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PEs hand-hold transition of MFIs to small finance banks

Take on bigger role - from strategy to IT systems

Abhijit Lele & Abhineet Kumar  |  Mumbai 

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Private equity (PE) investors have put substantial amounts into microfinance institutions (MFIs) and non-banking financial (NBFCs) over the years. Now, with many MFIs getting an in-principle nod to become small finance (SFBs), some PE investors are expanding their role to guide and ‘hand-hold’ the former in the transition.

The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has said SFBs have to start operations by April 2017.

Those who have invested in MFIs come with focus, domain expertise and a track record for impact investment, say two executives with a public sector bank that had lent to them.

The assistance could range from guidance at the board level to developing of information technology (IT) systems, as SFBs need to have an edge and control costs as they scale up operations.

“We are enabling them in entire capital raising and capital restructuring, with the help of our relationship with domestic investors,” says Venky Natarajan, managing partner, at Rockefeller Foundation-backed Lok Capital.

RBI, from 72 applicants, granted in-principle approval for 10 entities to start SFBs. Among these are eight MFIs, including Lok Capital-backed Suryoday, Utkarsh, Ujjivan and Equitas. Natarajan is chairperson of the transformation committee at a couple of these licence holders.

“We are also helping them in part of the business transformation, especially on IT. We are providing these with consultants in our network who have worked as CIOs (chief information officers) in large companies,” he says.

Sanjay Agarwal, managing director and chief executive, Au Financiers, says it is not only the capital that PE investors chip in with, but there is also a lot of thought behind such investments. It is long-term money. They are aware of the ups and downs these businesses face, including a slowdown for a year or two. Equitas, Ujjivan Financial Services and Utkarsh Micro Finance have 93 per cent, 90 per cent and 85 per cent foreign holding, respectively.

The association of investors also brings credibility to the enterprise (bank). For example, investment from a multilateral funding agency could bring such support, he said. Jaipur-based Au Financiers, an NBFC, has received in-principle nod for SFB. Its investors include Warburg Pincus, ChrysCapital, IFC and Kedaara Capital.

PE entities are also chipping in with operational help. Vibha Batra, senior vice-president and co-head of financial sector rating at ICRA, says in some instances (MFIs turning into SFBs), PE entities are also providing board supervision and assisting in building systems and processes, helping the company scale up.

PEs with exposure to financial sector units understand that in retail business such as lending to small and medium enterprises, a mainstay of SFBs, patience is necessary. Such realisation enables promoters to think of long-term, Batra says.

While PEs definitely add value in association, they also need to factor in the regulatory angle — participating in the working of units which deal with public money.

A PE adviser at a multinational professional services firm says as SFBs are going to solicit deposits from the public, RBI as sector regulator was concerned about safety of money. RBI will not like investors with a dominant stake to control operations of SFBs. The regulator is always concerned about risks on fund diversion.

First Published: Wed, February 24 2016. 23:56 IST