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The hidden wealth of the poor

The hidden wealth of the poor - SURVEY MICROFINANCE The...

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SURVEY: MICROFINANCE The hidden wealth of the poor Nov 3rd 2005 From The Economist print edition Financial services are at last spreading from the rich to the developing world—and even making money, writes Tom Easton IN RICH countries, financial services on the whole work remarkably well, despite the exotic salaries, the crackpot deals and the occasional bust. The vast majority of people have access to interest-bearing savings accounts, mortgages at reasonable rates, abundant consumer credit, insurance at premiums that reflect the risk of losses, cheap ways of transferring money, and innumerable sources of capital for funding a business. By contrast, financial services for poor people in developing countries—a business known as “microfinance”—have mostly been awful or absent. With no safe place to store whatever money they have, the poor bury it, or buy livestock that may die, or invest in jewellery that may be stolen and can be hard to sell. Basic life and property insurance is rarely available. Home loans are costly, if indeed they can be found at all. For many people, the only source of credit is a pawnshop or a moneylender who may charge staggeringly high interest and beat up clients who fail to pay on time. In the Philippines, lenders who zip from town to town on motorcycles expect six pesos back for every five they lend. That translates into an annual interest rate of over 1,000% on a loan for a month. For workers from poor countries who venture abroad to earn a better living, sending money home to relatives can be hugely expensive. Such remittances have become an
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important source of income in many developing countries, dwarfing other inflows of capital from overseas such as foreign direct investment and multilateral aid. But if the money is being sent, say, from America to Venezuela, charges can amount to as much as 34% of the sum involved, according to Dilip Ratha of the World Bank. Why are the poor so badly served? The easy answer, that people who have little money do not make suitable clients for sophisticated financial services, is at most a half-truth. A better explanation, this survey will argue, is that the poor have been hurt by massive market and regulatory failure. Fortunately that failure can be, and increasingly is being, remedied. In most developing countries, the barriers to providing financial services for the masses are all too clear. Inflation tends to be high and volatile; government is often incompetent; and the necessary legal framework for financial services is often missing. Property laws can make it impossible for poor borrowers to use assets such as their home as collateral for loans. In the past, many countries have outlawed “usury”, and today many Islamic countries prohibit the charging of interest. Governments in developing countries often impose caps on the interest rates charged on loans for the poor. Despite their popular appeal, such caps undermine the profitability of lending and thus reduce the supply of loans. Incomplete and erratic regulation of financial institutions has also undermined the
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The hidden wealth of the poor - SURVEY MICROFINANCE The...

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