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Exploring the Business Models Behind Microsavings

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The financial and business models for collecting savings by microfinance institutions have been relatively little explored in literature. This paper seeks to fill the gap by evaluating deposit-taking MFIs that rely on two primary types of savings: those that emphasize raising funding (through large deposit accounts) and those that emphasize service (through small deposit accounts). The findings suggest that geographic location, level of economic development, and regulatory environment all play an important role in dictating the types of models that are likely to be adopted. Different models also have substantially different funding and operating costs. Finally, net outreach levels in terms of number of savers served appear to be little affected by choice of model, though in many cases outreach may be skewed by widespread presence of empty accounts, which overstate the number of active depositors, and understate the average account balance.

 

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Big Questions in Savings

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It would appear self-evident that poor families are unable to save. If these households are barely making ends meet, they must be so preoccupied with covering immediate needs that thinking about the future is a luxury. However, this proves not to be the case. Most poor households, even those earning less than $2 a day per person, have disposable income (Banerjee and Duflo, 2007).1 And yet, demand for and use of formal and informal savings products falls far below what theory would predict.

In this briefing note, we explore the benefits and risks for saving, the issue of profitability for making savings products available to the poor, how people are saving, and new innovations that can facilitate great access to savings tools.

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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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Savings Outside of Groups

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Savings groups are a popular and effective way of helping poor households increase their savings. But is there a way to incorporate the mechanisms that make them effective outside of the group in savings products in general?

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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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Account penetration is high in wealthy countries, but there is great variation in account penetration among lower income countries

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A formal bank account provides a secure way to save, and is the gate- way to accessing many other financial services that can help individuals manage their financial lives. While a formal account is taken for granted as a necessity by many people in high income countries, account access varies widely for their low income counterparts. 

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Across low income countries, there is great variation in formal account penetration

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Although there is an overall positive relationship between GDP per capita and rates of account holding among coun- tries in the sample, differences of twenty percentage points or more are not uncommon be- tween countries with similar income levels. For example, over 40% of residents of Kenya have a formal account while less than 10% of Benin’s residents 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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Turning Interest Into Savings

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Low-income households are often trapped in a "debt-cycle": They borrow to cover necessary expenses, repay the loan with their subsequent income, then borrow again because they have nothing remaining after repayment. Inconsistent income and seasonality, especially for farmers, makes borrowing attractive at the time of necessity.

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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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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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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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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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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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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.