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> Posted by Carmen Paraison, Project Associate, the Smart Campaign

On January 18th, 2017, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) filed suit against Navient, the largest federal and private student loans servicer in the U.S., for “systemically and illegally failing borrowers at every stage of repayment.” Allegations include:

  • Misallocating student loan payments by failing to follow instructions from borrowers about how to apply their payments across their multiple loans.
  • Steering struggling borrowers toward multiple forbearances instead of lower payments via income-driven repayment plans. (Forbearance is an option that lets borrowers take a short break from making payments, but that still accrues interest.)
  • Providing unclear information about how to re-enroll in income-driven repayment plans.
  • Deceiving private student loan borrowers about requirements to release their co-signer (e.g. a parent or grandparent) from their loans, which can be advantageous given some lenders’ practices surrounding the death of a co-signer.
  • And failing to act when borrowers complained.

Navient currently services more than $300 billion in loans for more than 12 million borrowers.

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

“Would you like to save $10 today?” In the United States, it seems you can’t shop anywhere these days without hearing this question at the checkout counter. According to Card Hub, there are at least 134 large retailers in the U.S. offering credit cards. And of course, these offers usually sound great. Who wouldn’t want to save money on purchases? All you have to do is fill out a short form on the spot… It’s easy.

These savings can come at a price. Here are a few of my concerns about credit cards offered by the likes of Target, Macys, Sears, TJ Maxx, and others.

  • Confusion between Rewards and Credit Cards – Many retailers provide rewards or loyalty card programs. For instance, you can earn points at CVS with a card or get gas reward points at Stop and Shop. These rewards and loyalty cards are often similar to retail credit cards in that they are offered at the register, you fill out a short form to join, and you present the cards when checking out. For customers with limited financial literacy or limited English language skills, the difference between reward/loyalty cards and retail credit cards can be very confusing. It’s blurred even more by the fact that most credit cards also offer rewards – like cash back or bonus air miles. Of course, there are big differences between a card that one swipes to simply “earn points” and a card that allows one to make purchases on credit.

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> Posted by Anne H. Hastings, Manager, Microfinance CEO Working Group

At a time when microfinance has fallen out of favor in mainstream development circles and when investors are asking to see metrics showing the impact of their funding, it is especially important to base our discussions of poverty outreach on empirical research. Grameen Foundation and the International Finance Corporation (IFC) recently published a study that does just this. Factors Influencing Poverty Outreach Among Microfinance Institutions in Latin America (available in English and Spanish) takes a close look at poverty outreach data from 14 microfinance institutions (MFIs) across six Latin American countries and is the first study of its kind in the region. The information analyzed includes data from Progress out of Poverty Index® (PPI®) surveys and a range of other relevant client profile variables such as socio-demographics and credit disbursement details.

The findings are important. In-depth interviews with the MFIs surfaced an interesting hypothesis that was supported by the data. High levels of competition and over-indebtedness of clients, two interlinked factors, seemed to be driving MFIs to pursue poorer clients. In regions where wealthier clients are already served by commercial banks (e.g., urban areas), MFIs service poorer clients, likely in order to avoid the pitfalls of over-indebtedness and to seek untapped markets. However, the MFIs service relatively wealthier clients in regions that have a higher rate of unbanked (e.g., rural areas). It seems, in others words, that MFIs tend to focus first on whomever is excluded regardless of poverty level, but some will extend their poverty outreach when there is greater penetration among the formerly excluded.

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> Posted by Magauta Mphahlele, CEO, National Debt Mediation Association (NDMA)

Overall, 2014 was not a good year for South African consumers of credit. Evidence of this is based on statistics from the banking regulators as well as the casework compiled through the work of the National Debt Mediation Association (NDMA) with individuals and mineworkers employed by two of the largest mining companies in South Africa.

The South African economy has remained stagnant, contributing to strikes and retrenchments across the board, especially in the mining sector. For those consumers who were lucky not to be retrenched, factors, such as price inflation, a freeze on bonuses, reduced commissions, and personal circumstances like illness, divorce, and death in the family put pressure on their finances leading many to default on their debt repayments. Despite several regulatory initiatives and interventions, the results of the December 2014 National Credit Regulator (NCR) Credit Bureau Monitor showed that the number of credit active consumers was 22.84 million and of these, 10.6 million (46 percent) have impaired records.

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> Posted by Center Staff

Many enterprises operating in the informal economy provide low-quality working conditions for their employees. Workers might be exposed to difficult or dangerous environments, and the formalities of labor law are missing. A new project from the International Labour Organization’s Social Finance Program and the University of Mannheim in Germany tested the hypothesis that microfinance institutions, given their unique and expansive connections to the informal economy, can successfully apply interventions aimed at improving their clients’ working conditions. The project spanned 2008 to 2012 and included collaborations with 16 microfinance institutions. The project results are shared in the recently released report, “Microfinance for Decent Work – Enhancing the Impact of Microfinance.” It suggests that microfinance institutions indeed have the potential to leverage their positioning and resources to improve their clients’ business environments.

The project was carried out in four steps. First, the participating MFIs conducted an internal diagnostic to identify the most pressing work-related challenges faced by their clients. Across the breadth of identified challenges, the issues that the MFIs chose to address were reducing child labor, promoting business formalization, enhancing business performance, and reducing vulnerability, particularly in regards to risk management and over-indebtedness. Each MFI created its own intervention with its unique institutional context in mind. These innovations included launching new financial services, introducing non-financial services, offering packages of financial and non-financial services, and restructuring institutional operations. The innovations were piloted with client impact tracked to enable before and after comparisons in control and treatment groups.

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> Posted by the Platform for Inclusive Finance (NpM)

How has the microfinance industry leveraged regulation and supervision to safeguard client wellbeing? In priority areas like over-indebtedness, acceptable pricing, and transparency, what progress has been made to ensure that institutions are operating responsibly? And in cases where regulatory actions have been taken, how have they been implemented? A recent research project conducted by EY and the Platform for Inclusive Finance (NpM) investigates these questions across 12 country markets and assesses the current state of client protection regulation in microfinance.

The growth of the inclusive finance sector has helped create significant opportunities for low-income people around the world. However, when not done correctly, access to financial products also has the potential to bring harm. Of the increasing importance of client protection and sound regulation, EY Senior Manager and one of the report’s authors, Justina Alders-Sheya remarked: “The sector is growing and to do so responsibly, it is necessary that supervisory authorities perform their role.”

Drawing on questionnaires completed by local stakeholders, the study examined whether laws and regulations on client protection have been implemented in any way in the 12 studied countries: Azerbaijan, Bolivia, Cambodia, Ghana, India, Kenya, Peru, the Philippines, Rwanda, Russia, Tanzania, and Uganda. The study also examined the regulatory and supervisory landscape for client protection in each country. It investigated who is creating the regulations, how they’re being enforced, and the role of industry players like microfinance associations and credit bureaus.

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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.