Walking past a row of vending machines and ATMs at the Kursky train station in Moscow, Sergei Amirkhanov stops in front of a bright orange cash machine. Instead of inserting his bank card, he scans his passport, poses for a photo and enters his mobile number. He receives a text message on his phone a few minutes later, telling him to return to the machine and withdraw the cash he needs.
This strange kind of ATM began popping up at railway stations and shopping malls around Moscow last year. It looks like a regular cash machine, but it's designed to accept loan applications and dole out money on the spot.
The loan ATM is a product of Oleg Boyko, a Russian billionaire who made his fortune running slot machine halls. When President Vladimir Putin banned gambling in 2009, Boyko moved the gambling business outside the country, but he continues to control financial firms and other companies in Russia. One of his investments is 4finance Holding and its affiliate, SMS Finance, which operates the micro-loan machines. Boyko, a paraplegic who helps support the Paralympic Games, has also dabbled in Hollywood. He's an investor in Summer Crossing, a movie based on a Truman Capote novel that will be Scarlett Johansson's directorial debut.
There are currently about 20 automated loan machines installed throughout Moscow. They allow customers to request as much as 15,000 rubles ($241) that must be paid back in 20 days or less. The interest rate is 2 percent a day, which works out to 730 percent on an annualized basis. That may seem insane, but some Russians have been willing to embrace the technology to make ends meet between paychecks.
Amirkhanov, 37, took out a 3,000 ruble ($48) loan after he lost his construction job at a Moscow power station in February. He needed the money to hold him and his family over while he searches for work because his bank won't let him borrow cash. "I have a banking card, but its balance is zero," he says. "I am in a desperate situation." Fallout from the conflict in Ukraine has taken a toll on the Russian economy, resulting in a freeze on some construction projects and an influx of Ukrainian refugees, who are creating more competition for jobs, he says. Amirkhanov was granted 15 days to pay back the loan, including 900 rubles in interest.
For many Russians, it's the only way to borrow. After the value of the ruble began to plummet late last year, local banks took hits to their credit ratings and were no longer able to find lenders abroad. As a result, Russian banks have less cash to lend and are tightening client-scoring procedures to avoid bad loans. Leave it to a gambling magnate to have the stomach for risky consumer loans in this economy.
Payday lenders similar to 4finance, such as Britain's Wonga.com, are often characterized as vultures feeding on the vulnerable. Typical customers have poor credit or problems with employment or are uneducated about what financial options are available to them, according to Olga Naydenova, an analyst at BCS Financial Group in Moscow. "Their rates are way too high," she says. "While regulation has been tightening for traditional banks, the micro-finance business has much softer requirements for capital adequacy."
The absence of strict regulation allows micro-loan companies to provide options to people who would be passed over by traditional banks, according to Kieran Donnelly, chief executive officer of Boyko-backed 4finance. The company offers consumer loans in a dozen European countries, primarily through websites people access via computers or phones. More than 11 million loan applications have been submitted to 4finance, which lent €831 million ($944 million) last year. The company, which recently spun off the Russian SMS Finance unit to appease risk-averse investors, plans to hold an initial public offering as soon as 2016, Donnelly says. "Our objectives are about profitability and return on investment," he says. "A big part of what we are offering to people is convenience."
Recognizing that many potential customers may not have access to the Internet or trust it with their banking information, SMS Finance began working on the ATM and installed the first ones in Moscow in May 2014. They contain software that matches a photo taken by the machine with one on a passport to verify customers' identities, which help the company evaluate each applicant's creditworthiness within 15 minutes. It's still something of an experiment, but the company plans to test the ATMs in Poland and Spain next.
When a loan repayment is due, customers can settle it at a local bank, an electronics store, online, or by using a digital payment system such as Qiwi or Yandex.Money. If someone tries to skip out on paying, company representatives send e-mails, text messages, and phone calls. After two to three months of chasing a customer, they may involve debt collectors. About 10 percent of borrowers default on their loans, but the company is recovering 55 percent of overdue debt, says Donnelly. As Boyko, the investor and gaming billionaire, can probably attest, those are better odds than he'll get at the casino.