Week of April 10, 2017

1. Social Investment Dissent:  Last week I had an item about "social investment wars"--unfortunately Felix Salmon's critical take ("How Not to Invest $1 Billion") on the Ford Foundation's announcement came out just a bit too late to be included. It does pair nicely with a video of Xav Briggs of the Ford Foundation talking about the decision and the future of impact investing.
In the item last week I criticized the sector for not acknowledging trade-offs, principal-agent problems and the like. To be fair, there are people in the sector talking about these issues. Here's a piece from Omidyar Network staff in SSIR about a "returns continuum" rather than "no tradeoffs." Here's a piece from Ceniarth staff concurring. And there are two recent pieces from the CFI blog on responsible exits from social investments: first, pointing out that who a social investor sells to should be part of the impact calculation, and second making an important point about the "missing middle" in social investment (though they don't use that term).

The missing middle they are pointing out is investors who are willing to buy on the secondary market but maintain social goals. This echoes a long-standing problem in foundation philanthropy: most large foundations want to be first movers and believe that there are "followers" who will come after them to support organizations or programs after the initial grants. It seems in both cases, the followers just don't meaningfully exist. 


2. Financial Literacy: April is financial literacy month in the United States at least. I continue to use financial literacy as my barometer for the evidence-based policy movement: if evidence isn't making an impact here, why should we expect to have an influence elsewhere? But on to the links. Here's perhaps the dumbest idea currently circulating--making financial literacy a requirement for high school graduation. Here's Graham Wright de-mythifying financial education in the developing world. And on a brighter note, here is IPA's review of what's been learned from impact evaluations of financial literacy programs around the world (it's not just "they don't work!").   

3. The Technology of Management: Having written a couple of books about Toyota, this is a particular fascination of mine--and of course I therefore think other people should be paying more attention to it. Management matters a lot to firm performance (explaining about 20% of firm-to-firm productivity gaps), which in turn matters a lot to wages and job creation/growth. Here's Nick Bloom in Harvard Business Review on rising firm inequality. Here's Bloom et al. on why the technology of management diverges (or alternatively, doesn't converge as much as expected given the returns).

My particular fascination is how to spread the technology of management to small firms and especially "subsistence retailers." Here's David McKenzie and Olga Puerto on an experiment training small-scale female firm owners (90% have no employees) and finding significant and lasting gains, and importantly, no evidence of negative consequences for untrained competitors. Though recall from this fall a paper on a mentoring program for male entrepreneurs in Kenya that found quick fade-out of gains from mentoring by more successful firm owners. I think there are important things to learn from the literature on subsistence agriculture interventions since this really is a similar problem--how do you get people to adopt productivity-enhancing 'technology' like better practices. In that spirit, here's an evaluation of the phase out of an agricultural extension program in Uganda, finding that demand for improved seeds does not decline, though supply does, and improved cultivation techniques are maintained.

4. Our Algorithmic Overlords: My next book of interviews is on big data and machine learning. I would say I'm paying more attention to articles on these topics but that would be reversing the causality. In Technology Review, Will Knight wonders how important it is that we understand how machine learning algorithms and neural networks work and why they reach the conclusions that they do. Fancy listening to some algorithmically-created singers? Or seeing what happens when a deep-learning algorithm tries to create children's book illustrations? On a more serious note, here's "10 simple rules for responsible big data research" in computational biology.


5. Financial Diaries: The official publication date for The Financial Diaries was this week. You really should buy and read the book, but I'm a realist, so here are some pieces to read if you're not going to do that. From Harvard Business Review, wide-spread financial vulnerability. From Marketwatch, households are saving more than it appears. From PBS Newshour, why families feel so insecure.

The gender imbalances in China and India (and elsewhere where son-preference continues to dominate) are well-known. But the actual situation is not as well understood--because families tend to hide or fail to register daughters until later in life. Source: Nikkei Asian Review

The gender imbalances in China and India (and elsewhere where son-preference continues to dominate) are well-known. But the actual situation is not as well understood--because families tend to hide or fail to register daughters until later in life. Source: Nikkei Asian Review

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