Even before coronavirus came, Pakistan’s microfinance sector was sniffling. Amid macroeconomic stabilization, repayment capacity of borrowers, and in turn, industry profitability of over three dozen microfinance providers was constrained due to high inflation and low growth. And long-term issues festered, such as sector under-capitalization, low coverage, and lack of broad-based economic growth.
But this crisis is different than an economic dip and it is likely to disrupt microfinance’s growth trajectory. As per the latest quarterly data Pakistan Microfinance Network (PMN), which is the national body of microfinance providers, the number of active borrowers stood at 7.3 million as of March 2020, up 3 percent over March 2019. The gross loan portfolio stood at Rs309 billion, 7 percent year-on-year.
The PMN had previously expected 8 million active borrowers by 2020 end, out of an addressable market of about 41 million active borrowers and another 6 million micro enterprises. Such targets will likely be missed. The sectoral results of the ongoing quarter will tell in a couple of months as to how much the first Covid-19 wave has hurt this market.
The ongoing crisis is feared to have significantly dented the purchasing power of low-income households and small businesses, which are the primary target market for small loans. Already, some recent studies have suggested a 90 percent decline in weekly incomes of microfinance clients. Since liquidity is the basic need for most microfinance clients, it is unclear if they are able to access new loans to get by.
Even post-lockdown, earnings are expected to remain low as both the supply and demand sides are still in crisis. As borrowers fell on hard times, SECP stepped in around late March and allowed the non-banking microfinance providers to reschedule client loans and permit deferment of principal repayment. SBP also assisted for clients of microfinance banks through a one-year deferral of principal repayment.
But now there are concerns over business-continuity of providers. Amid loan defaults, providers face subpar demand for fresh credit or are unable to extend new credit due to repayment concerns, hence lower future earnings. Interest rate spreads have also come down. Many big commercial banks were not interested in “bottom of pyramid” even in good times; so fresh capital is even harder to come by now.
As client incomes dry up, client deposits, which were a major and critical source to fund new loans, may also be under a cloud. In recent years, growth in savings has been much more pronounced than in credit. In the year ended March 2020, PMN data shows that the number of savers had grown by 25 percent year-on-year to Rs49.3 million. And value of savings had swelled to Rs264 billion, up 11 percent year-on-year.
The government needs to review the sector’s status on an urgent basis as low-income folks, businesses and the providers are all going through uncertain times. Otherwise, a free-fall scenario may ensure that the sector’s hard-won progress and user trust built over the last two decades will come out badly damaged on the other side of the curve.