This post was originally published on FinDev Gateway.
In our introductory blog post, we introduced the members of this coalition and highlighted their capabilities to reach the lowest income countries using both traditional approaches and digital channels. In this post, we want to focus on how investors can support microfinance institutions (MFIs) to respond to the needs of the base of the pyramid (BOP) during the pandemic.
Liquidity: The Most Immediate Constraint
As with other crises, the most critical and immediate issue that presents both short and long-term risks for our collective response is liquidity. Lockdown measures and shelter in place rules have had devastating effects on the types of businesses that are run by the BOP. This has meant that many are no longer able to make repayments. Furthermore, MFIs themselves have been restricted in their ability to collect loan payments from customers, reducing cash inflows and thus, the ability to disburse new loans. While government policies, such as moratoriums on loan repayments and forced rescheduling, are intended to protect consumers, they also contribute to the liquidity crunch of MFIs.
The longer businesses are shuttered, the greater the likelihood that the BOP will be unable to resume their businesses. Without income coming in, business owners must pay for essential living expenses like rent, food or medical care out of their limited savings. Over time, business owners will deplete these savings or sell off assets, reducing their ability to re-open their businesses without cash injections. Ultimately, a significant number of microfinance clients may default on their loans due to the crisis.
A significant number of microfinance clients may default on their loans due to the crisis.
While savings balances of small deposit holders remain stable or in some cases have even increased, there is lack of clarity as to how this will play out, and things might change quickly if people are unable to resume their income-earning activities again soon. Availing savings to those in need is a critical function that deposit-taking institutions play, and it is an essential aspect of preserving the trust of their clients. Should customers fear that these funds are not available, there is the risk of a run on financial institutions. Thus, liquidity to meet deposit obligations and to maintain capital adequacy ratios is critical for these institutions and for broader macro-stability.
Rapid Response Liquidity
To address these issues, most MFIs will need access to fast operational liquidity to cover near-term staff costs and to extend broader grace coverage and relief to clients. It is important to note, however, that borrowing to cover operational expenses is at best a short-term bridge to reopening, and ultimately puts institutions in an unsustainable position if lockdowns and operational impediments persist. Depending on the duration of the crisis, pressures on institutional liquidity may increase over time.
Near-term and Medium-term Debt
Beyond the immediate short-term needs, most MFIs depend heavily on debt as a source of funding for their loan portfolios. This creates two distinct sets of problems:
- As risk capital flees less developed markets, institutions are finding it difficult to replace loans that are not being rolled over or extended. This means their ability to offer new loans to clients, or even accommodate existing clients with prolongations, will be constrained.
- Because the funds needed to repay external loans coming due are trapped in their institutional portfolios, there is also a growing possibility of defaults among otherwise solvent institutions due to liquidity shortages which will further impair their ability to attract new funding.
Most financial inclusion-supportive lenders are already keenly aware of these constraints and are working to identify a common approach given the magnitude of the crisis. Because the duration of the crisis is likely to vary from country to country and is changing fluidly, lenders must remain flexible and support the conservative approaches that MFIs are taking to preserve their liquidity while meeting the needs of their existing customers. At a minimum, lenders should be prudent in the measures they take to reschedule or restructure their debt. Where feasible, lenders should avoid highly legalistic (and therefore expensive) restructuring approaches.
The ability of MFIs to continue to serve the BOP will be contingent on how flexible their lenders are with rollover and extension requests and with their willingness to extend or support additional funding once operations have resumed. Moreover, lenders should collectively commit to not penalize MFIs that have rescheduled or restructured debt in good faith in the current environment when they seek future financing. This issue does not appear to have been addressed in either the memorandum of understanding or the pledge that were recently issued by a number MIVs and other microfinance stakeholders.
In specific terms, the following facilities will likely be critical for both rollover funding and new funding:
- Rapid-deployment debt facilities to cover funding gaps
- Local currency facilities
- Guarantee facilities to attract new lenders
Capital Investments and Subordinated Debt
For institutions with minimum capital requirements, it is highly likely that additional injections of capital will be needed for two main reasons:
- Interest income will decline in the short-run due to limited operations and loan losses.
- Even if portfolio quality does not decline dramatically in all cases, there will likely be increased delinquencies as well as a significant amount of loan restructuring to accommodate clients facing their own operating pressures, forcing MFIs to increase their provisioning.
These two factors will likely have a highly material impact on capital adequacy as institutions will be using cash to maintain operating capacity, while incurring losses. Should capital injections to rebuild capacity post-COVID not be possible, lenders and regulators will, at a minimum, need to grant waivers to allow institutions to continue operating without it. Over time, both rapid-deployment subordinated debt funds and equity investment funds will be critical.
All Investors Must Step Up
How investors respond during this pandemic will determine the extent to which MFIs are able to respond to the needs of their customers. Many investors have already stepped up and are setting important principles and agreements toward responsible collective action. See, for example, the investor statement that was issued by the members of NpM (The Netherlands financial inclusion platform) and the previously mentioned memorandum of understanding signed by the group of nine MIVs.
We commend these organizations for taking collective actions, and call on all investors in inclusive finance to do their part. In particular, we ask that development finance institutions (DFIs), with their higher risk tolerance and longer-term horizons, support the sector in the ways that many MIVs and other social investors are unable to do.