Smooth operators

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Even those with very little money have a sophisticated approach to finance.

Paying interest on your savings will strike most people as odd. Yet some poor people in the developing world do just that. In West Africa, for example, some people pay roving susu collectors a fee amounting to a -40% annual interest rate for looking after their deposits.

And the authors of a new book about the financial lives of people who earn less than $2 a day find that this sort of “pay-to-save” model is by no means unique to Africa. They encounter a similar phenomenon in India, where a female deposit collector called Jyothi looks after small savings for people in the slums of Vijayawada, at an effective yearly interest rate of -30%.

Some of Jyothi’s customers are among the 250 families in South Africa, India and Bangladesh whose financial transactions over a year were recorded to study how very poor people manage their resources. Given that these are so meagre, this might seem to be an unpromising line of inquiry. But as many of the subjects emphasised, controlling the flow of cash becomes all the more critical when income is not just low, but also unpredictable and irregular.

These features are what economists like to call “consumption smoothing”-spreading spending out in a way that ensures that what you eat one day is not determined by what you have earned that day or the day before. The subjects used a combination of loans and savings to ensure that their lives were not, literally, hostage to fortune. Hardly anyone lived utterly hand-to-mouth.

Source: The Economist (link opens in a new window)