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Miriam Bruhn's blog

Can wage subsidies boost employment in the wake of an economic crisis?

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Unemployment often rises during an economic crisis and policymakers take a range of actions to try to mitigate this increase. For example, 22 countries around the world used some form of wage subsidy program to promote employment retention during the recent crisis. Many studies have looked at the effect of wage subsidies on employment in non-crisis times, with mixed findings. But, there is not much evidence on whether wage subsidies can raise employment in the wake of a crisis.

Conceptually, wage subsidies during a crisis may make sense since layoffs could slow down the recovery as re-hiring and training workers may be costly for firms. This is particularly true for workers with job-specific skills. For these workers, it may be beneficial for firms to not let them go in the first place. However, as firms face lower demand for their products, they may not have the financial means to keep paying these workers, particularly in the presence of credit constraints, which are often exacerbated during a crisis. This is where wage subsidies come in. But, ultimately, we just don’t know whether these subsidies really cause firms to retain workers they otherwise would not have retained.

Psychometrics as a tool to improve screening and access to credit

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Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) often face financial constraints because they lack audited statements and other information about their operations, and as a result, financial institutions have difficulties assessing the risk of lending to them. Studies have shown that information sharing, credit bureaus, and credit scoring can increasing credit to SMEs, but not all countries have well-developed credit bureaus that gather the level of information needed to build a reliable credit-scoring model. For example, the average credit bureau in Latin America and the Caribbean complies with only half of best practices and covers only 40.5 percent of the adult population (Doing Business Report 2016).

Firms’ use of long-term finance: why, how, and what to do about it?

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This post is part of a series highlighting the key findings of the Global Financial Development Report 2015 | 2016: Long-Term Finance. You can view all the posts in the series at gfdr2015.

The first part of Chapter 2 of the 2015 Global Financial Development Report examines the use of long-term finance from the firm’s perspective. It draws on theoretical and empirical studies to ask why firms would want to use long-term finance and how this use affects their performance. It also relies on the most recent data and evidence to show how use of long-term finance varies across countries and discusses what governments can do to promote the use of long-term finance by firms. Here are the main messages regarding firms’ use of long-term finance:

Firms tend to match the maturity of their assets and liabilities, and thus they often use long-term debt to make long-term investments, such as purchases of fixed assets or equipment. Long-term finance also offers protection from credit supply shocks and having to refinance in bad times. But not all firms need long-term finance. For example, firms with good growth opportunities may prefer short-term debt since they may want to refinance their debt frequently to obtain better loan terms after they have experienced a positive shock.

Using administrative data to measure impact: an example from a business tax reform in Georgia

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Policymakers and researchers would often like to measure whether reforms have their desired effects, but it’s not always feasible to collect survey data to shed light on this issue. Here, administrative data, that is being collected in any case, can help. Administrative data has no additional cost and may be readily available, particularly in countries that digitize the information they collect.

How are Financial Capability and Financial Access Linked? Insights from Colombia and Mexico

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Access to formal financial services has been expanding in recent years.  But as people start to use these services for the first time, it has become clear that the challenge is not only providing access to financial services, but also ensuring that people have the behaviors and attitudes to use financial products responsibly and to their advantage. If not, increased access to finance could potentially lead to over-indebtedness and even financial crises.

Two recent nationwide surveys of 1,526 adults in Colombia and of 2,022 adults in Mexico measure financial capability to provide insights on how people manage their finances. The term “financial capability” refers to a broader concept than financial literacy or knowledge alone. It covers a number of different behaviors and attitudes related to participation in financial decisions, planning and monitoring the use of money, and balancing income and expenses to make ends meet.

The financial capability surveys find for example that, in Mexico, many make financial plans, but far fewer adhere to them. Seventy percent of those surveyed say they budget, but just one-third reported consistently adhering to a budget. Similarly, just 18 percent knew how much they spent last week. In Colombia, while 94 percent of adults reported budgeting how income would be spent, less than a quarter of those surveyed actively monitored spending or had precise knowledge of how much is available for daily expenses.

Does increased access to financial services promote microenterprise growth?

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Microcredit has become a buzzword over the past couple of decades and many have hoped that small loans would help microenterprises grow and raise the incomes of their owners. Recently, a number of rigorous studies have measured the effect of credit on microenterprises. The results paint a nuanced picture; with most studies showing no strong impact on microenterprise growth (see Chapter 3 of the World Bank Group’s Global Financial Development Report 2014 for a summary of these findings).

Researches have uncovered several reasons why microcredit may not lead to the expected increase in firm growth. For example, to mitigate default risk, microloans often have joint liability. However, joint liability may discourage investment because group members have to pay more if a fellow borrower makes a risky investment that goes bad, but they do not enjoy a share of the profits if the investment yields returns. Also, looking beyond microcredit, recent studies suggest that providing other financial instruments, such as savings products and microinsurance, can spur microenterprise investment and growth.

Do Matching Grants Programs Increase Firm Productivity and Growth?

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Matching grant programs are one of the most commonly used policy tools for boosting productivity and technological upgrading in small firms. A matching grant typically consists of a partial subsidy to a firm for the use of business development services, such as management consultants or technical experts.

Despite their common use, there is currently little evidence as to whether or not matching grants actually improve firms’ productivity and growth prospects. One worry is that the money may simply be used for services that the firm may have hired even without a subsidy. Together with Dean Karlan and Antoinette Schoar, I conducted a randomized impact evaluation in Mexico that is among the first to document the positive effects of a matching grants program.

One-stop shops: Do they or don’t they increase business registration?

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Reforms to make it easier to register a business are the most common type of reform tracked by Doing Business, with over 75 percent of countries adopting at least one reform in this area over the past decade. One of the most popular types of reforms is to set up "one-stop shop" service points by integrating different registration steps with different levels of government into a single streamlined process, lowering the time and/or cost needed to register a business.

A number of studies, all from Latin America, have examined the impact of one-stop shops on firm registration, exploiting cross-time and cross-municipality variation in the implementation of these reforms to conduct difference-in-difference analysis. Bruhn (2011) uses labor market survey data to show that a reform in Mexico, which was implemented in some of the most populous and economically developed municipalities, increased the number of registered businesses by about 5 percent. Kaplan, Piedra, and Seira (2011) find that the same reform increased the number of new firm registrations with the Mexican Social Security Institute (IMSS) by 5 percent, using administrative data. For Columbia, Cárdenas and Rozo (2009) use administrative data from Chambers from Commerce in six major cities to show that a one-stop shop also led to a 5 percent increase in businesses registrations.

Who are informal business owners?

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Many firms in developing countries are informal, that is they operate without registering with the government. For example, in a labor market survey of Mexico, nearly 50 percent of business owners report that their firm is not registered with the authorities.

Different explanations have been put forth to explain why firms operate informally. One view, associated with De Soto (1989), is that informal business owners are viable entrepreneurs who are being held back from registering their firm due to complex regulations. Another view, expressed for example by Tokman (1992), sees informal business owners as individuals who are trying to make a living while they search for a wage job.

I used to be partial to the De Soto view. However, a few years ago, I wrote a paper on the impact of a business registration reform in Mexico (Bruhn, 2008), expecting that I would find that the reform led informal business owners to register their business. Surprisingly, this is not what I found. The reform had positive effects, creating more registered businesses and employment, but these businesses came from wage earners setting up new businesses, and not from informal business owners registering.

What Do We Know about the Impact of Tax Reforms on Private Sector Development?

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I recently conducted a literature review on the impact of tax reforms on private sector development as part of the Investment Climate Impact Project.1 My goal was to take stock of what is currently known about the impact of reforms that the World Bank is supporting in this area and to identify the gaps in knowledge that we ought to fill by conducting more impact evaluations. While tax reforms can have a broad range of effects in the economy, the focus here was on private sector outcomes only, as measured by investment, tax evasion by formal firms, formal firm creation, and firms’ economic performance.

It turns out that most papers in this area study the impact of changing tax rates. Both cross-country and micro-level  studies suggest that lowering tax rates can increase investment, reduce tax evasion, promote formal firm creation and ultimately lead to an increase in firms’ sales and GDP growth overall. However, lowering tax rates also has important implications for government revenue and it is thus often difficult to balance the trade-offs between various goals of public policy.

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