Archive for May, 2009
| Peter Klein |
As a microfinance skeptic I was particularly interested in the new paper from the J-PAL team of Banerjee, Duflo, Glennerster, and Kinnan, “The Miracle of Microfinance? Evidence from a Randomized Evaluation.” Despite the pedestrian abstract, the findings are pretty significant:
To date there have been no randomized trials examining the impact of microcredit. Using such a design, 52 of 104 slums in Hyderabad, India were randomly selected for opening of an MFI branch while the remainder were not. We show that the intervention increased total MFI borrowing, and study the effects on new business starts, investment, and consumption. Households with an existing business at the time of the program invest in durable goods, and their profi ts increase. Households with high propensity to become business owners see a decrease in nondurable consumption, consistent with the need to pay a fixed cost to enter entrepreneurship. Households with low propensity to become business owners see nondurable spending increase. We find no impact on measures of health, education, or women’s decision-making.
Ryan Hahn puts it this way: The verdict is in on microfinance. . . . And it’s not pretty.” He means that microfinance does appear to have a positive marginal effect on business formation and expansion, but the effect is modest and does not (at least within a 15-18-month timeframe) have any discernible effect on well-being.
| Peter Klein |
The IV Research Workshop on Institutions and Organizations takes place at Insper (formerly Ibmec) São Paulo 5-6 October 2009. Lee Alston and David Stark are keynoting. There are panels on “Judicial Norms and Development,” “New Theories of the Firm,” and “Social Capital and Organization.” There’s an open call for papers, with abstracts due 20 July.
I attended the 2007 version and enjoyed it very much.
| Peter Klein |
Wired’s Chris Anderson drinks the New Economy Kool-Aid. It’s the same old argument — information technology reduces transaction costs, leading to a radical disaggregation of industry and society — still supported by little more than a few colorful anecdotes, not any kind of systematic analysis. The new twist is the financial crisis, described by Anderson as “not just the trough of a cycle but the end of an era.”
What we have discovered over the past nine months are growing diseconomies of scale. Bigger firms are harder to run on cash flow alone, so they need more debt (oops!). Bigger companies have to place bigger bets but have less and less control over distribution and competition in an increasingly diverse marketplace. . . . The result is that the next new economy, the one rising from the ashes of this latest meltdown, will favor the small.
Nonsense. The major banks, the Chrysler corporation, and whoever is next to fail have not become nimbler and smaller, but larger; they have become part of the Federal government. Fannie and Freddie have swollen and taken on additional responsibilities. The financial crisis, as argued repeatedly on these pages, was spawned by a credit bubble brought about by loose monetary policy and massive government subsidization of the home mortgage market. It has nothing to do with firms being too large or somehow failing to take advantage of the Next Big Thing in social networking or cloud computing. I mean, seriously, is there anything here that couldn’t have been written ten years ago?
To all the usual reasons why small companies have an advantage, from nimbleness to risk-taking, add these new ones: The rise of cloud computing means that young firms no longer have to buy their own IT equipment, which helps them avoid having to raise money or take on debt. Likewise, the webification of the supply chain in many industries, from electronics to apparel, means that even the tiniest companies can now order globally, just like the giants. In the same way a musician with just a laptop and some gumption can accomplish most of what a record label does, an ambitious engineer can invent and produce a gadget with little more than that same laptop.
| Peter Klein |
Who would you rather spend time with? I mean, come on, really?
| Dick Langlois |
I too loved the Ferguson piece in the New York Times. More sound bites: “In the months ahead,” he predicts, “the world will reverberate to the sound of stable doors being shut long after the horses have bolted, and history suggests that many of the new measures will do more harm than good. The classic example is the legislation passed during the British South-Sea Bubble to restrict the formation of joint-stock companies. The so-called Bubble Act of 1720 remained a needless handicap on the British economy for more than a century.”
| Peter Klein |
Niall Ferguson joins Charles Calomiris, Jerry O’Driscoll, Arnold Kling, and many others in questioning the supposed link between “deregulation” and the financial crisis. As Ferguson emphasizes, the timing is all wrong; there is no time-series correlation between specific patterns of regulation and deregulation and particular financial or economic outcomes. The relaxation of Glass-Steagall restrictions on universal banking is an oft-cited example, but, as these writers point out, no one has offered any specific mechanism by which universal banking contributed to the problem (indeed, the opposite is likely to be true). The “laissez-faire caused the crisis” meme may be pithy, but is there any systematic theoretical or empirical evidence for it?
Ferguson has the best line (suggested by Luke): “It is indeed impressive how rapidly the economists who failed to predict this crisis . . . have been able to produce such a satisfying story about its origins.”
| Peter Klein |
Congratulations to Dan Elfenbein and Todd Zenger for winning the ACAC Best Paper Award for “The Economics of Social Capital in De-Socialized Exchange.” Their paper addresses one of my pet peeves, the expansive use of “capital” to describe any ill-defined substance that accumulates and has value. Hence knowledge, experience, and skills become “human capital” or “knowledge capital”; relationships become “social capital”; brand names become “reputation capital”; and so on. I fear this terminology obfuscates more than it clarifies.
I don’t mind using these terms in a loose, colloquial sense: By going to school I’m investing in human capital or diversifying my stock of human capital; if this gets me a high-paying job I’m earning a good return on my human capital; as I get old I forget new things, so my human capital is depreciating rapidly; and so on.
But we shouldn’t take these metaphors too literally. In economic theory capital refers either to financial capital or to a stock of heterogeneous alienable assets, goods that can be exchanged in markets and analyzed using price theory. Their rental prices are determined by marginal revenue products and their purchase prices are given by the present discounted value of these future rents. Knowledge is not, strictly speaking, capital, because it is not traded in markets does not have a rental or purchase price. What markets trade and price is labor services, and it is impossible to decompose the payments to labor (wages) into separate “effort” and “rental return on human capital” components. Some labor services command a higher market price than others because they have a higher marginal revenue product. Some of this wage premium may be due to intelligence or experience, some due to complementarities with other human or nonhuman assets, some due to hard work, and so on. But these are all determinants of the MRP, and hence the wage, not different kinds of factor returns. (more…)