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Thorsten Beck's blog

Finance and Poverty: Evidence from India

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The relationship between finance, inequality and poverty is a controversial one. While some observers attribute not only the crisis but also rising inequality in many Western countries to the rise of the financial system (e.g. Krugman, 2009), others see an important role of the financial sector on the poverty alleviation agenda (World Bank, 2008). But financial sector policies are not only controversial on the macro, but also micro-level. While increasing access to credit services through microfinance had for a long time a positive connotation, this has also been questioned after recent events in Andhra Pradesh, with critics charging that excessive interest rates hold the poor back in poverty. In recent work with Meghana Ayyagari and Mohammad Hoseini, we find strong evidence for financial sector deepening having contributed to the reduction of rural poverty rates across India by enabling more entrepreneurship in the rural areas and by enticing inter-state migration into the tertiary sector.

Sex and Credit: Is There a Gender Bias in Lending?

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Group identity in the form of family, ethnicity, or gender is a powerful predictor of social preferences, as shown by theory and empirical work. In particular, people generally favor in-group over out-group members. Such favoritism can have positive or negative repercussions. On the one hand, it can lead to inefficient transactions and lost opportunities. On the other hand, group identity may also entail trust, reciprocity, and efficiency due to shared norms and understandings. In recent research with Patrick Behr and Andreas Madestam, we gauge these opposing hypotheses, examining one important form of group identity, gender, and the consequences of own-gender preferences for outcomes in the credit market. We use microcredit transactions as they are an ideal ground to test these different hypotheses, relying heavily on transaction between loan officers and borrowers.

Cyprus: Some Early Lessons

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The crisis is Cyprus is still unfolding and the final resolution might still have some way to go, but the events in Nicosia and Brussels already offer some first lessons. And these lessons look certainly familiar to those who have studied previous crises.  Bets are that Cyprus will not be the Troika’s last patient, with one South European finance minister already dreading the moment where he might be in a situation like his Cypriot colleague.  Even more important, thus to analyze the on-going Cyprus crisis resolution for insights into where the resolution of the Eurozone crisis might be headed and what needs to be done.

Financial Innovation: The Bright and the Dark Sides

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The Global Financial Crisis of 2007 to 2009 has spurred renewed widespread debates on the “bright” and “dark” sides of financial innovation.   The traditional innovation-growth view posits that financial innovations help reduce agency costs, facilitate risk sharing, complete the market, and ultimately improve allocative efficiency and economic growth.  The innovation-fragility view, by contrast, has identified financial innovations as the root cause of the recent Global Financial Crisis, by leading to an unprecedented credit expansion fueling a boom-bust cycle in housing prices, by engineering securities perceived to be safe but exposed to neglected risks, and by helping banks and investment banks design structured products to exploit investors’ misunderstandings of financial markets and exploit regulatory arbitrage possibilities. Paul Volcker, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, claims that he can find very little evidence that the financial innovations in recent years have done anything to boost the economy.

Banking Union for Europe – Risks and Challenges

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The Eurozone crisis has gone through its fair share of buzz words — fiscal compact, growth compact, Big Bazooka.  The latest kid on the block is the banking union. Although it has been discussed by economists since even before the 2007 crisis, it has moved up to the top of the Eurozone agenda.  But what kind of banking union?  For whom? Financed how?  And managed by whom?

A new collection of short essays by leading economists on both sides of the Atlantic — including Josh Aizenman, Franklin Allen, Viral Acharya, Luis Garicano, and Charles Goodhart — takes a closer look at the concept of a banking union for Europe, including the macroeconomic perspective in the context of the current crisis, institutional details, and political economy. The authors do not necessarily agree and point to lots of tradeoffs.  However, several consistent messages come out of this collection:

Foreigners vs. Natives: Bank Lending Technologies and Loan Pricing

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The past two decades have seen a large increase in foreign bank entry across the globe, a trend that has been especially strong in the transition countries of Central and Eastern Europe and in Latin America. The effects of foreign bank participation on lending to small and medium enterprises (SMEs) have been a controversial issue among academics and policy makers alike. Critical issues in this debate have been different clienteles and lending techniques of domestic and foreign banks.  Most prominently, Mian (2006) shows that clients of foreign banks in Pakistan are of larger size, more transparent, in larger cities and more likely to be foreign-owned, inferring from that the lending techniques foreign banks apply.  This analysis, however, confounds two effects – differences in clientele and differences in lending techniques. Do foreign banks use different lending techniques because they have different clienteles or do they use different lending techniques even for the same customers of domestic banks? In recent work with my Tilburg colleagues Vasso Ioannidou and Larissa Schäfer, we use data from the Bolivian credit registry and focus on a sample of firms that borrow from domestic and foreign banks in the same month to isolate the effects of different lending techniques of banks of different ownership (Beck, Ioannidou and Schäfer, 2012).

Disentangling Sovereign and Banking Crises in Europe – Long-term Reform Agenda and Short-term Needs

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Most observers have realized by now that a core problem of the Eurocrisis is the close interconnection between banking and sovereign fragility. The ongoing sovereign debt crisis in Europe continues to put strains on banks’ balance sheets — full of government bonds — while continuous bank fragility increases (contingent and more and more real) government liabilities.  Rather than disentangling the sovereign debt and bank crises, recent policy decisions have tied the two even closer together.  The use of the additional liquidity provided by the European Central Bank (ECB) through longer-term refinancing operations by some banks to stock up on government bonds has also tied the fate of sovereigns and banks closer together. Similarly, the initial plan to use European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) or European Stability Mechanism (ESM) resources to recapitalize Spanish banks via a loan to the Spanish government bank support agency (FROB) would have exacerbated the Spanish sovereign debt crisis rather than helped to alleviate it, as such a loan would have added another heavy burden to the Spanish debt-to-GDP ratio.  These short-term stresses come on top of doubts about the long-term sustainability of the EU Single Market in banking without a regulatory and supervisory framework that matches the geographic perimeter of banks’ activities.

The Future of Banking

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For better or worse, banking is back in the headlines. From the desperate efforts of crisis-struck Eurozone governments to the Occupy Wall Street movement currently spreading across the globe, the future of banking is hotly debated. A new compilation of short essays by leading financial economists from the U.S. and Europe analyzes the short-term challenges in addressing the Euro-crisis as well as the medium- to long-term regulatory issues. The essays cover a wide variety of topics, ranging from Eurobonds to ring-fencing and taxation, but there are several themes that come through across the chapters. First, many reforms have been initiated or are under preparation, but they are often only the first step towards a safer financial system. Second, there is a need to change banks’ incentive structure in order to reduce aggressive risk-taking. Third, there is an urgent – also political – need to move away from privatizing gains and nationalizing losses, thus from bailing out to bailing in bank equity and junior debt holders.

I will not be able to touch on all the topics discussed in the book, so let me discuss some of the main messages in more detail. Ring fencing – the separation of banks’ commercial and trading activities, known as the Volcker Rule but also recommended by the Vickers Commission in the UK – continues to be heavily discussed among economists. While Arnoud Boot thinks that “heavy-handed intervention in the structure of the banking industry … is an inevitable part of the restructuring of the industry”, Viral Acharya insists that it is not a panacea as long as incentive problems are not addressed. Banks might still undertake risky activities within the ring or might even have incentives to take more aggressive risk. Capital regulations have to be an important part of the equation.

How to Deepen Financial Systems in Africa: All financial sector policy is local

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Editor’s Note: This is the fifth and final contribution in a series of posts that preview the findings of the forthcoming Financing Africa: Through the Crisis and Beyond regional flagship report, a comprehensive review documenting current and new trends in Africa’s financial sectors and taking into account Africa’s many different experiences. The report was prepared by the African Development Bank, the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development and the World Bank. In this post, the authors argue that all financial sector reform has to start locally, taking into account political constraints, but also aiming to create a constituency for financial sector reform.

What has the recent crisis taught us about the role of finance in the growth process of countries? The global crisis and the ensuing Great Recession have put in doubt the paradigm that financial deepening is good for growth under any circumstance. For students of financial systems, the bright (growth-enhancing) and dark (instability) sides of financial development go hand in hand. The same mechanism through which finance helps growth also makes finance susceptible to shocks and, ultimately, fragility.

Safeguarding Africa's Financial Systems: Learning the right lessons from the financial crisis

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Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in a series of posts that preview the findings of the forthcoming Financing Africa: Through the Crisis and Beyond regional flagship report, a comprehensive review documenting current and new trends in Africa’s financial sectors and taking into account Africa’s many different experiences. The report was prepared by the African Development Bank, the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development and the World Bank. In this post, the authors focus on the regulatory and supervisory challenges for financial systems in Africa.

In our previous contributions, we stressed the importance of competition in the banking system and the financial system at large. However, this also poses additional challenges for regulators and supervisors. The recent Nigerian experience of widespread and systemic fragility linked to (though not necessarily caused by) rapid changes in market structure and capital structure of banks shows that regulators and supervisors have to develop the capacity to monitor such changes carefully. It also shows that increased competition has to be accompanied by improvements in governance. Similarly, expanding financial service provision beyond banking poses additional challenges to regulators and supervisors. This concerns not only the challenges in the supervision of insurance companies and pension funds, but also coordination between bank and telecom regulators. It also requires an open and flexible regulatory and supervisory approach that balances the need for financial innovation with the need to watch for fragility emerging in new forms.

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