How much do rural bank branches cost the financial sector?

Bindu Ananth
Updated: May 13, 2013 08:59:28 AM UTC

One of my favourite movie scenes is from “It’s a wonderful life”. The hero, George Bailey, is a reluctant banker. On his wedding night he has to deal with a bank run. In trying to stop the bank run, he tries to explain the concept of illiquidity to his depositors. " "You're thinking of this place all wrong. As if I had the money back in a safe. The money's not here. Your money's in Joe's house...right next to yours. And in the Kennedy house, and Mrs. Macklin's house, and a hundred others. Why, you're lending them the money to build, and then, they're going to pay it back to you as best they can." George's vision of banking is infectious: it is not about pieces of paper or ledgers. It is about helping people build houses and dreams. This vision drives me. Along with my awesome team at IFMR Trust (where I am the president), am obsessed with seeing that all of India has access to high quality financial services; be it a daily wage labourer seeking to protect her Rs. 100 wage from inflation or a municipality issuing its bonds to build sanitation for its residents. I believe that finance, when done well, can be a tremendous force for good. I live and blog from Chennai (and planes) but most of my stories are from Thanjavur, Ganjam and Uttrakhand.

For every loan of Rs, 10,000 made through a Public Sector Bank rural branch, it costs them about Rs. 4150. The same number for a Private Sector Bank rural branch is about Rs. 3210. Little wonder then that rural branch expansion meets with so much resistance.

In a new working paper, my colleagues Deepti George and Anand Sahasranaman develop a framework to compare costs of rural credit delivery across five dominant channels: PSB lending through its rural branch, PSB lending through a Self-Help Group (SHG), PSB lending through a Micro Finance Institution, Private Bank lending through its branch and Private Bank lending through a Micro Finance Institution. Importantly, they look at costs comprehensively including a) cost of debt b) cost of equity c) transaction costs and d) loan loss provisions.

The magnitude and spread of these numbers is quite stunning.  Channel-wise costs and losses (assuming lending at 12%) look as follows:


Channel True total cost Loss assuming lending @12%
PSB lending through branch 42% 30%
PSB lending through SHG 29% 17%
PSB lending through BBB rated MFI 17% 5%
Private bank lending through branch 32% 20%
Private bank lending through BBB rated MFI 17% 5%


Why does any of this matter? From a policy perspective, if the outcome of rural credit expansion is deemed important, shouldn’t these just be viewed as welfare increasing costs just like other subsidies?

What is important to note here is that the same Rs. 10,000 loan to the rural customer has very different costs of delivery across various channels. By prescribing that bank branches ought to be the dominant delivery channel, the financial sector gets saddled with steeply higher costs without any proportionate welfare gain. As the authors note, flexibility to the bank in choosing the lowest cost channel has the potential to achieve the outcome of rural credit delivery with far lower costs. After all, shouldn’t policy making be more about outcomes and less about instrumentality?


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