Citigroup Inc. has agreed buy up to $30 million of small-business loans from the San Antonio nonprofit microlender Accion Texas.
The deal, which Citi announced Tuesday, is the first such foray into U.S. microfinancing by a major banking company.
The New York company said it would partner with Accion to extend credit lines, typically for $10,000 or less, to small-business owners in Texas. Accion will originate the loans but will share the credit risks and profits with Citi.
The five-year deal would give Accion the capital it needs to expand and become Citi's national microfinance service provider, handling underwriting, servicing, and collections.
Robert A. Annibale, Citi's global director of microfinance, said in an interview Tuesday that its goal is to reach an underserved market of small-business owners and entrepreneurs and turn them into long-term banking clients.
Working with Accion, Citi may take the service to other states through other partners in the future, he said. "It's really about taking out footstep even deeper" into heavily populated markets.
Citi picked Accion as the first for two reasons, Mr. Annibale said. First, the nonprofit, which has made more than 9,000 loans worth $70 million to more than 6,000 clients, has established a profitable business model in the microfinance area, "and we think there is a lot that we can learn from them." Also, Texas is a growing state with a rising number of minority businesspeople who have yet to establish business banking relationships.
About two-thirds of Accion's clients are Hispanic, and roughly half are women, he said.
"We think that by vetting those that look most promising and then providing them with appropriate support, we will produce a high success rate," Mr. Annibale said.
Citi started its microfinance division in 2005. The division currently does business in about 30 countries, including India. Microfinance has proven a vital source of funding this decade in countries such as India, where the economy is rapidly modernizing with the help of entrepreneurs.
These businesspeople often have short credit histories, so they struggle to get traditional bank loans, and microfinance has stepped in to fill the void, Mr. Annibale said.
Aside from nonprofit lenders, that has not been the case in the United States, where in recent years banks had been able to focus on large-scale commercial lending. But in the face of a national mortgage meltdown and a slumping economy, bankers are looking for ways to attract customers that they hope will need an expanding range of banking services over time.
"The demand for microfinancing is high," Janie Barrera, Accion's chief executive, said in a press release announcing the Citi deal. The nonprofit is poised for continued growth but needed a for-profit partner to help fund it, she said.