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The Wisdom of the Group: How Lessons from Savings Groups Can Guide Financial Product Innovation

Budgeting can be a daunting task for the poor. Poor families must stretch low, often-volatile income to meet basic consumption needs, and handle un- foreseen expenses. Despite these challeng- es, the poor are able to save. They often
do so in small amounts for short periods of time, adding to and spending down savings frequently. But short-term saving seldom results in long-term assets—it is not a tool for building up larger sums . . . 

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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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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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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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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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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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Creating Better Portfolios: Core Financial Products for the Poor

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Portfolios of the Poor: How the World’s Poor Live on $2 a Day examines the basic question of how the world’s poorest households survive on such modest incomes. The authors report on yearlong "financial diaries" of villagers and slum dwellers in Bangladesh, India, and South Africa-surveys that track penny by penny how households manage their money (see Research Methodologies Briefing Note). The stories of these families are often surprising and sometimes inspiring. Most poor households do not live hand to mouth, spending what they earn in a desperate bid to keep afloat. Instead, they rely upon an array of complex tools, and lead active financial lives because they are poor, not in spite of it. They create “portfolios” that leverage both informal networks and formal institutions to address their immediate and long-term needs. 

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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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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 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.