among the strategic priorities…currently it does not!

This has not only to do about guaranteeing that the interest rates are reasonable but also with the fact that even taking on debt at reasonable rates might be extremely unreasonable.

Personally I feel there are too many bankers and too few debtors (perhaps none) included in the above programs, and that is a guaranteed way to introduce bias.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

If knowledge suffices then wisdom is superfluos

The least I seek here is to try to transmit wisdom, since I am too well aware of how correct Hermann Hesse was when in Siddhartha he wrote 'Wisdom is not communicable. The wisdom which a wise man tries to communicate always sounds foolish...Knowledge can be conveyed, but not wisdom."

And much less do I seek to transmit something as a wise man, since I recognize well the impossibility of being one; something clearly summarized by Socrates arguing that the only possible human wisdom is to know oneself not wise, or only possessing wisdom absolutely devoid of value.

But both you and I, perhaps not in our minds, but definitely in our hearts, nonetheless know, or intuit, or want to believe, there is someone who is wiser than other. Where? We do not know, surely not among the besserwisser. Where then? Assuming it has to do with God is a good start.

I say this because in a world with so much information and so much knowledge, time after time we face the dilemma of if knowledge is enough, then wisdom is superfluous and worthless; and I fear that those words contain the danger that we will get bogged down forever in a knowledge dictatorship.

With no doubt our society is being increasingly cornered by producers and worshipers of information and knowledge, who do not leave space enough for questioners to put their information and knowledge in a more correct perspective.

The above occurs in all fields. For example, in the financial area that is the only possible explanation for why our financial regulators so ingenuously assigned so much power of decision over the financial flows to some few and humanly fallible credit rating agencies.

What a pity that nobody read to regulators from the Apology of Plato, where speaking as Socrates says. "Artisans have real knowledge of their arts, but take that to mean that they are most wise with respect to the most important matters”. As I see it this hubris filled petulance spoils all their knowledge. 

And how do we rid ourselves of that knowledge dictatorship without having, like some of our primitives, resort to that remedy worse than the disease that is the cult of dis-information and ignorance? 

That’s not easy, but at least I think we have a better chance of doing so if we can prevent the configuration of incestuous technocratic majorities in our decision-making bodies. Multidisciplinary teams, with great variety of experience and lots of humility, are the ones that should configure our boards and ministries.

I introduce the factor of humility, because one of the main reasons the world is going through current financial turbulence, is because many expert professionals simply did not know, or did not dare to recognize, as Socrates did, that they did not understand anything of what they were approving.

Friends, let us remember that not understanding what happens, not necessarily make us less aware of what is happening.