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Big Questions in Credit

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“Does microcredit work?” It’s a question we hear a lot. But the answer depends on what the question really is. Does microcredit slash poverty? (Not clearly.) Does microcredit increase micro-enterprise profit? (Some of the time, but capital often gets channeled to other uses and not everyone is a great entrepreneur.) Does microcredit improve the lives of borrowers? (Yes it can, but seldom dramatically and sometimes microcredit can get borrowers into trouble.) Rather than being a single tool used to solve a single problem (like funding a business), microcredit is often one among a set of tools, whose usefulness as a set may be fundamental but whose individual impact is often incremental and thinly spread. 

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Responsible Consumer Lending

Early pioneers of the microfinance movement touted it as a vehicle to promote entrepreneurship and subsequently provide a pathway for poverty alleviation. However, financial diaries research such as that published in Portfolios of the Poor, shows us that microloans have multiple purposes beyond spurring small‐scale enterprises. The poor have myriad expenses beyond their business endeavors such as health care costs, school fees, housing repairs, and unexpected emergencies. Consumer lending is one possible tool to help the poor cope with their (often unpredictable) consumption financing needs. However, it may not be the appropriate solution in all instances and also carries the risk of encouraging over‐ indebtedness and financing for “bad” consumption, such as to buy aspirational material goods. 

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Impact of Microcredit on the Poor in Bangladesh

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We replicate and reanalyse the most influential study of microcredit impacts (Pitt and Khandker, 1998). That study was celebrated for showing that microcredit reduces poverty, a much hoped-for possibility (though one not confirmed by recent randomized controlled trials). We show that the original results on poverty reduction disappear after dropping outliers, or when using a robust linear estimator. Using a new program for estimation of mixed process maximum likelihood models, we show how assumptions critical for the original analysis, such as error normality, are contradicted by the data. We conclude that questions about impact cannot be answered in these data. 

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How Microfinance Really Works

About half of the world’s adults lack bank accounts. Most of these “unbanked” are deemed too expensive to serve, or not worth the hassle created by banking regulations. But what may be good business from a banker’s perspective isn’t necessarily what’s best for society. The inequalities that persist in financial access reinforce broader inequalities in the distribution of income and wealth. This is the opening for microfinance – and also its challenge. 

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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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Latest Findings from Randomized Evaluations of Microfinance

In 2009, the results from two microcredit impact studies in Hyderabad, India, and Manila, the Philippines were released to mixed responses (Banerjee, Duflo, Glennerster, and Kinnan 2010; Karlan and Zinman 2011). Some media declared microfinance a failure (Bennett 2009). Many in the microfinance community dismissed these randomized studies as too limited to be a true reflection of the entire sector . . . 

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Is Micro Too Small? Microcredit vs. SME Finance

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The original promise of microcredit was to reduce poverty by fostering self-employment in low-income communities, an idea first promoted at mass scale in Bangladesh (Yunus 1999). But critics of Muhammad Yunus and the Bangladesh microcredit model argue that supporting larger businesses (small and medium enterprises or SMEs) may instead create more and better jobs for poor individuals (e.g., Karnani 2007, Dichter 2006). That’s only possible, however, if those larger enterprises employ poor workers in large numbers. We argue that that can’t be assumed. 

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From Credit to Savings

When the Gates Foundation started a programme to expand global ‘financial services for the poor’ (FSP), many in the field, myself included, saw this as an important complement to the foundation’s work in health and education.1 The evidence is piling up that the world’s poor face the twin problems of low incomes and difficulty managing their incomes without bank accounts or insurance. Finance, in this view, allows people to invest in the future and – importantly – to marshal resources to meet needs today. Access to finance, then, is a key tool for improving the lives of the poor. The Gates Foundation’s impact on finance for the poor has been most strongly felt in re-balancing attention between credit and savings. 

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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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Do Interest Rates Matter? Credit Demand in the Dhaka Slums

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"Best practice" in microfinance holds that interest rates should be set at profit-making levels, based on the belief that even poor customers favor access to finance over low fees. Despite this core belief, little direct evidence exists on the price elasticity of credit demand in poor communities. We examine increases in the interest rate on microfinance loans in the slums of Dhaka, Bangladesh. Using unanticipated between-branch variation in prices, we estimate interest elasticities from -0.73 to -1.04, with our preferred estimate being at the upper end of this range. Interest income earned from most borrowers fell, but interest income earned from the largest customers increased, generating overall profitability at the branch level. 

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Credit is Not a Right

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The notion of “credit as a human right” flows from the argument that if we are concerned with universal access to food, shelter, and health, then we must be committed to providing access to the tools that are most likely to deliver those basic elements of life. For the sake of argument (and there is, of course, argument), we will follow Article 25(1) of the Universal Declara- tion of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in December 1948, and begin with the idea that access to food, shelter, and health constitute basic human rights. Yunus can then be interpreted as saying: access to credit is so powerful in reducing poverty, that access to credit should be a right itself. 

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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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Emergency (Hand) Loan

Emergencies can derail families and prevent them from getting ahead. This study describes the design, implementation, and results of a pilot emergency (“hand”) loan product in India. The product achieved its original intent, but the pilot encountered considerable institutional and execution challenges. The experience generated lessons for future product innovation. 

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Behavioral Foundations of Microcredit: Experimental and Survey Evidence From Rural India

We use experimental measures of time discounting and risk aversion for villagers in south India to highlight behavioral features of microcredit, a financial tool designed to reduce poverty and fix credit market imperfections. The evidence suggests that microcredit contracts may do more than reduce moral hazard and adverse selection by imposing new forms of discipline on borrowers. We find that, conditional on borrowing from any source, women with present-biased preferences are more likely than others to borrow through microcredit institutions. Another particular contribution of microcredit may thus be to provide helpful structure for borrowers seeking self-discipline. 

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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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Microfinance Games

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Microfinance banks use group-based lending contracts to strengthen borrowers’ incentives for diligence, but the contracts are vulnerable to free-riding and collusion. We systematically unpack microfinance mechanisms through ten experimental games played in an experi- mental economics laboratory in urban Peru. Risk-taking broadly conforms to theoretical predictions, with dynamic incentives strongly reducing risk-taking even without group-based mechanisms. Group lending increases risk-taking, especially for risk-averse borrowers, but this is moderated when borrowers form their own groups. Group contracts benefit borrowers by creating implicit insurance against investment losses, but the costs are borne by other borrowers, espe- cially the most risk averse. 

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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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Grameen II and Portfolios of the Poor

The Grameen Bank of Bangladesh is the best-known and most widely imitated microfinance pioneer. But Grameen found itself in trouble in the late 1990s as the quality of its loan portfolio began to decline sharply, and a devastating flood further eroded loan repayments. It responded by adopting a new model in 2001, dubbed Grameen II. Grameen II was designed to be more flexible than the original model: aligning repayment schedules with household income flow, meeting the demand for secure and reliable savings products, and acknowledging the varied needs of clients. These new features were a shift from beliefs underpinning the original Grameen model, which emphasized the need for loans over savings, expectations that loans would be used only for micro-entrepreneurial investment, and the necessity of a strict repayment regiment. The research in Portfolios of the Poor includes sets of financial diaries collected from Grameen clients both before and after these changes, from 1999-2005. 

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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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Access to Finance: Chapter 2, Handbook of Development Economics, Volume 5

Expanding access to financial services holds the promise to help reduce poverty and spur economic development. But, as a practical matter, commercial banks have faced challenges expanding access to poor and low-income households in developing economies, and nonprofits have had limited reach. We review recent innovations that are improving the quantity and quality of financial access. They are taking possibilities well beyond early models centered on providing “microcredit” for small business investment. We focus on new credit mechanisms and devices that help households manage cash flows, save, and cope with risk. Our eye is on contract designs, product innovations, regulatory policy, and ultimately economic and social impacts. We relate the innovations and empirical evidence to theoretical ideas, drawing links in particular to new work in behavioral economics and to randomized evaluation methods. 

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The Impact of Microcredit on the Poor in Bangladesh: Revisiting the Evidence, Brief

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Microcredit is commonly credited with reducing poverty, empowering women, and delivering other important impacts, particularly to extremely poor house- holds. Rhetoric, however, has outpaced evidence. Empirical studies are scarce, and existing ones have been influential despite a lack of thorough scrutiny. In this paper, David Roodman and FAI managing director Jonathan Morduch attempt to replicate the two most-noted studies on the impact of microcredit, both based on survey data from Bangladesh collected in the 1990s. Pitt and Khandker (PK, 1998) find that microcredit raises household consumption, especially when lent to women. Khandker (2005) concurs and goes further to say that microcredit has more of an impact on the extremely poor than on the moderately poor. Morduch (1998) finds no evidence for impact on consumption levels, but does find that microcredit. decreases the volatility of consumption. This paper shows that the evidence for impact is weak in all of these studies. But, significantly, it doesn’t find that microcredit causes harm, and it doesn’t prove that the impacts commonly attributed to microcredit—like reducing poverty and empowering women—do not exist. Rather, this paper shows that it’s hard to draw much from these data—and that better answers will need to come from other data sets using other methods. 

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Does Regulatory Supervision Curtail Microfinance Profitability and Outreach?

For microfinance institutions, particularly those aiming to take deposits, an advantage of regulation is that it allows semi-formal institutions to evolve more fully into banks. But complying with regulation and supervision can be costly, creating potential trade-offs. World Bank researchers Robert Cull and Asli Demirgüç-Kunt and FAI managing director Jonathan Morduch examined the balance between the benefits and costs of regulatory supervision, with a focus on institutions’ profitability and outreach to small-scale borrowers and women. The authors analyzed data on 245 of the world’s largest microfinance institutions, with newly-constructed data on their prudential supervision. Regression analysis showed that supervision does not have a significant impact on profitability: microfinance institutions subjected to more rigorous and regular super- vision are not less profitable compared to others. However, this type of supervision is associated with larger average loan sizes and less lending to women, suggesting that it does have a significant impact on outreach. 

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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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From Microfinance to m-Finance

In some countries it can take years to get a new telephone line installed. In 1990, there were just 10 telephone lines installed for every 1000 people in the Philippines. In Kenya, the ratio was 7 per thousand. In India, 6 per thousand. Compare that with the United Kingdom with 441 lines per thousand in 1990, or the United States with 545. For decades, public sector telephone companies in developing economies seldom had incentives or budgets to rapidly expand land line networks, and the private sector has had even less motivation to serve the costly-to-reach. 

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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. 

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Smart Subsidy for Sustainable Microfinance

“Smart subsidy” might seem like a contradiction in terms to many microfinance experts. Worries about the dangers of excessive subsidization have driven microfinance conversations since the movement first gained steam in the 1980s. From then on, the goal of serving the poor has been twinned with the goal of long-term financial self-sufficiency on the part of micro banks: aiming for profitability became part of what it means to practice good microfinance. 

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Income Smoothing and Consumption Smoothing

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Two observations are essential to understanding the market structure of most low-income economies.  First, many markets do not exist and, of those that do, many work imperfectly.  Second and more optimistically, a wealth of behavioral and institutional responses often emerge to fill in the holes left by market failures. . .