> Posted by Tyler Aveni, Positive Planet China

In an industry that is constantly evolving due to new technology and abundant knowledge-sharing opportunities, practitioners of socially-driven microfinance and inclusive financial services are also helping to drive new innovation. Accompanying research critically assists this process, especially in evaluating the impact of these new methods and initiatives. This presents a problem for countries like China where a dearth of credible (or existing) data resources makes a critical review of practices far harder to manage. As such, researchers interested in the world’s second-largest economy often must settle with statistics that may suffice but rarely meet higher standards found elsewhere.

The work of Li Gan, a Texas A&M professor who also heads the Survey and Research Center for Household Finance at Southwestern University of Finance & Economics (SWUFE) in Chengdu, China, is helping to address the problem. Professor Li has spent much of the last four years spearheading an effort to gather more data on the financial condition of Chinese households and businesses. Through generous funding by SWUFE and support from the PBOC, China’s central bank, Professor Li has set into motion two key multi-year surveys: The China Household Finance Survey (CHFS) and the “ChinaPnR-SWUFE SME Index” which looks at small enterprises.

Prior to the household survey, the main source of data available on household finance in China came from the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), a government-sponsored research department. These reported statistics, while comprehensive, are sometimes met with a certain degree of skepticism. Researchers question the integrity of the data collection methods, and some analysts raise concerns about number-tinkering. Any alternative, private surveys were collected on a much smaller scale.

The CHFS is filling the void. Results of the CHFS first began being published in 2012 and are now becoming an increasingly rich and pliable resource for research as additional years of data capture shifts in China’s social and financial landscape. The CHFS started with more than 8,000 households from across mainland China (Tibet and Xinjiang AR excluded) and has been gradually expanded every year. In 2013, some 1,600 SWUFE students were hired and trained to conduct surveys, with the number expected to grow to more than 2,500 for the 2015 survey. Nearly 28,000 households (or 100,000 individuals) are expected to be included in this year’s survey.

Out of approximately 3,000 counties in China, 260 are randomly selected. This selection is then controlled to insure that the sample is both nationally and provincially representative of the population. Within each of these 260 counties, 4 neighborhoods (consisting of villages and communities) are randomly selected. Among the households in the 1,000-plus neighborhoods, between 20 and 50 are randomly selected to be interviewed. The ChinaPnR-SWUFE SME Index works on a very similar system wherein counties and neighborhoods are randomly selected; neighborhood businesses are recorded and then some are randomly selected to participate in the survey.

According to Li Gan, households could be very reluctant to participate but to avoid bias, persistence (i.e. many returned trips) with the support of the local governments and neighborhood committees, has given the CHFS the tools necessary to collect accurate mass-market results. High participation levels (only 11 percent refused to participate in the survey after repeated visits) attest to this earnestness.

Li Gan’s data have shown that wealth is far more concentrated at the top of the socioeconomic pyramid than the NBS figures suggest. It also illustrates that the big picture savings figures are skewed since most of the total dollar amount comes from high income savers.

Interestingly, the survey may also hint at changes in the role of China’s small businesses, since micro-businesses and household finances are often intertwined. In fact, this subset of interest inspired Li Gan and his team of researchers to create the new micro, small, and medium-sized enterprise (MSME) index  in collaboration with a Chinese technology payment services company, ChinaPnR Limited. Used to capture information about China’s roughly 60 million small unlisted companies, data from the ChinaPnR-SWUFE SME Index has now been collected for more than a year. Government and research bodies have strongly encouraged the program, because, as Li Gan points out, any existing lists on these organizations that are currently available are completely outdated. Mass movements of migrant workers to cities and changing economic conditions have relentlessly re-shaped businesses. New shops crop up daily, and turnover is high.

Li Gan sees both the household and microenterprise survey as crucial for microfinance both directly and indirectly. In his view, policies related to microenterprises or small enterprises could even be affected by the survey results. The data keeps relevant information updated by addressing many important questions like: What is the current demand for loans? How much debt can micro and small businesses afford? What financing channels are currently available? Why do micro-entrepreneurs start their businesses? Do they use internet? How knowledgeable are they with internet technology and other innovation?

Answers to these questions may hold implications for what microfinance institutions offer clients and how they deliver services. In addition to researchers digging into past changes and effects, practitioners and organizations may find that the data hold new insights. In recent years there has been a move to holistically evaluate client needs and rethink product and services design to become more appealing for new and existing clients, which in turn, also benefits the institution. This approach, coined “human center design” (HCD) stands to benefit from data, such as the CHFS and SME indexes, which may serve as a broad platform to improve practices and their core offerings.

As of a July 1 update on the CHFS research center’s website (which oversees both surveys), results of the MSME index were officially released last month on June 26. Updates and new results will be published quarterly, with plans made for at least an additional 5-10 years of data collection for both the MSME and household finance indices. As is the case with the CHFS, this data is planned to be made freely available as a public asset for the research community.

Have you read?

Ratings to Loosen the Regulatory Noose on China’s Microcredit Companies

The Role of Microfinance Ratings in the Sustainable Development of China’s Financial Inclusion Sector

Gender Dynamics in Rural China Illuminate the Need for Financial Education