One of the main obstacles that firms in developing countries face is lack of access to credit. A key factor that restricts access is insufficient collateral. Interestingly, banks in less-developed countries usually lend only against real estate; they rarely lend against other assets such as machinery, equipment, or inventory. The problem is that assets such as machines and equipment often account for most of the capital stock of small and medium-size firms. In this context, these assets become “dead capital”: they lose their debt capacity and only serve as inputs in the firms’ production processes.
While it’s true that machines and equipment are less redeployable than real estate, banks in developed countries do lend against these types of assets. In a recent study with Murillo Campello, we argue that the root of the problem lies in weak collateral laws. The law makes a clear distinction between two types of assets: immovable assets (e.g., real estate) and movable assets (e.g., machinery and equipment). Developing countries have weak collateral laws regarding movable assets, which makes its very difficult to pledge these assets as collateral. This shrinks the contracting space, since the menu of collateral becomes smaller, which limits access to credit. Moreover, since movable assets lose debt capacity, firms under-invest in technologies intensive in movable assets.