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Viewing all FaiV posts with topic: Credit  

Week of January 7, 2019

1. The History of Banking: For a project I'm working on I've been thinking a lot about financial system development and have gotten a bit obsessed with the history of banking. You might think that with a topic so core to economic thinking there would be some consensus on things like what banks do and how they came to do them. But you would be wrong. I've had great fun reading conflicting accounts of the history of banking in the US and Germany over the last few weeks. At the AEA exhibit floor I stumbled on a new book about the history of banking in France, Dark Matter Credit. The short version is that informal banking was a massive part of the French economy, and worked better in many ways than French banks until World War I, and it took regulation to finally allow formal banks to displace the informal system. I also picked up Lending to the Borrower from Hell and just in the first few pages discovered that Italian "friars, widows and orphans" were buying syndicated loans to Charles the II of Spain in 1595. The bottom line is that informal finance was much more efficient and "thick" than I believed, and formal banking extended much further much earlier than I had known. There's also a new book on banking crises in the US before the Federal Reserve, Fighting Financial Crises, which is equally relevant to thinking about the much-more-grey-than-you-would-think borderland between formal and informal banking.
To tie this all more specifically to the AEA meetings than just what was on display at the book vendors' booths, one of my favorite sessions was Economics with Ancient Data. Though I'll confess I'm not sure whether to be heartened that things we are doing now can have persistent effects for thousands of years, or depressed that our present was determined by choices thousands of years ago.
   
2. MicroDigitalHouseholdFinance: There was of course a number of new(ish) papers on our favorite topics, further condensed here. Here's the session on financial innovation in developing countries and one specifically focused on South Asia. Some of these papers have appeared in recent editions of the faiV already, but I want to call out a couple specifically. Microcredit, I've argued, is in dire need of innovation. So I'm always pleased when I see papers on innovation in the core product terms, like this paper from India on allowing flexible repayment, and while it wasn't at AEA,this one in Bangladesh. In both cases, allowing borrowers to skip payments results in higher repayment rates and better business outcomes. I see these as part of an evolving understanding that microcredit is a liquidity-management product, not an investment product. Credit can also be a risk-management product, as long as you know it's going to be there when you need it. That's the story of this paper on guaranteed loans for borrowers in the event of a flood (in Bangladesh). Another cool innovation in microcredit. Of course, the next question is who is going to insure the MFI so that it has the liquidity to make good on emergency loan promises?
There was a session titled "Shaping Norms" that I almost missed out on because of the somewhat oblique title. There were some very interesting papers here on how household preferences get formed, and how they can be changed, including longer-term data on the experiment in Ethiopia that I think of as launching the "changing aspirations" theme that we see more and more of.
I was amused that there were simultaneous sessions on "Finance and Development" and "Financial Development" but the poor Chinese student beside me was very confused as apparently the translations in the official app did a poor job of differentiating between the two. Both had interesting papers, but I found this on the sale of a credit card portfolio from a department store to a bank (which has access to more credit bureau data) in Chile, and this on bank specialization in export markets particularly interesting.
But moving outside of the AEA realm, my confirmation bias prevents me from not including two other related items on Household Finance. First, Matthew Soursourian of CGAP has some pointed questions about the usefulness of "financial health" as a concept, questions I thoroughly endorse. Second, there is documentary evidence (for instance, here) that I've long been skeptical of the story about mothers in developing countries caring about their children while fathers don't. I find it more than vaguely racist as these stories typically only involve countries where the majority of fathers are black or brown. Anyway, at long last someone, specifically Kathryn Moeller, tried to track down one of the more common statistics on women spending more money on children and found that there is no source, and it was apparently made up as part of a marketing campaign. But that's just the start. Seth Gitter links to three studies that find no difference in investment in children (and I'll add the Spandana impact evaluation to his list) and Martin Ravallion points out that the "70% of world's poor are women" stat seems equally unsourced.
 
3. Entrepreneurship, Reluctant and Otherwise: Overall, the paper that left me thinking the most is a long-term update to the Blattman and Dercon experiment randomizing employment at factories in Ethiopia. If you need a catch-up, the original experiment had three arms: control, a $300 cash grant plus business training and a job in a "sweatshop"-type factory. While there were positive effects for the entrepreneurship group, the jobs didn't improve income and had negative effects on physical health. After five years, all the differences dissipate (hours worked, income, health, occupational choice). Pause to think about that for a moment--after several years of higher incomes from entrepreneurship, the average person in that arm shut down their business. And the control group started microenterprises and got factory jobs (filling the gaps left by the treatment arm participants who dropped out?). It's another piece of a growing puzzle about why microenterprises don't grow, or more specifically why people don't seem to invest in their microenterprises, even when the income is higher than the alternatives. Stuart Rutherford has been thinking about that too, and because it's Stuart, he went out and interviewed participants in the Hrishipara Diaries to try to get some answers.
If you're a regular reader of the faiV, you know that one of my standard soapboxes is the need to pay more attention to the commonalities between the US and developing countries. And this is anther example. At AEA, Fiona Grieg of the JP Morgan Chase Institute presented updated data on participation in the gig economy in the US (not publicly available yet, here's the older version). Of the various forms of gig work, driving is arguably the most similar to the low-skill self-employment options, which I generally term "subsistence retail", available in developing countries (indeed, that's one of the jobs Stuart discusses in his piece). In that sector, specifically, the striking finding is that participation is sporadic, irregular and incomes are falling, in part apparently because of competition but also because participants are spending fewer hours doing it. It's a pattern that looks to me much like the Ethiopia experiment, and Blattman's similar experiment in Uganda which also saw all effects dissipate after nine years. 
Here's a nascent explanatory theory, based on a new NBER paper about demographic change in the US. The authors show that all of the troubling changes in the US economy related to job creation, start-up rates and the labor share of income can be explained by the US's aging population. The basic idea is this: older people start fewer firms, particularly firms that grow and add employees, than young people. With fewer start-ups you get less creative destruction and more mature firms which tend hire fewer new workers and, at least partially as a consequence, have more unequal wages and less wage growth. Now apply those ideas to developing economies which tend to be quite young demographically. There young people are trying a lot of things to figure out what the best option for them is. Because of other market failures, the need for extraordinary entrepreneurial ability to succeed is much higher and therefore much fewer small firms grow to any size. And even survival takes a huge amount of effort, especially since there are so many other low-skill young people trying out the same things at the same time. So people drop out of microenterprises before learning enough to improve them, and then bounce through other options because none of them are particularly good. And that's what we are also now seeing in the US economy, with the gig economy as one example. The jobs just aren't good enough to justify investment. Any thoughts on this very welcome. 

4. Blind Spots and Privilege: The two things that generated the most attention at AEA this year had to do with blind spots. You've likely heard about the investigations into harassment and bullying of women by (former) superstar Roland Fryer. That gave real energy to the sessions on gender discrimination in the profession that were already on the agenda by the time the story broke. Here's video of a session featuring Susan Athey, Marianne Bertrand, Sebnem Kalemli-Ozcan and Janet Yellendiscussing their experiences being economists while female. The sessions and conversations certainly caught the attention of the news media with follow-up stories, from the NYT and NPR. The conversations have brought to light plenty of blind-spots and privilege. For instance, the AEA has not had any way to remove someone from the executive committee. There is now a code of conduct, but no mechanism for enforcing it. And the post-conference conversation on Twitter has been turning to more of the blind-spots, like the persistence of one-on-one job interviews in hotel rooms. It remains to be seen how much of a reckoning there will be. Case in point is the death this week of Harold Demsetz, an economist who, the consensus seems to be, should have won a Nobel (with Armen Alchian). The third comment on Marginal Revolution is a very credible story of years of harassment by Demsetz. But here's a Twitter thread lamenting his passing in which I can't help but notice an imbalance among the commenters who knew him personally.
OK, here's a huge pivot. The other session that inspired the most passionate response, at least as far as I could tell, was about coming changes to how the US Census Bureau anonymizes data. Here's some quick background: the ability to de-anonymize anonymous data is increasingly a concern in many areas of life; and the Census Bureau is moving toward something called "differential privacy" to make it harder to do, with unclear but probably negative effects on the ability of researchers to use Census Bureau data. Whether there are real threats to privacy and how the Census plan is being implemented are apparently deeply controversial. Here's a "live" thread from Gary Kimbrough, with follow-up responses from some of the participants, that reveals some of the tensions and problems. Something that emerges from the thread of particular note is an issue I was not aware of: Raj Chetty has more access to Census data than anyone else, apparently, and that is a source of a lot of tension among researchers. There is real concern that the Census' plan will create a hierarchy of who has access to useful data and put even more power in the hands of privileged researchers--and the extreme hierarchy that already exists in Economics is certainly a part of the culture problem. 

5. Replication and Causal Inference: OK, let's expand our horizons beyond things drawn directly from AEA. David Roodman has a new piece on the lessons from his work attempting to replicate two important public health economics papers over the last few years. Roodman doesn't see a replication crisis in economics similar to that in psychology, because "most...original results can be matched when applying the reported methods to the reported data." He thinks, though, that re-analysis is more important than replication and there economics has a "robustness" crisis.
There is a new study of "push button replication"--the ability to get the same results from the reported data and methods with the resources made available--of impact evaluations from low- and middle-income countries. Brown, Muller and Wood find that only 27 of the 109 studies they find are "push button replicable." Of those that were not, 59 did not provide the necessary data and code (similar to another paper from a few years ago that David cites); 30 of those were published in journals that nominally required the data and code to be posted. Not great, Bob
Finally, a clash of titans in the world of causal inference erupted this week, with Andrew Gelman posting a review of Judea Pearl's newish book, The Book of Why. AsSue Marquez notes, the comments are where it gets really interesting (which also got me to wondering, why are the comments on Gelman's blog must reads and the comments on Tyler Cowen's blog must-not-reads?). Pearl himself responds, (eventually in multiple places in the thread) and if you thought the culture in economics was unique, maybe not so much. Most of what is in the comment thread at Gelman's blog is statisticians. The economists got to discussing it on Twitter. I wish I could provide a useful guide to that, but the conversation got so fractured that even I was stymied trying to follow it. The best I can offer is to start with Marquez's tweet, and then click on various replies to see the conversation branching. It's frustrating but worth it, and if any faiV readers end up making sense of it (nudge, nudge Marc) and summarizing the conversation in a useful way, let me know.

There were a lot of things I considered including this week, but in the end I decided that everyone could use a smile to start the year with. So without further comment, click play.

There were a lot of things I considered including this week, but in the end I decided that everyone could use a smile to start the year with. So without further comment, click play.

Week of November 12, 2018

1. Our Algorithmic Overlords: Since it hasn't featured for a few weeks, I'm going to lead with our old friends this week. If you're in development circles, you know about Aadhaar. And if you're a reader of the faiV you know about China's intrusive citizen monitoring and control (let's dispense with calling it a "social credit score"--this apologia for what's happening is frightening in its own right). But did you know that Venezuela is on the forefront of assigning every citizen an ID and tracking their behavior, including their votes (maybe)? Here's a Twitter thread with some additional details from the reporter of that piece. Guess who's providing the technology? 
The frightening frontier in the US is from private technology companies, well, let's be honest, the frightening frontier is Facebook. Here's a New York Times investigation of the company's conduct that is jaw-dropping, over and over again. Where is Teddy Roosevelt when you need him? For now, we've got Kara Swisher's thoughts on cleaning up the "toxic smoke".
Tying the domestic and global back together, here's Susan Liautaud of CGD on how the perspective on the ethics of automation and AI may look different in developing countries

2. Development Finance and Banking: Sticking with CGD, here's the polymath of development, Charles Kenny, on reforming the World Bank's Private Sector Window to comply with, y'know, the World Bank's guidance on appropriate design for private sector subsidies.
The big question for development finance (and social finance of all sorts) is whether it is crowding-in or crowding-out private sector investment, or neither. Here's Paddy Carter on the "Elusive Quest for Additionality" (have to love a shout-out to old school Bill Easterly) in summary form and in full length paper form (with van de Sijpe and Calel).
Let's say that there is additionality and DFIs are increasing capital flows to developing countries. The next big question is, what impact does that have? Here's Judith Tyson and Thorsten Beck on how those capital flows are affecting domestic financial system development. They conclude that the capital flows are too pro-cyclical and not doing enough to boost domestic capital markets.
There is a specific kind of capital flow that is actively undermining financial development specifically and development in general: regulations on anti-money-laundering and anti-terrorist-financing (regulations are a form of capital right?). Here's a brief from the Humanitarian Policy Group at ODI on how bad it's gotten in humanitarian relief. And just a reminder that this is a pervasive problem. No really,it's a pervasive problem.
Speaking of financial system development, here's an interesting post on what is happening in Ghana's banking sector--well, what's happening is consolidation, the post explains why and what's next. And here's a perspective on the liquidity crunch for Indian NBFCs

3. MicroDigitalFinance: It feels like we might be hitting an inflection point on mobile money services, the point where it's no longer possible to talk about it without prominently noting the negatives. CGAP has a new report on digital credit in Kenya and Tanzania, which leads them to the conclusion that "It's Time to Slow Digital Credit's Growth in East Africa." Late payment and default rates are enough to make any MFI executive faint. One particularly interesting tidbit: loans taken in the morning are much more likely to be repaid than loans taken at night. That's not really surprising but it's amazing to have that level of insight. Of particular concern is that many borrowers don't understand the terms of the loans they are taking. All the progress made on consumer protection for MFIs doesn't matter much if the market shifts to getting credit elsewhere. 
This week Graham Wright of MicroSave gave one of the keynotes at European Microfinance Week on a similar theme. You can see a shortened text version of Graham's talk at Next Billion or video here (though that's a Facebook link so, given the above, I understand if you don't want to click it).
His framing is that digital financial services are an existential threat to microfinance because of the ability of digital service providers to peel off the best customers and leave the hardest to serve to the MFIs. You'll have to work very hard to convince me that is not what is coming, and even harder that that doesn't have lots of negative consequences. It's consistent with what happened with the growth of for-profit MFIs--while the for-profits serve more customers, the non-profits are more likely to serve women, poorer clients, and rural areas. But more importantly, it's also the story of historical development of consumer financial services in high income countries, particularly the United States: pro-poor institutions find innovative ways to expand the market, but struggle because they are serving the most expensive, riskiest clients and eventually other institutions take the most profitable parts of the new markets that have been established. David Roodman's chapter on the lost history of microfinance in Due Diligence is useful on this and I'll have more on this in some of those writing projects I've mentioned.
Graham also mentions the growing possibility of digital financial services creating a new, harder form of exclusion, specifically for rural customers on the wrong side of the digital divide. Elsewhere he's also made the point that digital blacklisting could create rigid barriers to those defaulting on their quick and easy but not well understood digital loans. Again, if you're at all skeptical, take a look at the United States--it's an underappreciated cautionary tale for where many countries are headed. Here's a quick example of hardening digital exclusion in the US
Here's where you'll typically hear the argument about how FinTech can deliver all sorts of useful money management tools to those who need them most. Sure, in theory. Here's a new report from the Global Financial Literacy Excellence Center (and I'm as shocked as you are that I'm linking to something there; that feeling when someone you normally disagree vehemently with writes something that confirms your priors in a different domain) on mobile payments use and financial behaviors in the US. Annamaria Lusardi's summary in the WSJ is here. Mobile payments users are more likely to carry balances on their credit cards and make minimum payments. They're more likely to overdraw their bank accounts and to withdraw from retirement accounts. The same skepticism you should now have for Big Tech needs to be the default setting for FinTech and digital financial services as well. 

4. Evidence-Based Policy: Your clicks demanded it, so here's more evidence-based policy links. But first, you have to take a look at this job market paper producing some evidence that's policy relevant. Abhit Bhandari wanted to study how political connections affect economic behavior of firms--so he started a company in Senegal (for real!) and then randomized what his salespeople said to customers, in order to signal (or not signal) political connections. Bhandari has displaced Chris Blattman's randomizing factory job offers and Dina Pomeranz's randomizing tax enforcement in my pantheon of amazing experiments.
OK, back to tips for connecting research to real-world impact. Last week we had eight tips on policy relevance from Oxfam. This week you've got four tips on making evidence synthesis more useful from a variety of folks in the UK government (though I have to say, the UK doesn't seem like the best place to be sourcing evidence-based policy advice at the moment does it?) and the editor-in-chief of Nature. Or perhaps you'd prefer to think about six pathways for evidence to influence policy from J-PAL? To explain how the pathways work they also have 17 case studies that you can delve into

5. Philanthropy: My friend Rob Reich's (not that Rob Reich) new book on the dangers that large-scale philanthropy (alternatively, massive wealth inequality) poses to democracy and what to do about it, Just Giving, is now out. Here's an extended essay drawn from the book. You can hear Rob discuss the book on TinySpark here. 
While thinking about Rob's arguments, I finally read Tyler Cowen's description of Emergent Ventures. It's a very useful pairing; Tyler's description of how some of the pathologies of big philanthropy emerge from "commonsense," unobjectionable choices about how to organize institutional philanthropy and his alternative approach mesh quite well with Rob's vision of a better future for philanthropy. Should I apply for an Emergent Ventures grant to support faiVLive and my (ever forthcoming) next book about big data/machine learning and economics?
Of course, sometimes democratized philanthropy can yield pretty unpleasant outcomes. Remember a few months ago when I linked to a scandal where a couple apparently pocketed $400K from a GoFundMe campaign for a homeless veteran? It turns out that the whole thing was a scam from the beginning, the "homeless vet" had been in on it the whole time, and none of the story was true. 

I feel the need for a little lightness. So here's an amazing image from a Japanese history of the United States for children from 1861. That's John Adams directing the fusillade of the incredibly strong Ben Franklin, who apparently can aim better when he can hold the cannon himself. The other images of the book are equally amazing, so  check them out . Via  Nick Kapur .

I feel the need for a little lightness. So here's an amazing image from a Japanese history of the United States for children from 1861. That's John Adams directing the fusillade of the incredibly strong Ben Franklin, who apparently can aim better when he can hold the cannon himself. The other images of the book are equally amazing, so check them out. Via Nick Kapur.

Week of September 24, 2018

1. Poverty and Inequality Measurement: How do you measure poverty, and by extension, inequality? Given how common a benchmark poverty is, it's easy to sometimes lose sight of how hard defining and measuring it is.
Martin Ravallion has a new paper on measuring global inequality that takes into account that both absolute and relative poverty (within a country) matter--for many reasons it's better to be poor in a high-income country than a low-income one, which is often missed in global inequality measures. Here's Martin's summary blog post. When you take that into account, global inequality is significantly higher than in other measures, but still falling since 1990. 
The UK has a new poverty measure, created by the Social Metrics Commission (a privately funded initiative, since apparently the UK did away with its official poverty measure?) that tries to adjust for various factors including wealth, disability and housing adequacy among other things. Perhaps most interestingly it tries to measure both current poverty and persistent poverty recognizing that most of the factors that influence poverty measures are volatile. Under their measure they find that about 23% of the population lives in poverty, with half of those, 12.1%, in persistent poverty.
You can think about persistence of poverty in several ways: over the course of a year, over several years, or over many years--otherwise known as mobility. There's been a lot of attention in the US to declining rates of mobility and the ways that the upper classes limit mobility of those below them. That can obscure the fact that there is downward mobility (48% of white upper middle class kids end up moving down the household income ladder, using this tool based on Chetty et al data). I'm not quite sure what to make of this new paper, after all I'm not a frequent reader of Poetics which is apparently a sociology journal, but it raises an interesting point: the culture of the upper middle class that supposedly passes on privilege may be leading to downward mobility as well.   
There's also status associated with class and income. On that dimension, mobility in the US has declined by about a quarter from the 1940s cohort to the 1980s cohort. That's a factor of "the changing distribution of occupational opportunities...not intergenerational persistence" however. But intergenerational persistence may be on the rise because while the wealth of households in the top 10% of the distribution has recovered since the great recession, the wealth of the bottom 90% is still lower, and for the bottom 30% has continued to fall during the recovery.
 
2. Debt: What factors could be contributing to the wealth stagnation and even losses of the bottom 90% in the US? Just going off the top of my head, predatory debt could be a factor. If only we had a better handle on household debt and particularly the most shadowy parts of the high-cost lending world. Or maybe it's the skyrocketing amount of student debt, combined with bait-and-switch loan forgiveness programs that are denying 99% of the applicants. I'll bet the CFPB student loan czar will be all over this scandal. Oh wait, that's right, he resigned after being literally banned from doing his job.

3. Banking, SMEs, US and Global: Given those links, you'd be forgiven for assuming that banks, and the financial system in general, are a big factor in driving inequality and downward mobility. But on a global and historical basis, financial system development lowers inequality (that's the classic paper on the topic, not anything new, but I didn't think I could say that without the citation). One way to measure financial system development is the cost of financial intermediation--more development, more intermediation, lower costs. The spread between interest rates for deposits and loans is a reasonable way to measure the costs of intermediation. Here's a new paper from Calice and Zhou measuring the spread in 160 countries (blog summary). They find, not unexpectedly but usefully nonetheless, that intermediation costs are higher in lower income countries, Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa. Why? A combination of higher overhead, higher credit risk and higher bank profit margins. They also helpfully provide a guide for policymakers on where action will be most effective in lowering intermediation costs.
One way financial system development lowers inequality is by funneling capital to SMEs and entrepreneurs (along with, of course, to its most productive use, banking theory 101). Here's the OECD's 2018 Scoreboard for doing just that. The overall trend is a bit puzzling--falling rates of new lending, with a shift to longer-term lending and generally declining interest rates (though this is based on 2016 data). One striking data point: the most expensive places for SMEs to borrow are Mexico, Chile and...New Zealand? (What's going on there, Berk and David?)
Perhaps one factor in falling rates of new lending that the OECD report doesn't take into account is the closing of physical bank branches. In general, SMEs may depend more on relationship banking--getting to know the loan officer and developing trust through direct contact--than transaction (arms-length) banking: SMEs and start-ups financial statements are simply not going to look that impressive. That does seem to be the case, and it may particularly be a problem for women and minorities, somewhat counterintuitively. That's the finding from Sweden, in a new paper from Malmstrom and Wincent (blog summary). Without the ability to work with a loan officer, women-owned businesses don't look credit-worthy to the algorithms. Another reason to click on that Blumenstock piece in the Editor's Note.
In the US, one of the tools to drive funding of women- and minority-owned SMEs is the Community Reinvestment Act. But that's up for revision, and the two men overseeing that revision have a long-standing beef with the CRA and the non-profits who support it. Uh oh.

4. Unlearning: Last week I linked to a piece about how difficult it is to get even experts to change their minds with a second research finding, focused on doctors. It was criminally under-clicked so I'm specifically linking it again. But the universe seemed to want to prove the point, and so this week I saw a bunch of tweets about a PNAS piece that shows the famous finding of judges being more lenient on parole after a meal break rather than before doesn't hold up. The order of cases is not random. I was all set to include it, along with a snide comment about people (not) changing their minds and the fact the paper was from all the way back in 2011 and the original finding was still being repeated. Then I noticed that there was a response to the paper from the original authors, showing that their original findings did hold up despite the not completely random ordering. But a bunch of people were retweeting the 2011 critique this week, apparently without knowledge of the response. So now I'm confused about whether this whole sequence supports or contradicts the article about people not updating their beliefs.
So let me try again. Here's "Women in Agriculture: Four Myths" that takes on four widely repeated statements about women's role in agriculture that aren't true. Hopefully there is a chance for us to successfully unlearn something.

5. Philanthropy and Social Investment: I'll admit that it's not really clear that this belongs in this category, but then it's not really clear that it belongs anywhere else either. So without further ado: the disturbing parallels between modern accounting and the business of slavery. That's a story about the new book from Catilin Rosenthal, Accounting for Slavery: Masters and Management. Think of that the next time you hear there are "no tradeoffs" in impact investment. It's a stretch, but still--it will definitely throw the person off when you point out that their statement not only violates basic economic theory but is based on principles developed by slaveholders.
Finally, Brest and Harvey have a new edition of their book Money Well Spent, a guide to strategic philanthropy. Here is their reflection on what has changed in philanthropy since the first edition was published ten years ago. And here are several critical (re)views of the book and the concept of strategic philanthropy from a forum hosted by HistPhil blog.

Week of September 17, 2018

1. MicroDigitalFinance: A few weeks ago I wrote that small-dollar short-term loans have always been the bane of the banking industry. We're getting a new test of that. US Bank is launching an alternative to payday loans: loans are between $100 and $1000 and repaid over three months. Interest rates are well below payday lending rates, but still around 70% APR--interestingly on US Bank's page about the loan they very clearly say: "Simple Loan is a a high-cost loan and other options may be available." All of that is good news. But the loans are only available to people with a credit rating (even if it's bad), who have had bank accounts with US Bank for 6 months and direct deposit for 3 months. It will be fascinating to watch take-up, repayment rates, and outcomes--those are where banks have always struggled in this market. Here's Pew's Nick Bourke's take on the US Bank move and the potential for others, with some more regulatory action, to follow suit.
I occasionally remark on insurance being the most amazing invention of all time. It's astounding that it works at all, even in the most developed, trusting and well-regulated markets (see this attempt by one of the US's oldest life insurance providers to collapse the market); it's not surprising that it's a struggle to make it work elsewhere, in the places where households face more risk and would most benefit from access to insurance. So I'm always interested in new work on insurance innovation. Here's a new paper on a lab-in-the-field insurance experiment in Burkina Faso. The basic insight is that many potential purchasers struggle with the certain cost of an insurance premium versus the uncertain payoff. It turns out that framing the premium around an uncertain rebate if there is no payout--which makes both premium and benefit uncertain--increases take-up, especially among those that value certainty most. Yes, you probably need to read that sentence again (and then click on the link to see that even that obtuse sentence is marginally clearer than the abstract). If we want to delve into the details of insurance contract construction, there's also a new paper that delves into how liquidity constraints--a huge factor that hasn't generally gotten enough attention--affect the perceived value of insurance contracts, and how to adjust the contracts accordingly.
And finally, William Faulkner's dictum that "The past is never dead. It's not even past." applies to fintech. A new paper finds that common law countries in sub-Saharan Africa have greater penetration of Internet, telecom and electricity infrastructure, and thus much greater adoption of mobile money and FinTech. That's consistent with history of banking literature that finds common law countries do better on financial system development, financial inclusion and SME lending. 
For the record, I've clarified in my own mind the difference between the MicroDigitalFinance and Household Finance categories. The former provides perspective on providers, the latter on consumers. I reserve the right to break that typology as necessary or when it suits me.  

2. Household Finance: I suppose another way to distinguish between the two categories is that MicroDigitalFinance features bad news only most of the time, while Household Finance is just all bad news. At least that's the way it feels when I come across depressing studies like this: Extending the term of auto loans (e.g. from 60 months to 72 months as has become increasingly common during this low-quality credit boom) leads to consumers taking loans at a) higher interest rates, and b) paying more for the vehicle. Liquidity constraints mean consumers pay much more attention to the monthly payment and get screwed.
It's not just auto loans where liquidity constraints lead to people making sub-optimal choices (yes, I'm thinking a lot about managing liquidity lately). For instance, when people move from traditional health insurance to high-deductible plans they suddenly reduce spending on health care--but not in the ways you want. People don't learn to price shop, even after two years, and they don't reduce spending only on optional or low-value services. And here's the JP Morgan Chase Institute study that shows how much liquidity constraints or their removal affect health care spending using a different approach.
Now if you are a loyal faiV reader, I know you're not thinking, "We need financial literacy training!" But just in case, here's some more bad news: "peer-to-peer communication transmits financial decision-making skills most effectively when peers are equally uninformed, rather than when an informed decision maker teaches an uninformed peer." Or this: "provision of effective financial education to one member of a pair...does not lead to additional improvements in the quality of the untreated partner's decisions." 
If you're thinking, "That hasn't ruined my Friday yet, Tim, give me more," don't worry. How about "Twenty-four million homeowners think it's acceptable to tap into home equity to cover everyday payments." Granted, that's from one of those ridiculous bankrate.com surveys that should be taken with several kilos of salt, but still. 

3. Our Algorithmic Overlords: Here's a quick story about an egregiously bad algorithm the State of Idaho was using to determine how much assistance Medicaid recipients should receive. You can probably already guess--bad data, bad software, bad implementation. But it took a lot of work, and a lawsuit, to figure that out. 
Stories like that emphasize that before handing over decisions to our algorithmic overlords we should want those algorithms to be understandable and fair. Here's a new paper from Jon Kleinberg and Sendhil Mullainathan developing a model that shows you have to pick between simple and equitable. You can't have both.
And here's the "Anatomy of an AI System" that in some ways is a visual proof of the Kleinberg and Mullainathan paper. It's also one of the coolest visualizations I've seen in a while--both in scope and because it isn't reductionist about AI. It takes into account all of the surrounding processes as well. You won't regret clicking on this, unless you have something else really important to do.

4. Global Development: So many things to include this week. Let's start with the biggest: Asher, Novosad and Rafkin have assembled an incredible dataset on incomes in India that allows them to measure intergenerational mobility in a country of more than a billion people, down to the level of 5600 rural districts and 2300 cities and towns. One key finding: increasing mobility among scheduled castes is offset by decreasing mobility among Muslims.
At a necessarily smaller scale, but still big in terms of scope and time, Casey, Glennerster, Miguel and Voors have a long-term follow up on the results of a large scale experiment on Community Driven Development in Sierra Leone, finding that CDD doesn't break down traditional autocratic governance mechanisms enough to allow full exploitation of human capital, which as I understand it was part of the motivation for CDD, and there are easier and cheaper ways to to do so. Of note, they also look at the "prior beliefs of experts on likely impacts"--which, given the "Everything Is Obvious" responses research like this often generates, is pretty cool. Here's Rachel's Twitter thread summary.
Another of the arguments I've heard both for and against CDD-style programs is side-stepping difficult targeting questions--just let the community decide who needs help. Rema Hanna and Ben Olken have a new paper on targeting, specifically on the relative welfare gains of universal basic income versus means-testing. They find means-testing wins using data from Indonesia and Peru, despite some issues; and they discuss adding community-targeting to means-testing.
Meanwhile, here's a piece by Josh Blumenstock that tries to deflate some of the excitement around using high-tech means of targeting, like satellite maps, social networks and call records. In summary, data without theory is useless, and so is data + theory without anthro/soc (or at least anthro/soc informed economics).

5. Methods and Evidence-Based Policy : That's a good lead-in to methods. Let's start with some quick hits. Brian Wansink, whose scandals I've covered in this item in the past, has resigned from Cornell. Noah Smith has a column on the replication crisis in Economics though it's about a very different kind of replication crisis than the one Wansink faced. Now that I type that, it occurs to me that it was in fact easy to replicate Wansink--just making up numbers that matched his would apparently be both a literal and conceptual replication. And here's a new paper on improving diff-in-diff methods to account for effects changing over time.
The idea of evidence-based policy sort of requires that there is evidence of something working. But y'know, nothing does. Encouraging women to get mammograms? Those most likely to respond are those least likely to need one, and because of false positives, the net welfare effect is negative. The health effect of better trade and transport links in the United States in the early 19th century? So negative that it made it people shorter (I mean, as a whole, not specific people). What else? Oh, those gains we all know of like improved water and sanitation, and food safety standards during the early 20th century...no effect on total or infant mortality. That last one reminds me of an old LantRant about assessing whether development interventions matter based on whether they were important in the history (or present) of developed countries. Shall we scratch food safety and urban sanitation off that list? 
I suppose we can hope that these results won't replicate, like the examples that Noah Smith cites. But on the other hand, it's already too late. Once a result is published, no one (or at least no doctors) changes their mind, or changes their behavior.
Wow, this has been bleak. So here's one hopeful note on something that did work. Women's suffrage caused large gains (via demand for more spending on education) in educational attainment of poorer/disadvantaged children, and long-term earnings gains. So go out this weekend and help a woman register to vote (and then go back and make sure she has everything she needs to follow through and vote on election day).

I would have had the Anatomy of an AI visualization here, but it's way too big, and  Justin Sandefur  created this really great example of how simple choices in the visual representation of data can radically change the way we interpret it. The two charts are of the same data, on the left from the World Bank and on the right from The Economist. Via  Justin Sandefur .

I would have had the Anatomy of an AI visualization here, but it's way too big, and Justin Sandefur created this really great example of how simple choices in the visual representation of data can radically change the way we interpret it. The two charts are of the same data, on the left from the World Bank and on the right from The Economist. Via Justin Sandefur.

Week of March 4, 2018

Editor's Note: I again triumphantly wrestled the faiV from Tim Ogden’s clutches this week. Well, actually, he asked me to take over while he’s in transit today. Inspired by this week's amazing Pooh noir Twitter thread, I decided to dedicate this faiV to some powerful investigations (of the journalistic, not private eye, not private eye type). --Jonathan Morduch

1. Crappy Financial Products: The results are no surprise, but it remains troubling to see the numbers. “Color and Credit” is a 2018 revision of a 2017 paper by Taylor Begley and Amitatosh Purnanandam. The subtitle is “Race, Regulation, and the Quality of Financial Services.” Most studies of consumer financial problems look at quantity: the lack of access to financial products. But here the focus is on quality: You can get products, but they’re lousy. Too often, they’re mis-sold, fraudulent, and accompanied by bad customer service. These problems had been hard to see, but they’ve been uncovered via the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Complaints database, a terrifically valuable, publicly accessible—and freely downloadable—database. (Side note: this makes me very nervous about the CFPB’s current commitment to maintaining the data.)

Thousands of complaints are received each week, and the authors look at 170,000 complaints from 2012-16, restricted to mortgage problems. The complaints come from 16,309 unique zipcodes – and the question is: which zipcodes have the most complaints and why? The first result is that low income and low educational attainment in a zipcode are strongly associated with low quality products. Okay, you already predicted that. On top of those effects, the share of the local population identified as being part of a minority group also predicts low quality. No surprise again, but you might not have predicted the magnitude: The minority-share impact is 2-3 times stronger then the income or education impact (even when controlling for income and education). The authors suspect that active discrimination is at work, citing court cases and mystery shopper exercises which show that black and Hispanic borrowers are pushed toward riskier loans despite having credit scores that should merit better options. So, why? Part of the problem could be that efforts to help the most disadvantaged areas are backfiring. Begley and Purnanandam give evidence that regulation to help disadvantaged communities actually reduces the quality of financial products. The culprit is the Community Reinvestment Act, and the authors argue that by focusing the regs on increasing the quantity of services delivered in certain zipcodes, the quality of those services has been compromised – and much more so in heavily-minority areas. Unintended consequences that ought to be taken seriously.

2. TrumpTown: Another great database. ProPublica is a national resource – a nonprofit newsroom. They’ve been doing a lot of data gathering and number-crunching lately. Four items today are from ProPublica. The first is the geekiest: a just-released, searchable database of 2,475 Trump administration appointees. The team spent a year making requests under the Freedom of Information Act, allowing you to now spend the afternoon getting to know the mid-tier officials who are busily deregulating the US economy. The biggest headline is that, of the 2,475 appointees, 187 had been lobbyists, 125 had worked at (conservative) think tanks, and 254 came out of the Trump campaign. Okay, that’s not too juicy. Still, the database is a resource that could have surprising value, even if it’s not yet clear how. Grad students: have a go at it. (Oh, and I’d like to think that ProPublica would have done something similar if Hilary Clinton was president.)

3. Household Finance (and Inequality): This ProPublica story is much more juicy, and much more troubling. Writing in the Washington Post, ProPublica’s Paul Kiel starts: “A ritual of spring in America is about to begin. Tens of thousands of people will soon get their tax refunds, and when they do, they will finally be able to afford the thing they’ve thought about for months, if not years: bankruptcy.” Kiel continues, “It happens every tax season. With many more people suddenly able to pay a lawyer, the number of bankruptcy filings jumps way up in March, stays high in April, then declines.” Bankruptcy is a last resort, but for many people it’s the only way to get on a better path. Even when straddled with untenable debt, it turns out to be costly to get a fresh start.

The problem will be familiar to anyone who has read financial diaries: the need for big, lumpy outlays can be a huge barrier to necessary action. Bankruptcy lawyers usually insist on being paid upfront (especially for so-called “chapter 7” bankruptcies). The problem is that if the lawyers agreed to be paid later, they fear that their fees would also be wiped away by the bankruptcy decision. So, the lawyers put themselves first. The trouble is that the money involved is sizeable: The lawyers’ costs plus court fees get close to $1500. The irony abounds. Many people tell Kiel that if they could easily come up with that kind of money, then they probably wouldn’t be in the position to go bankrupt. Bankruptcy judges see the problem and are trying to jerry-rig solutions, but nonprofits haven’t yet made this a priority. So, for over-indebted households, waiting to receive tax refunds turns out to be a key strategy.

4. Municipal Finance and Household Finance (and Inequality): In a related vein, check out this Mother Jones/ProPublica investigation of bankruptcy in Chicago. The title says it all: “How Chicago Ticket Debt Sends Black Motorists Into Bankruptcy. A cash-strapped city employs punitive measures to collect from cash-strapped residents — and lawyers benefit.” The focus is on the city’s reliance on fees from parking tickets to help balance the books – which can add up for residents and lead to bankruptcy. Even a single unpaid parking ticket can create havoc for poorer households. The situation is hard not to connect to Ferguson, Missouri, the scene of the riots after the shooting of Michael Brown, where, among other abuses of the citizenry, the city used the courts and police as revenue-generating mechanisms.)

Ticket debt in Chicago is concentrated in areas that are predominantly poor and black, because there isn’t slack to pay the initial tickets, making it more likely that debt results. A fairer system would impose fines on a scale connected to individuals’ income and ability-to-pay. But, for now, we have a decidedly regressive system in which the least-able-to-pay face disproportionately large penalties.

5. Social Investment: The final ProPublica story is a collaboration with the New York Times. Many have reported on the rising cost of drugs, but we don’t often see deep reporting on those who pay the price. The personal stories are both familiar and shocking. Two common threads: many people are too poor to easily pay the drug prices but not so poor that they have access to generous public benefits. They’re caught in between. The result is that individuals end up juggling which medicines to take in the same way that cash-strapped families juggle which bills to pay each month – only with much higher stakes.
 
A second theme is (again) problems posed by large, lumpy, upfront costs. For example: “…Novo Nordisk, the company that sells her fast-acting insulin, Novolog, and her diabetes medication, Victoza, requires low-income Medicare beneficiaries to first spend $1,000 on drugs in each calendar year before they can qualify for free drugs through its program. In a cruel twist, Ms. Johnson doesn’t have that $1,000 to spend, so she resorts to not taking some drugs for months until she reaches the company’s threshold.” The stories highlight ways in which health problems are often financial problems.
 
In a related way, JPMorgan Chase Institute analysis shows that many people defer health spending until they get tax refunds. (Out-of-pocket health spending increased by 60% in the week after getting a tax refund.) Tax refund season is one of the few moments when families have big, lumpy sums to spend on doctors (if they don’t spend them all on filing for bankruptcy).

Week of February 5, 2018

Editor's Note: I'm back. --Tim Ogden

1. Digital Finance: When I name an item "digital finance" you know I'm going to be talking about mobile money and fintech--but should you? Is there something that's particularly more digital about mobile money than about payment cards or plain-old ATMs (both of which are, of course, fintech). Arguably paying a vendor with a credit card requires fewer real world actions than using mobile money--there are certainly fewer keys to be pressed. That's the overriding thought I had when looking at this new research from CGAP and FSD Kenya on digital credit in Tanzania: digital credit looks like credit cards. It's being used to fill gaps in spending, not for investment; is mostly being used by people with other alternatives; it's mostly expanding the use of credit (on the intensive margin); and it's really unclear whether it's helping or hurting.
Perhaps the most striking thing is that digital credit is not being used for "emergencies." Part of the interest, I think, in mobile money and digital credit was that it might enable users to better bridge short-term liquidity gaps given the well-documented volatility of earnings. But that's not what seems to be happening. Again it seems to be mirroring other forms of digital finance that we don't really call "digital finance", namely payday loans (which after all typically involve an automated digital transfer out of the borrowers checking account). Borrowers are very likely to miss payments (1/2 of borrowers) or default (1/3 of borrowers, based on self-reports, not administrative data). Given that, these papers (one, two, three, four) on whether access to payday loans helps or hurts seem like they should be required reading for digital credit observers (and don't forget the links from Sean Higgins a few weeks ago). The gist--they do help when there really are emergencies like natural disasters, but hurt a lot when there aren't.

This week in the US is providing an unusual window into emergencies and digital finance. The sharp declines in the US stock market caused a lot of folks to go look at their portfolios, which brought down a new generation of digital finance websites like Wealthfront and Betterment. Even Fidelity and Vanguard had problems. There's an element there of concern about mobile money systems in developing countries: we really don't know what a "run" on a mobile money platform would look like and how systems and people would be able to handle outages whatever their cause. But the more important story is that the problems encountered were probably pretty good for consumers. Preventing people from accessing their accounts in the perceived emergency of stock prices dropping kept them from panic selling, which is a thing humans do a lot. In fact, for those customers that could log in, they found lots of artificial barriers to taking action. Digital finance's key contribution in this case wasn't expanding access, it was limiting it.


2. Household Finance: Which brings us back to the ever recurring theme of household finance: it's complicated and we really don't understand it very well. What we do understand is that it's very hard for people to make sound decisions (causal inference is hard!) when it comes to money. Here, at long last, is the write-up of work by Karlan, Mullainathan and Roth on debt traps for fruit vendors. You may remember this being referenced in the book Scarcity--but if not, the basics are that people in chronic debt who have their loans paid off fall quickly back into chronic debt. That also seems like something digital credit observers should be thinking about.

Here's another understudied puzzle: consumers do seem to react to stock market gyrations even though only a small portion of Americans have meaningful investments in stocks. Really, the figure is a lot lower than you likely think. But if it's not sold out yet, you can start investing in stocks at a big discount today--not because of the decline of the stock markets, but this curious offer to buy a "gift card" for $20 worth of stock in major companies for $10. I stared at this for a long time wondering, "Should I use this as a teaching tool for my kids? And if so, should the lesson be arbitrage or why not to invest in individual stocks?"
   
3. Our Algorithmic Overlords: I promised a review of Virginia Eubanks new book Automating Inequality this week, but I'm not ready yet. In the meantime, I'll point you to Matt Levine's discussion of how little of what we do matters and how big data is starting to illustrate that. It's a riff that starts from a new paper showing that what banks do doesn't seem to matter much, which I suppose is a big support to the point above about how hard household finance is--even highly paid professionals can't seem to do anything that makes a difference.

And the founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation died this week. I found this reflection thought-provoking in a number of directions: "I knew it’s also true that a good way to invent the future is to predict it. So I predicted Utopia, hoping to give Liberty a running start before the laws of Moore and Metcalfe delivered up what Ed Snowden now correctly calls 'turn-key totalitarianism.'”

4. Aspirations, and Risk: I've been linking fairly frequently lately (e.g. this overview from David Evans or Campos et al in Togo) to work that might fall into a broad category of "boosting aspirations,” though even whether that moniker is accurate is still unclear. But there are a number of papers finding that if you help people believe that what they do matters and they can improve their lives (regardless of what the data from banks tell us), that can have a big positive effect on their behavior and outcomes. Here's a post on promising early results of another of these studies, with Jamaican entrepreneurs.

Of course, with our good economist hats on we should wonder about persistence of aspiration-raising, and general equilibrium effects. Here Galiani, Gertler and Undurraga find that boosting aspirations through the visible gains of neighbors wears off pretty quickly.

But I've been thinking about this more and more through the lens of risk, particularly on the back of Jonathan's write-up of the new Townsend results on risk-adjusted returns for poor farmers last week. If you haven't read that yet, you definitely should. Perhaps one of the reasons that aspiration-raising is working is that it is boosting people's willingness to take on risk. I'll be writing a lot more about this in next week's faiV.

5. Surprise:
I'm easing back into the faiV, and it's late in the day. So I'm going to surprise all of you and just stop there for now. But I can't not have a link, so go play this game about the "retail apocalypse" in the US that Bloomberg put together. And for the American GenXers out there, prepare for flashbacks to Kings Quest.

CEGA Special Edition: A bit more from AEA

Editor's Note: this week’s faiV highlights more research on financial inclusion and machine learning from the American Economic Association annual meetings, guest-edited by Sean Higgins, a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Center for Effective Global Action at UC Berkeley, whose research focuses on financial inclusion.

Next week, I'm hoping Jonathan Morduch will fill in for me before I resume normal service the week of February 5th--Tim Ogden

1. Financial Inclusion: I [Sean] organized a session on savings and financial inclusion that looked at the impact of various savings interventions such as commitment devices, opt-out savings plans, and mobile money. Continuing last week’s theme on similarities between developed and developing countries, a savings intervention that has greatly increased savings in the US is opt-out savings plans or “default assignment,” such as being automatically enrolled in a 401(k) plan. In an experiment in Afghanistan, Joshua Blumenstock, Michael Callen, and Tarek Ghani explore why defaults affect behavior: some employees are defaulted into a savings program where 5% of their salaries are automatically deposited in a mobile money savings account, but they can opt out at any time. Those who were defaulted in were 40 percentage points more likely to contribute to the savings account, which is comparable to the effect of the employer matching 50% of employees’ savings contributions

Commitment savings accounts have also been tested in the US and in many other countries. In a study by Emily Breza, Martin Kanz, and Leora Klapper, employees in Bangladesh were offered a commitment savings account, with a twist: depending on the treatment arm, employers sometimes endorsed the product, and employees were sometimes told that their decision would be disclosed to the employer. Only the treatment arm that had both employer endorsement and disclosure of the employee’s choice led to higher take-up, suggesting that workplace signaling motivated employees to save. Another study by Simone Schaner et al. (covered in last week’s faiV) offered employees in Ghana a commitment savings product with the goal of building up enough savings to stop incurring overdraft fees, which are common. Take-up was high, but baseline overdrafters were more likely to draw down their savings before the commitment period ended -- meaning they benefited less from the intervention.
Two important barriers to financial inclusion in the US and around the world are transaction costs and low trust in banks. In a paper I coauthored with Pierre Bachas, Paul Gertler, and Enrique Seira, we study the impact of providing debit cards to government cash transfer recipients who were already receiving their benefits directly deposited into a bank account. Debit cards lower the indirect transaction costs -- such as time and travel costs -- of both accessing money in a bank account and monitoring the bank to build trust. Once they receive debit cards, beneficiaries check their balances frequently, and the number of checks decreases over time as their reported trust in the bank and savings increase"


2. Household Finance: Digital credit is a financial service that is rapidly spreading around the world; it uses non-traditional data (such as mobile phone data) to evaluate creditworthiness and provide instant and remote small loans, often through mobile money accounts. One of the concerns about digital credit is that customers’ credit scores can be negatively impacted, even for the failure to repay a few dollars. In turn, this can leave them financially excluded in the future. Andres Liberman, Daniel Paravisini, and Vikram Pathania find a similar result for “high-cost loans” in the UK (which we would call payday loans in the US). They use a natural experiment and compare applicants who receive loans with similar applicants who do not receive loans to study the impact of the loans on financial outcomes. For the average applicant, taking up a high-cost loan causes an immediate decrease in the credit score, and as a result the applicant has less access to credit in the future.  

3. Our Algorithmic Overlords: There were a number of sessions at the AEA meetings on big data and machine learning. My favorite of these showcased a variety of economic applications of machine learning, three of which use big data from mobile phones. Susan Athey et al. use high-frequency location data from mobile phones to estimate a consumer choice model over restaurants and travel time. There are a large number of variables going into each individual’s decision of where to go for lunch, and each individual is different; the benefit of using machine learning is that they can incorporate a large number of variables on both restaurants and consumer preferences into the model. Susan also has an excellent overview of applications of machine learning in economics here.


Mobile phone data can also be used to predict creditworthiness: in a middle-income Latin American country, Daniel Björkegren and Darrell Grissen find that mobile phone call detail records perform just as well at predicting creditworthiness as traditional credit bureau scores (although neither perform particularly well in this sample). The mobile phone data appears to be picking up useful information to predict creditworthiness, and could be especially useful for consumers with no formal credit history or traditional credit score. These data sources and models could also help low-income women, who face a bias in the amount lenders are willing to provide, higher interest rates, and legal frameworks which can make it more difficult for them to access credit.

4. More Machine Learning: After the meetings each year, the AEA offers two-day continuing education courses on a changing variety of topics. This year, one of the courses was Machine Learning and Econometrics taught by Susan Athey and Guido Imbens. The webcasts and slides from the course can be accessed here. As economics increasingly adopts methods from machine learning in the coming years, this class’s combination of practical tools, R code, intuition, and theory make it more than worth your time to watch the webcasts and peruse the course materials.

One of the gems was the intuitive descriptions of various machine learning techniques. I feel like I finally have an intuitive understanding of what stochastic gradient descent and neural nets do (and I had to explain it to a friend yesterday which is always a good test). For example, here’s Susan’s description of the “incredibly powerful” method of stochastic gradient descent (in minute 58 of this video). What we usually do: “Estimating a model is climbing a mountain. In economics the way we approached that problem historically, is if you were climbing up that mountain trying to find the parameters that maximize an objective function, at a particular point in climbing that hill there’s a gradient that tells you in which direction should I change my parameters to get up to the top of the hill and find the parameters that best fit my data. We might spend fifteen minutes of our computation computing the gradient at one point, and then climb up the hill a little bit and work really hard at computing the gradient at the next point.” 
The magic of stochastic gradient descent: “At each point in climbing the hill, you evaluate the gradient using just one data point from your data set…you just pick one data point and compute where you should go as if that data point was your only data point. It’s an unbiased estimate of the gradient but it’s incredibly noisy. But instead of doing 10,000 computations to figure out how to make one tiny step, instead 10,000 times you go up and down your hill, up-down-up-down, over here over there, but you’re always kind of going in the right direction. And 10,000 points later you’re almost at the top, while with our old methods you would have gone much more in the right direction but you would have just made one tiny step and you’re nowhere near the top of the mountain.” 

5. Inequality:
The World Wealth & Income Database group led by Thomas Piketty, Facundo Alvaredo, and Lucas Chancel at the Paris School of Economics and Emmanual Saez and Gabriel Zucman at UC Berkeley presented on global inequality and policy. Recently, the group has been combining data from household surveys, national accounts, and tax records to create more comprehensive measures of income and wealth inequality. One interesting finding they presented was that Brazil’s large reduction in inequality since 2001 -- which is based on income measured in household surveys -- goes away if we instead use a measure that combines data from household surveys, national accounts, and tax records. With the more comprehensive measure, income inequality in Brazil has been flat. They also reported that inequality is increasing in almost every region of the world, and the global top 1% have about 20% of global income. A webcast of this session is available here.

Default assignment into an opt-out automatic savings plan leads to a large increase in take-up of the savings account, comparable to the effect of a 50% savings match (from  Blumenstock, Callen, and Ghani ).

Default assignment into an opt-out automatic savings plan leads to a large increase in take-up of the savings account, comparable to the effect of a 50% savings match (from Blumenstock, Callen, and Ghani).

Week of October 23, 2017

1. The Search for Truth, Part II: Last week's opening theme was about how hard social science is. I often find there's an unspoken wistfulness in social science research for the clear questions and clear answers of the "hard sciences."
But cheer up! It's just as bad on the other side of the fence. When you're frustrated that there doesn't seem to be a biological mechanism that explains the long-term positive outcomes of deworming, remember that we have no idea--literally, no idea--what causes "side stitch," that shooting pain we've all had in our abdomen during exercise. And when you're down in the dumps that so many development interventions don't seem to show much effect, remember that the universe shouldn't exist, and we don't know why it didn't explode nanoseconds after coming into being.
On the other hand, Ioannidis, Stanley and Doucouliagos' paper on how vastly underpowered most economics papers are has finally been published (it's been circulating for awhile). If that's not enough to send you back into despair, the fact that economists need to be reminded of basic good practice in presenting their ideas--per this slide deck from Rachael Meager--might do the trick. Don't get me wrong, it's good advice. But I was reminded of the time I attended a conference for PR "professionals" where the advice included such gems as, "Make sure the reporter you're pitching actually covers the topic" and "Read the last few articles the reporter wrote." Last year I was joking with Jessica Goldberg about starting a side-business editing the introductions and slide decks of job market papers. Perhaps I shouldn't have been joking.


2. The Mess that is US Higher Education (or Labor Markets are Broken All Over): Studying labor market inefficiencies is a common topic in development economics (yes, this is clickbait for David McKenzie). But as in so many domains, the problems we study in developing economies also exist in developed ones, just wearing a Halloween mask. Here's a new study on "credentialism" in the US labor market, the demand for college degrees for jobs that have no reason to require a college degree (as demonstrated by the fact that the vast majority of people currently in those jobs don't have one). That's bad for employers who pay some of the cost of the self-imposed mismatch in the labor market, but it's much, much worse for potential employees who are shut out of well-paying, stable jobs for no good reason. Unless, of course, they spend large amounts of money to get a credential. The large, and growing, lifetime earnings gap between those with a credential and those without has justified the incredible growth in student debt to finance these credentials. But if the credential is just an artifact of herd behavior among employers...
And why are those credentials so expensive? One reason is that the universities providing those credentials are spending, and borrowing, huge amounts themselves in order to attract the students who have to get the credential to apply for a job. So the students borrow, and borrow some more. And then they get shut out of programs for loan forgiveness that they are should be eligible for, because the system is a mess. But don't worry, if their debt gets too out of hand, they can discharge those loans in bankruptcy. Oh wait, we changed the bankruptcy law so they can't ever discharge those loans. Don't forget too that large numbers of the people we've pushed into needing a credential are entering universities, taking loans, but never getting the credential (e.g. 70% of single mothers who enroll).
And the advanced degree market may be worse. A few weeks ago I featured some work on English football academies juxtaposed with a paper about the Clark Medal. Perhaps my comparison was too oblique--so here's a piece from Nature making the connection explicit. The chances that a Ph.D. student will land a permanent academic job in the US or UK is well under 10%. The reason it's plausible to offer job market paper editorial consulting is that the premium for a well-written paper is so large. And it's large because there is massive over-supply.
For those newly minted Ph.D.'s taking adjunct teaching jobs just so they can stay marginally attached to academia and perhaps make enough to supplement their food stamps, I have bad news. Current students (bachelor's and master's students that is) teach just as well as adjuncts, suggesting that "student instructors can serve as an effective tool for universities to reduce their costs." Oh right, I was trying to avoid a novella.

3. Household Finance: Returning to bankruptcy, the looming problem of shunting all the risk of paying for a college education onto students and barring them from ever discharging the risk we've laid on them, isn't the only issue. Here's a ProPublica series on racial discrimination in bankruptcy filings. In short, African Americans are being guided into a form of bankruptcy that costs more and is more likely to end in failure.
In other household finance news, American consumers are taking on ever more credit card debt, and carrying more balances. Meanwhile in England, banks are planning to cut back on lending to consumers, causing concern of a "squeeze." This feels like a movie we've seen before. Whether growing or constricting consumer credit is more of a problem remains a mystery but it's worth looking back at this 2014 piece from Claudia Sahm on deleveraging and how much we didn't know then (and still don't know now).
And now taking the theme overly literally, here's a new project by Paige Glotzer at the Harvard Joint Center for History and Economics looking at the sources of financing for the building of segregated suburbs in the US from the 1890s to the 1960s.

4. Digital Finance: The digital finance revolution was built on the stunning success and expansion of mPesa in Kenya. Safaricom launched a new incubator in Nairobi with the purpose of mining mPesa data for ideas for new products. Is it a sign of a new style of "networked innovation" or that Safaricom is out of ideas of it's own? Or both?
There's certainly a dearth of pro-poor ideas, or even motivations, in FinTech as a whole. Here's a piece from American Banker on four areas where FinTech companies could actually help low-income people. Maybe they should talk to Safaricom. While it's not a FinTech idea, getting cash to people affected by natural disasters quickly, FinTech is certainly part of the infrastructure to do so. Here's a story about GiveDirectly doing just that in Houston (interestingly by pulling some staff from East Africa where they had excess capacity).

5. Global Development: Whether an idea is pro-poor does in part depend on how you define who is poor. The World Bank's new poverty lines are now official--the poverty lines that do more than adjust for purchasing power parity and take into account relative incomes within countries. So the same level of PPP income will mean you are poor in some countries, but not poor in others. Charles Kenny is not a fan.

Here's a look at those new  World Bank poverty  lines, via NPR's Goats and Soda.

Here's a look at those new World Bank poverty lines, via NPR's Goats and Soda.

Week of August 7, 2017

Editor's Note: It's the middle of August, so I thought it would be fun to change pace and have a faiV of just visualizations, graphics and videos. Or the most interesting things I saw this week all had visual elements.

The faiV will be off the next 2 weeks. See you in September.
 

1. The Global Middle Class: By now, Branko Milanovic's elephant chart should be quite familiar. Nancy Birdsall of CGD has a new post about the state of the global middle class that delves into the elephant chart and other data looking at the state of the middle class globally.

2. Global Inequality: Another chart that may be somewhat familiar but certainly should be top of mind these days. Our World in Data looks at inequality, from a lot of perspectives, here before and after taxes and benefits in developed countries.

3. US Inequality (and Debt): Speaking of inequality before and after redistribution, Catherine Rampell at the Washington Post has a couple of interesting recent posts on policy to help (or not) lower-income workers. The first chart here made lots of waves this week in a post by David Leonhardt, and provides the visceral oomph behind the need to reassess policy in the US. Although this data and similar charts have been circulating for quite awhile, it still thankfully grabs attention.

Whether or not the top chart is related to the bottom chart is one of the questions that Aspen's EPIC is taking on this year. Regardless of the direct connection between income inequality and rising debt, the fact that we are back to record levels of credit card debt seems concerning since it's likely not the .001 percent taking on this debt. That being said, rising debt could also be a sign that finally consumer confidence is returning and people feel that their incomes may start rising again.

Our Broken Economy, in One Simple Chart

Our Broken Economy, in One Simple Chart

U.S. Credit-Card Debt Surpasses Record Set at Brink of Crisis

U.S. Credit-Card Debt Surpasses Record Set at Brink of Crisis

4. Statistics GIFS: You can't say I don't know my audience--you guys go crazy for things like this, at least that's what the click data says. The two images at the top are from Rafael Irizarry at Simply Stats, in a post about teaching statistics and how to think about data. Helpfully, the post includes the code to recreate each of the images (and he's got a lot more where these came from).

This week there was also a revival of the Autodesk post about how visualizations can mislead that I featured a while back. It's here again because Jeff Mosenskis of IPA made an underappreciated awesome joke about also being wary of violin plots.

simpsons-paradox.gif

5. Low Quality Equilibria: I couldn't pass this one up when I saw it this week, given my recent rants. Who knew that removing frictions from sharing market information would make it impossible to ever tell if any product was good or not?

Week of July 17, 2017

Editor's Note: The faiV is brought to you this week by the Aspen Intitute's Financial Security Program EPIC team: Joanna Smith-Ramani, David Mitchell, Katherine McKay, and Katie Bryan. Their views, etc. though YouTube links are probably mine. Check out their work on income volatility and on consumer debt at aspenepic.org. I'll be back next week. 

1. Weaponized Data and American Inequality (Part 3): We learned a lot in reading the faiV’s summary and corresponding links detailing the minimum wage debate consuming economists across the country. While we haven’t reached our own conclusion about whether a $13 minimum wage in Seattle is or isn’t too high, we are following how some state legislatures across the country are actively rolling back minimum wages established by municipal governments. Example? St. Louis was dealt a big blow and the city has received a lot of press this summer.  


(ICYMI the debate, here and here are the two papers that offer opposing outcomes of Seattle’s minimum wage increase. If you don’t have time to read the papers, here’s a fun breakdown from Vice.)

2. Living for the City: CityLab profiled recent research on the intersection of urban development and economic inequality, making us think back to Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City.” Still relevant. And beautiful. A new study out of the University of Idaho looks at 639 urban counties in the US and the factors that determined when they felt the effects of the 2006-2010 recession. Rarely do we see the Gini coefficient being used in the context of domestic inequality – but we should use this metric more often. Consequently, we were really excited to see this interactive map of the Gini coefficients of counties across the US.

For more on cities, another CityLab piece looks at how housing policies worldwide will only exacerbate urban inequality and housing crises. And this story on how inefficient tax codes, high cost of living, and migration, by both companies and residents, are sending the state of Connecticut spiraling, makes us rethink how we view the fiscal policies of traditionally blue, wealthy states.


3. Income Volatility, Short-Term Savings, Retirement (Oh My): Over the last 18+ months, our team has conducted a deep dive on both the impact income volatility – large fluctuations in week-to-week and month-to-month income – has on US households and potential solutions for mitigating the problem. Our latest briefs look at the role wage insurance could play in helping families cope with job loss or reduced wages and how shortfall savings can serve as a buffer during financial emergencies.

Because we care about both short-term financial stability and long-term security, we also spend our days thinking about comprehensive policy solutions to help expand access to retirement savings opportunities. In our process learning about more about income volatility, we’ve realized it’s particularly hard to save for the long-term when short-term savings are lacking. This new paper looks at the effect income shocks have on retirement savings (the stats aren’t pretty: “96 percent of Americans experience four or more income shocks by the time they reach 70”), and *mark your calendars* later this fall, we’ll be publishing two papers on how volatility affects retirement savings. 

4. China, China, China:
Cash is king. Right? Hard currency has been with us for nearly three thousand years, after all. But maybe not for much longer. As one reporter details, visit urban China and you will likely, “have to deal with being locked out of China’s online payments infrastructure.” Sweden is also rapidly moving to a cashless economy. “Out of Sweden's 1,600 banks, 900 don’t do cash— you can’t deposit it or withdraw it.”

The advantages of going cashless? The claimed benefits tend to be 1) speed - for both consumers and banks, removing cash from transactions is faster 2) curbing illegal activity – Sweden saw a decrease in drug trafficking and illegal employment and 3) financial inclusion – this one needs to be fleshed out more, but we think and are hopeful that going cashless will require more people to open bank accounts, and the benefits of being “banked” are many.  That said, some are concerned that going cashless could undermine other financial inclusion efforts. We may be able to learn from how this plays out in India
, where recent moves toward becoming a cashless economy have disrupted many poor communities. 

5. Consumer Debt: EPIC’s new topic is consumer debt. Debt is back to pre-Recession levels, subprime auto lending is booming, and we have many many questions: how does income volatility impact people’s ability to manage their debt? And, will we pay off our student loans before our children apply to college? Maybe… if you’re one of thousands of distressed borrowers who learned this week that their private student loans may be forgiven. Because the investors who sued them are unable to prove ownership of nearly $5 billion in student loans. It’s like the foreclosure crisis all over again!

U.S. consumers now have a record $12.7 trillion in debt, leaving many wondering whether it’s time for concern. There’s no easy answer. Based on a new paper from UBS, Business Insider reports “The poorest Americans are suddenly worried about repaying their debts.” We don’t know about that “suddenly” part, but you can’t judge a story by its headline, and those making less than $40,000 are increasingly concerned.

Do you know what it means? Source:  Zillow.com  via  The Basis Point  via  Ritholtz.com . Apparently none of them know what it means either. I feel like it must have something to do with the serial linking but that's probably wrong. I'm more confident it might have something to do with the record-low labor force participation rate, not charted here.

Do you know what it means? Source: Zillow.com via The Basis Point via Ritholtz.com. Apparently none of them know what it means either. I feel like it must have something to do with the serial linking but that's probably wrong. I'm more confident it might have something to do with the record-low labor force participation rate, not charted here.

Week of June 19, 2017

Not Invisible Edition

1. Indebtedness: A few weeks ago I mentioned the wave of agricultural loan waivers in a variety of Indian states, a pattern that has been repeated over decades (and not just in India; and perhaps I should say repeated over millennia) with all sorts of moral hazard implications for lenders and borrowers (here's Xavi Gine explaining the impact of the 2008 agricultural debt relief program). Shamika Ravi looks at data from the current round of farmer distress examining how poverty, indebtedness and political power interact since straightforward explanations don't hold up to scrutiny. 

2. Our Algorithmic Overlords (and some Data Viz): Sometimes it's helpful to take a step back and see where artificial intelligence is still struggling. Reassuringly while AI can negotiate it still produces aphorisms like: Death when it comes will have no sheep. But maybe that's a negotiating tactic? Meanwhile, apparently machine learning still struggles to tell the difference between labradoodles and fried chicken (I suppose that would be more frightening than funny to chickens and labradoodles).

And while not about algorithms, here's another one of those cool illustrations of how data visualization influences how we interpret data that are so popular.


3. American Inequality: One of the clear themes of recent research on poverty and inequality in the United States is the rise of month-to-month and year-to-year volatility of incomes, while real wages have stagnated. The safety net in the US, such as it is, is especially unable to deal with income volatility. Here's the story of a family in Texas with volatile income who has adopted a number of medically fragile children: because of the way the state administers Medicaid the family has to re-certify eligibility almost every month. While this is somewhat unusual, the language of the Senate Republicans healthcare/Medicaid legislation would enable states to require all recipients to re-certify eligibility monthly.

Meanwhile here's Cengiz, Dube, Lindner and Zipperer with a new look at the perpetual question of what raising minimum wages does to jobs, finding little evidence for job losses or labor substitution. And here's a piece from HBR on the household effects of unstable work.

4. Entrepreneurship: The nature of modern American inequality makes me think that American policy analysts need to spend more time looking at middle income countries like Mexico and Brazil than at Germany or Denmark. There's less business competition, less mobility and more wealth and income inequality--that all seems descriptive of a developing economy not a developed one. A big factor is the emerging American "missing middle" of firms. Historically there have been more new employer firms starting and growing than there are today, and those firms accounted for a great deal of new, stable, middle income and mobility producing jobs. Here's a piece looking at the shift in American entrepreneurship toward the kind of rent-seeking businesses that have long been faulted for slow development in middle income countries.


5. Data, Knowledge and Wisdom: This week (I think) the Kenyan government launched a new effort to help borrowers make better decisions about credit by making it more clear what the relative costs of various sources of credit are. Definitely an effort to keep an eye on. Here's an experiment comparing data-based credit scores versus loan officers' judgment finding credit scores reject slightly more applicants but provides a net benefit to the bank through lower costs of lending. And here's a study of Ethiopian job fairs finding large gaps in knowledge among job seekers and hiring firms about wages, job requirements and quality of candidates. Meanwhile in the US a youth summer employment program does well at placing kids in jobs, but little for long-term outcomes.

A photo of a protestor against current proposed legislation to radically cut Medicaid, the US government program to provide healthcare services for the poor and disabled, being arrested. This is what I meant by "Not Invisible." May class action still get the goods.

A photo of a protestor against current proposed legislation to radically cut Medicaid, the US government program to provide healthcare services for the poor and disabled, being arrested. This is what I meant by "Not Invisible." May class action still get the goods.

Week of December 5, 2016

Samaritans, Eugenics, Poverty Traps and Poverty Escapes!

1. Poverty Traps: Every year the Development Impact blog selects a few interesting job market papers and invites the authors to blog the papers (you have to believe that there is some randomization going on in the background and at some point David McKenzie et al. are going to publish something about the causal impact on citations and job offers). The most interesting to me so far this year is a paper by Arun Advani attempting to explain why, given that there's lots of inter-household lending in poor communities, and at least some opportunities for productive investment, so little informal lending seems to flow into productive investments and households stay poor.

Using theory and data from one of the Targeting the Ultra-Poor studies, Advani shows how lenders can be reluctant to help their peers make profitable investments because success will weaken the bonds that keep them in mutual support relationships. It's a useful lens to think about the limitations of informal finance and where the relative advantage of formal financial services may lie.


2. Pro-Poor Digital Finance: Last week, I posited this topic as a question. This week, in strong contrast to the piece I linked about Safaircom preying on poor women, a new paper from Tavneet Suri and Billy Jack argues that access to mPesa moved 194,000 households in Kenya above the $1.25 poverty line. They write, "Thus, although mobile phone use correlates well with economic development, mobile money causes it," which seems to me to be a remarkably strong causal claim. Meanwhile, the UNCDF has published the first in a series of toolkits for financial services providers hoping to develop pro-poor digital finance. And the Aspen Institute's Financial Services Program has launched the Non-Profit Leaders in Financial Technology (nLIFT) group to link groups working on pro-poor digital finance in the United States.

3. Agricultural FinanceAgricultural finance is hard and it always has been (see David Graeber's Debt for an intro to agricultural finance debt crises in ancient Mesopotamia). So it's not surprising how little use of formal or informal agricultural credit there is in sub-Saharan Africa despite the spread of microfinance and increasing use of modern inputs. This new paper finds that the only form of "credit" in wide use is output-labor arrangements, which fits nicely with the poverty trap model in Bangladesh noted above. Agricultural finance isn't all about credit--insurance is a big issue too. Here's a new paper looking at the "Samaritan's Dilemma" (moral hazard arising from the expectation of a bail-out by private charity or public aid) in agricultural insurance markets in the US which finds the dilemma exists and leads to farmers underinvesting in insurance and inputs. Like I said, agricultural finance is hard.

4. Social Investing: Last week I highlighted the case for social investment in microcredit. How will I know if the paper makes any difference? Well, there are a couple of new surveys trying to bring a bit more regular measurement to the social investing space: one from GIIN and the other called Toniic. Yes, really. Of course, the amount of investing and the returns they are reporting should generate a great deal of skepticism that we've nailed the measurement of social investment activity.


5. Slavery, Eugenics and Economics: Economic historians and historian historians are having a running battle about how to understand the economics of slavery in the American South and it's relation to industrial development and capitalism. I have a sneaking suspicion which side most of my readers will gravitate to, especially after reading the historians' takes on counterfactuals. Speaking of economic history, here's the "take your breath away" story of the beliefs of the founders' of the American Economic Association. As Justin Wolfers notes, perhaps it's time to change the name of the Ely Lecture (to be given this year by Esther Duflo).

--------------------
You didn't really think I was going to skip over David Roodman's adjudication of the Worm Wars? Or the new look at wage stagnation in the US? Or the big new Raj Chetty look at economic mobility? Of course I wouldn't--but I am assuming that you already have an open tab for each of those. Whether or not you click on these links will tell me whether I need to keep such high profile things in the first 5 (or 10) links.

There is some good news on the income front--from Pew, data on household incomes finally climbing after years of stagnation, especially for Hispanic households. Source:  Pew

There is some good news on the income front--from Pew, data on household incomes finally climbing after years of stagnation, especially for Hispanic households. Source: Pew

Week of October 3, 2016

1. The End of Cash?: Ken Rogoff has a new(ish) book arguing for the end of paper currency. In the New Yorker, Nathan Heller explores Stockholm, one of the most cashless cities on the planet. The move away from cash in Sweden was strongly influenced by high profile robberies of cash depots, making the insecurity and anonymity (for criminals) of cash much more salient. In Heller's piece, there are a few references to issues of privacy, regulation and insecurity of digital tools, but surprisingly little reference to digital payments in less developed countries, or issues in countries where government is less trusted and less trustworthy than Sweden.

2. Cashless in the USA: The US is a very long way away from cashlessness, but one of the primary mechanisms for movement in that direction is prepaid cards. In the last decade they have become increasingly popular alternatives to bank accounts, and as a mechanism for delivering government benefits like food stamps and unemployment and pay to workers without accounts. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has released new regulations for prepaid cards to increase consumer protections and bring prepaid cards more in line with credit cards. The regulations include limited liability for lost or stolen cards and new requirements that cards that allow overdrafts have to evaluate customers' ability to repay.

3. Cashless Benefits and Financial InclusionWhile the federal and state governments use prepaid cards to deliver benefits in the US, even to people with bank accounts, there has been a lot of advocacy for making "government-to-person" or G2P payments digitally in other countries to drive financial inclusion. At Next Billiion, Beth Rhyne and Sonja Kelly of CFI, write that G2P as a mechanism for inclusion just isn't working, citing recent work by Guy Stuart in Colombia and Pakistan. The type of "inclusion" that G2P enables doesn't do much for poor households, in part because the banks still have little interest in serving low-income account holders.

Of course, this is a problem not just with G2P as a means to inclusion, but with inclusion itself as a goal. More than 90% of US households are "included" if you define that as having a bank account, but it's tough to argue that lower-income consumers in the US are getting what they need from financial services. I'm often surprised there isn't more attention paid to the US financial services market as a picture, and a warning, of what is to come in the near future for middle-income countries when it comes to financial access and quality services for lower-income households.

Meanwhile, in the world of G2P, Arvind Subramanian, the chief economic advisor to the Indian government, is making an argument for basic income in India.

4. The (Cashless?) Future of Microfinance: In a new paper, and a summary piece in Harvard Business Review, researchers and Karlan, Pande, Suri and Zinman, with Rebecca Mann from the Gates Foundation and Jake Kendall from Caribou Digital, lay out a vision for the future of microfinance, emphasizing the need to return to the underlying market failures--asymmetric information, high transaction costs, barriers to entry--to chart a course for more effective delivery of financial services to poor households. They highlight the potential for digital tools to overcome some of those market failures.

5. Profits Matter: Whether they are counted in paper or digital currency, profits (or the lack thereof) matter for businesses, be they banks serving low-income customers or small businesses in South Africa. That's the subject of a new paper from Anderson, Chandy and Zia based on a trial of marketing versus finance training. They find that both approaches can lead to higher profits through different channels. Marketing training is more useful to younger and narrower businesses by helping them grow, while finance training is more helpful to more established businesses by helping them trim costs. The fact that profits can be increased is perhaps the most surprising finding of all, given the mixed evidence on other efforts in business training.

A new MicroSave report looks at  various models for cross-border remittances  in Indonesia.   Source: MicroSave

A new MicroSave report looks at various models for cross-border remittances in Indonesia. Source: MicroSave

Week of September 26, 2016

1. Jobs! Jobs! Jobs!: For quite a few years now, my mental model has been that most poor households are "frustrated employees, not frustrated entrepreneurs." In other words, most people aren't held back from their entrepreneurial dreams by lack of access to credit, but they are held back in their dreams of having a job by the lack of jobs. That view is tied heavily to the fact that most microenterprises don't grow at least in part because the owners don't appear to be trying to grow them. This week Chris Blattman and Stefan Dercon released a new working paper about an experiment in Ethiopia where they were able to compare factory jobs to grants for self-employment. They find, among many other details, that those who randomly receive factory employment leave the jobs quickly and those who receive grants for self-employment tended to stay in self-employment and out of the industrial sector. There is a lot going on in this paper so it requires careful reading and some thinking, but it will definitely alter at least my confidence level in my priors.

But the discussion of the new Blattman and Dercon paper revived my memory (hat tips to Rachel Glennerster and Asif Dowla) of this Heath and Mobarak paper on the positive impact of factory work in Bangladesh so there's multiple updating going on for me this week.

I discuss this experiment with Chris Blattman a good bit in my upcoming book--it will be available on January 2nd, 2017. Sign up here to get notified when it's available for order.


2. But Wait, There's More Jobs! Jobs! Jobs!: Karthik Muralidharan and Paul Niehaus have a new paper based off of one of the world's largest RCTs, the roll-out of the new and improved NREGA guaranteed work scheme in India. They find that the program raised incomes of poor households dramatically, but that most of the gains comes from pushing up private sector wage rates, not from income from the program itself. Jonathan Morduch notes that the jump in wages was a factor in the ultra-poor program he studied in Andhra Pradesh not having much impact (many participants left the program to take jobs).

The Muralidharan and Niehaus paper also brings to mind this earlier paper from Breza and Kinnan looking at something similar--how the availability or unavailability of microcredit in India to fund self-employment had generalized effects by altering wage rates. That paper is one of the reasons I believe in the "frustrated employees, not frustrated entrepreneurs" thesis, so now my brain hurts.

3. Even more on Jobs and Wage RatesThe New York Times has a new "Room for Debate" with several perspectives on whether the rising minimum wage in the US is raising incomes and how much of a role minimum wage hikes had in the reduction in poverty reported in the latest census report.

4. FinTech and Intrahousehold Bargaining: Simple, a US FinTech company announced this week a new product that tackles the age-old problem of intrahousehold bargaining head on: a hybrid shared account. In the new Simple account, two people have separate accounts, but each can see the other's activity and they can mutually contribute to and track shared goals (like savings). It's an interesting product for a variety of situations beyond traditional romantic partnerships like parent/child or child/parent in situations of aging parents, or in situations where disability requires something less than complete guardianship. I really hope someone is doing something randomized on this to test effects.
In other US FinTech news, D2D Fund has changed it's name to Commonwealth and EARN has a new version of its Starter Savings Program.


5. And Now For Something Completely Different: Some non-financial but definitely interesting and thought-provoking things from this week: Maria Konnikova has a lengthy article pushing back on the "practice makes perfect" conventional wisdom, and particularly the 10,000 hours hypothesis. Tyler Cowen "doesn't believe in progress, and he wishes you didn't either."  Duncan Green on "Why is it so hard for academics and NGOs to work together?" NYU Law has launched what it says is the first center on law and social entrepreneurship at a law school. Cass Sunstein on "the real reasons so many Americans oppose immigration reform." Having five things in the fifth point of the faiV just seemed right.

Masquerading as a video, here's Paul Niehaus talking about the logistics of GiveDirectly and delivering cash transfers.

Masquerading as a video, here's Paul Niehaus talking about the logistics of GiveDirectly and delivering cash transfers.

Week of July 25, 2016

1. Financial Institution Behavior, Part I: Xavi Gine and Rafe Mazer pull together audit studies of banks conducted in Ghana, Mexico and Peru. You will be shocked, shocked to discover gambling--I mean, failure to disclose true product costs or best-fit and cheapest products--in these establishments.

2. Financial Institution Behavior, Part II:
The recovery in home prices in the United States since the housing bubble has left one part of the market untouched: homes with values below $100,000. Banks won't originate loans for mortgages of this size because the fees they can charge are capped below profitable levels, so owners can't refinance or sell. There is a non-profit turned hedge fund that's taking on this market though.

3. Financial Institution Behavior, Part III: OK, so they're not financial institutions, but debt collectors are part of the financial infrastructure. And they've behaved so badly--harassing debtors, pursuing people who don't actually owe the debt, etc.--that they generate more complaints to the CFPB than even payday lenders or frauds. So the CFPB is drafting new rules to govern debt collection

4. Hope, Aspirations and Poverty: Travis Lybbert and Bruce Wydick have a new paper providing a framework for empirical and experimental work on the role of hope and aspirations in development interventions. They have some preliminary tests of what happens when a microfinance institution tries to raise hope and aspirations of clients. Hey, this one's about financial institution behavior too!     

5. Research and Fear: Barbara Magnoni wonders about the ways researchers and product designers and testers convene focus groups and conduct research, and suggests the need for more guidelines on how to convene people respectfully, recognizing power dynamics and cultural context--and not scare them. Whaddaya know, turns out this is about financial institution behavior too.

Speaking of hope, here's a video of Esther Duflo's talk on hope and aspirations (from 2013) at the Stanford Center for Ethics in Society.

Week of June 13, 2016

1. State of Economics Laureates: Video from the World Bank's "State of Economics, State of the World" conference is now available. Here's Ken Arrow on equilibrium and welfare, Amartya Sen on social choice, and Joe Stiglitz on information economics. And here's Clark laureate Esther Duflo on the influence RCTs are having on the world. Bonus: blog post from David McKenzie based on his comments on Duflo's presentation examining whether RCTs have taken over development economics. Oh, and the rest of the talks are here.   

2. Mobile Money: An in-depth discussion of why little progress has been made on merchant acceptance of mobile money/digital payments and what to do about it. And here's a pretty thorough debunking of the long-lived "fishermen use mobile phones to get market prices" story that helped jumpstart enthusiasm for mobile phones as a poverty-fighting tool.  

3. The Way We Bank Now (in the US): Starbucks is a bank (or a prepaid card company) that happens to serve coffee.
Meanwhile, the actual banks are earning more from overdraft fees again. The preference for storing money with Starbucks is starting to make more sense.      

4. Client Protection: MFIN, the Indian microfinance industry association, in collaboration with the Smart Campaign, has created a standardized process for its members to address client grievances. It has "17 performance standards bucketed into 9 categories." Given how little microfinance clients typically know about how to complain, I'm not sure 17 standards are the best approach.  

5. A Syndicate of Laureates: Angus Deaton thinks that we're not paying enough attention to the negative effects of globalization on poor households in rich countries. Edmund Phelps suggests that one way to help those folks is job subsidies. In case that was too subtle those are both links from Project Syndicate.

A bonus video, better filmed, of Esther Duflo  speaking at the RES Conference

A bonus video, better filmed, of Esther Duflo speaking at the RES Conference

Week of October 19, 2015

1. Microcredit in India: A recent review of the Indian microfinance space found MFIs are increasingly serving urban customers, albeit with better assets, at the expense of those in rural communities. Livemint

2. Incarceration and Poverty: We've discussed how the bail process is leading to increasingly high incarceration rates for the poor.  But once in jail, those with child support obligations are hit with an even bigger debt burden, complicating their financial situations after they serve their sentences. The Washington Post

3. Credit Scoring: In life imitating
Nineteen Eighty-Four news, China announced plans to create a mandatory "credit score" for all citizens by 2020.  The score will link to national ID cards and incorporate data from social networks as well as a metric for "political compliance." CFI

4. Impact Investing:  A new report provides an in-depth analysis of the U.S. community investment landscape, outlining major types of products, the parameters used by investors to evaluate opportunities in the space, and the barriers to and opportunities for increasing investment. Global Impact Investing Network

5. Upward Economic Mobility: "In a presidential campaign where candidates from both parties are blaming globalization for a shrinking middle class, a 36-year-old India-born economist has a different explanation: Bad neighborhoods and bad teachers rob poor children of the chance to climb into the middle class." The Wall Street Journal

Week of September 14, 2015

1. International Labor Mobility: FAI affiliate Michael Clemens discusses one of “the most effective development policies evaluated to date” and why it’s being ignored by major aid agencies. The Huffington Post

2. Small-Dollar Credit: Nick Bourke of The Pew Charitable Trusts suggests tweaks to the CFPB's proposed small dollar credit regulations that will allow banks to compete with payday lenders with better options for borrowers (hopefully). American Banker

3. Poverty Alleviation: "All programs have room to improve. 'Pro-poor' programs actually strive to improve toward greater effectiveness. Transparency and accountability are not just about separating wheat from chaff; they are about improving.” NextBillion

4. Microcredit in India: The Reserve Bank of India recently issued small finance bank licenses to eight MFIs, signaling a "resurrection" in what was once one of the world's most troubled markets. Livemint

5. Labor Markets: Currently, 53 million Americans are in the "1099 workforce" (part-time workers, contractors, freelancers, etc.) and that number is growing.  A new report outlines the benefits and financial challenges workers face when they operate outside traditional employment models. (Also - best report title EVER.) Core Innovation Capital

Week of July 20, 2015

1. Transfers and Subsidies: India's plan to provide subsidies electronically through bank accounts, biometric ID cards, mobile transfers (also know as JAM) can reduce leakage and increase efficiency but what are its limitations? Does it really have the potential to be "the holy grail of efficient and equitable welfare policy?" The New York Times

2. Evidence-Based Policy: The study of deworming pills that launched the RCT movement in development has come into question. But there are a lot of questionsabout the questions.

3. Credit: For rural farmers in India, increasing productivity often means purchasing expensive equipment with a loan, which may be difficult to obtain without collateral or a credit history.  Could a financing model based on demand aggregation delivered through a local cooperative/bank partnership help? NextBillion

4. Poverty in the US: A new report shows child poverty in the US is worse now than it was before the Great Recession, especially for African-American and Native American children, despite strides toward economic recovery. PBS Newshour

5. Mobile Money: Mobile money penetration and growth varies dramatically from country to country. In both Indonesia and South Africa, regulatory complexities contribute to the sluggish adoption rates for digital financial products. The Wall Street Journal  and TechCentral

Week of July 6, 2015

1. Transfers: Cash transfers are a more common form of benefits for the world's poor than you might think. In fact, Sub-Saharan Africa is the only region where food and other in-kind transfers are more prevalent than cash transfer programs. The World Bank

2. Global Poverty: Between 2001 and 2011, the global middle-income population (those living on $10-$20 per day) almost doubled while those living on less than $2 per day halved from 29% to 15%. However, the poor just became slightly less poor as the portion of people living on $2-$10 increased 6 percentage points during this time while high income categories barely changed. Pew Research Center

3. Digital Literacy: A new report finds many women rely heavily on their social circles for instruction and trouble-shooting when it comes to accessing mobile internet, an important finding for mobile money and digital content providers. GSMA

4. Microcredit: Interest rate ceilings are in place to protect poor customers from excessively costly loans. But how much do they push riskier customers out of credit markets in the first place? Macrothink Institute

5. SME Financing: Since 2008, the outstanding portfolio of online lenders in the US has grown about 175% a year (compared to a 3% decline in the traditional banking sector). But more does not always equal better - what does this explosive growth mean for borrowers, particularly small businesses? The Huffington Post