Money or Knowledge? What Drives Demand for Financial Services in Emerging Markets?

by Shawn Cole, Thomas Sampson & Bilal Zia

Overview — Why is there apparently limited demand for financial services in emerging markets? On the one hand, low-income individuals may not want formal services when informal savings, credit, and insurance markets function reasonably well, and the benefits of formal financial market participation may not exceed the costs. On the other hand, limited financial literacy could be the barrier: If people are not familiar or comfortable with products, they will not demand them. These two views carry significantly different implications for the development of financial markets around the world, and would suggest quite different policy decisions by governments and international organizations seeking to promote "financial deepening." HBS professor Shawn Cole and coauthors found that financial literacy education has no effect on the probability of opening a bank savings account for the full population, although it does significantly increase the probability among those with low initial levels of financial literacy and low levels of education. In contrast, modest financial subsidies significantly increase the share of households that open a bank savings account within the subsequent two months. Key concepts include:

  • Subsidies or price reductions may represent a more cost-effective way of drawing households into the financial system.
  • Financial literacy efforts targeted at the general population may be relatively ineffective.
  • These results do not necessarily constitute support for financial literacy education even among the low-literacy subpopulation. Even if financial literacy programs are carefully targeted, they may still not be cost-effective.

Author Abstract

Why is demand for formal financial services low in emerging markets? One view argues that limited cognitive ability and financial literacy stifle demand. A second view argues that demand is rationally low, because formal financial services are expensive and of relatively low value to the poor. This paper uses original surveys and a field experiment to distinguish between two competing answers to this question. Using original survey data from India and Indonesia, we first show that financial literacy is a powerful predictor of demand for financial services. To test the relative importance of literacy and price, we implement a field experiment, offering randomly selected unbanked households financial literacy education, crossed with small incentive (ranging from US $3 to $14) to open bank savings account. We find that the financial literacy program has no effect on the likelihood of opening a bank savings account in the full sample, but do find modest effects for uneducated and financially illiterate households. In contrast, small subsidy payments have a large effect on the likelihood of opening a savings account. These payments are more than two times more cost-effective than the financial literacy training, though this calculation does not take into account any ancillary benefits of financial education. Keywords: Banking and finance, financial institutions, field experiments, India, Indonesia, economic development, consumer finance, financial education. 37 pages.

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