A couple of years ago, at a meeting of World Bank financial sector experts, one of the Vice Presidents at the time challenged me by saying, “You always talk about the importance of the financial sector for development, and emphasize we need to prioritize financial sector reforms, but just look at China. It is doing very well without a well functioning financial system.”
This struck a chord. I had also recently seen an academic paper making more or less the same point, that China is one of the fastest-growing economies in the world despite weaknesses in its formal banking system. Of course there is a large literature on finance which shows that development of formal financial institutions is associated with faster growth and better resource allocation. It has also long been recognized that informal financial systems play a complementary role in developing countries, typically consisting of small, unsecured, short-term loans restricted to rural areas, agricultural contracts, households, individuals, or small entrepreneurial ventures.
There is even a direct parallel in developed countries called angel finance, where high-net-worth individuals—“angel investors”—provide initial funding to young firms with modest capital needs until they are able to receive more formal venture capital financing. But informal finance substituting for formal finance? Conventional wisdom has always been that this is not likely since informal monitoring and enforcement mechanisms are generally ill equipped for scaling up and meeting the needs of the higher end of the market.