Around a week ago, together with representatives of the Thrift Banking and the Commercial Baking sector, I was invited by the Governor of the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas for the MOA signing on the BSP’s program, “Banking On Your Future.” The members of the Monetary Board were also present and so with senior officers of the BSP.
When the emcee of the program announced that the huge table we were going to use for the signing ceremonies was the Malolos table, the same table which was also used by our founding fathers in the Philippines’ Declaration of Independence from Spain over a hundred years ago, my reaction and the reactions of the persons seated closest to me were un-mistakenly one of surprise and awe as right in front of us was a table filled with so much of our country’s history.
Since the Declaration of Independence over a hundred years ago, our young country’s history, like all tales of young countries, has been full of highs and lows. Although there may have been one or two periods in our history which some of us would rather not talk about, there are however so many more which we are proud of and many more we want to tell and re-tell when the occasion warrants.
A little over 50 years after the Declaration of Independence from Spain another historical milestone was set in the enactment of the Rural Banks Act under the administration of President Quirino.
The Act essentially mandated the creation of a system of rural banks which would act as catalysts in countryside development. To quote Governor Tetangco a year ago in the Inauguration of the previous board, “ the rural banks were envisioned to be catalysts for comprehensive rural development, channels of equitable distribution of opportunities and wealth, and support for expanded productivity in rural communities. The end goal was to raise the quality of life for all, especially the underprivileged.”
And such is the important role and responsibility of rural banks that has been envisioned by Congress when they enacted this law in June 1952.
The past ten years has seen rural banks making great strides in providing access to financial services in the countryside. With over 2000 branches in the countryside, a substantial number of these branches in conflict areas and hard-to-reach areas, rural banks are now servicing 6 million deposit accounts and millions more in loan accounts.
As we have been servicing a growing number of deposit accounts in the countryside, the industry now has started to make use of other delivery channels like ATM’s, Electronic Fund Transfer Point Of Sale system and Mobile Phone Banking. We now have about 252 ATMs installed in 50 rural banks. At the rate we are installing ATMs, rural banks would probably have over 350 ATMs operating in the countryside by the end of the year.
Rural Banks have also shown flexibility and willingness in applying new paradigms and models in the area of the delivery of financial services in the countryside and in adopting to new business realities. Ten years ago , when the micro-credit technologies introduced by the Micro-enterprise Access to Banking Services program (MABS), and the ones championed by the Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, rural banks because of their better understanding of the countryside and the informal sector, saw the opportunities offered by these new models and readily adopted these to their operations. This happened when most experts thought that the poor was un-bankable and that using these micro-credit models was simply not sustainable.
Today, the same experts are singing a different tune as the rural banking sector has shown not only robust asset growth and strong capital build-up but also viability and profitability in the sustained increases in its Net Income After Tax and Return to Assets and Equity.
Through the years, the rural banking system is gradually fulfilling the purpose for which it was created and that is, again to quote Governor Tetangco, to be the “channels of equitable distribution of opportunities and wealth” in the countryside. And the end goal was to raise the quality of life for all, especially the under-privileged.”
To achieve the goal of poverty alleviation and reduction however is not an easy task. Microfinance as an effective poverty alleviation and reduction program has 3 sides namely: micro-credit, enterprise development and micro insurance. We have seen great strides in the development of the first two, but we are left wanting in the area that shall assure and provide the social protection that in case of a peril or tragedy the poor will not become poorer or those who have succeeded in improving their lives will not become impoverished once again.
Thus one of the thrust of the new board is to work with the BSP and other agencies on how an enabling environment can be provided that will among others enhance
1.) the development of micro-insurance products that are reflective of the needs of all stakeholders,
2.)the acceptance of innovations in the delivery of services and mechanism in
3.)opening up the industry to new players such as intermediaries
There are also regulatory issues which we are going to take up with other government agencies which some say discriminate against rural banks. We also have to raise some tax issues with the Department of Finance such as the imposition of the P 15.00 documentary tax for every certificate of insurance with the view of reducing the cost and lowering premiums.
As the primary vehicle for countryside development, the new board would also advocate for the enabling environment that would further enhance the agricultural sector. This sector could further be strengthened, for example, by requiring a gradual reduction in the amount that could be substituted by banks and regarded as compliance with the Agri-Agra Law.
On agricultural credit, for example, by requiring no substitution for at least 20% of the required 25% that should be earmarked by banks for agri and agra loans — let us say the total outstanding loan portfolio of the system is P 2 trillion — 20% of 25% would be P 100 billion which is at P 1 billion for every province in the country which is much more than what the government provides as agricultural credit. If this is allocated to temporary crops like rice which has life cycles of less than a year as contrasted to permanent crops, this would mean at least two loan cycles or a loan portfolio of P 2.0 billion. Government currently allocates around P 30 billion in agri credit coming from the General Appropriations Act. The National Government can thus save this money and instead allocate this by way of support to agriculture through the provision of infrastructure, pre and post harvest facilities, roads, markets, processing plants, irrigations, etc.
The other side of the coin of the advocacy is that big banks need not be retailers of these loans and may opt to be wholesalers of these loans and make Rural Banks the retailers.
There is still so much to do to uplift the lives of the impoverished and the most vulnerable in the rural areas. With the deteriorating peace and order situation in many parts of the countryside, this has made our jobs doubly difficult. But with a supportive regulatory environment and assistance from programs like the Microenterprise Access to Banking Services, I am confident these challenges can and will be surmounted.