Savita Ramesh Rathore stands at the door of her dimly lit workshop in Mumbai's Dharavi slum, filled floor to ceiling with bundles of old clothes, and talks about the cost of her son's wedding last year. "Jewels, clothes, food, the town hall," says Rathore, 50, who makes towels from discarded clothes. She borrowed 30,000 rupees ($647) from moneylenders charging 60 percent interest and took additional loans from friends. Three months ago she got a 10,000-rupee loan from urban lender Hindusthan Microfinance at an interest rate of just over 20 percent to repay some of that debt.
Rathore is one of 25 million Indians who have taken so-called microfinance loans, often without adequate documentation or collateral, according to research firm Micro-Credit Ratings International. As Hyderabad-based SKS Microfinance plans to become the first microlender in the country to go public, an industry credited with helping alleviate poverty is suddenly provoking comparisons to subprime lenders in the U.S.
"Globally, microfinance is showing characteristics of the Western financial markets before the collapse," says Sanjay Sinha, managing director at Micro-Credit Ratings in Gurgaon. "In the U.S., homeowners were given loans at 120 percent of the value of their properties. In rural India, people are being lent to at 150 percent of the value of their enterprises."
Microfinance firms make loans in poor areas largely shut off from traditional banking services. The past two years have been marked by surging defaults in some countries. Microfinance markets in Nicaragua, Morocco, and Pakistan have seen default levels climb to more than 10 percent, the threshold that marks a "serious repayment crisis," according to a February report from policy and research firm Consultative Group to Assist the Poor.
India, where more than 600 million people live on less than $1.50 a day, is the world's largest microfinance market. Most microfinance loans in India range from 5,000 to 20,000 rupees ($108 to $431), with interest rates ranging from 18 percent to 33 percent. Although Indian microfinance firms have reported bad-loan ratios of about 2.5 percent on average, levels may be higher because some lenders roll over loans to struggling borrowers to avoid defaults, says Micro-Credit's Sinha.
Microfinance lending in India may surge by about 40 percent annually over the next few years, says Sinha. SKS, betting the potential for growth will attract investors, is seeking regulatory approval for an initial public offering. Basix Group, which focuses on poor households in rural areas and provides loans averaging about 3,000 rupees, may sell shares in an IPO next year, says Chairman Vijay Mahajan. Others are likely to follow. Until now, microfinance companies have relied on loans and grants from banks, insurers, and foundations for funding, he says.
Micro-Credit's Sinha worries that growth in the microfinance market is masking an erosion of lending standards that may spark rising defaults. India doesn't have a nationwide system for tracking borrowers' credit histories, making it hard for lenders to check whether clients have multiple loans. "There is significant investor interest in microfinance companies' public issues, but it's being driven by irrational exuberance," says Sinha.
Rural lending can be particularly tricky. "If there's a bad monsoon and the farmers lose their crops, our money can go along with it that year," says Amit Kalokhe, a loan officer at Mumbai-based Hindusthan Microfinance. The firm tries to reduce risk by lending to groups of people rather than to individuals, founder Anil Jadhav says. "That way if one person defaults, others can pay the amount," he says. The 10,000-rupee advance to towel maker Rathore in Mumbai was part of a loan to a group of women, according to the company.
Rathore is already mulling how to finance another major outlay: her 19-year-old daughter's wedding. "Once my present loans are paid off, I know there will be more," she says, looking past the open sewage drains near the two-room home she shares with four family members. "The cycle doesn't end."
The bottom line: Rushing to cash in on a growing market, India's microlenders may be handing out money to borrowers who can't afford to repay it.