Week of April 26, 2019

The Waste of Time and Money Edition

1. Household Finance: I'm as surprised as anyone that this piece I wrote on the waste of time and money that is mandatory financial literacy classes in the Washington Post seems to be getting as much traction as it is. It's the closest I've ever come to going viral on Twitter (if you want to, here's the tweet just ready and waiting for you to retweet and further drive up those numbers). The comments, by the way, are about what you would expect--and further evidence for Morgan Housel's "you have to live it to believe it" thesis on perspectives of finance. I'm not the only one banging the drum against financial literacy classes: here's Jen Tescher of CFSI imploring banks to stop funding finlit classes and focus on tools that actually help customers. 
One of the likely reasons (but certainly not the only one!) that finlit makes such little difference is the mismatch between what is taught and the actual financial lives of most households. Take for instance figuring out income taxes in the new economy. Most people in the US got a tax cut in 2018 but most of those think their taxes actually went up, because the connection between taxes and paychecks is so damned complicated in the US. And trying to figure it out if you're a contractor rather than an employee...
There is something worse than legislators mandating financial literacy. Intuit engaged in shockingly (even for cynical me) deceptive behavior by tricking people into using their paid product rather than the free product that they were eligible for--even going so far as to make sure that search engines didn't index the web page to use their regulatorily mandated free file service so it was for all intents and purposes invisible. No amount of financial literacy is going to fix that. If you were thinking that this sort of behavior was exactly why the CFPB was created you would be right, but since Mick Mulvaney has destroyed the agency, don't expect any meaningful action against Intuit.
This isn't just a US problem. This sort of thing--hiding the information customers need to make good financial decisions--happens everywhere. Think of the changes in transparency of pricing of M-Pesa. Or this audit study by Xavi Gine and Rafe Mazer finding bank personnel in Ghana, Mexico and Peru don't tell customers about the best account for them (the customers that is). This seems like the right time to bang on one of my pet drums: middle-income countries, look to the US to the see the future of your financial system and tremble.
Looking from the other side, the US has a lot to learn from international contexts about how households manage volatile financial lives. Stuart Rutherford has a fantastic write-up of the 3 years of ups-and-downs and coping strategies of a family in the Hrishapara Financial Diaries. Stop what you're doing and read it. But let me also call-out that Stuart is now funding the Hrishipara diaries out of his own pocket. Any funder who is reading this: send Stuart some money to keep up this remarkable work. Please. 
My friends at the Aspen Institute Financial Security Program have a new report on short-term financial stability and how important it is for any larger goals, based on the work of a number of organizations focused on the issue (NB: I'm a senior fellow of Aspen FSP and was involved in the early discussions that led to this report). Before you international folks keep scrolling...there is a lot of overlap between the insights here and the situation in middle-income and developing countries. And you could easily frame it in the same way that most on the international scene do: the importance of building resilience to shocks.

2. Financial Inclusion: I'm one of the retrogrades who refuses to give up on the term "financial inclusion" (while acknowledging the points made by advocates of "financial security" and "financial health"). Speaking of retrogrades, Matthew Soursourian at CGAP is even more retrograde than I am, making an argument that "access" is important and we shouldn't fetishize "usage." One of the reasons is that usage may be harmful--and Greta Bull argues that we need to talk about that, particularly around credit. Over at Next Billion, Graham Wright of MSC (formerly MicroSave--apparently I'm also retrograde in not changing FAI's name), has some speculation on the next 20 years in financial inclusion (which I take as explicit endorsement for "inclusion" whether Graham meant it or not). One of his key points is on the issue of consumer protection, which in addition to dovetailing with Greta's post, allows me to point out that in every other domain the word "inclusion" means fair and equitable participation and so we should make that part of the defacto definition of financial inclusion. Drawing things fully back to Matthew's post, the one thing I think he misses in the argument for access is network effects. The value of an account has a lot to do with who else has and uses accounts and we should expect usage to trail substantially behind access especially when less than, say, 60% of people have accounts.
Two quick hits on China and financial inclusion: Here's a piece that argues that China's "social credit score" is less coherent and more complex than it is usually portrayed. But then at the Avengers:End Game premiere, one of the trailers was a public shaming of delinquent debtors. I don't know if that's confirmatory or contradictory evidence.
Finally, there is a lot to learn from the history of financial systems and the way they include and exclude. Rebecca Spang reviews a new book (The Promise and Peril of Credit--which would have been a great title for Greta's post--by Francesca Trivellato) about the development of financial instruments in Europe and anti- and philo-semitism and how it shaped economies.
  
3. SMEs: I'll admit this is a bit of a stretch in the initial framing but it's something I've been thinking about a lot and I don't have a better place to put it. So to start, here's Gabriel Rossman live tweeting an overhead conversation in coffee shop where a couple is being recruited into Amway (one of the original multilevel marketing schemes if you're not familiar with Americana). The couple doing the recruiting keep returning to how inspirational the training is and how important it is to commit to the program. Like Gabriel, you're probably cringing and wishing there was a way to warn the "marks." But at the same time, the body of evidence finding that inspiration is effective is growing, and may work better than business training at driving positive outcomes.
Think about this with me a little more. Specifically think about Ubaydullah in Stuart's post mentioned above. Ubaydullah's main occupation is breaking bricks, and when asked what he thinks about while he is doing this, he replies, "mostly nothing." Now think about Blattman, Franklin and Dercon's sweatshops versus microcredit in Ethiopia experiment, recently updated, that finds that after five years all effects fade out--specifically that people leave their factory jobs and close their microenterprises. Or one of Stuart's earlier posts about Hrishipara diaries looking at why so many microenterprises don't grow--people don't want them to. Or this Pearls Before Swine comic this week. Or the findings from lots of studies of forced or semi-forced migration that makes people better off even though they didn't want to move. Or even the Gine, Goldberg and Yang experiment with fingerprinting leading to more investment by borrowers.
I don't have answers here, but I have a lot more questions than I used to about how to think about inspiration and the determinants of micro and SME growth. My current working model though is that people have a type and that type is hard to discover, particularly in developing contexts, and even when you have opportunities to do so, causality is really hard so people can't figure out if they are good at something or not, even when they are doing it, and that inevitably discourages effort...and maybe I should be shifting my priors about Amway.
Here's a semi-related piece on perceptions of risk among potential investors in SMEsand the (non-existent I have to note) "missing middle" and the need for social investors to reduce systemic risk. And here's a review of a book from last year that I missed (Big is Beautiful: Debunking the Myth of Small Business) arguing we should stop paying so much attention to small business. And here's Tyler Cowen's new book, Big Business, arguing roughly the same.

4. Our Algorithmic Overlords: Usually I try to draw in lots of sources in each item, but the New York Times is running a series on the topic beginning with "It's Time to Panic About Privacy." Other pieces cover how the police use Google Maps location data to do post-hoc identification of who was near a crime. How China'smass surveillance and detention of the Uighurs works. And how those surveillance systems that China has developed are being exported around the world to places like Ecuador, which is certainly a different take on One Belt, One Road. But it's not just China of course--the consequences of being caught in a digital dragnet or exposing one's digital data are especially dire for low-income households in the US (who are forced by state surveillance to put their private information on file in less than secure places). Which ties us back nicely to Graham's and Greta's posts and helps me reinforce the point about breaking down the silos of attention between the US and developing countries on these topics. And finally, here's an article at how hard it is to "fix" algorithmic bias from Vox, so I'm not completely unisourced. 

5. African Development: Is Africa industrializing in ways that will make it the next growth story? Here's Noah Smith in thread form and in article form arguing that it is, largely because of Chinese investment both directly in building factories and in infrastructure via the (actual) Belt and Road Initiative. By the way, today there's a big conference in Beijing where China seems to be offering some concessions on debt related to BRI. Here's Dani Rodrik arguing that it's not (in 2017, but he affirms this take). And a dose of realism on how far African countries have to go just to catch Latin America.
There are other parts of development than industrialization, like public health, and there's big news there too. Two different malaria vaccines are being rolled out--the first, which is about 40% effective in earlier trials, will be delivered to 360,000 people in Malawi, Ghana and Kenya. The other, which was 100% effective in a clinical trial, is moving to the first field trial next year on an island in Equatorial Guinea, where 2100 people will receiving the vaccine next year.

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