Wednesday, 15 July 2009

World Bank volte-face on finance and development?

Oh to have been a mouse in the corner last Friday morning in the World Bank’s Finance and Private Sector research department! In a guest article for this week’s The Economist, World Bank chief economist Justin Yifu Lin argued that “small, local banks” are the best entities for providing financial services in developing countries where SMEs are critical to growth.

Not ground-breaking stuff you might say. Heterodox economists have been making this point for years. Developing both relations with local businesspeople and project assessment skills are critical if local banks are to support the development process. Big international banks tend to cherry pick large corporate clients, and use their technological advantage in credit scoring to rapidly increase household indebtedness (witness Mexico).

But the Lin article takes on more importance in the context of nearly two decades of Bank research and policy advice which has advocated a position contrary to his own. From Clarke et al. (2001) (‘Foreign bank penetration improves financing conditions for enterprises of all sizes’) to the much-cited Claessens et al. (2001) to Beck et al. (2003) (‘a larger share of foreign-owned banks removes financing obstacles’), and much more beyond, the Bank has been a cheerleader for the benefits of big banks in little countries.

Moreover, the Bank’s private sector arm, the IFC, has eagerly supported the development of loan securitisation, mortgage-backed securities, collateralised debt obligations and originate-and-distribute banking models (dos Santos, 2008) - hardly the “simple banking systems” whose merits Lin extols.

(Lin also praises Japan, South Korea and China for resisting the rush to prematurely develop stock markets or integrate into international financial networks. Again, not new (Ajit Singh has made this case for over two decades), but decidedly against the World Bank flow.)

Could this be a portent of good things to come at the Bank? Or will Lin be slapped down by Wall Street via the US Treasury (a la Stiglitz) or quietly sidelined (cf. Bourguignon’s inequality agenda)? Perhaps Lin’s carefully chosen words later in the article (‘small, private domestic banks’) will have been just enough to avoid rocking the boat. After all, HSBC is the ‘world’s local bank’…

(nb. I’m not the only one to be struck by Lin’s editorial – a vigorous debate of the great and the good, including several former Bank economists, has broken out on The Economist)

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