Monday, June 30, 2008

The Ethics of Greed

The Economist reports this week that CompartamosBanco, a Mexican bank, is making a killing in micro finance. Trail blazed by Nobel Peace Prize winners Muhammad Yunus and his Grameen Bank, micro credit loans very small amounts (a few hundred dollars) to entrepreneurs in developing countries. Usually done by nonprofits, CompartamosBanco is a notable exception.

Lending to those in developing countries is expensive because the social, legal, and physical infrastructure is so lacking. The Mexican bank spends about a $152 a year per client. No wonder its interest rates run 79%--usury to most developed countries. But the customers gladly accept the rate. CompartamosBanco has nearly one million borrowers--a far cry from Grameen Bank's seven million but impressive nonetheless.

CompartamosBanco's success encourages new entrants risking their own money (seven new competitors in Mexico alone) while Grameen continues to rely on subsidies and donations. As the economy of scales takes into effect, interest rates fall (seven years ago it used to be 115%) and yet more people rise out of poverty. Not only is this yet another example of how profit seeking helps us all, it reminds us of one of the strange lessons of economics: the only way to get low prices is to allow people to charge high ones.

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