Why the world needs cheap loans at insanely high interest rates:
What the world needs right now is more subprime lending—a lot more of it. Yes, I know that in the public imagination, subprime lending is the scourge responsible for crippling the U.S. financial system. The massive extension of credit to people who lacked extensive credit histories and documented wages seems, in hindsight, supremely stupid. But far from the madding, depressed crowds of Wall Street, billions of people are starving for credit.
Lending tiny sums to people who live on a few dollars a day—street vendors in New Delhi, goatherds in Kenya—doesn't carry the glamour or financial rewards of haute banque. And compared with efforts to vaccinate children or build dams, it seems like an exercise comparable to shooting pellets at a runaway rhinoceros. But in an era when a great deal of foreign aid has been wasted or has fallen into the hands of corrupt officials, microlending has built a track record of effective poverty relief. Microcredit pioneer Muhammad Yunus, who founded Bangladesh's Grameen Bank in 1983, won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize. And microfinance, which now touches the lives of more than 100 million people, is one of the few bright spots in the troubled financial sector. "We've helped about 80,000 entrepreneurs, and the repayment rate is about 98 percent, which is a better performance than consumer credit-card portfolios in the U.S.," says Premal Shah, president of Kiva.org, an online microcredit organization that allows computer programmers in Seattle to lend sums as low as $25 directly to small-scale grocers in Uganda.