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> Posted by Danielle Piskadlo, Director, Investing in Inclusive Finance, CFI

Where were you in 2006? I was living with friends in a “beach house” in San Diego. Since then, I lived in China, went to grad school, shifted careers, married, and had two kids. So much has changed in my life over the past decade. The same cannot be said on the topic of valuing socially-focused financial institutions.

In 2006, Clay O’Brien wrote the first-of-its-kind paper on “Valuing Microfinance Institutions.” This paper surveyed members of the Financial Inclusion Equity Council (FIEC) – which was then called the Council of Microfinance Equity Funds (CMEF) – and concluded that:

  • There was not enough transparency in terms of methodologies and benchmark data;
  • There was a need for a more robust, standardized valuation methodology; and
  • The social value of double-bottom line investments was not accounted for – or was accounted for negatively – in the valuation.

FIEC recently revisited the topic of valuing double-bottom line investments with its valuation working group to better understand how the topic has evolved over the past decade. What was found? Despite changes in the broader industry (new players, adjacent sector investments, etc.), very little has changed in terms of valuing financial inclusion investments. Our findings are compiled in a brief paper, Valuing Microfinance Institutions: Where Are We Now.

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> Posted by Lizzy Bolze, Analyst, Investing in Inclusive Finance, CFI

In the aftermath of the Panama Papers, the words “offshore” and “tax-haven” are often taboo rhetoric within the investment industry. Perhaps even more so in the impact investing space, where fund managers have both fiduciary and social responsibilities. The Financial Inclusion Equity Council (FIEC; of which CFI is the secretariat) recently published the report Offshore Financial Centers for Financial Inclusion: A Marriage of Convenience to better understand attitudes and practices when it comes to how equity impact investors use offshore financial centers (OFCs). To dive into this topic CFI and consultants Daniel Rozas and Sam Mendelson interviewed FIEC members from the U.S. and Europe. Conversations resulted in varying opinions on the practice of using OFCs, with three key considerations for doing so: administrative efficiency; tax liabilities; and transparency and ethics.

Among all FIEC members interviewed, administrative efficiency was unanimously a primary driver in making the decision about where to domicile funds. Fund managers cited the importance of understanding local regulatory requirements, the presence of embassies, bank relationships, management facilities, remittance corridors, and convenience of location as important considerations in their decision. The reality is many low income offshore countries lack the infrastructure and capacity for supporting the administrative requirements of investments. Additionally, there are increasingly stringent AML/KYC requirements that disproportionately affect lower-income countries creating administrative burdens. The new CFI report states: “…this is at least one of the goals of using OFCs – not to avoid the regulators, but to outsource some of the reporting burden to entities that specialize in this service that have relationships to do it efficiently.”

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> Posted by Todd A. Watkins, Paul DiLeo, Anna Kanze, and Ira Lieberman

Fintech is a shiny attractor for impact investors. Emerging financial technologies shimmer with disruptive potential for the delivery of a wide array of financial, educational, health, and social services for the poor. While microfinance still makes up a major share of impact investing portfolios, many investors appear to have moved on to fintech, the next wave of creative destruction. Rather than be toppled by it, microfinance institutions (MFIs) look to ride that wave too, to extend reach, reduce costs and prices, improve and deepen client services, and improve risk management.

Fintech, whether new digital services or proprietary software used to evaluate and underwrite credit, brings glittery potential for MFIs, no question. But in fairy tales unicorns glitter too. Are MFIs chasing something equally illusory? Microfinance has decades of success growing and strengthening a high-touch business model. As growth slows, should MFIs now abandon that approach and use high-tech to go low-touch for cost efficiency? If MFIs stay their course, will they be overtaken by new entrants with new models, like Chinese online peer-to-peer lender Yirendai, which went IPO on the New York Stock Exchange last year? Or instead, will MFIs find innovative high-tech ways to further leverage their deep relationships with clients and understanding of client needs?

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> Posted by Ira W. Lieberman, Todd A. Watkins, and Anna Kanze

We’ve identified the problem: Microfinance is no longer sexy. It’s old news. It can’t deliver “impact,” and its effect on alleviating poverty was oversold and has underwhelmed. It’s well and good to offer working capital loans, but at the end of the day, the poor need education, health care, water for drinking and irrigation, roofs, and electricity together with a wide variety of financial services. It’s time for investors seeking real innovation to move on to the next big thing that will transform the lives of poor people and save our planet. Never mind microfinance’s decades-long track record of listening to the poor and underserved clients and effectively developing products and services based on their needs.

Of course, we issue these statements with considerable sarcasm. But, all joking aside, industry trends and shifting sentiments are presenting investors with a real question: Should they abandon the reliable and successful platforms and infrastructure that microfinance institutions (MFIs) have built? In turn, MFIs are saddled with the question of whether to stick to what they know best, or instead, to use their platforms to deliver expanded product offerings that increase access to other essential services.

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> Posted by Paul DiLeo, Todd A. Watkins, and Anna Kanze

Discussion of impact investing has grown increasingly heated. There’s a conference nearly every week. Several weekly clipping services­—even a daily one—share news of the latest investments and conversions: 100% for impact! New benchmarks! New sectors! Perpetual motion! What fuel is creating this heat? The cold conviction that someday soon, all investing will be impact investing!

Meanwhile, in a parallel universe worried about losing its gravitational pull, a debate waxes and wanes over whether microfinance should be disqualified as an impact investment, either because its subsidized, non-profit origins magnetically repel VCs or because randomized controlled trials find that the average benefit to clients of microcredit is modest.

Which is ironic, because microfinance and its sister star, financial inclusion, remain the largest impact sectors in annual investor surveys.

This hyperactivity and incoherence can only mean one thing: the term “impact investing” has achieved its financial industry apotheosis: it means whatever we need it to mean. It’s a gaseous cloud that shapeshifts depending on who’s looking.

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> Posted by Paul DiLeo, Todd A. Watkins, and Anna Kanze

Most foundations and development finance institutions have moved on from microfinance, in search of the leading edge of innovation and impact. They have concluded that their work is done now that leading microfinance institutions (MFIs) have definitively cracked the capital markets with healthy balance sheets and two large, heavily oversubscribed Indian IPOs just in the last year. Meanwhile, impact investors, particularly in the U.S., are divided on whether microfinance is, or ever was, an impact investment. In any case, they prefer to focus their attention on new “disruptive” business models. In impact industry publications, conferences and even terminology, microfinance is dead; yesterday’s solution at best.

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> 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.
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> Posted by James Militzer, Editor, NextBillion Financial Innovation

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The following post, which was originally published on NextBillion, shares a conversation between Anna Kanze, COO of Grassroots Capital Management, and Daniel Rozas, Independent Consultant, on initial public offerings (IPOs) in microfinance. Both Anna and Daniel have contributed to a number of Financial Inclusion Equity Council (FIEC) publications.  Anna was the principal author of the recent FIEC report, “How to IPO Successfully and Responsibly: Lessons From Indian Financial Inclusion Institutions”. The podcast draws from the report’s findings and focuses on the effects of IPOs on Equitas Holdings, Ujjivan Financial Services, SKS Microfinance, and Compartamos.

Initial public offerings have long been a controversial topic in microfinance, and rightly so. The IPOs of Compartamos in Mexico and SKS Microfinance in India, in 2007 and 2010 respectively, made a lot of money for investors and turbocharged the sector’s growth. But they also sparked hyper commercialization and debt crises that rocked the industry, gravely harming its clients and tarnishing its public image.

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> Posted by Anna Kanze, Chief Operating Officer, Grassroots Capital Management, and Danielle Piskadlo, Manager, Investing in Inclusive Finance, CFI

2016 has been dubbed “the year of IPOs” in India: as of September, there had been 21 initial public offerings (IPOs) worth nearly $3 billion, according to Indian news source Livemint. Among these are two high-profile IPOs for microfinance institutions (MFIs): Equitas Financial Holdings and Ujjivan Financial Services. IPOs are seen as the hallmark of commercial success, but in those industries like financial inclusion that are driven by social missions, inevitable questions arise over whether organizations can preserve their double bottom line priorities when they go public. The cases of these two Indian MFIs offer some answers to this increasingly pertinent question.

But before we get to that, let’s look at why these institutions went public in the first place.

Never waste a good crisis, right? In 2010, when the Andhra Pradesh crisis froze microlending in India, regulators and MFIs rose to the occasion and implemented measures that restored confidence in the microfinance industry and helped cement the social mission of microfinance in India. Most notably:

  • Social Standards – In an effort to promote responsible lending, a group of the largest for-profit MFIs in the Indian microfinance sector formed the Microfinance Institutions Network (MFIN). MFIN developed a Code of Conduct by which members commit to client protection, ethics, and transparency, and the group began to “self-police” adherence to responsible lending principles.
  • Credit Bureaus – The members of MFIN also collaborated with High Mark Credit Information Services to form the first credit bureau to track microfinance borrowing in India. All MFIN members contribute data to the microfinance credit bureau.

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> Posted by Lizzy Bolze, Analyst, Investing in Inclusive Finance, CFI

The following post was originally published on the Accion blog. 

Accion client Ma San Htwe selling fish in Myanmar, one of the key areas discussed at European Microfinance Week 2016.

European Microfinance Platform is celebrating 10 years of supporting inclusive finance innovation, and hosted European Microfinance Week 2016 (EMW) in Luxembourg a few weeks ago. At the conference, I joined discussions about key organizations and challenges in the industry. Here are five of the main takeaways from the week:

1. The Underserved Refugee Population

The Social Performance Task Force (SPTF) is helping to provide financial services to the refugee population, which is now approximately 20 million people. In reality we don’t know very much about the socioeconomic needs of refugees, and much of the research is focused on humanitarian efforts. SPTF is working to research and provide guidelines to financial service providers to better serve the financial needs of this population. The guidelines will be published on SPTF’s website in the coming months. Learn more about leading organizations supporting refugees from CFI’s blog series on refugees.

2. Opportunity in Myanmar

Representatives from VisionFund, Advans, UNCDF, and M-CRIL provided a look at the economic landscape of Myanmar and the future of financial inclusion there. In Myanmar, 70 percent of the population was excluded from formal financial services until 2011, when microfinance rapidly expanded. After 2011, 267 licensed Monetary Financial Institutions (MFIs) opened. This opportunity comes with many barriers to inclusion, such as a lack of government regulation and funds and capacity-building issues. However, there is widespread optimism with an adoption of regulations proposed by the Smart Campaign, as well as further demand for microfinance in Myanmar. Investors should consider moving into the region for long term impact.

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The views and opinions expressed on this blog, except where otherwise noted, are those of the authors and guest bloggers and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Financial Inclusion or its affiliates.