Key note Speech by Princess Máxima, 11 October 2006

11 oktober 2006

as Member of the Executive Committee of the UN advisors Group on Inclusive Financial Sectors at the Conference on Promoting Inclusive Financial Systems Bank for International Settlements, Basel

Ladies en Gentlemen,

It is a great honour for me to speak here today before you, on this FSI Conference on Inclusive Financial Systems. I would like to thank Mr Knight and Mr Tosovsky, for his kind invitation and for all the efforts he has undertaken around this very important issue.

2005 was designated by the UN as the international year of micro credit. It called for "building inclusive financial sectors and strengthening the powerful, but often untapped, entrepreneurial spirit existing in communities around the world." The Year of Microcredit was a success, especially in raising awareness around the globe about the important role that Microfinance plays in fighting poverty and giving people a chance.

Nevertheless, world financial systems are not inclusive today. Well over three billion people do not have access to basic financial services such as credit, savings and insurance. Delivering these basic financial services, more commonly known as microfinance, to people outside their country's financial system still represents a huge challenge.

To help meet this challenge, the UN decided to establish an Advisory Group on Inclusive Financial Sectors. In the next two years, this Group, of which I am a member, will step up efforts to increase universal access to financial services. Many stakeholders are invited to take part in this effort. I am counting especially on the actors, that is, the microfinance institutions themselves as well as commercial banks, national and international ones. But I am also counting on supervisors, the Basel Committee and its Financial Stability Institute in particular, to play a pivotal role in the development of accessible financial sectors and disseminating best practices in the supervision of microfinance.

In the past few years we have seen an impressive increase in microfinance operations ran by growing microfinance institutions, national commercial banks and international banks. Sustainable growth in microfinance can be achieved in two ways. On the one hand microfinance institutions start taking deposits and transforming into commercial banking operations therefore unleashing domestic savings. On the other hand, commercial banks can do this by simply going down-market. The difference being that it may take a while for microfinance institutions to transform into regulated financial operations, while commercial banks, national and international, need to reinvent themselves in order to supply these products. In the latter case, providing microfinance products directly, or partnering with non-regulated NGOs are just some of the many ways found in order to supply these services effectively.

Past achievements and the potential of the market notwithstanding, commercial banks still have a very modest presence at the bottom of the pyramid. What is keeping them? The answer is that there are still many barriers to overcome. Some of these are internal to the banks themselves and cover strategic questions like how best to establish a presence in the market. Microfinance is a completely different business than your average retail operation. It is a separate window that requires trial and error before you get it right. It means that banks have to invest in their human and technological capacity. It means that banks need to be innovative and creative to cover the last mile and reach their remote clients.

Many of the barriers, however, are external to banks. For instance, government- and donor-run programmes based on subsidised interest rates tend to crowd out the private sector. Interest rate ceilings, be they politically motivated or otherwise, impede a level playing field. And consumer protection and financial education are underdeveloped.

Today, I would like to discuss one specific external barrier for national and international banks that wish to partake in the business of micro credit, namely the Basel 2 regime. By weighting loans according to the estimated degree of risk, Basel 2 takes better account of the real risks incurred by banks. In doing so, Basel 2 makes a distinction between a simple Standardised Approach, and advanced Internal Rating Based Approaches. Now this Standardised Approach deserves the larger part of our attention, because most of the national and small to medium international banks wishing to supply microcredits use this approach.

Under the Standardised Approach micro credits are considered loans to private sector parties that are not secured by collateral and for which, self-evidently, no internal or external rating is available. By consequence, under this approach micro credit qualifies for a risk weight of 75%. This translates into a high capital requirement of 6%, making micro credits very expensive in terms of capital charges. In fact, the risk weight and capital charge in the Standardised Approach make commercialised micro credit very expensive!

But again, anyone familiar with micro credit knows that this is a form of credit that is unlike normal retail credit. In fact, the two are wholly different activities, requiring different expertise and know how. The fact that these loans are given to the poor, that there is no internal or external rating for these loans and that there is no physical collateral might make microcredit seem more risky. But this need not be the case. For instance, while micro credits lacks physical collateral, they are underpinned by substantial social collateral, a system which has ensured strong group pressure to repay loans in time. Also, banks have been successful in stimulating borrowers to repay in time by holding out the prospect of new (larger) loans.. All of these facts should be mirrored in the track record of micro credit repayments.

Well, what about this track record of micro credit? To give you some examples, Grameen Bank, funded in 1976, has up till now an average repayment ratio of 99%. A figure that must surely arouse envy among traditional bankers. Or take Compartamos in Mexico with a portfolio at risk of 1%......or Banco Los Andes in Bolivia,: 2% or ACSI in Ethiopia: 1.75% or CERUDEB in Uganda: 4.21%. And the list goes on.

Clearly, these findings suggest consideration should be given to creating a separate risk bucket for micro credit in the Standardised Approach. This would greatly help to increase the supply of microcredit because, and let me stress this again, banks involved in microcredit generally operate under this Standardised Approach.

But what about the larger international banks using the more advanced Internal Rating Based approach? The problem of too high a capital charge for micro credit might seem smaller in their case, because the risk weight for micro credit would depend upon the banks' own estimates of the related Probability of Default (PD) and Loss Given Default (LGD). However, large international banks wishing to supply micro credit directly or via microfinance institutions, still face the difficult task of convincing supervisors their estimates are correct.

Supervisors then could show flexibility in a responsible way by accepting the types of data I mentioned earlier and by recognizing explicitly that the same risk mitigation techniques for micro credit also hold for microfinance institutions offering micro credits. This would make it much easier for large international banks to invest in or lend to microfinance institutions and, vice versa, for microfinance institutions to access the presently untapped resources of international banks. And keep in mind that these resources consist of more than just capital! Think of the know-how international banks can bring to the table to assist fast-growing microfinance institutions in the fields of management, organization and technology!

I have talked extensively about commercial banks and the role they can play in increasing micro credit. We need commercial banks to increase micro credit where it counts! Therefore, I am asking you, central banks and other relevant regulators and supervisors, to reflect on my words. There are clear risk mitigation criteria for micro credit that you could acknowledge when determining the appropriate risk weight for such credit. Unnecessarily high risk weighting makes this business overly expensive.

Now, before handing back the floor to our host, I would like to briefly touch upon the role the Basel Committee may play to enhance universal access to financial systems. It is obvious that regulators and supervisors worldwide need to keep pace with their object matter, the financial sector and, with the new, innovative, and creative approaches developed therein. Microfinance is one of those innovative approaches crucial to building inclusive financial systems. Therefore, acquiring knowledge and experience that is until now not commonly available to supervisory and regulatory institutions worldwide, will be key to the success in building inclusive financial systems. The Basel Committee is an organisation that could take on this challenge, and to that end I am thrilled that the Committee decided only last week in Mérida to give microfinance a prominent place on its research agenda!

But let me phrase this a little stronger. Any best practices for the supervision of microfinance could be easily disseminated by the Financial Stability Institute of the BIS. The FSI, already responsible for the dissemination of supervisory best practices in other fields, could then be used to channel information on micro credit and its supervision worldwide. And though synergy with existing initiatives will be a key factor here, I am confident that both the Basel Committee and the FSI could succeed. Take this conference today: what a wonderful example of such synergy! To see members of the Consultative Group to Assist the Poor join hands with the people from the FSI makes me very optimistic indeed.

Ladies and gentlemen, let's not forget that the essential goal is to strengthen and spread the availability of good financial services to those presently outside the financial system. Just because someone has practically no material possessions, that person should not be denied the possibility and the hope of improving his or most likely her own situation through their own efforts!

Thank you very much.