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.