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

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

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Unequal Access

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Around the world, only about half of adults (aged fifteen and older) have access to an account with a formal financial institution. In low income countries, less than a quarter do. 

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10 Research Questions

High quality evidence on the state of financial access around the world is advancing rapidly, as the chapters of this book illustrate. A happy consequence of increasing knowledge is the ability to better recognize what we don’t yet know. Here are ten questions, some micro, some macro, that need answers if we are to make informed decisions on how to improve financial access. 

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Why Finance Matters

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Roughly half the adults in the world, about 2.5 billion people, have no bank account nor even access to a ―semi-formal‖ financial service like microcredit. But what if they did? Muhammad Yunus, the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize winner and founder of Bangladesh’s Grameen Bank, argues that this lack of financial access means that the poor, especially poor women, can’t obtain the tiny loans (known as microcredit) that they need to build their businesses and get on a path out of poverty. The idea has taken hold: in 2009 Grameen Bank served 8 million customers (the average loan balance was just $127). World-wide, microcredit advocates claim over 190 million customers. 

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Microfinance and Social Investment

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

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Borrowing to Save: Perspectives from Portfolios of the Poor

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

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Selective Knowledge: Reporting Bias in Microfinance Data

Answering surveys is usually voluntary, yet much of our knowledge about microfinance depends on the willingness of households and institutions to respond to survey questions. In this study, Financial Access Initiative Managing Director Jonathan Morduch and Jonathan Bauchet explore the implications of voluntary reporting on knowledge about the performance of microfinance institutions, specifically focusing on the MixMarket and Microcredit Summit Campaign databases. They show patterns of systematic biases in microfinance institutions’ choices about which survey to respond to and which specific indicators to report. These patterns in turn affect analyses of key questions on trade-offs between financial and social goals in microfinance. The results highlight the conditional nature of our knowledge and the value of supporting social reporting. 

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Take-up: Why Microfinance Take-up Rates Are Low & Why It Matters

If you listen to the strongest pitches for microfinance, you would imagine that everyone offered microfinance would leap at the chance to be a customer. Yet this is not so. Evidence shows that it’s usual that under half of eligible households participate in microfinance. Moneylenders are still in business, and many individuals in develop- ing countries still rely primarily on family and friends to meet their needs for money. This is not necessarily a bad thing: informal sources of credit provide a useful way to finance profitable investments or respond to life events. But it shows that the demand for existing microfinance institutions and products can’t be taken for granted.

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Reimagining the Unbanked: Perspectives from South Africa

Attempts to broaden financial access in poor communities usually take one of two directions. The first is providing credit to small- scale microenterprises, an idea pioneered by Bangladesh’s Grameen Bank. The second involves fostering long-term saving for education, housing, or other worthy goals. But low-income families usually have a more fundamental financial need, one that families often pay dearly for: basic, reliable ways to manage cash flow. 

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La mitad del mundo no tiene servicios financieros

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Durante el último cuarto de siglo, el movimiento de las microfinanzas ha llevado a una expansión global de servicios financieros para los pobres del mundo. La Campaña de la Cumbre de Microcrédito, un grupo de defensa líder, contó 154 millones clientes en todo el mundo a finales de 2008. Eso es impresionante, pero es sólo un comienzo en relación con la demanda insatisfecha. Los expertos coinciden en que la demanda insatisfecha de financiación es grande, pero el número exacto (o incluso un número aproximado, pero creíble) ha sido difícil de precisar, con estimaciones que van desde quinientos millones de personas a tres mil millones. 

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Microfinance Tradeoffs: Regulation, Competition, and Financing

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

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Does Microfinance Regulation Curtail Profitability and Outreach?

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

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Microfinance Meets the Market

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

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The Unbanked: Evidence from Indonesia

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