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.