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The Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank in 2006 went practically unquestioned. But since then, particularly over the last years, a public pro-microfinance/anti-microfinance debate has taken a clear shape with well-known lines of argument running both-ways. Many studies have asked: “Does microfinance work?”. And some have more pointedly asked: “Why doesn’t microfinance work?“.

New questions are needed if new answers are to be generated. The Political Economy of Microfinance: Financializing Poverty offers both. Starting from the question “What does microfinance work at – and how?”, it offers new insights into which have particular significance in light of the continually unresolved issues around poverty impact. More than 35 years into the microfinance experiment, the fact is we still don’t know whether microfinance works at reducing poverty – and there are serious reasons to doubt that it does. What we do know (or can know), however, the book argues, is that microfinance works at financialising poverty.

The Political Economy of Microfinance Financialising Poverty

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It’s lingered quite a while in the pipeline. My book The Political Economy of Microfinance: Financializing Poverty is finally due to hit shelves in June – so says the publisher. This book makes the enigmatic microfinance sector more understanable by tracing its evolution and showing what it is today: a leading edge of financialisation where the world of global poverty meets the world of global finance.

The Political Economy of Microfinance Financialising Poverty

The book is the product of several years of research at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne. In 2008, I set out to investigate the connection of microfinance with water and sanitation, which brought me to southern India. Then the Andhra Pradesh microfinance crisis happened, and this eye-opener led me to re-examine microfinance more broadly and fundamentally, critically evaluate it as a highly remunerative but crisis-prone financial system (no longer a development intervention), and challenge its most basic premise: that poverty is a problem of finance.

I’m already excited about whatever reactions (critical, or otherwise) may follow when my ideas, analysis and critique finally reach a broader audience. To give some indications of what the book says and does, I’m posting excerpts from The Political Economy of Microfinance here over the next few months.

Here’s the first. Read the rest of this entry »

Finance: The Discreet RegulatorIsabelle Huault and Christelle Richard (eds.), 2012: Finance: The Discreet Regulator: How Financial Activities Shape and Transform the World. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

The power of financial markets and financial actors over economies and societies is as hard to deny as it is to conclusively prove. From subprime mortgages to Greek debts to microloans, different people and different sectors all feel it in their own ways. “Financialisation” (Epstein, Krippner), “finance-led growth regime” (Boyer), “financial market capitalism” (Windolf) represent only some of the attempts to come to grips with this sea change; but none have provided decisive answers as to the “why” and “how”.

A new book proposes seeing finance (in the tradition of the French “Régulation School”) as a type of regulator – a subtle, insidious one. “Finance: The Discreet Regulator: How Financial Activities Shape and Transform the World” collects perspectives on how “financial markets are the seat of regulatory processes initiated and developed by core-capitalist financial institutions such as banks and audit firms”. Read the rest of this entry »

CRESC, the Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change, is a well-known institution for many working on finance in sociology and political science, as well as researchers in cultural and media politics. By uniquely bringing together researchers from these fields, its annual conference in Manchester is an inspirational forum for unorthodox interdisciplinary exchange, without the numbing genericity of academic mega-conferences.

The theme chosen for this year’s conference (5-7 September) proved an excellent basis for taking stock of economies and societies in crisis: “Promises“. One striking feature of this conference was the presence of journalists, NGO representatives, and professionals like asset managers (as spectators and presenters) alongside academics, which added diverse perspectives and precluded overly technical/theoretical debates. (Other conferences may follow this good example.) Being spoiled for choice among the many panels, I mostly attended the ones on finance, missing the more culture-heavy sessions. Therefore, the three observations which impressed themselves upon me relate to the more political-economic questions in coming to grips with the present state of capitalism. Three insights from Manchester:

1. Financialisation is so pervasive and wide, many facets are only now being explored. Read the rest of this entry »

Maybe it’s too early to seek real explanations for the microfinance tragedy in AP. The dust hasn’t settled yet, but I’m struggling to come to grips with the big “why?”. (For a summary of events until Tuesday, see here.) My usual blog sources of all colours for all things development are silent, so far. But the Indian media are buzzing with coverage and an occasional piece of analysis. From what I can tell from these reports, the crisis was caused by a failure to regulate and a set of ultra-perverse incentives for microfinanciers and their employees.

What happened? In the past 6 weeks or so, some 30 to 60 microcredit borrowers in Andhra Pradesh (according to different sources) committed suicide over their loans. Individual stories had surfaced increasingly throughout early and mid-October about borrowers suffering under heavy debt burdens and massive pressure from agents; with measures apparently even including child abduction as punishment for loan default and agents urging borrowers to take their lives to reap credit life insurance. Protests ensued, and last week, the AP government issued an ordinance imposing rules of conduct and compulsory registration on MFIs (microfinance institutions). A consortium of MFIs (MFIN) claimed this had halted their business completely, and this week the MFIs submitted a petition at the AP High Court asking to quash the government’s ordinance.

This Indian news video concisely tells the horrific story.

The High Court today officially permitted MFIs to continue their business activities, while upholding the terms of the ordinance that MFIs may not engage in coercive practices and must proceed with registration. Meanwhile, employees of SKS Microfinance and Spandana have been arrested for harassing borrowers. SKS shares have dropped by over one fifth, indicating that investors are worried about profitability (rightly so). An Indian apex organisation has proposed for all its members to cut interest rates – more about that below. Read the rest of this entry »

Capitalism as a system transcends borders, and so does the latest capitalist crisis. Sometimes pictures tell a story better than words. A brilliant animated cartoon appeared this summer on youtube, illustrating a lecture by CUNY-based British social theorist David Harvey in which he outlines his explanation of the 2008-20xx economic crisis.

Harvey’s analysis of the structural politico-economic origins and mechanisms of the crisis is poignant. The witty animation brought to life by the RSA is a true delight, regardless of what one may think of his arguments. A certain part of Harvey’s narrative caught my eye in relation to microfinance (more below). But first, let me briefly recap his story (in an unduly simplified manner). Harvey says:

There are five common explanations of the crisis, all of which are somewhat true:

[1] It stems from human nature – predatory instincts, greed, etc.

[2] The regulators failed, therefore institutions need to be reconfigured.

[3] Everyone believed in a false theory – forget Hayek, return to Keynes!

[4] It has cultural origins – homeowning-obsessed Americans and lazy Greeks, your fault!

[5] It’s a failure of policy – too much regulation of the wrong sort.

Read the rest of this entry »

This article first appeared in the Paris newspaper La Tribune on February 9, 2010, and is translated and adapted here with permission of the authors. Paul Lagneau-Ymonet is a member of the Research Group Institution Building Across Borders at the MPIfG.

To date, the organization of securities markets has not yet benefited from the feigned attempts of reform presented by authorities since the outbreak of the current crisis. However, speculative opportunities like the risks incurred also depend on the markets on which one operates. It is for this reason that the coming revision of the European Markets in Financial Instruments Directive (MiFID), which came into effect on November 1st, 2007, is such a considerable challenge.

This Directive reflected an incredible faith in the coordinating virtues of the market – the central idea being that competition between exchanges and other trading venues would reduce transaction costs, increase trading volume and, as a result, lower the cost of capital for issuers. The MiFID notably abolished the ‘concentration rule’, which, in a number of countries (i.a. France), imposed intermediaries to carry out most of their transactions on a single regulated market, so as to concentrate the liquidity and to establish, for each security, a “fair price” known to all. Eventually, the directive has made possible the emergence of various opaque trading venues that challenge more transparent regulated markets.

Reports from the Committee of European Securities Regulators (CESR) and from the French Association of Financial Markets (AMAFI) reveal the extent of the disillusionment. The lower fees that resulted from unleashed competition have only benefited to a few internationally operating banks, namely about ten institutions that are responsible for three-quarters of the financial transactions in Europe. But the end clients – private individuals, in particular – do not fare as well. Read the rest of this entry »

Even Karl Marx, who saw Capitalism as a production system governed essentially by inescapable laws, acknowledged the key role of special actors who made it their job to advertise the benefits of the market. The market, a political project, needs these people to create the “right” environment. Marx often called them “sycophants”, an ancient Greek word denoting servile persons who would flatter potentates, and even denounce their own peers, in order to garner favour.

Christoph Deutschmann’s fascinating new book, which analyses Capitalism as equivalent to a modern secular religion, also sees these actors performing an important function. He views many economists and business “experts” as performing for the market a role equivalent to that of priests in the Christian church – to interpret the signs given by the deity and to make predictions based on them.

Be they high priests or sycophants, the PR workers of global Capitalism (those who haven’t, at least temporarily, defected to the pro-government side, so long as it subsidises business) are getting in gear again – they literally have a world to lose. However, in this present crisis, neither the numbers, nor the facts, nor people’s everyday experience, really speak strongly for the priests’ side. So some turn to a rather “liberal” treatment of the facts.

Take for instance the statement that luxury goods are cheaper than ever thanks to mass-production. True. But most people in the world haven’t had much from this, while they are getting a taste of the flipside; the massive rise in grain prices over the past years is literally causing riots and civil wars in the South (Haiti, Sudan, Congo…).

Grain Prices

Yesterday’s special business section in the German broadsheet “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung” (FAZ) opened with a bleeding-heart appeal for more faith in the market, based on the view that everything isn’t so bad after all. If Capitalism has served us so well for so long, why rebuke it just because of this crisis? Maybe we can bring out the sun simply by wearing sunglasses? Read the rest of this entry »

“It never got weird enough for me.”

     – Hunter S. Thompson

Development and finance are increasingly intertwined, and both fields have over time produced their share of strange but successful, but also many odd and failed ideas. Here are a few recent bits of news from the weird world of finance and development.

#    Since February, East African villagers can buy themselves carbon-efficient stoves to replace their tradtional fireplaces, financed via microcredit. This contribution to reducing global warming then pays off for them via carbon-offsetting credits which they can claim via mobile phone SMS.

The father of this brainchild, Carbon Manna Unlimited, estimates that in this way, an African family can save around 3 tonnes of CO2 per year, earning them between 20 and 30 US Dollars worth of carbon credits on European markets…

Carbon efficiency, mobile banking and emissions trading applied to African cooking – it sounds adventurous, to say the least. But I was also wondering whether, sociologically speaking, is this an immense act of pragmatic creativity or rather simply one mimetic behaviour? After all, emissions trading, mobile technology and carbon footprint reduction are recieved wisdom at the moment in the north.

On another sociological note, the project’s name, Carbon Manna (TM) Xchange, has a both distinctly religious and capitalistic ring to it – what would Weber say? Read the rest of this entry »

The Book

Governance across borders: transnational fields and transversal themes. Leonhard Dobusch, Philip Mader and Sigrid Quack (eds.), 2013, epubli publishers.
March 2017
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