Week of May 1, 2017

1. Households Matter!:  If you've followed research on microfinance at all, you've probably come across work by de Mel, McKenzie and Woodruff about giving cash grants to microenterprises (in Sri Lanka and Ghana), finding that the returns to investment in women's firms is much lower (and close to 0) than in men's enterprises. It's a bit of puzzle for several reasons (e.g. why do women borrow if their returns are so low, and why don't men borrow more if their returns are so high?) and there have been various explanations tried out (you can see one of mine in this paper). Bernhardt, Field, Pande and Rigol (paper here, overview from Markus Goldstein here) have a new one that seems pretty compelling based on reanalyzing data from several experiments, including the cash grant experiments. It's an explanation that points back to Gary Becker and Robert Townsend ideas (household's maximizing returns across the household assuming money is fully fungible) about how households work, and away from Viviana Zelizer's (money is often not, in fact, fungible and different income streams in the household are treated differently) or in some ways against Yunus's idea of focusing on women. Bernhardt et al. see that in general when it appears that when women's enterprises show little or no return to capital it's often because the household has another microenterprise that the capital is invested in instead--and those enterprises (where data is available) show gains from the capital injection into the household. When women own the only microenterprise in the household, they see returns (and are often in similar industries) as men. 

This is a big deal and it emphasizes how far we still have to go in understanding household finance. This doesn't say that Zelizer's insights are wrong--they are clearly right in lots of cases--but we don't have a solid grasp on when we should think of households as a single utility-maximizing unit and when we should disaggregate.

2. Pre-K Matters? (and other scale-ups): One of the things that households--or if you read some of the charity marketing that has dominated the last decade or so, only women--invest in is their children's education. Unfortunately, it seems that they often under-invest in education and so a lot of effort is invested in getting children into and keeping them in school. In the United States, the current frontier is about universal Pre-K since most every child is enrolled through the beginning of secondary school. The idea is that children from poorer households start school already well behind their wealthier peers, those gaps persist and if we close them early, well the gaps will stay closed. There are some studies that suggest that's true and Jim Heckman in particular among economists has been a big advocate of significantly increasing investment in early childhood education programs. But there are other studies that suggest it's not. I called the arguments on this "Pre-K" wars in my book because a lot of the argument has been over experimental design and methodological issues in the studies.

Russ Whitehurst at Brookings has a new post on the Pre-K wars that I learned a lot from, including new data from Tennessee that shows the returns from pre-K there were negative and the randomization in the famous Abecedarian study was violated in ways that are impossible to correct for. The bottom line for Whitehurst is that while small-scale, intensive interventions with very high-skill staff can make a big difference, programs at scale don't have any solid evidence they work. Which sounds a lot like some of the things we're seeing from scale up of successful programs in other areas of development.

3. Governance Matters! (even in social enterprises): One of the weird things to emerge in social investment is B Corporations--a not-particularly-binding commitment a firm can make to values other than maximizing profits. That not-particularly-binding part is important because, well, it's not particularly binding while other corporate governance laws and regulations are quite binding. Etsy is learning that as an investor is advocating that the firm be sold, and/or management be replaced, complaining that management is failing in its duties to maximize profits by paying wages that are too high (or put another way, by adhering to the principles of being a B Corp) among other things. Because Etsy is a standard corporation that simply opted in to the voluntary requirements of being B Corp it's quite possible that Etsy's hand could be forced. There is a binding form of corporate governance that would resolve this--becoming a For Benefit corporation as defined by state regulations in about 30 states, but Etsy isn't one of those, yet.

And in other social investment governance news, here's a story about State Street's Fossil Fuel Free ETF held positions in Deepwater Horizon and coal-burning utilities (scroll down to "Who Picks the Index").

4. Regulation Matters! (or how the Indian government keeps undermining MFIs): When you think of India and microfinance, the Andhra Pradesh crisis almost certainly springs to mind. The industry has largely recovered from that regulation-induced shock. But now the industry is confronting a leap in non-performing loans due to regulatory changes that were not directly targeting the industry. Demonetization, by removing most of the paper bills in circulation, kind of had an impact on borrowers ability to repay their loans. And Uttar Pradesh recently announced a $5.6 billion loan forgiveness plan, which unsurprisingly has apparently convinced borrowers in neighboring states to stop repaying their loans to see if they can get the same deal. Andy Mukherjee argues that the net result is going to be the end of specialty microlenders, who will have to be absorbed into larger traditional banks in order to protect themselves from regulatory shocks. I have a theory as to what will happen to the zeal for serving poor customers once microlenders are absorbed.

5. Labor Markets Matter!: You've no doubt heard many times that in the modern era neither businesses nor employees are loyal and everyone will change jobs much more in the past. Justin Fox has heard it too, most recently at a conference on the Digital Future of Work and decided to do some digging. It tuns out that average job tenure in the United States has been rising over the last 20 years (though it's down slightly recently, though still almost a year longer than it was in 1996). Job tenure is especially high for supervisors and for government workers. It seems this is another feature of the much discussed "hollowing-out" of the labor market in the US, and likely a part of the increasing inequality in access to stability.

Statistical inference is hard. All these plots share the same basic data descriptors. Source: Autodesk

Statistical inference is hard. All these plots share the same basic data descriptors. Source: Autodesk

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