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Microfinance: Beyond philanthropy

Big banks are beginning to look beyond the kudos that socially responsible investment brings and are introducing microfinance to the capital markets as a viable, profitable business. Zach Fuchs reports.

By Zach Fuchs

The rating game

IT’S HARD NOT to catch the microfinance bug. It’s that gleam in the banker’s eye when he realizes that he’s doing good for the world, helping to end the cycle of poverty through sustainable investment. But is there money to be made from it? “Anyone who tells you that they’re in this for business reasons alone is lying to you,” a top European bank’s head of microfinance tells Euromoney. “We have a trillion-dollar balance sheet. Do you think this really matters for our bottom line? You couldn’t do three big deals with all the money in microfinance.”

To be sure, the double bottom line – both social and financial – remains a key motivation. Closing a socially responsible deal brings media plaudits – you can’t buy that kind of PR exposure. Every bank’s corporate social responsibility brochure is filled with feel-good photos of smiling microentrepreneurs. Last year, HSBC co-sponsored the UN’s much-trumpeted year of microcredit, and Deutsche Bank got a priceless shout-out from former US president Bill Clinton after the bank fulfilled its pledge to the Clinton Global Initiative by launching an $80.6 million microfinance fund. “I’ll use this as an example to beat the living daylights out of everyone who has made a commitment and not fulfilled it,” Clinton quipped.

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