We’ve written that people in the developing world can get very high returns – in excess of 20% annually (and sometimes much more) – on cash transfers. We’ve previously argued that this is both plausible and empirically supported. However, it raises the question: “If people in the developing world can get such good returns on capital, why not support microlending rather than cash transfers?”
Our answer is twofold. First, the history of, and studies of, microlending are entirely consistent with – and in my view, provide some support for – the notion that people in the developing world can earn high rates of return on capital. The second is that despite this, making loans has a couple of disadvantages that cash transfers don’t have: it may sometimes cause net harm by causing indebtedness (even as it sometimes does great good when people make returns above the interest they owe), and it requires far more overhead to run a microlending operation than to run a cash transfer operation.
Microfinance has advantages too; the conceptual points above do not, by themselves, make the case for cash transfers. However, given the landscape and evidence that we see today, we think there is a substantially stronger case for cash transfers as meeting our criteria.
1. Microlending institutions have repeatedly become self-sustaining and even profitable institutions. Compartamos in Mexico and SKS in India are the most vivid examples of this, as both are now public for-profit companies. Due Diligence, by David Roodman, further discusses the microfinance industry’s success in building sustainable institutions.
The basic model these institutions have followed is that of making small loans to very low-income people, and recouping the loans with substantial interest rates.
2. High-quality studies of microlending have not found systematic reductions in poverty, but neither have they found systematic increases, i.e., evidence of exploitation. Over the last few years, there have been a series of high-quality studies of microfinance, and most have found mixed results, with no robust impacts on consumption in a positive or negative direction. (We have not done an up-to-date review of all such studies, and are currently getting our rough picture of the findings from summaries by David Roodman, available here and here. Note, in addition, that it’s possible that microfinance does have some negative or positive impacts on income and consumption that are simply too small and/or long-term for these studies to find.)
These studies are disappointing for one who expects that microfinance is systematically improving lives, but should be reassuring and encouraging for one who expects that microfinance is systematically damaging them, by exploiting recipients. One possible interpretation of the findings is that microloans help some and hurt others, much like other sources of credit we’re more familiar with.
Taken together, #1 and #2 seem to me to provide suggestive (though not conclusive) evidence that very low-income people in the developing world – despite limits to their education, rationality, etc. – are regularly (though not universally) able to invest at high rates of return.This is consistent with relevant studies of cash transfers.
Advantages of microlending
- Microlending implicitly targets people who expect to be able to pay back loans. It may therefore do a better job of selecting for recipients who can best invest capital.
- Microlending holds out the potential of creating self-sustaining institutions that don’t need donations to survive (the goal we believe most microfinance charities are focused on) and of reaching more people with the same capital.
Advantages of cash transfers
- Cash transfers don’t run the same risk microloans do of hurting recipients by encouraging indebtedness at high interest rates.
- Cash transfers faciltate higher-risk investments than microloans. They thus give recipients more options and potentially open opportunities to earn greater returns, without risking having to default on loans.
- Cash transfers don’t require nearly the same level of overhead that microloans do. A microlending operation must track and seek repayment from each recipient, something that can be costly both to the institution (hence the need for substantial interest rates despite high repayment rates) and to the borrowers (microloan recipients often have to attend frequent, time-consuming meetings).
Listing these advantages, by itself, does not answer the question of which is better to support, and indeed we think it is something of an open question.
When it comes to our recommendations, we strongly prefer cash transfers because
- The best available evidence seems to suggest that cash transfers are beneficial – increasing consumption over the short and long run – while the available evidence on microlending does not show clear positive (or negative) impact.
- We are wary of ventures that combine for-profit and nonprofit motives and have not developed a good process for assessing them.
- We also put some weight on the argument of Due Diligence (a book on microfinance by David Roodman) that there is already a great deal of money – including charitable money – in microlending, and more is unlikely to have high returns in terms of enabling the building of institutions that would be difficult to build otherwise.