The Case for Social Investment in Microcredit

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There are strong arguments for continued investment in microcredit. These arguments are based on, not in contradiction to, the recent evaluations of microcredit impact. That the average impact of access to microcredit is modest is not in serious doubt. However, every evaluation of the impact of microcredit shows that there are people who benefit, and that most borrowers, when lenders behave responsibly, do not experience harm. Comprehensive research on microfinance and subsidy shows that virtually all microfinance institutions are subsidized, but these subsidies are small. There are two clear paths for increasing microcredit’s impact through continued investment. 

Economics and the Social Meaning of Money

The Social Meaning of Money too shows how preferences develop and are reinforced by social contexts. Economists have not yet paid much attention to preference formation, but the work so far suggests that it is a promising path for empirical inquiry, especially as researchers look to next steps in understanding the economics of gender and the nature of decision-making under conditions of substantial scarcity.

Exploring the Business Models Behind Microsavings

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The financial and business models for collecting savings by microfinance institutions have been relatively little explored in literature. This paper seeks to fill the gap by evaluating deposit-taking MFIs that rely on two primary types of savings: those that emphasize raising funding (through large deposit accounts) and those that emphasize service (through small deposit accounts). The findings suggest that geographic location, level of economic development, and regulatory environment all play an important role in dictating the types of models that are likely to be adopted. Different models also have substantially different funding and operating costs. Finally, net outreach levels in terms of number of savers served appear to be little affected by choice of model, though in many cases outreach may be skewed by widespread presence of empty accounts, which overstate the number of active depositors, and understate the average account balance.


Banks and Microbanks

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We combine two datasets to examine whether the scale of an economy’s banking system affects the profitability and outreach of microfinance institutions. We find evidence that competition matters. Greater bank penetration in the overall economy is associated with microbanks pushing toward poorer markets, as reflected in smaller average loans sizes and greater outreach to women. The evidence is particularly strong for microbanks that rely on commercial-funding, use traditional bilateral lending contracts (rather than group lending methods favored by microfinance NGOs), and take deposits. We consider plausible alternative explanations for the correlations, including relationships that run through the nature of the regulatory environment and the structure of the banking environment, but we fail to find strong support for these alternative hypotheses.

Migration as a Strategy for Household Finance: A Research Agenda on Remittances, Payments, and Development

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It is time to fundamentally reframe the research agenda on remittances, payments, and development. We describe many of the research questions that now dominate the literature and why they lead us to uninformative answers. We propose reasons why these questions dominate, the most important of which is that researchers tend to view remittances as states do (as windfall income) rather than as families do (as returns on investment). Migration is, among other things, a strategy for fi- nancial management in poor households: location is an asset, migration an invest- ment. This shift of perspective leads to much more fruitful research questions that have been relatively neglected. We suggest 12 such questions. 

Substitution Bias & External Validity: Why an innovative anti-poverty program showed no net impact

The net impact of development interventions can depend on the availability of close substitutes to the intervention. We analyze a randomized trial of an innovative anti-poverty program in South India which provides “ultra-poor” households with inputs to create a new, sustainable livelihood. We find no statistically significant evidence of lasting net impact on consumption, income or asset accumulation. Instead, income from the new livelihood substituted for earnings from wage labor. A very similar intervention made a large difference elsewhere in South Asia, however, where wage labor alternatives were less compelling. The analysis highlights the roles of substitution bias and dropout bias in shaping evaluation results and delimiting external validity. 

Impact of Microcredit on the Poor in Bangladesh

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We replicate and reanalyse the most influential study of microcredit impacts (Pitt and Khandker, 1998). That study was celebrated for showing that microcredit reduces poverty, a much hoped-for possibility (though one not confirmed by recent randomized controlled trials). We show that the original results on poverty reduction disappear after dropping outliers, or when using a robust linear estimator. Using a new program for estimation of mixed process maximum likelihood models, we show how assumptions critical for the original analysis, such as error normality, are contradicted by the data. We conclude that questions about impact cannot be answered in these data. 

Price and Information in Life Microinsurance Demand: Experimental Evidence from Mexico

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Poor households in developing countries face large and varied risks, but often have inadequate informal tools to manage them. Microinsurance is being developed to create a better alternative, and it should--in theory--be in high demand. Yet take-up of microinsurance remains low. I study the impact of price and information on the demand for life microinsurance among microfinance borrowers of Compartamos in Mexico. I randomly assigned 8,700 borrowers to two of four treatments: (i) no longer receive a base amount of subsidized insurance coverage (high price) or keep the subsidy (low price), and (ii) being informed with a message emphasizing the financial toll of a funeral and how the insurance payoff helps to face it (financial information) or information emphasizing the emotional toll of a funeral on the surviving family (emotional information). On average, eliminating the subsidy led to a decrease in insurance coverage, but the two messages did not impact coverage. The impacts are heterogeneous, however. . . 

Latest Findings from Randomized Evaluations of Microfinance

In 2009, the results from two microcredit impact studies in Hyderabad, India, and Manila, the Philippines were released to mixed responses (Banerjee, Duflo, Glennerster, and Kinnan 2010; Karlan and Zinman 2011). Some media declared microfinance a failure (Bennett 2009). Many in the microfinance community dismissed these randomized studies as too limited to be a true reflection of the entire sector . . . 

Do Interest Rates Matter? Credit Demand in the Dhaka Slums

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"Best practice" in microfinance holds that interest rates should be set at profit-making levels, based on the belief that even poor customers favor access to finance over low fees. Despite this core belief, little direct evidence exists on the price elasticity of credit demand in poor communities. We examine increases in the interest rate on microfinance loans in the slums of Dhaka, Bangladesh. Using unanticipated between-branch variation in prices, we estimate interest elasticities from -0.73 to -1.04, with our preferred estimate being at the upper end of this range. Interest income earned from most borrowers fell, but interest income earned from the largest customers increased, generating overall profitability at the branch level. 

Microfinance and Social Investment

This paper puts a corporate finance lens on microfinance. Microfinance aims to democratize global financial markets through new contracts, organizations, and technology. We explain the roles that government agencies and socially-minded investors play in supporting the entry and expansion of private intermediaries in the sector, and we disentangle debates about competing social and commercial firm goals. We frame the analysis with theory that explains why microfinance institutions serving lower-income communities charge high interest rates, face high costs, monitor customers relatively intensively, and have limited ability to lever assets. The analysis blurs traditional dividing lines between non-profits and for-profits and places focus on the relationship between target market, ownership rights and access to external capital. 

Behavioral Foundations of Microcredit: Experimental and Survey Evidence From Rural India

We use experimental measures of time discounting and risk aversion for villagers in south India to highlight behavioral features of microcredit, a financial tool designed to reduce poverty and fix credit market imperfections. The evidence suggests that microcredit contracts may do more than reduce moral hazard and adverse selection by imposing new forms of discipline on borrowers. We find that, conditional on borrowing from any source, women with present-biased preferences are more likely than others to borrow through microcredit institutions. Another particular contribution of microcredit may thus be to provide helpful structure for borrowers seeking self-discipline. 

Can Insurers Improve Healthcare Quality? Evidence from a Community Microinsurance Scheme in India

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We investigate whether microinsurers can help improve the quality of healthcare, and not just its price. We study Indian patients who had a caesarean section, appendectomy, hysterectomy, or abdominal hernia surgery. We compare indicators of facility’s infrastructure; doctor’s qualification and knowledge; process of care; and patient satisfaction. Two thirds of insured patients contacted the insurer about their choice of provider. They are directed towards facilities that are part of the insurer’s network, which have better infrastructure than non-network facilities. Being insured, however, is not significantly associated with receiving better-quality care, even when controlling for several patient and facility characteristics. 

Borrowing to Save: Perspectives from Portfolios of the Poor

It’s not surprising that saving is hard for many of us. We’re impatient, temptations are at hand, and savings devices are seldom ideal. By the same token, it would not be surprising to find that we have a hard time keeping money in the bank. But, puzzlingly, new studies give examples of people withdrawing funds less often than neoclassical economic theory suggests they should (e.g., relative to the simulations of optimal savings in Deaton 1991). And, paradoxically, it is often the same people who had trouble saving who also have trouble drawing down their savings. Some are so reluctant to dis-save that they willingly borrow at expensive interest rates to avoid touching their savings. 

Microfinance Games

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Microfinance banks use group-based lending contracts to strengthen borrowers’ incentives for diligence, but the contracts are vulnerable to free-riding and collusion. We systematically unpack microfinance mechanisms through ten experimental games played in an experi- mental economics laboratory in urban Peru. Risk-taking broadly conforms to theoretical predictions, with dynamic incentives strongly reducing risk-taking even without group-based mechanisms. Group lending increases risk-taking, especially for risk-averse borrowers, but this is moderated when borrowers form their own groups. Group contracts benefit borrowers by creating implicit insurance against investment losses, but the costs are borne by other borrowers, espe- cially the most risk averse. 

Microfinance Tradeoffs: Regulation, Competition, and Financing

We describe important trade-offs that microfinance practitioners, donors, and regulators navigate. Drawing evidence from large, global surveys of microfinance institutions, we find a basic tension between meeting social goals and maximizing financial performance. For example, non-profit microfinance institutions make far smaller loans on average and serve more women as a fraction of customers than do commercialized microfinance banks, but their costs per dollar lent are also much higher. Potential trade-offs therefore arise when selecting contracting mechanisms, level of commercialization, rigor of regulation, and the extent of competition. Meaningful interventions in microfinance will require making deliberate choices – and thus embracing and weighing tradeoffs carefully. 

Access to Finance: Chapter 2, Handbook of Development Economics, Volume 5

Expanding access to financial services holds the promise to help reduce poverty and spur economic development. But, as a practical matter, commercial banks have faced challenges expanding access to poor and low-income households in developing economies, and nonprofits have had limited reach. We review recent innovations that are improving the quantity and quality of financial access. They are taking possibilities well beyond early models centered on providing “microcredit” for small business investment. We focus on new credit mechanisms and devices that help households manage cash flows, save, and cope with risk. Our eye is on contract designs, product innovations, regulatory policy, and ultimately economic and social impacts. We relate the innovations and empirical evidence to theoretical ideas, drawing links in particular to new work in behavioral economics and to randomized evaluation methods. 

Does Microfinance Regulation Curtail Profitability and Outreach?

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Regulation allows microfinance institutions to evolve more fully into banks, particularly for institutions aiming to take deposits. But there are potential trade-offs. Complying with regulation and supervision can be costly, and we examine implications for the institutions’ profitability and their outreach to small-scale borrowers and women. The tests draw on a new database that combines high-quality financial data on 245 of the world’s largest microfinance institutions with newly-constructed data on their prudential supervision. OLS regressions show that supervision is negatively associated with profitability. Controlling for the non-random assignment of supervision via treatment effects and instrumental variables regressions, we find that supervision is associated with substantially larger average loan sizes and less lending to women than in OLS regressions, though it is not significantly associated with profitability. The pattern is consistent with the notion that profit-oriented microfinance institutions absorb the cost of supervision by curtailing outreach to market segments that tend to be more costly per dollar lent. 

Microfinance Meets the Market

Microfinance institutions have proved the possibility of providing reliable banking services to poor customers. Their second aim is to do so in a commercially-viable way. We analyze the tensions and opportunities of microfinance as it embraces the market, drawing on a data set that includes 346 of the world’s leading microfinance institutions and covers nearly 18 million active borrowers. The data show remarkable successes in maintaining high rates of loan repayment, but the data also suggest that profit- maximizing investors would have limited interest in most of the institutions that are focusing on the poorest customers and women. Those institutions, as a group, charge their customers the highest fees in the sample but also face particularly high transactions costs, in part due to small transactions sizes. Innovations to overcome well-known problems of asymmetric information in financial markets were a triumph, but further innovation is needed to overcome the challenges of high costs. 

From Microfinance to m-Finance

In some countries it can take years to get a new telephone line installed. In 1990, there were just 10 telephone lines installed for every 1000 people in the Philippines. In Kenya, the ratio was 7 per thousand. In India, 6 per thousand. Compare that with the United Kingdom with 441 lines per thousand in 1990, or the United States with 545. For decades, public sector telephone companies in developing economies seldom had incentives or budgets to rapidly expand land line networks, and the private sector has had even less motivation to serve the costly-to-reach. 

The Unbanked: Evidence from Indonesia

Why do so many poor households lack access to finance? Are the unbanked creditworthy? Largely not interested in borrowing? The answers are at the heart of ongoing debates around the deepening of financial systems We examine household-level data from 1438 households in six provinces in Indonesia. All households, whether or not they were presently borrowing, were assessed by bank professionals to judge creditworthiness. About 40 percent of poor households were judged creditworthy, but only 14 percent had recently borrowed. Possessing collateral was a minor determinant of creditworthiness. Despite depictions of widespread pent-up demand for loans, about half of creditworthy poor households report being averse to taking on debt. Loans for small business were desired, but respondents often highlight broader household needs, including paying for school fees, medical treatment, and home repair. 

Income Smoothing and Consumption Smoothing

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Two observations are essential to understanding the market structure of most low-income economies.  First, many markets do not exist and, of those that do, many work imperfectly.  Second and more optimistically, a wealth of behavioral and institutional responses often emerge to fill in the holes left by market failures. . .