Viewing all posts with tag: Behavioral Economics  

Financial Access 101: Why Savings Groups Work

Our recent Financial Access 101 video provided an introduction to savings groups - a common tool used around the world to help poor families build savings and better manage their financial lives.  In our latest installment in this series, we explore why savings groups work.  The underlying mechanisms of these groups (public commitment, social norming, salience, limited access, and mental accounting) work together to create an effective way of helping poor households increase their savings . . . 

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A Hard Look at Soft Commitments

In an interview with FAI, economist Jenny Aker explained that effective commitment savings products are those that balance flexibility and restrictions:

“If you give someone a savings product and it completely ties their hand, they don’t want to use it.  They want to have a little bit of that tying of the hand so they can’t spend that money but they don’t want to be completely divorced from access to that money.”

Much of the research on commitments focuses on savings products, which makes sense: when trying to save money, some “tying of the hands” helps. Like dieting, setting money aside requires the willpower to deny yourself something you want in the present to meet a goal in the future.  To win the struggle for control between your present self and your future self, little commitment nudges can change behavior.  Where product design gets tricky is in determining how restrictive the commitment should be.  A study of savers in Kenya gives us one clue that it might not take much: when given the choice of letting neighbors hold the key to a savings lock box or holding the keys themselves, participants saved more when they chose the latter.  Simply having the physical barrier of the box was enough to nudge them to save . . . 

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The Economist vs. The Snowball

Popular financial advice guru Dave Ramsey has long advocated for what he calls the “debt snowball” approach to repaying debt for financially stressed households: order your debts by amount, smallest to largest, and repay them in order, ignoring interest rates. This sounds decidedly unscientific, and from a classical economics perspective it is bad advice. Rational actors should settle debts with highest interest rates first, regardless of the size of debt, in order to minimize the total amount they will have paid when all debts are finally settled. But, argues the snowball, if the debt never gets paid off at all because the debtor is daunted to the point of paralysis by the prospect of paying off a huge debt, then the classical advice is irrelevant . . . 

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Commitments to Save - Effective but Dangerous?

Among the useful insights from behavioral economics (or behavioral science, if you prefer) is a greater understanding of the difficulties everyone faces following through on our good intentions to save for the future. People routinely say that they would like to save more—to build a cushion, for retirement, for a future vacation—but when the time comes to put money away, it gets spent instead.

Some of the most well-known and oft-cited policies and products influenced by behavioral economics address this issue

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Not For Free

Two weeks ago I attended a Payments Bootcamp put on by Glenbrook Partners (a 2-day class they hold several times a year) to learn more about how the payments industry works behind the scenes. There is a lot to learn. Two days allows more than just scratching the surface, but not much more. While the class is focused on the payments infrastructure in the United States particularly, the material illuminates the evolution of mobile money and digital payments in the developing world.

A better understanding of the economics of the payments industry provided the foundation for a new longer-term research project on the future of digital payments innovation in developing countries. But one thing that immediately grabbed my attention was a conversation from the first day about why the payments system in the United States is so complicated and opaque (for instance, it is now virtually impossible for a small merchant to know what fees they will pay for a credit card transaction). According to Carol Coye Benson, a Glenbrook partner teaching the course, the root cause is the stubborn refusal of consumers to be overtly charged for payments. The attitude seems to be that no one should be charged for using “their own money" . . . 

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Overdraft as a Product, not a Penalty?

The Taylors overdraft their checking account every two weeks, on purpose.

As described in a recent issue brief published by the U.S. Financial Diaries, the Taylor family’s income level varies significantly from month to month. Sometimes it’s not enough to cover all of their expenses. So, they opened an account at a bank with a simple overdraft fee structure: One $35 charge per overdraft, no daily fees, and an allowance of up to $500 at a time. Since the Taylors typically make only one large cash withdrawal per paycheck – the entire amount of pay – this bank would charge them at most one $35 overdraft fee each cycle, if they happen to need more cash than the amount of that week’s direct deposit.

The Taylors use overdrafts as another household might swipe a credit card or take out a payday loan. Since their credit history eliminates the card option and they are already tied up with a payday lender, over-drafting becomes another logical – and probably more convenient – place for them to turn to stay on top of their bills. It’s clear that the family responded to and relies on their new bank's transparent behavior. They saw its fee policy, understood how they could manage it, and became a customer . . . 

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In Conversation with FAI: David McKenzie on Mental Accounting in Development Research

Imagine you enter a shoe store that is having a sale – buy any pair of shoes, get a second pair for free. Sounds like a great deal, right? Now imagine that same store had an offer to take 50% off any two pairs of shoes. Even though you are spending the exact same amount for the same two products, perhaps you react differently to the two offers. Perhaps there is something about removing “free” from the offer that might make you feel like you’re not getting as good of a deal. And how would you pay for these shoes – with cash? Credit card? Mobile wallet balance? Does it even matter? Research shows that people perceive $1 in mobile money differently than $1 in cash, and that these different perceptions DO influence spending habits.

The process of mentally separating different forms of money and assigning value to them, keeping track of potential costs and benefits to transactions, and categorizing expenses into buckets like “food” and “healthcare” is called mental accounting . . . 

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Why Aren't Users Paying with Mobile Money?

On the Center for Financial Inclusion blog, Ignacio Mas and Beth Rhyne are discussing a central question in the evolution of electronic payments in developing countries: why aren't people using it to pay? Even in countries like Kenya with very high rates of adoption of a electronic payment platform, the vast majority of money that goes into the system come back out into physical cash in 24 to 48 hours. Ignacio makes a case that electronic payments systems need to be more integrated into other financial behaviors, like savings and credit, before they will be used for routine payments. The reason is fairly simple: unless you are storing value in the electronic system (as with a savings account) using the electronic system for a payment involves at least one extra step to turn cash into electronic form.

Beth responds that if people are receiving their income in electronic form in the first place, like benefits payments or paychecks, and the merchants they frequent take payment in electronic form then there is good reason for users to keep their money in the electronic system. Using Ignacio's same logic, cashing out involves an extra step if the inflow is electronic and the outflow can be electronic. Beth's argument is one of the reasons organizations like the Better than Cash Alliance are focused on encouraging governments to use electronic payments to pay salaries or benefits to households . . . 

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Some Thoughts on Scarcity

Underlying, sometimes deeply underlying, much of the conversation about financial services for poor households is the question of how much control poor households have over their lives and how capable they are of making good choices. The Yunus theory of microcredit assumes that the poor have a great deal of control--the only thing they lack is credit. Once they have it, they can make smart, informed choices about how to use capital to improve their lives. The growing enthusiasm for cash-transfer-style programs is built on similar foundations. Paul Niehaus, one of the founders of GiveDirectly, a new charity that focuses on unconditional cash transfers for poor households in Kenya (if you don't know GiveDirectly, do listen to the This American Life story about them), often talks about a core motivation of the approach being the belief that poor households know better how to spend cash than outsiders do. . . . 

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New Research from the American Economic Review

The American Economic Association (AEA) recently released the Papers and Proceedings issue of its journal American Economic Review, which presents selected papers from the AEA's annual meeting. The AER is one of the premier economics journals and has very broad coverage. For instance, you can learn everything you never knew you wanted to know about income and church attendance in nineteenth century Prussia. Happily, this volume also includes a number of papers relating to mobile money, credit, savings, and insurance.

Mobile Money

In their study, William Jack, Adam Ray, and Tavneet Suri investigate how households using M-PESA interact with and exploit their informal networks when making transactions. The authors find M-PESA users have more remittance activity, make transfers over distances greater than 100 km, and have more reciprocal transactions than non-users.

While Jack et al. looked at volume of transactions, David Weil and Isaac Mbiti used aggregate data in their research on the velocity of mobile money. One of the more intriguing findings is that withdrawals are made frequently and in small amounts, even though users can reduce fees if they group withdrawals. As the use of mobile money grows in other countries (M-PESA recently launched in India, for instance) it will be interesting to see how similar these (and previous) findings are in different cultural contexts.

Gender and Finance

Using data from over 30,000 firms in 90 developing countries, Elizabeth Asiedu, Isaac Kalonda-Kanyama, Leonce Ndikumana, and Akwasi Nti-Adde analyze whether gender is a determinant in financing constraints and access to credit for firms. They find that indeed, female-owned firms are more likely to be financially constrained than male-owned counterparts but only in the sub-Saharan African region. There is no gender gap in other regions but small firms are more likely to be financially constrained than larger firms, and foreign-owned firms are less likely to be constrained than domestically owned firms.

Moving from the macro to the micro level, Carolina Castilla and Thomas Walker investigate gendered dynamics of intra-household financial decisions in their paper. In a field experiment in Southern Ghana, researchers conducted public and private lotteries with cash and in-kind prizes to observe the effects of these windfalls on household allocations. They found “husbands' public windfalls increase investment in assets and social capital, while there is no such effect when wives win. Private windfalls of both spouses are committed to cash (wives) or in-kind gifts (husband) which are either difficult to monitor or to reverse if discovered by the other spouse.”


We return to Kenya with Michael Kremer, Jean Lee, Jonathan Robinson, and Olga Rostapshova in their study on behavioral biases and firm behavior. Among a sample of Kenyan shopkeepers, those with lower math skills were less accepting of small-scale risk and were also less likely to have larger inventories than those with higher scores. There are some interesting observations in the paper on the connection between loss aversion and microfinance, suggesting that small business owners are less likely to access microcredit if risk averse and social safety nets could possibly help increase investment in these enterprises.

Similarly, Ahmed Mushfiq Mobarak and Mark R. Rosenzweig look at risk in the context of the Indian insurance market, specifically rainfall insurance. Their findings show that when insured farmers took greater risks, wage levels increased but so did the volatility of labor demand, creating a threat to landless workers. When offered the choice, landless workers also purchased insurance when contracts were offered to farmers.


Lastly, Suresh de Mel, Craig McIntosh, and Christopher Woodruff report the findings of their field experiment in rural Sri Lanka that tested the efficacy of various methods of collecting deposits in formal bank accounts. Although their research shows frequent, face-to-face collection increases aggregate household savings, collections using community lock boxes affected the number of transactions but not the overall level of savings.

Vulnerability: The 2013 Microcredit Summit Campaign Report

In 2011, microfinance providers reached fewer total people than they did in 2010, as well as fewer people living in extreme poverty, according to the 2013 State of the Campaign Report, which is released annually by the Microcredit Summit Campaign. Entitled “Vulnerability,” the report presents some stark findings. This is the first time the number of microfinance clients has decreased since the Campaign began its conducting research on the industry in 1998. This overall decrease occurred despite an expansion of 1.4 million more clients in sub-Saharan Africa. Most of this reduction occurred in India, and was in part due to the microfinance crisis that began in Andhra Pradesh in late 2010.

There are a number of reasons for the slowdown. Microfinance institutions (MFIs) are more likely to go to markets that have already proven to be successful. Reaching poorer and more remote clients is generally more difficult and costly for organizations. Additionally, data limitations make it hard to know when local markets are saturated. Maturing markets, the global economic crisis, investor wariness, and donor fatigue also contributed to the slowdown . . . 

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The Socio-Cultural Dimension of Microcredit

Much of the dialogue around microfinance suggests that the poor are universally credit constrained and that cash shortages drive a monolithic demand for credit. As such, microfinance is often treated as a technical, rational and linear process that is characterized by an “if-you-build-it-they-will-come” mindset. Too often overlooked are the contextually specific and nuanced processes that influence consumers’ demand for microcredit in a variety of social, moral, cultural, and political contexts.

A fascinating new paper, “Explaining Participation and Repayment in Microcredit Schemes in Rural Morocco: the Role of Social Norms and Actors,” from the Institute of Research for Development at the Sorbonne University explores exactly these dimensions of microfinance. Drawing upon evidence collected from rural Morocco, the team of authors explores the socio-cultural factors that influence a household’s use of microcredit services . . . 

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What's Next: Financial Access in 2013

The microfinance space has never been a dull place. As the tumult of the last few years—debates about effectiveness, industry crises and crashes in several countries—seemingly dies down, it’s a good time to speculate about what’s next. It seems clear that “business as usual” in terms of rapid growth and expansion paired with unvarnished enthusiasm and uncritical praise is not what’s next.

So what is?

Over the next few weeks we’ll be running a series of blog posts from folks at FAI and around the financial access world offering their takes on what’s next. Some are calls to action, others are predictions, and others pose the important questions we need to answer now. If you’d like to contribute, send us a tweet @financialaccess.

Herewith are my thoughts on “What’s Next?” . . . 

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Who Pays for Transactions? How Much?

One of the many important questions in the transition to mobile and/or electronic money is who will bear the costs associated with using the system. This question is particularly salient since the Kenyan government announced it was planning to begin taxing mobile money transfers, adding to the cost of the system. The Kenyan government seems to believe that operators will absorb the cost of the tax, but others suggest that it will be passed on to consumers, "picking the pocket of the poor."

Who will bear the cost of the tax and the other costs of operating mobile money systems? On a theoretical basis, this is an easy question to answer: the people who benefit will bear the costs—if those costs are lower than the benefits. In economic theory, it is even irrelevant who is initially charged for the costs, as costs will be passed on to those willing to pay to receive the benefits (known as tax incidence).

Practically, it’s a hard question to answer because we have very little information on the true costs and benefits of any money system . . . 

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New Research: Three papers from Sendhil Mullainathan

We do our best (not always successfully) to keep up with new research relevant to finance, poverty and development. Today, I’ll be sharing highlights from some new papers by FAI affiliate Sendhil Mullainathan.

In “Behavioral Design: A New Approach to Development Policy,” Mullainathan andSaugato Datta advocate for employing a behaviorally-informed economic perspective to design development policies and programs. Since behavioral economics helps us understand why people behave as they do, analyzing development policies through a behavioral lens allows us to make better policy diagnoses, which in turn lead to better-designed policies.

Mullainathan and Datta outline three ways in which behavioral economics can improve program design. First, it can change how we diagnose problems . . . 

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Piggy banks and other “banks on hooves”

Why are piggy banks in the shape of a pig? I had been certain that piggy banks were simply a decorative representation of the fact that keeping a pig (or any livestock) is an informal way to save—“deposits” paid into the pig by feeding and housing it can be “withdrawn” once the pig is sold. A bit of research informed me, however, that the etymologists have the economists beat on this one. The name derives from the old English word for the ceramic once commonly used to make household containers, “pygg.” Saving in these “pygg banks” became popular, and potters began to create savings boxes in the shape of the animal.[i]

Linguistic origins of the piggy bank aside, I have been thinking about livestock-as-savings after happening upon a book chapter by economists Christopher Barrett, Marc Bellemare, and Sharon Osterloh . . . 

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Fingerprinting Microcredit Borrowers Gets the Spotlight

A very interesting microfinance experiment is in the new issue of the American Economic Review, one of the premier journals in the field (Published, but gated, version here. Ungated version here). The paper is by FAI Affiliate Xavi Giné, Jessica Goldberg (see her recommended reading on savings here), and Dean Yang. It's not often that microfinance makes the pages of AER; it's a testament to the work that Xavi, Jessica and Dean did to set up this experiment and their careful analysis of the data. 

In brief, the experiment tested the effects of fingerprinting borrowers from a microcredit program in rural Malawi. I had the opportunity to interview Xavi and Dean (separately) for my upcoming book on economic field experiments and we talked about this work. I’ll let them explain the project and its implications in their own words . . . 

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More Mysteries of Savings

A lot of progress has been made in understanding the savings behavior of poor households over the last few years. A raft of new studies are beginning to appear that  promise to advance our understanding further.

But thus far, the new studies are providing as many new mysteries as answers. David Roodman does a good job of exploring the mysteries presented by one of the first of these studies—a trial of a commitment savings product in Malawi. In summary, the researchers found that access to a commitment savings product helped increase savings balances—but NOT in the commitment savings account.  Sometime soon I’ll be blogging about a new paper from Pascaline Dupas and Jonathan Robinson that similarly suggests that a commitment device works even though it doesn’t require much commitment.

The mysteries aren’t limited to commitment devices though . . . 

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The True Costs of Joining the Formal Financial System

What products are “right” for people who are outside of the formal financial system and/or poor? It’s a question as relevant in developed economies as in developing ones. During the housing bubble in the US, financial inclusion was often a justification for what in retrospect looks more like predatory behavior. It’s difficult to tell in the moment, though, the difference between a product priced appropriately (for cost of delivery, value to the consumer, and risk among other factors) and one that is predatory when those customers are almost entirely outside the existing formal system. 

The financial crisis extended the debate in the US from payday loans to mortgages and now to checking accounts, debit cards and credit cards via regulatory changes that have changed how providers charge for these services. These changes, in general, have made it much more explicit that the cost of basic financial services for the poor or those who do not manage their money carefully are much higher than for others. 

Along with driving some people away from some products—fewer people can get a credit card for instance—there is some innovation happening, particularly around alternatives to checking accounts . . . 

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Are Borrowing and Saving Complements or Substitutes?

In developed economies, households often use both savings and borrowings to produce large amounts of capital to buy fixed assets like houses and vehicles. House buyers, for example, make a down-payment from their savings and borrow the rest. Saving and borrowing are thus complements in this context.  

Behavioral economics provides another mechanism through which saving and borrowing act as complements: for households that are loathe to draw down their hard-earned savings, the ability to borrow–and thus to leave their stash of savings untouched—can function as a helpful way to maintain accumulations. Were households more confident in themselves, or if they had better mechanisms to achieve discipline, “borrowing to save” would be less useful, but in an imperfect world it can be the best of an array of imperfect strategies (Morduch 2010). 

In other contexts, borrowing and saving are depicted as alternative activities . . . 

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