As the world pulls out of an unprecedented financial crisis and given the wrap up just last week of the Millennium Development Goals Summit in New York, the work of the development community is far from over. In this context, the need for concerted, pragmatic research is more urgent than ever. Among the questions we need to ask is why many past efforts to get low-income countries on a path to sustainable growth have fallen short. Also, as we search for solutions, we need to adapt to the emergence of a multi-polar growth world and seek lessons from developing countries.
With this in mind, it’s my pleasure to introduce this new blog aimed at sharing ideas and sparking innovation.
|Field visit to Nigeria|
Lively debate via this blog could potentially lead to break through solutions for development, or, at the very least, steer research and analysis in new directions.
Do you wonder how the recent global crisis affected access to financial services? Well I do, and a report by the World Bank Group and CGAP just provided the answer: Data show that even as countries were suffering because of the financial crisis, access to formal financial services grew in 2009. Indeed, the number of bank accounts grew world-wide, while at the same time the volume of loans and deposit accounts dropped. The physical outreach of financial systems— consisting of branch networks, automated teller machines (ATMs), and point-of-sale (POS) terminals—all expanded.
That’s a relief. Readers of this blog know by now that I am a strong believer in expanding access. Lack of access to finance is often the critical element underlying persistent income inequality as well as slower growth. But the recent global financial crisis has led us to question many of our beliefs and re-opened old debates. It also exposed an important tension between access and stability. Were we wrong to emphasize access in the light of what happened?
Or at least, that’s what a former boss of mine used to say. Undeterred by his wise advice, I was totally won over when Bryan Sivak, DC’s Chief Technology Officer, came to the World Bank a couple of months ago to present his vision of a Civic Commons, under the tagline of “sharing technologies for the public good”. Here is how Civic Commons’ recently launched website summarises the objectives of the initiative:
Editor's Note: The following post was submitted jointly by Brendan Ahern (Bankable Frontier Associates) and Ignacio Mas (Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation).
Too big to fail has become a key issue in financial regulation. Indeed, in the recent crisis many institutions enjoyed subsidies precisely because they were deemed “too big to fail” by policymakers. The expectation that large institutions will be bailed out by taxpayers any time they get into trouble makes the job of regulators all the more difficult. After all, if someone else will pay for the downside risks, institutions are likely to take on more risk and get into trouble more often—what economists call moral hazard. This makes reaching too-big-to-fail status a goal in itself for financial institutions, given the many implicit and explicit benefits governments are willing to extend to their large institutions. Hence, all the proposed legislation to tax away some of these benefits.
But could it be that some banks have actually become too big to save? Particularly for small countries or those suffering from deteriorating public finances, this is a valid question. The prime example is Iceland, where the liabilities of the overall banking system reached around 9 times GDP at the end of 2007, before a spectacular collapse of the banking system in 2008. By the end of 2008, the liabilities of publicly listed banks in Switzerland and the United Kingdom had reached 6.3 and 5.5 times their GDP, respectively.
In a recent paper with Harry Huizinga, we try to see whether market valuation of banks is sensitive to government indebtedness and deficits. If countries are financially strapped, markets may doubt countries’ ability to save their largest banks. At the very least, governments in this position may be forced to resolve bank failures in a relatively cheap way, implying large losses to bank creditors.
Rich countries and emerging markets alike have participated in a rapid integration into global capital markets over the last 25 years. Proponents of financial globalization believed this would bring a myriad of benefits via improved financial intermediation, with a more efficient allocation of capital to productive firms and increased access to finance to those outside the halls of political power.
But the recent financial crisis has given pause to the pro-globalization advocates. The marked increase in capital flows to emerging markets quickly reversed in the wake of the financial crisis, leaving these countries looking vulnerable. Might the globalizers have gotten their prescriptions wrong?
A recent paper entitled Does Financial Openness Lead to Deeper Domestic Financial Markets? finds that, in fact, developing countries have reaped a number of benefits from financial globalization. In particular, the authors of the paper have found that greater financial openness:
Financial literacy has become an immensely popular component of financial reform across the world. As a response to the recent financial crisis, the United States government set up the President’s Advisory Council on Financial Literacy in January 2008, charged with promoting programs that improve financial education at all levels of the economy and helping increase access to financial services. In the developing world, the Indonesian government declared 2008 “the year of financial education,” with a stated goal of improving access to and use of financial services by increasing financial literacy. Similarly, in India, the Reserve Bank of India launched an initiative in 2007 to establish Financial Literacy and Credit Counseling Centers throughout the country which would offer free financial education and counseling to urban and rural populations. The World Bank also hasn’t been missing out on the trend – it recently approved a $15 million Trust Fund on Financial Literacy.
But what do we know about financial literacy? Does it work, and if so, through what mechanisms? Despite the money being ploughed into financial literacy programs, we know very little to address these important questions. While it is true that there is a large and growing body of survey evidence from both developed and developing countries that demonstrate a strong association between financial literacy and household well-being, we are still in the process of learning whether this relationship is causal.