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Lars Smith

Microcredit loans help smooth out fluctuations in income, maintain consumption levels during lean periods, and provide buffers against sudden emergencies. As such they are extremely useful, but much more like payday loans than venture capital investments.

Microcredit loans are popular with poor people because they are payday loans to people without paychecks.


The problem with all high interest loans, micro or not, is not their availability but their draconian interest rates charged to the borrowers. In most developed countries the vast majority of startups fail. In the third world countries, the rate of failure is even greater.

Any enterprise that is charged annual rates of 20 percent to 70 percent is in even tougher position to pay back the loan. Although the pool of relatives may help pay back to loan it is often given as a gift to the borrower with no expectation that they will be paid back. With interest rates so high, the money to pay pack the loan often comes out of what little savings the group has.

Lawrence Indyk, University of Kansas School of Law

The average loan balance of a high-interest, short-term loan is approximately 60% of the initial loan (for example, 25% a year paid back in three years is 57.6%)- one can guess that Grameen's average loan is around $140 if they loan around $300 Million a year. This would mean around 2 million loans a year! If they've served six million people with those three-year loans, with almost universal renewal (like payday loans) - I suppose the numbers could make sense.

Those borrowers should be prime borrowers - since they rarely default, and long periods of borrowing and successfully paying back loans (guaranteed personally by multiple close associates no less!) should make for a fairly high credit rating and low risk profile - so fixed costs much be a large fraction of the loans. If Grameen is a profitable $300M/year bank, it should be able to borrow at around 10% (though, Bangladesh's enormous inflation rate may make this higher). Assuming there is a gap of 20% between the rate they are charged and the rate they charge their borrowers - each loan's fixed cost would be a tiny $30 - but a large 20% of the loan's amount. (Compare with the 2% fixed cost for home mortgages)

So maybe the greatest anti-poverty benefit of Microfinance in the professional employment opportunity it creates for an army of decently paid (by local standards) loan officers in bank branches in every village. The real nation of bankers may turn out to be Bangladesh.

As for the "Peace" in the Nobel Peace Prize, Alfred Nobel said in his will that it should go, "...to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between the nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses."

Wait a minute - where's the "efforts to counter poverty", or "human rights advocacy" or "sustainable development" or "working for the UN" or "plant biology" or "cause celebre du jour"?

It would take some real mental and rhetorical gymnastics to explain why the Grameen bank even fits into Nobel's description, let alone deserves to be deemed, when compared with all worthy global candidates, as having done it the most or the best. Norman Borlaug tried to explain his green revolution prize by saying that though he satisfied hunger for food, the world was also "hungry for peace". Perhaps it's another example of the trustees of a foundation going astray from the likely intentions of the founder.


As for Nobel Peace Prize, given the ongoing war on terror, there must have been a severe shortage of peace candidates this year. As for the MFI's, this sounds like a euphemism for "loan sharks". A very traditional credit institution, especially in high poverty areas. Although, they (MFI's) may be more humanitarian in their collection practices.

Bruce G Charlton

Nobel Peace prize etc.

The Nobel 'peace' prize is an obnoxious institution - as is the Literature prize. Both are clearly non-meritocratic and highly arbitrary, unlike the other prizes which have perfomed excellently.

What we really need are twice as many Nobel Prizes for the sciences (including economics), where there are clear internationally-valid criteria of evaluation.

Even with the present small numbers of science prizes, they provide an extremely valuable measure of the top research institutions - those which tend to produce 'revolutionary' science, rather than the more 'normal' and routine variety.


In Bangladesh, around 1976 Dr. Muhammad Yunus, who was then a professor of economics started a similar microfinance program targeting poor woman(WIKIPEDIA)

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You can read more about micro loans here: http://www.newyorker.com/printables/fact/061030fa_fact1

I believe at least two of Judge Posners assumptions are wrong:
More important may be the existence of a close substitute for microfinance in the form of informal loans by relatives and clan members I believe those families tend to be (1) sexists and (2) unlikely to loan to a wife who has married into the clan. Since most of these loans go to women, the clan-based lending is not a substitute. I also understand that many clans waste enormous amounts of money on celebrations, dowries, etc and would look suspiciously on an application of some woman who wants to start a business.

The idea of borrowing one's way out of poverty is passing strange.

The loans are not given for consumption or health care. The lender requires a business plan and the money is used in entrepreneurial activity. Anecdotally, loans paid for my premier education and dragged me out of poverty (I was a $10,000 a year waiter at a diner before college), and also gave me the ability to assist my parents in climbing out of poverty into a cozy mid 80s Condo. The efficacy of loans in helping the poor access more productive activity seems self evident.


Grameen Bank has lent almost $6 billion to some 6 million persons. This implies an average loan of almost $1,000

Does it? It seems to me that most borrowers are probably repeat customers. Maybe they average 100 loans each at $10 per loan. Would that explain the difference?


I believe the reason that women are targeted by the micro-finance institutions is not that "microfinance corrects [...] discrimination against women in the family and clan capital markets" but that women tend to exert greater social supervision and control upon their group of debtors. Men have been shown not to be as disciplined when it comes to the repayment of their loans.


Judge Posner writes, "The idea of borrowing one's way out of poverty is passing strange."


Would Judge Posner find it "passing strange" for a poor student to borrow $100,000 to go to Harvard Law School? It makes perfect economic sense for a young person with little or no cash on hand to invest in his/her future career by borrowing. Of course, the investment decision should be wise and well thought out. And, an investment in a Harvard education almost certainly pays dividends. The key, therefore, is to make sure that the borrower puts the borrowed money to good use.

Bernard Yomtov

"The idea of borrowing one's way out of poverty is passing strange."

Others have commented on this sentence by referring to borrowing for educational purposes. I might add that there are, obviously, successful business that were initially financed with borrowed money. This includes the "clan loans" Posner mentions.


One question regarding the targeting of women by microfinance institutions is whether women's inferior social status (especially in poor regions) is instrumental in creating heightened rates of repayment. If so, it raises questions about the morality of exploiting the symptoms of systemic oppression for the purpose of loan collections.


Microfinance is a myth. If you really want to present a viable solution to eradicating poverty look into the work of Dr. Abraham George. Below is a link to one of his articles published by Wharton Business School.


Chairman Mao

Judge P,

What happens if a borrower defaults on a microfinance loan? You write that the justice systems in the countries in question do not intervene. Even if microfinanciers pick the cream of the crop, there will be failures and surely there must be a deterrent effect for defaulting.

With respect to the discrepancy in the numbers, Grameen probably gives a lot of money to very few (probably people with political connections or of interest to the U.S. gov’t) and much smaller loans are divided among the rest.

$6 billion to some 6 million persons. This implies an average loan of almost $1,000.

1000 get $5.5 mil. each = $5.5 billion. 5,999,000 share the other $500 mil. = 83.35 per borrower.

It is a mean vs. median issue.

Vishal Jain

Microfinance continues to serve its purpose and objective - provides dignity and self-respect to a large women class. In a Developed Countries where women are ill-treated, Microfinance serves its objective. It brings freedom and boldness in women that was otherwise wavering or absent (did contraceptive in the modern world not provide freedom and self-awareness to the woment). One can critize the high interest rate or debate on merits of a debt or equity loan, but one cannot, in my opinion, question the efficay of the process and other many benefits.

Social unrest and widening income dispairty and lack of opportunites can create an atmosphere where peace can be broken. Microfinance is an instrument to can begin to iron out the disparities. Grameen Bank - a fitting candidiate, I believe, for Peace Prize.

Keith Vick

A question regarding trust. Is reduction in the costs of administering the quantified version of 'trust' a good explanation for the rise of microfinance?

I am not familiar with the Grameen bank, but I think it is safe to say that the data we are collecting on individuals equivalent of 'trust' is improving and the administrative costs are falling. Also, the establishment of trusts is arguably NOT low cost. It is very costly for people to take time away from 'productive' behavior (producing measurable products and services) to 'network' or establish relationships supportive of financing. Thus, I am not sure that I agree that trust is low cost.

A question related to financing by the clan. Is access to a larger pool of funds the mechanism for alleviation from poverty?

Perhaps the noted sex based friction against financing could be extended to an argument that the resources within the clan are extremely limited. Microfinance may provide, coupled with low administrative costs, an avenue to larger financing pool that the clan could not provide.

Yes, the counter argument is this: if the clan is so impoverished they can't loan then how are they going to buy the goods or services produced by the finance entrepeneur. Same methodology could be an answer. Perhaps with the financing they can sell goods to the well financed. That is, the friction against getting the financing to the impoverished may be proportional to getting the goods/services from the impoverished to the well financed.

However, I suspect a more correct answer is that the goods and services they produce are sold locally beyond the bounds of their trust relationship. That is, a girl in village x may be bounded by a trust relationship within the village and thus is unable to avail herself of funds outside of that trust relationship. However, with financing, she is able to sell goods outside of the village and, thus, outside the boundary of her trust relationships.

I also believe there is an argument that selling goods do not require the same 'level' of trust as acquiring funds of a highly liquid nature.

As an aside, I am not sure what is meant by the statement that "... I am unaware of any historical examples of nations that climbed out of poverty on the backs of small entrepreneurs financed by credit." I find this statement odd and somewhat disturbing.

I submit the following quote from Carnegie for Kids: "Scott also initiated Carnegie's first investment, alerting him to the sale of ten shares in the Adams Express Company. By mortgaging their house his mother, lent him $500 to buy the shares and the first stream of dividends came rolling in his direction. Andrew's story from then on is one of increased business success and power." This is a single, albeit extrodinary, impoverished person.

I suppose it is arguable, although I wouldn't agree, that the loan was within his 'trust' relationship. The loan was from a bank leveraged off real property. Also, although the amount was relatively large at the time, the financing was relatively small to the gains it realized. Regardless, these objections are irrelvant to the question of historical accuracy.

The availability of credit helped finance Carnegie's industrial consolidation. Was it not the activities of the likes of Andrew Carnegie that provided the efficiencies provided by the mass production that lifted this country out of poverty? Perhaps I am misunderstanding his definition of poverty. Perhaps he means relative poverty of third world countries to first world countries.

To address this question opens a whole can of worms related to Colonialism that squashes any meaningful economic argument. But I imagine that that it is has got be difficult to start a small business when French, American, Russian, and English troops are busy training your neighbors to shoot guns rather than buy your latest pottery. Not to mention the policies squashing education, basic rights such as travel (which by the way is considered 'fundamental' in our country), etc.

Even moving forward to the present age it is a relatively simple exercise to point to the likes of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Ellison to show that small amounts of financing to small entrepeneurs is not only present, but ESSENTIAL, to an economy as large as ours. Was it not the likes of such men that ushered in the information age and largely provided the productivity gains that allows for low interest rates and an improvement in income and material wealth? Again, I suppose an argument could be made that these fellows were operating in a very efficient economy. But phooey, the efficiencies they developed are responsible for a great deal of material wealth in a huge economy and they were small entrepeneurs.

Thus, it seems reasonable to expect similar gains may be observed in smaller economies by making credit available to small entrepeneurs.


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Bob Dickerson

I am shocked at the number of people commenting on the Blog who have no real knowledge about Microcredit, and seem to just speculate!

May I at least make a factual correction in the Blog statement: No Microcredit bank (by definition) charges "20% interest per day." While some charge as much as 20% a year, one of the key reasons that Prof. Yunus began the Grameen Bank was that Money Lenders (not to be confused with Microcredit Banks) were charging outrageous amounts of interest on a daily basis.

As for the reason that the loans go largely to women, Prof. Yunus has said there are two reasons, which he learned over time.

1. Women are much more likely than men to repay their loans.

2. Women are much more likely to use the profits earned for the benefit of their children than men.

In response to the comments that suggested Microcredit is some kind of Payday Loan scam, there are a number of studies which have concluded that thousands of people leave poverty each month in Bangladesh, due to Microcredit loans.

Studies have also shown that areas with a lot of Microcredit loans also cause the minimum wage for laborers and others in the area to rise, since many in the labor market are now working their own businesses.

In terms of empowering women, again consider the facts from Bangladesh, a country with substantial Microcredit:

1. Their infant mortality rates have dropped significantly, more than India
2. Their birth rates have dropped in half.
3. They have already reached the Millennium Development Goal to get gender parity in both Primary and Secondary Schools, 9 years in advance of the goal.
4. There are over 13,000 women in elective office now.
5. In the Grameen Bank, after three successful loan cycles, a borrower qualifies for a "home" loan. A small loan that permits a home with masonry walls and a tin roof. Far more substantial than the home where people live who survive on less than one dollar a day. The first thing a woman must do to be able to get such a loan, is to have her husband sign over the real estate to her! This prevents him from turning around three times, saying "I divorce thee", and then throwing the wife and children out, and keeping the home.

For those really interested in Microcredit, go to:


Bob Dickerson


I read another good article about MICROFINANCE on another website, which contains deeper thoughts.


Why don't you take a look?



Maybe a pipe dream, maybe not...

Dear Becker and Posner, imagine $10 billion dollars worth of microcredit dinar-based loans to poor Iraqis, lent out at extremely low rates, ultimately backed by Iraq's oil wealth or the US government. Sounds crazy? But then think for a second. It doesn't seem hard to imagine this having a better impact on Iraqi society than $10 billion of failed infrastructure projects.

There are a few microcredit programs already operating in Iraq, for example those run by USAID. They claim to have a 99% repayment rate. The projects are micro in another way as well: just a few million here, a few hundred thousand dollars there.

Microcredit on a massive scale, when done in a way that minimizes inflationary issues, could be a major force for good in Iraq, helping to create a social fabric compatible with a market economy.
It should be acceptable to the broader American public, at least in terms of its ideals, as it embodies the best of both conservative and liberal viewpoints. Microfinance means personal responsibility, focuses empowerment on individuals rather than the state, builds society from the bottom up, and is a force for equality. It's not welfare, it's a chance to find work. If there is any hope of building a market economy in Iraq, one would think that something like microcredit would be an outstanding way to create the necessary cultural underpinnings.

Microcredit loans are typically backed by a group of borrowers who then urge each other to repay (thereby growing shared interests) in order to gain further access to credit. Borrowers are typically poor women, likely to spend money on children, clean water, education, etc. Less likely to spend on guns.

Microcredit therefore might be able to help bolster a cohesive social fabric while creating opportunities for those most in need. One would think it could lay the groundwork for more advanced forms of economic and financial activity. It is a fully bottom-up approach whose goal of empowerment stresses individual responsibility, community and family values of the least hypocritical variety. A much larger financial system could be born of this. Furthermore, it could operate on principles closer to Sharia Law than those in existence today, though I'm not sure that's the best thing...

Injections of liquidity could create enormous growth of employment, it would seem. After all, they do here...

Unfortunately the new Iraqi dinar is, as far as I understand it, a pure fiat currency. This means it is susceptible to inflation. A truly hard currency backed directly by gold would appear to make the most sense for Iraq's development (and for microloans): you could add as much money as you wanted without devaluing the currency. Additionally, an Iraqi currency board would be less able to print print print..., and since oil and gold have about an 80% price correlation in the financial markets, a gold dinar would effortlessly smooth out volatility in oil export revenues to the local economy. And since gold generally doesn't lose value, just goes up and down along with oil, Sharia Law, with its low tolerance for interest rates, would appear to be less violated since low inflation means lower interest rates. Wouldn't this work? Isn't this a better solution?

Still, even with the current Dinar microloans could possibly work since if anything, the Dinar is gaining value against other currencies, at least for now. (Of course I have no doubt that at some future point the printing presses will in high gear...)

When the Marshall Plan was enacted it was a bold new experiment. So should the development project in Iraq -- almost dead right now -- be a bold project filled with creative initiatives. Microfinance is in its infancy, and I'm certain that many news forms can be developed, hybrid systems, loans to groups of individuals who then lend to their local municipalities, etc.

But lending billions of dollars to Iraqis would be an administrative nightmare you say? Just the kind they need, to create bureaucracies, administrations and records that are so sorely lacking in that country without governance.

I remember reading a study done at Stanford claiming that only after a society has reached about $7000 per capita GDP is democracy possible, since power must be diffuse enough, and since, well, money is perhaps the most important form of power. Before the $7000 per capita mark, the study claimed, money was just too concentrated. Well, infrastructure projects aren't going to spread the money around, that's for sure. But access to capital for the poor sure will. That's high volatility money from the bottom up. So an infrastructure project is sort of like building an oasis in a desert (people can fight over it, nice to see, has some limited good impact, probably never used right) while well-dispersed credit is like irrigation, the creation of good soil.

There's a new book out, I forget the name -- sorry -- which claims that cultural work values have more to do with national wealth than any other factor. Well, here to microfinance gets right to the crux of it: it directly incentivizes accountability. You the borrower decide. You the borrower have to figure out something new to do. You the borrower have to take the initiative.

It might not end the war. It might not be enough. It probably would have some important weakness. But just imagine a huge, radically powerful credit program to the neediest individuals as a way to till and fertilize the soil of Iraq, giving hope of becoming a once-again fertile Mesopotamia. It might seem crazy at first. Billions of dollars of microloans to individual Iraqis. From the bottom up, with dignity. After all, when asked why terrorists commit their horrific actions, one word comes out again and again: "We need dignity, dignity, dignity ... what do you expect when we have no dignity, dignity, dignity." From a sincere longing to do good, and also from a defensive soft-power public-relations point of view, doesn't a microfinance Marshall Plan for Iraq make some sense?

Just as a last thought, what would happen to the US economy if you took away 90% of individual and small business credit?

A long comment in a dreamy voice, hope that's OK. But isn't the idea worthwhile? I know you are skeptical of microcredit; how skeptical would you be of vast infrastructure projects? At least the goals of microcredit are a vast improvement. So please now improve it further!



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