Making loans and fighting poverty are normally two of the least glamorous pursuits around, but put the two together and you have an economic innovation that has become not just popular but downright chic. The innovation—microfinance—involves making small loans to poor entrepreneurs, usually in developing countries. It has been around since the nineteen-seventies, but in the past few years it has seized the imaginations of economists, activists, and bankers alike. The U.N. declared 2005 the International Year of Microcredit, and the microfinance pioneer Muhammad Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006, while celebrities like Natalie Portman and companies like Benetton have become fervent microloan advocates. Even ordinary Americans can now get in on the act, at sites like Kiva.org, where you can make a microloan yourself. (Right now, a clothing vender in Cambodia needs seven hundred dollars to “purchase more clothes to sell.”)
This vogue has translated into a flood of real dollars: institutional and individual investments in microfinance more than doubled between 2004 and 2006, to $4.4 billion, and the total volume of loans made has risen to $25 billion, according to Deutsche Bank. Unfortunately, it has also translated into a flood of hype. There’s no doubt that microfinance does a tremendous amount of good, yet there are also real limits to what it can accomplish. Microloans make poor borrowers better off. But, on their own, they often don’t do much to make poor countries richer.
This isn’t because microloans don’t work; it’s because of how they work. The idealized view of microfinance is that budding entrepreneurs use the loans to start and grow businesses—expanding operations, boosting inventory, and so on. The reality is more complicated. Microloans are often used to “smooth consumption”—tiding a borrower over in times of crisis. They’re also, as Karol Boudreaux and Tyler Cowen point out in a recent paper, often used for non-business expenses, such as a child’s education. It’s less common to find them used to fund major business expansions or to hire new employees. In part, this is because the loans can be very small—frequently as little as fifty or a hundred dollars—and generally come with very high interest rates, often above thirty or forty per cent. But it’s also because most microbusinesses aren’t looking to take on more workers. The vast majority have only one paid employee: the owner. As the economist Jonathan Morduch has put it, microfinance “rarely generates new jobs for others.”
This matters, because businesses that can generate jobs for others are the best hope of any country trying to put a serious dent in its poverty rate. Sustained economic growth requires companies that can make big investments—building a factory, say—and that can exploit the economies of scale that make workers more productive and, ultimately, richer. Microfinance evangelists sometimes make it sound as if, in an ideal world, everyone would own his own business. “All people are entrepreneurs,” Muhammad Yunus has said. But in any successful economy most people aren’t entrepreneurs—they make a living by working for someone else. Just fourteen per cent of Americans, for instance, are running (or trying to run) their own business. That percentage is much higher in developing countries—in Peru, it’s almost forty per cent. That’s not because Peruvians are more entrepreneurial. It’s because they don’t have other options.
What poor countries need most, then, is not more microbusinesses. They need more small-to-medium-sized enterprises, the kind that are bigger than a fruit stand but smaller than a Fortune 1000 corporation. In high-income countries, these companies create more than sixty per cent of all jobs, but in the developing world they’re relatively rare, thanks to a lack of institutions able to provide them with the capital they need. It’s easy for really big companies in poor countries to tap the markets for funding, and now, because of microfinance, it’s possible for really small enterprises to get money, too. But the companies in between find it hard. It’s a phenomenon that has been dubbed the “missing middle.”
The problem is a dearth not just of lenders but also of people willing to buy an ownership stake in companies, like the angel investors and venture capitalists that American entrepreneurs often rely on. Microfinance has led us to focus on lending, but it can be hard for young companies to get big purely on bank loans, which consume cash flow that could be reinvested in the business. Supplying the missing middle will require backers who want to invest in companies rather than just lend to them. There’s been some progress on this front of late; three weeks ago, Google.org, the Soros Economic Development Fund, and the Omidyar Network announced that they are setting up a firm in India that will invest only in small-to-medium businesses. But there have yet to be celebrities speaking up for the missing middle.
Both socially and economically, microloans do a lot of good, working what Boudreaux and Cowen call “Micromagic.” But the overselling of their promise has made us neglect the enterprises that could be real engines of macromagic. The cult of the entrepreneur that the microfinance boom has helped foster is understandably appealing. But thinking that everyone is, and should be, an entrepreneur leads us to underrate the virtues of larger businesses and of the income that a steady job can provide. To be sure, for some people the best route out of poverty will be a bank loan. But for most it’s going to be something much simpler: a regular paycheck.
[James Surowiecki, The New Yorker]