Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Food for thought

Here's an article from William Pesek Junior, another favourite Bloomberg Columnist.

Certainly provides food for thought, especially to those of us living in the parts of Asia that have been creating excitement for the Western MNC and investor.

Hope this stimulate the brain

Nobel Credit Where It's Due, Microcredit That Is: William Pesek

By William Pesek

Oct. 18 (Bloomberg) -- Rarely has a Nobel Peace Prize been
more deserved than in the case of Muhammad Yunus of Bangladesh.
The founder of Grameen Bank beat out Irish rock star Bono and a
bevy of others for the honor, and rightfully so.

Financiers don't often register with the Nobel folks in Oslo.
Giving this year's award to a banker -- and the bank he created -
- caused some head scratching. Why not former Finnish President
Martti Ahtisaari or Indonesian President Susilo Bambang
Yudhoyono? Or former Czech President Vaclav Havel or Ukrainian
President Viktor Yushchenko? Or Bob Geldof?

Yunus, 66, deserved it more. The best part of his strategy
of giving loans to the poor, known as microcredit, isn't the
millions of people Yunus has helped so far. It lies in how the
bank he founded in 1976 is inspiring a growing number of copycats.
That may help provide credit in Asian economies where more is due.

By lending to the poorest of the poor in rural areas without
asking for collateral, microcredit seeks to create economic and
social development from below. It's called microcredit because
the loan amounts are tiny by developed-nation standards, often
$20, $50 or $100.

The money can have a powerful multiplier effect. Families
can buy a cow to start a dairy farm, or a mobile phone to open a
communications business or chickens to launch an egg company.
Yunus founded microcredit by lending $27 to a Bangladeshi bamboo-
stool maker and 41 other villagers. As of May, Grameen had 6.61
million borrowers, 97 percent of them women.

Microcredit's Promise

What Grameen proved is that money can be made when lending
to the poor, thus giving the world's biggest banks incentives to
focus on society's weakest links. It's an approach that ensures
inclusive growth so that virtually everyone may have access to
finance. For banks of all kinds, this is a fast-growing market
they should consider tapping.

In the years ahead, securitization efforts are likely to
increase. They involve bundling tiny loans into one security with
terms that cushion investors against default, not unlike
securities backed by student loans or mortgages.

``Securitization will be a tremendous boost for the world's
poor,'' Yunus said in 2000.

Yunus has carved out a financial empire in Bangladesh. More
importantly, he has been exporting his microcredit model,
catalyzing a movement that reaches tens of millions of people in
more than 70 countries. Some of the biggest names in finance such
as Citigroup Inc., Deutsche Bank AG and ABN Amro Bank NV are also
involved in microcredit programs.

Low Default Risk

Microcredit can be more profitable than some people think.
Interest rates on Grameen's loans are about 16 percent, and 95
percent of them are repaid. One reason for such low default rates
is the shame factor.

I first saw how it works in 2000, when I accompanied then-
U.S. Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers to India and Mozambique.
We toured numerous villages in which women had pooled savings and
lent out the funds to neighbors. When you are late on loan
payments to HSBC Holdings Plc, it's not public knowledge. When
you are behind on loans to people you live with, shame looms

Asia needs more Grameen-like operations, and fast. To
understand why, spend an hour with Ifzal Ali, chief economist at
the Manila-based Asian Development Bank. He will remind you that
hidden under all the euphoria about Asia's booming economies are
what he calls ``vast pockets of paralyzing and persistent

Take China, where 42 percent of the population lives on less
than $2 a day. In India, three-quarters of the population
survives on less than the cost of a Starbucks latte. It's a
reminder that double-digit growth doesn't always boost living
standards broadly.

Equitable Growth

Ali points out that 60 percent of the region's population
still lives in poverty. If left unchecked, this developing-nation
phenomenon could hold back wealthier economies, too.

Poverty isn't something to which many investors give much
thought. It doesn't figure readily into bond yields or stock
valuations. It's not the first thing currency traders think about
when placing bets. Nor is it an issue the world's most powerful
central banks ponder seriously.

Multinational companies are depending on rising Asian
incomes to bolster consumer spending and spur demand for cars,
electronics, travel and many other goods and services. Yet Asian
consumers won't spend if growth doesn't reach them.

Pro-Poor Growth

Ensuring that growth is more equitable will help morph Asia
into a richer consumer market. That's a win-win situation for
Asia's people, and for the executives and investors aiming to
profit from their increased prosperity.

There are risks to consider as Yunus basks in the glow of
unprecedented media attention. One is that microcredit goes too
mainstream, becoming more about big profits at commercial banks
than helping the poor. That's true of Yunus, too. Grameen has
diversified into companies that produce knit shirts, write
computer programs and offer mobile-phone services. The risk is
that it loses touch with poor borrowers.

Finding a happy medium between profit and altruism will
leave hundreds of millions of people -- if not billions -- better
off. Hats off to the Nobel Committee for shining a spotlight
where it's badly needed.

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