Week of September 3, 2018

Editor's Note: In case you needed a break from using game theory and textual analysis to guess at the author of the anonymous NYT Op-Ed or debate whether it represents a coup, here's the faiV. If you like the faiV, by the way, please do share it and encourage others to subscribe.--An Anonymous Senior Official at the Financial Access Initiative

1. Social Investing: Calling out the bland and meaningless rhetoric in social and impact investing almost seems unsporting--it's just too easy but it's Friday after a long week so I'm going to do it anway. Take this piece from John Elkington, who coined the term "triple bottom line," (Please), saying it's time to "rethink" or "recall" or "give up on" it (all his phrases). Why? Because the term has been misunderstood and misappropriated for uses well short of what he intended. Instead he thinks we need "a triple helix for value creation, a genetic code for tomorrow’s capitalism." But apparently not a clear definition or a recognition of trade-offs under scarcity.
Then there's this piece from the Wall Street Journal on the meaninglessness of words like "ethical", "impact" and "sustainable" in the mutual fund world. It's a treasure for the sheer density of laugh out loud snippets. For instance, Deutsche Bank switched out the word "dynamic" in the title of a family of funds and replaced it with "sustainable." Vanguard's bar for a company being "socially responsible" is literally not enslaving people or manufacturing weapons banned by international treaty. But my favorite is probably this quote about buyers of "ESG" funds: "We do hear from investors that have bought funds that they never realized did something." (Protip for non-WSJ subscribers who may not otherwise take the trouble to read this gem, search the title in an incognito window, click on the result link and close the invitation to subscribe and you'll be able to read it.) 

2. Household Finance, Part I, Theory: Not realizing that funds did something is a good transition to Matt Levine's musings about the relationship between financial services providers and customers (scroll down to "How much should an FX trade cost?"). Matt is writing specifically about investment and corporate banking but the theory fully applies. In short, 'smart' large customers treat banks like commodity providers and ruthlessly push margins toward zero. Banks have to go along because these are large customers and economies of scale matter in financial services. So the banks make up those margins by charging 'loyal' customers much more than 'smart' customers. Which is, shall we say, not what 'loyal' customers think the banks should be doing and they rightly get very angry when they find out. So loyal customers should be more like smart customers and treat banks like commodity providers. The application of faiV interest is the Catch-22 for lower-income households: they only very rarely have the time and choice to treat financial services like a commodity, so they are almost inevitably left subsidizing wealthier customers. And even banks with good intentions struggle to do otherwise, because if you don't have the large customers, you can't drive costs down through scale.
In other theory news, one of the common motivating theories on helping low-income households is helping them plan. Planning is hard when facing scarcity. There's been encouraging evidence of the value of specific planning for getting people to follow through on their intentions. Here's a new paper testing the value of planning for one of the only two intention-action gaps that can rival the intention-action gap on savings: exercise (the other being dieting). It finds that careful detailed planning of an exercise routine has a precisely zero effect on follow-through.
Finally, here's a piece that at face value seems to be talking about the empirical transition away from cash (in the US). But look closely and it's really musing on the theory about the costs of cashlessness for lower-income households, something that deserves a lot more attention, on theory and empirics, than we seem to be getting right now. And it features Lisa Servon and Bill Maurer so you should definitely click.      


3. Household Finance, Part II, Practicum: I don't remember how I stumbled across this paper about how US households respond to high upfront medical costs. It's not new, but it was new to me, though I suppose you can also say it's very old to anyone who has paid attention to healthcare consumption in low-income countries. The authors find a large decrease in spending, but no evidence that households are price shopping or making any differentiation between high-value and low-value services. Something to think about--how much of what we call "shocks" for low-income households are actually "spikes" that they didn't have the tools and bandwidth to manage (liquidity) for?
A great tool for managing liquidity is a bank account--something a lot of people still don't have. Leora Klapper has a piece trying to draw people's attention back to the core value of bank accounts, something that feels like it's fallen somewhat out of favor.
You can't get any more practical on Household Finance than reading Stuart Rutherford. Here's a new piece he has based on the Hrishipara Diaries on how the poor borrow. Some of the numbers are staggering, especially for those of us old enough to remember the idea that poor households had no access to credit: Over the course of 8 months, 43 households took out 201 discrete loans, making an average of 75 loan repayments each. The value of their repayments was equal to 83% of their income. Clearly a huge part of what they are doing is managing liquidity in the absence of bank accounts.
There's some justified criticism of the practices of MFIs in Stuart's piece--pushing unwanted loans, overlending, etc.--but one thing the microfinance industry has not done much of, despite the various crises caused by such behavior at scale, is lose depositors money. Not so in the equivalent of an MFI crisis in China. Over the last few years $200 billion of cash from small investors has flowed into P2P lenders. There have been stories here and there about the negative consequences for borrowers from those lenders. But now the small investors are feeling the pain--a huge number of the P2P firms have shut down in the face of tighter controls, and the investors have no recourse (unless you count being shipped to a detention center for protesting the lack of government action to protect the small investors). Of particular note is the explanation of why so many small investors put money into these P2P schemes--banks offered no alternatives for investment other than negative real interest rate savings accounts; and the government has no regime for investor protections. I expect we'll see more stories like this, though obviously at much smaller scale, coming from other countries with a growing middle class--something perhaps consumer protection advocates should be keeping their eye on.

4. Methods and Evidence-Based Policy : There are other ways to be a smart consumer of social science research than faithfully reading the faiV. Eva Vivalt has some tips on that at HBR. It's good stuff though I'm a bit skeptical how much the audience at HBR is interested in accurate research claims. In any case it's a bold move from HBR to provide a guide to why you shouldn't believe the majority of management literature.
For an audience that has far more professional interest in arguing about accurate research claims (not how carefully I phrased that) David McKenzie, Lant Pritchett, Chris Blattman and Karthik Muralidharan (where are the women?) debate whether experimental studies have displaced descriptive studies in economics journals on the Development Impact blog.
Here's a really interesting new paper from Guiteras, Levinsohn and Mobarak on an experiment with subsidies for latrine construction--appearing here because the most interesting thing about it is the work to establish policy relevant answers by combining a structural model with experimental data: to maximize your budget, who should you give subsidies to, and is it better to give a small subsidy to a lot of people or a large subsidy to a few people.
And if I'm not linking to a new paper from Athey and Imbens on (diff-in-diff) methods, or an (88 page!) interview with Chuck Manski then what am I even doing with this category?

5. US Inequality: Lest you think that regulatory malfeasance is an emerging financial system issue, and China is just catching up, here's a few stories about Mick Mulvaney's willfull decision to encourage the destruction of the financial lives of the better part of a generation. The CFPB's student loan ombudsman's resignation letter. And why it matters so much. And a story about the consequences.
Here's some new work on the experience of low-income parents and children in dealing with the welfare system and social workers. And here's a very thoughtful piece on the inversion of American poverty from something hidden to something under constant surveillance, complete with lots of user fees for being poor. Call it the anti-welfare system.

  Two Twitter-savvy academics ( @shrewshrew  and  @sbarolo ) have created a handy guide to the men who reply to women calling out systemic discrimination and harassment in the sciences. To see the detailed explanations of the nine types, follow  #9replyguys .   

Two Twitter-savvy academics (@shrewshrew and @sbarolo) have created a handy guide to the men who reply to women calling out systemic discrimination and harassment in the sciences. To see the detailed explanations of the nine types, follow #9replyguys.   

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