> Posted by Alex Silva, Executive Director, Calmeadow, and Jeffrey Riecke, Senior Communications Specialist, CFI

Impact investors, social investors, responsible investors…regardless of name, they claim to serve the greater good. In the world of financial inclusion, impact investors are supporting the development of financial markets that have inadequately served the base of the economic pyramid.

What happens when social investors exit from their financial inclusion investments?

Some exits are non-controversial, but what if responsible investors sell their stake to an investor that doesn’t place priority on the social mission? The risk of mission drift or abandonment is real, and responsible investors must consider it as they make their exit decisions. With financial inclusion sector trends suggesting that impact investing exits are going to become more frequent, it’s worth examining the topic in greater detail.

Investors exit for many reasons

It’s important, especially for critics of impact investors, to recognize that a decision to exit may arise from any number of factors, including factors internal to the investor.

  • When a market has been proven viable and starts to attract fully-commercial capital, investors might “declare victory and go home”. Many financial inclusion investors are doing just this.
  • In other cases, an investor’s strategy might change. Perhaps an investor decides to focus on a different region or sector.
  • The investor is thirsty for money, for any number of reasons. Perhaps it is experiencing internal financial challenges or increased capital requirements, or it has a higher priority investment opportunity to pursue.
  • Markets can become risky. The enabling environment of particular countries can change. For instance, isolationist policies might spur opposition to foreign-owned businesses.

Exiting responsibly

Responsible exits support the preservation of the investee’s social mission, and they take place at a time that’s best for the industry.

A good lens for considering whether an exit is responsible is the reason for the investment in the first place. If the investment was initially socially motivated, then investors should not simply be motivated by financial returns when they exit. Financial return (the price offered) is important, but it shouldn’t be the only criteria. For example:

The Multilateral Investment Fund (MIF) of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) has been a long-time investor in microfinance organizations. Generally, they’ve been diligent about every stage of investing, including thinking about their exit strategies up front, when they invest. They have normally exited to similarly socially-minded organizations. This enables continuity in the investee organizations for the treatment of clients, and also continuity for staff. When the MIF sold its investment in CALPIA, a microfinance institution in El Salvador, it sold to responsible buyers committed to financial inclusion.

Exiting irresponsibly

Let’s contrast this with not-so-responsible exits where the values or missions of the original investor and the new buyer are not matched. If an investor sells its stake in a microfinance institution to an entity that has no experience or demonstrated interest in financial inclusion, this presents the heightened possibility that the buyer will not continue the practice. It may raise prices, reduce service quality, or move upmarket, among other things. Not-so-responsible-exiting can entail selling investment stakes to the highest bidder across a variety of stakeholder types. We have seen instances of investments sold to entities like consumer lenders with reputations for profit-first practices. We have also seen instances of sales to governments, with the result that the newly government-owned institution damages a market by offering highly-subsidized interest rates, making it difficult for other institutions to compete on a level playing field.

When investors hold investments too long

We’ve also seen instances where impact investors hold investments in markets where local commercial banks or bona-fide investors are interested. In these cases the impact investors’ money would be better used elsewhere. Why don’t these investors sell?

Often, they simply do not want to reduce their portfolios. For example, many development finance institutions (DFIs) and microfinance investment vehicles (MIVs) are measured and rewarded by the size of their portfolios. It’s not necessarily about the return (financial or social). This is especially true if the investors are paid a percentage fee based on how much they have invested, which creates a perverse incentive against selling assets.

In Colombia, where commercial banks are increasingly interested in microfinance, an NGO owned a controlling stake in an MFI. A potential buyer bid to buy the entire bank from the NGO and merge it with the bank’s operations. Onlookers might have speculated that this presented a risk of mission drift. Maybe the buyer just wanted the banking license. Maybe it just wanted the savings deposits. Both concerns were easily set aside: the buyer was already a licensed commercial bank and the NGO-owned bank had few depositors. In fact, the commercial bank was positively interested in entering the microfinance market and serving Colombian micro-entrepreneurs. For its part, the commercial bank had a lower cost of funding and better IT systems. It had the resources to make the MFI and its services better than the NGO could. Accordingly, the NGO could have declared victory, taken its money, and done other things in Colombia, like support microfinance in rural areas or advance public health. Unfortunately, the NGO was not able to see the benefits of the possible transaction and opted not to sell.

Impact investing trends

The financial inclusion industry is evolving. There is an increasing diversity of inclusive finance providers and investors, from commercial banks to fintech companies. At the same time, for many of the impact investing vehicles created in the last decade, their investment horizons are coming to a close. We can expect to see more exits and more variety in those exits. Until now, most of the inclusive finance impact investment exits have involved DFIs or microfinance networks selling to MIVs or vice versa. Suddenly, other types of players are coming in, including those with little history with microfinance, and this may rattle many participants in the industry. This trend will increase, and there is nothing inherently wrong with that. We might even see an influx of players who are better able to eliminate financial exclusion! What is potentially wrong would be misplaced motivation. “The fundamental things apply”: if you exit to a buyer that has a questionable history, you are not acting responsibly.

Greater industry action

More attention needs to be brought to this subject. Organizations like the Financial Inclusion Equity Council (FIEC) work continuously to facilitate discussion in this space and move the industry forward. A few years ago CFI and CGAP produced a paper, The Art of the Responsible Exit in Microfinance Equity Sales. We’re seeing groups like the European Microfinance Platform regularly convening conversations at seminars and events. These are important contributions, but much more attention needs to be paid among investors and industry players. Surely some exiting investors are simply happy that someone is buying, and they aren’t necessarily thinking about the consequences.

And for those who are thinking about the consequences and considering the best path forward, pragmatism is key. Investors have responsibilities to their own funders, both financial responsibilities and responsibilities to uphold any social mission that attracted those funders. They should not sell to the high-priced but questionable offer, and neither should they opt for capital-starved social investors. Perhaps the pragmatic and social course is to work harder and find a buyer “in the middle”.

Have you read?

Four Challenges for Impact Investing

What Impact Investors Could Learn from Microfinance

The Impact Investing Landscape in West Africa