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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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.