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Miriam Bruhn's blog

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.

New Ideas in Business Growth

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My colleague Bilal Zia and I organized a conference on New Ideas in Business Growth: Financial Literacy, Firm Dynamics and Entrepreneurial Environment that took place at the World Bank last Wednesday. The conference brought together researchers and policy makers in the area of private sector development to share new findings about the types of policy interventions that are effective at promoting business growth. We decided to focus the discussion on three topics that have recently received increased attention from both a research and a policy angle: 1) business and financial literacy training 2) the business environment and 3) corporate governance and firm dynamics. The selection of these three topics also raised a larger question in my mind—should the research community spend so much of its effort on microenterprises, when larger firms may have much higher growth potential? That’s a question I’ll return to at the end of the post.

In recent years, many governments, international institutions, and NGOs around the world have been providing business and financial literacy training for entrepreneurs. However, so far, we know relatively little about the impact of this training on business performance and growth. In an effort to contribute to filling this knowledge gap, Bilal and I conducted a randomized control trial in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where we collaborated with a microfinance institution and an NGO to provide business and financial literacy training to young entrepreneurs.

Did Yesterday’s Patterns of Colonial Exploitation Determine Today’s Patterns of Poverty?

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Several economists have argued that cross-country differences in economic development today have their roots in the colonial era. For example, Engerman and Sokoloff (1997, 2002)—henceforth referred to as ES—argue that different types of economic activities that the colonizers engaged in led to different growth paths. They claim that the link between colonial activities and current-day levels of economic development is as follows. In many areas, colonial society was very unequal, giving political rights only to a few landowners, while repressing most of the population through slavery or forced labor. Consequently, institutions that developed during colonial times were designed to protect the rights of only a few. These institutions persist until today and constrain economic development. To give one example, many Latin American banking systems developed primarily to serve a wealthy elite, restricting access to finance for the rest of the population.

In a paper I recently co-authored with Francisco Gallego, we test empirically whether areas with different types of colonial activities do indeed have different levels of economic development today. We use within-country data for 345 regions in seventeen countries in the Americas to do this. We rely on within-country data because colonial activities varied considerably even within countries (for example, the northeast of Brazil grew sugar, while many states in central and southern Brazil had large cattle ranches). Moreover, in our sample, levels of development vary almost as widely within countries (between regions) as they do between countries.