Sunday, October 12, 2008

Social Capital is Good Economics: Invest in Technology for the Next Billion

This Sunday, reading the Times of India article - What MFIs can teach Wall Street by Swaminathan Aiyer (of Swaminomics fame) made my day! He writes "Big financial institutions of all sorts are in dire straits across the globe. But one category remains unaffected — micro-finance. Even as the global financial system freezes and giants like Lehman Brothers collapse, microfinance institutions (MFIs) are expanding unfazed. Famous financiers face defaults big enough to wipe them out, but MFIs report virtually zero default. This is extraordinary. Big financiers lend against collateral, a back-up if their borrower defaults. But MFIs lend with no collateral at all. Big financiers lend to the most creditworthy corporations. MFIs lend to poor women whom nobody in history considered creditworthy before. Yet, the secured loans to big corporations are bombing, while unsecured loans to poor women are being repaid in full."
And may I add that stimulating the BOP markets besides being a safe bet is also profitable - a double bottom line - social as well as economic good.
I want to build on this article to make two points not made by Mr Aiyar:
1. Portfolio diversification - In my view social capital is a good way of diversifying your investment portfolio and I think there IS a silver lining to this meltdown - I hope investors will go back to thinking about value creation in more than pure dollar terms.
2. Capital Gap - Currently there is a gap in the range covered by MFIs (loans must be under Rs 35,000 or so) and traditional business lending (loan must be above Rs 10 lakhs or so). Entrepreneurs that start technology based social businesses need loans in this range and they have nowhere to go. This is actually the sweet spot for social capital - it is a new area - call it "investing in technology for the next billion". There is great economic potential in this space- like the VCs who invested in technology startups in silicon Valley. It is the same story -except since the new market it is not in the traditional VC backyard, they are not jumping in. Somebody else needs to step in and I am hoping it will be the future leaders - Social Capitalists.
One can see that some new gen leaders who are now big boys (e.g. Google Foudation) are stepping into this space but it is not enough - traditional thinking needs to change too.
From my perspective, the meltdown is a wake up call for change and I hope Mr Aiyar's article is just the start of this new thinking.

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