“A billion people around the world work hard every day to lift themselves out of poverty. They don’t want your charity. They want your investment. Invest today, earn a return, provide them with a livelihood.” – Microplace.com homepage.
Sounds pretty good, huh? Microplace is owned by Ebay, and is an SEC-registered broker of microfinance securities to individual investors. Loans are classified by level of poverty, financial return, length of investment, and geographical location. Recently, they got my attention by offering a 2-year loan with a promised interest rate of 5% per year, and a 4-year loan at 6%.
What is microfinance?
Microfinance is the supply of loans, savings, insurance and other basic financial services to low-income households and businesses, usually in areas where people don’t have access to formal banks. Microcredit is the extension of very small loans (microloans) to these poor entrepreneurs. A big name in this arena is the Grameen Foundation.
Tell me more about this 5% return…
Here is the loan listing page, and here is a link to the long 63-page prospectus for these Global Poverty Alleviation Notes (how’s that for an investment title?). I have looked through it, but haven’t digested it all. They are offered by Micro Credit Enterprises (MCE), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. MCE seems to focus on women entrepreneurs, which have made up about 90% of their borrowers. They seem to participate in a variety of countries on 4 continents, from Armenia to Bolivia to Cambodia.
These notes are not a mutual fund, and is not FDIC or SIPC insured. These are unsecured debt obligations, with partial backing of “philanthropic guarantors”. Basically, wealthy individuals and/or groups promise to repay parts of this loan if there are enough defaults. The details are a bit vague, but there seems to be a networked agreement across multiple guarantors. However, risks definitely remain.
The actual interest charged to local microfinance institutions (MFIs) are stated to be from 8-10%. The rates paid by actual individuals are not stated, but can be as high as 30%. But these are often short-term loans to people with no collateral and few alternatives. The historical repayment rate is listed to be 96%.
What about MicroPlace vs. Kiva.org?
Kiva.org also lends small amounts to low-income entrepreneurs in the developing world. However, Kiva currently does not offer interest to lenders since it is a non-profit organization and is not registered with the SEC. Also, it has more of a person-to-person lending structure where you can choose the specific person you wish to lend to. However, I have read that Kiva is trying to offer interest in the near future.
Are you going to invest?
I’ve put some money to “work” at Kiva already, and my personal repayment rate on my completed loans from Kiva has been 98% so far. Given that I am still not very familiar with these investments, I still can’t treat the 5% Microplace note as a reliable investment. However, I am still leaning towards putting a chunk of money into it, because I do think significant principal loss is unlikely, and I want to give them a chance. If it works out, I think microfinance would really take off if there was also a financial benefit to investors.