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> Posted by Daniel Rozas and Sam Mendelson

The following post was originally published on NextBillion.

For most, socially responsible investing means just that – investing in a manner that not only generates financial returns but also produces positive social value. But what does it mean for an investor to be “responsible” when selling their holdings? How does one stay responsible at the very moment when one ceases to be an investor?

This is a basic challenge facing investors seeking to “exit,” i.e. sell their equity stakes to a new buyer. The issue isn’t entirely new. It first emerged in the mid-2010s, when several microfinance investment vehicles (MIVs) were starting to reach the end of their 10-year terms and were seeking to divest their assets. This issue was first addressed in the financial inclusion sector by a 2014 paper commissioned by CGAP and CFI, which first defined many of the key questions that socially responsible investors need to address when selling their equity stakes.

With another four years of multiple exits under the sector’s belt, NpM, Netherlands Platform for Inclusive Finance, along with the Financial Inclusion Equity Council (FIEC) and the European Microfinance Platform (e-MFP) asked us to take a closer look at one particularly tricky part of the exit process – selecting a buyer that is suitable for the microfinance institution (MFI), its staff and ultimately its clients. The result is Caveat Venditor: Towards a Conceptual Framework for Buyer Selection in Responsible Microfinance Exits – a new paper that goes beyond raising questions, and seeks to provide a template to help investors navigate the complex terrain of “responsible exits.”

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We hope reading this post is just one of many activities you undertake today that acknowledge and celebrate the achievements of women. This International Women’s Day, we turned to a few of the women of CFI to share their thoughts on the gender gap facing lower income women around the world and ways to shift the balance in their favor.
 

Deborah Drake

Deborah Drake says, “International Women’s Day gives us a chance to appreciate the hard work and sacrifice women make every day for their families. It also highlights the challenges involved in giving women the opportunity for economic empowerment and the ability to make choices, including financial decisions for themselves and their families.” (As Vice President of CFI’s Investing in Inclusive Finance Program, Deborah leads the Africa Board Fellowship Program and the Financial Inclusion Equity Council.)
 
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> Posted by Center Staff

2017 was certainly an eventful year. And our year at CFI was no exception. Through our CFI Fellows Program and partnership with the Institute of International Finance, Mainstreaming Financial Inclusion, we produced thought-provoking research on fintech partnerships, the role of human touch in a digital age, breakthroughs in insurance and more. In the client protection area, 24 financial institutions were Smart Certified, bringing the total number of certified institutions to 94. The Africa Board Fellowship Program continued to make a difference at the governance level of financial institutions across Africa, and now roughly 200 CEOs and board members have participated in the program. And more…

Before we celebrate the New Year, we wanted to pause and look back at some of our favorite moments of 2017.

Financial Health as a Global Framework

We developed a new model for assessing financial health. The financial health framework was developed through a project led by the Center for Financial Services Innovation (CFSI) with CFI and Dalberg as partners. The framework offers a globally applicable model for financial health that includes six indicators of financial health and four contributing factors that are particularly relevant to the developing world.

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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

Embed from Getty Images

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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Credit Suisse is a founding sponsor of the Center for Financial Inclusion. The Credit Suisse Group Foundation looks to its philanthropic partners to foster research, innovation and constructive dialogue in order to spread best practices and develop new solutions for financial inclusion.

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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.