> Posted by Amanda Yap, Research and Communications, PlaNet Finance

The Investing in Inclusive Finance program at the Center for Financial Inclusion at Accion explores the practices of investors in inclusive finance. Across areas including risk, governance, stakeholder alignment, and fund management, this blog series highlights what’s being done to help the industry better utilize private capital to develop financial institutions that incorporate social aims.

Before the advent of the People’s Bank of China’s county-level pilot program to create microcredit companies (MCCs) and village and township banks (VTBs), there was a large number of unbanked individuals and micro-entrepreneurs whom commercial banks were unwilling to serve. Hence when the pilot program to create MCCs, the product of a financial inclusion plan by the Chinese government, went into action in 2005 the number of MCCs boomed, and in the past few years they have mushroomed to an astounding number of 9,000 as of 2013. The Chinese financial sector has been plagued with corruption in the past few years – for example, the Wu Ying private lending network scandal and the Qilu commercial bank forgery in Shandong. To circumvent corruption and maintain control of the increasingly overpopulated sector, regulators enforce strict capital requirements and caps on interest rates. However, these requirements are stifling the operational sustainability of these MCCs. Joe Zhang, author of the book Inside China’s Shadow Banking: the New Sub-prime Crisis? writes, “The regulation is killing the dynamism of the sector. Everyone in the sector is working extra hard to make a modest return (after huge expenses and bad debts).”

Should 9,000 MCCs all be painted with the same regulatory brush?

Some industry leaders believe a rating system for microcredit companies is the answer. Liu Ping, Director General of the Senior Advisors of the People’s Bank of China, believes ratings can be a yardstick to measure the sustainability of microcredit companies and differentiate the good apples from the bad. MCC investors hope that high grades based on credible ratings could move the authorities to loosen restrictions on outlets, so that business costs could be better covered, individual company branches could grow, and the sector could eventually be made more sustainable. Conversely, low rating grades would expose institutions with questionable practices that require operational changes. In addition, a ratings system may change the popular perception that these institutions are “loan sharks”, leading to increased investment, institutional growth, and client outreach.

Rating systems – a staple of the traditional finance sector – play an important role in microfinance globally. Rating agencies select and weigh indicators for both companies issuing debt and the debt instruments, setting benchmarks for the industry and allowing for factors of comparison amongst companies. Rating reports create access to the risk analysis of debt and debt issuers, increasing market transparency and facilitating investors in sourcing investments, performing credit decisions, and supervising risk. For investees, monitoring of issuers of debt instruments encourages issuers to act in the interests of the investor community which leads to best management practices.

Currently, there are seven approved rating companies in China. Two of these companies are joint ventures with international credit rating agencies – Lianhe Credit with Fitch and Chengxin Credit with Moody’s. Chinese rating companies commonly perceive that getting an accurate picture of MCC operations is unfeasible due to the rather unreliable nature of financial reporting amongst Chinese MCCs, rendering traditional rating methods bogus. Currently, no single regulator has all the data needed to form a comprehensive picture of an MCC. Instead, they advocate a market based approach. If markets can ascertain reliable information, then ratings systems can be built around these indicators. Lianhe Credit applies this market-based approach by performing credit investigation instead of ratings. “The main utility for us is to help the provincial-level supervisors construct information systems that can give them a better grasp on the target MCC’s operations,” says Lianhe’s CIO, Shi XX. The Provincial Office of Financial Affairs in each province, which were abruptly tasked with the duty of regulating MCCs in May 2008, are dedicating energy and time to rating systems. Even if policy restrictions aren’t loosened, MCCs and financial affairs offices now have new management and supervision tools to supplement standard reporting and provide greater clarity to investors.

From the outset, there has been heated debate over the methodologies and goals of a microfinance rating system. Ed Wu, Managing Director of PlaNet Finance China suggests that the most common risk factors in determining sustainability are governance, strategy, risk management skills, IT systems, and funding. The importance of effective risk governance is also emphasized in Governing Banks: MFI Edition by CFI’s Running with Risk project. These risk factors should be taken into account when developing new rating schemas.

When overburdened with companies to regulate, Provincial Offices of Financial Affairs (POFA) may be inclined to use ratings to single out non-compliant MCCs or MCCs with poor risk management in order to revoke business licenses and closely supervise operations. The provinces with the greatest numbers of MCCs urgently need the ability to differentiate among them and are working quickly to establish a ratings infrastructure. Some areas, such as Tianjin, already require a yearly rating report and audit report to be submitted to the local POFA. Additionally, in Jiangsu, Inner Mongolia, and Yunan, POFAs either own state-owned enterprises that do ratings or have internal rating standards and schemes for regulatory purposes.

The concept of ratings for MCCs is taking off and may enable regulators to relax the regulatory noose strangling strong MCCs, whilst reining in MCCs with less than ideal operations. To learn more about this topic, please look out for the joint report by PlaNet Rating and PlaNet Finance coming out in the first quarter of 2014, written with the support of the Credit Suisse microfinance capacity building initiative.

Have you read?

Emerging Risks on China’s Path Toward Financial Inclusion

Designing Financial Services for China’s Marginalized

A Journey to Understanding Risk as a New Board Director in “Governing Banks MFI Edition”