Walk, don't run

Economics focus

Walk, don't run

Jul 9th 2009
From The Economist print edition

In a guest article Justin Lin, the chief economist at the World Bank, argues that low-income countries need to make small, local banks the mainstay of their financial systems


FIXING finance is easier if you have a clear idea what it is for. What matters most is setting up a financial sector that can serve the competitive sectors of an economy. In many poorer countries, that means focusing on activities dominated by small-scale manufacturing, farming and services firms. The size and sophistication of financial institutions and markets in the developed world are not appropriate in low-income markets. Small local banks are the best entities for providing financial services to the enterprises and households that are most important in terms of comparative advantage—be they asparagus farmers in Peru, cut-flower companies in Kenya or garment factories in Bangladesh.

The experiences of countries such as Japan, South Korea and China are telling. Those countries managed to avoid financial crises for long stretches of their development as they evolved from low-income to middle- and high-income countries. It helped greatly that they adhered to simple banking systems (rather than rushing to develop their stockmarkets and integrate into international financial networks) and did not liberalise their capital accounts until they became more advanced. The experience of the United States is also instructive. Hulking national banks and equity markets become important only when a country becomes more advanced and when large capital-intensive firms dominate the economy. The rise of the New York Stock Exchange occurred only after the creation of large-scale industrial firms at the close of the 19th century. For the early labour-intensive phase of America’s economic development, local banks were dominant.

Governments and the international financial institutions that help them should resist the temptation to strive for “modern” stockmarkets in the early stages of a country’s development. Efforts to create African stockmarkets, for example, have not yet borne much fruit. There are relatively few listed shares in the stockmarkets of sub-Saharan countries. Excluding South Africa, the annual value of traded shares relative to GDP in Africa is below 5% (see chart). In Latin America and the Caribbean the figure is less than 10%; in the former communist countries of Europe and Central Asia it is less than 15%. The comparable figure in 2007 was 79% in Denmark, 207% in Spain and 378% in Britain.

Stockmarkets are unlikely to be a major force in poor countries in the near future. Microfinance companies and other non-bank financial institutions will play a more important role in financing poor households. And stockmarkets are not the best conduit for providing finance to the small- and medium-sized businesses that characterise the early stages of countries’ economic development. Instead, the banks will be much more critical when it comes to financing companies.

But gigantic banks are not the way to go. In Africa and other parts of the developing world, relatively large foreign banks that were set up in the colonial era have long played a role. But these institutions tend to serve relatively wealthy customers. Smaller domestic banks are much better suited to providing finance to the small businesses that dominate the manufacturing, farming and services sectors in developing countries. There is evidence to suggest that growth is faster in countries where these kinds of banks have larger market shares, in part because of improved financing for just these kind of enterprises.

It is true that bigger banks can exploit economies of scope and scale that make them more diversified, thus enhancing systemic stability. But local banks are stable in a different way. In America the country’s 7,630 community banks have so far been only mildly affected by the financial crisis as they have continued to deal with the same small, local clients that they have had for years.

Governments in low-income countries should recognise the strategic importance of small, private domestic banks. They should also carry out some fundamental reforms. On the demand side of the equation, entrepreneurs in developing economies need to be able to signal more easily that they are creditworthy. Sustained efforts to improve credit and collateral registries offer large pay-offs. Credit registries enable first-time entrepreneurs to document their personal credit histories and share them with lenders. Collateral registries enable lenders to verify that assets such as property and vehicles have not already been pledged by the borrower to secure past loans. Transparent and efficient court procedures allow lenders to seize collateral in the event of loan defaults.

Step changes

On the supply side, underachieving banks, be they large or small, should be rooted out through merger or liquidation. In many developing countries, supervisory authorities find it difficult to intervene and dispose of troubled banks’ assets quickly. Supervisors in some countries face legal challenges from the owners of such banks, sometimes long after they have left office. All this impedes the efficient exit and entry of institutions that make for a vibrant local banking sector. Failing local banks should be acquired by stronger local banks or liquidated if no such purchaser can be found. After liquidations well-capitalised new banks should be allowed to enter the sector.

Facilitating the creation of new local banks and improving the methods for intervening to deal with troubled banks will encourage competition and provide healthier incentives. That will help banks promote the private-sector-led growth that will be crucial to recovery from the current financial crisis. Leave the developed markets to worry about how to reform their highly evolved financial systems. To make sustained progress in lifting the weight of the extreme poverty that will remain after the crisis has subsided, low-income countries need to make their financial institutions small and simple.

Από το Economist

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