Panel data can be used to measure directly or infer indirectly the presence and role of informal financial networks. In the Townsend Thai data (a collection of over 12 years of annual panel data for 900 households in 64 Thai) villages, networks are shown to play a beneficial role in smoothing consumption and investment against income and cash flow fluctuations. Villagers who lack formal financial access but are indirectly connected through networks receive the benefits of the formal financial system. Surveys of financial access that ignore these networks can understate the reach of financial access while hiding the needs of the truly vulnerable (e.g., poor households without any kin in their village). Complementarities between the formal financial system and informal networks show up in bridge loans for repayment and the transactions demand for cash, revealing highly active informal money markets.
The same logic and data make labor supply and hours data conform with those of a sophisticated risk syndicate and make the rate of returns on investment/occupations conform with the theory of modern finance—in particular a capital asset pricing model applied to technologies/occupations with common market/village risk. We found that families engaged in occupations like rice farming require a higher expected return because this activity does well only when the village as a whole is doing well, and conversely occupations which are not covariate with market risk are recognized as particularly valuable. However, heterogeneous risk preferences creates a policy warning: outside insurance targeting village/market risk can actually make some in a village worse off, those had been providing insurance to others.