#tbt: The Need for Pricing Transparency in Microfinance

Muhammad Yunus signs onto the MicroFinance Transparency. With Chuck Waterfield

Muhammad Yunus endorsese the MicroFinance Transparency (MFT). With Chuck Waterfield, MFT founder, at the 2008 Microcredit Summit in Bali.

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We are pleased to bring you this #ThursdayThrowback blog post, which was originally published in The State of the Microcredit Summit Campaign Report, 2009. This particular Box is especially relevant given the news about MFT closing down and the stakeholder meeting hosted by the Microfinance CEOs Working Group on April 21st.

>> Authored by Chuck Waterfield, the developer of Microfin, a business planning tool used by microfinance institutions worldwide, and MicroFinance Transparency (MFTransparency), which was launched at our 2008 Microcredit Summit in Bali, Indonesia.

Microfinance has long been a highly transparent industry, and rightly proud of it. Unfortunately however, the true price of microfinance loan products has never been accurately measured nor reported. For an industry born to displace the moneylenders by providing low-cost credit to the working poor, this is hard to imagine and even harder to explain.

Many countries require commercial lenders to state true product pricing using standards such as the APR (Annual Percentage Rate) formula mandated forty years ago in the US Truth-in-Lending Act. Such laws were enacted to help consumers make informed decisions regarding choosing loan products with different pricing. Currently, the same disparity that existed prior to Truth-in-Lending laws can be found in the microfinance industry. For example, a quoted interest rate of 3% per month can, depending on how this rate is applied, result in an APR between 36% and 96%, and beyond. Unfortunately, such misleading claims are commonplace in microfinance today. Why should the same principles of transparent pricing applied within the commercial finance industry not be applied to the microfinance industry?

The widely practiced non-transparent pricing in microfinance has evolved and perpetuated for two reasons. Firstly, there is no single market interest rate for micro-loans. The industry recognizes that interest rates on micro-loans must be higher than interest rates on larger commercial loans, but it is seldom recognized that there is no single “market rate” for micro-loans. In a market where all MFIs deal with the same cost structures, the smaller the micro-loan, the higher the interest rate necessary for that MFI to cover the costs of that loan and achieve sustainability. Due to the challenges of explaining why MFIs need to charge higher interest rates than the commercial sector, and to charge the highest interest rates to the poorest clients, the easiest alternative has been to use non-transparent pricing, where a quoted price is generally significantly lower than the actual price.

Secondly, once the industry began widely employing confusing product pricing, it became very difficult for MFIs to convert to transparent pricing. To do so, the MFI would advertise what appeared to be the highest price in the market, even though their true price could actually be the lowest. As a result, the vast majority of MFIs practice non-transparent pricing even though many would prefer to do otherwise.

In recent years the industry is shifting from the goal of “sustainable microfinance” to the goal of “high-profit microfinance.” When MFIs are operating in a very opaque pricing environment – where nobody knows how the price of one product compares to the price of another product – there exists the opportunity for MFIs to charge a price that results in very high profit levels. High profits generated off of the poor by charging non-transparent prices can create a bad public image for the microfinance industry and result in a strong backlash.

Given this reality, the industry has been in intensive dialogue and several initiatives are underway to address non-transparent pricing. One initiative is the “Campaign for Client Protection” that began after an April 2008 conference that produced the “Pocantico Declaration.” Transparent and fair pricing is one of the six core principles advocated in the campaign.

The second initiative is MicroFinance Transparency, a non-profit agency that will address pricing transparency through two joint activities. First, MFTransparency will collect product prices on all micro-loan products around the world and report those prices by a common, objective measurement system. Second, MFTransparency will undertake the equally important role of developing and disseminating straightforward educational material to enable microfinance stakeholders to better understand the concept and function of interest rates and product pricing.

It can be argued that an industry-wide effort towards transparent pricing is essential to the long-term survival of the microfinance industry. The mainstream public media is already reporting the interest rates typically charged in microfinance, but there is little explanation or understanding of why microfinance interest rates are higher than previously believed, nor why there is significant variation in interest rates among different institutions. What non-transparent pricing has kept hidden for years is no longer hidden. A forum for the industry must be built in order to report – in a clear, consistent and fair fashion – what actual interest rates are and why interest rates in competitive microfinance markets need to be higher than in commercial finance.

By practicing pricing transparency, a healthy and vibrant market for microcredit products can be built, providing a valuable component necessary in free markets and currently absent in microfinance – transparent, open communication about the true cost of products.

Over 100 microfinance industry stakeholders have endorsed MFTransparency. You may view the list and choose to sign up and endorse at the website.
Chuck Waterfield, Founder, MFTransparency, http://www.mftransparency.org/endorsements.