Here is a very interesting new paper on the informal economy by Andrei Shleifer and Rafeal la Porta. It is great to see two prominent economists write on the subject. The abstract gives an overview of the first half of the paper:
We establish five facts about the informal economy in developing countries. First, it is huge, reaching about half of the total in the poorest countries. Second, it has extremely low productivity compared to the formal economy: informal firms are typically small, inefficient, and run by poorly educated entrepreneurs. Third, although avoidance of taxes and regulations is an important reason for informality, the productivity of informal firms is too low for them to thrive in the formal sector. Lowering registration costs neither brings many informal firms into the formal sector, nor unleashes economic growth. Fourth, the informal economy is largely disconnected from the formal economy. Informal firms rarely transition to formality, and continue their existence, often for years or even decades, without much growth or improvement. Fifth, as countries grow and develop, the informal economy eventually shrinks, and the formal economy comes to dominate economic life.
I found the second half more interesting. They critique Hernando de Soto, who argues informal economies are an untapped reservoir of potential constrained by regulations. Because of the need for business permits and government recognition of property they are unable to enter the formal economy. Shleifer and la Porta find that most informal businesses are constrained by finance, not regulation, and fail to enter the formal economy. This suggests the problem is not regulation. Instead, they conclude:
The evidence suggests that an important bottleneck to economic growth is not the supply of better educated workers; indeed, at least on many observable characteristics the workers are rather similar in informal and formal firms. Rather, the bottleneck is the supply of educated entrepreneurs – people who can run productive businesses. These entrepreneurs create and expand modern businesses with which informal firms, despite all their benefits of avoiding taxes and regulations, simply cannot compete.
This is largely consistent with my experience during the last week in Honduras. I was interviewing with a firm run by an Italian. In his words, the firm imports business models from middle income countries, Mexico and Argentina, to low income countries, Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. His success, without substantial changes in economic freedom, suggests the problem is not institutional, but entrepreneurial. I very much look forward to more research along these lines.