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The demand for, and consequences of, formalization among informal firms in Sri Lanka

  • de Mel, Suresh
  • McKenzie, David
  • Woodruff, Christopher

The majority of firms in most developing countries are informal. The authors of this paper conducted a field experiment in Sri Lanka that provided incentives for informal firms to formalize. Offering only information about the registration process and reimbursement for direct registration costs had no impact on formalization. Adding payments equivalent to one-half to one month's profits for the median firm led to registration of around one-fifth of firms. A larger payment equivalent to two months'median profits induced half the firms to register. The main reasons for not formalizing when offered incentives included issues related to ownership of land and concerns about facing labor taxes in the future. The degree of bureaucracy in the registration process also seems to matter for those with the incentive to register, with response to the incentives higher in Colombo, where the registration process was easier, than in Kandy. Three follow-up surveys, at 15 to 31 months after the intervention, measure the impact of formalizing on these firms. Although mean profits increased, this appears largely due to the experiences of a few firms that grew rapidly, with most firms experiencing no increase in income as a result of formalizing. The authors also find little evidence for most of the channels through which formalization is hypothesized to benefit firms, although formalized firms do advertise more and are more likely to use receipt books. In qualitative interviews owners of formalized firms also feel their businesses have more legitimacy. Finally, formalizing is found to result in a large increase in trust in the state. Their focus is largely on the private costs and benefits of existing firms formalizing. Within their sample they cannot measure broader impacts of formalization on other firms (who may prosper from not having to compete against informal firms not paying taxes), nor impacts of easier formalization on entry of new firms. Nevertheless, our results suggest that although most informal firms do not want to formalize, given the current private costs and benefits of formalizing, policy efforts that lead to relatively modest increases in the net benefits of formalizing would induce a sizeable share of informal firms to formalize.

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Paper provided by The World Bank in its series Policy Research Working Paper Series with number 5991.

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Date of creation: 01 Mar 2012
Date of revision:
Handle: RePEc:wbk:wbrwps:5991
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  1. Marianne Bertrand & Francis Kramarz, 2002. "Does Entry Regulation Hinder Job Creation? Evidence From The French Retail Industry," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, vol. 117(4), pages 1369-1413, November.
  2. McKenzie, David & Seynabou Sakho, Yaye, 2010. "Does it pay firms to register for taxes? The impact of formality on firm profitability," Journal of Development Economics, Elsevier, vol. 91(1), pages 15-24, January.
  3. de Mel, Suresh & McKenzie, David & Woodruff, Christopher, 2007. "Returns to capital in microenterprises : evidence from a field experiment," Policy Research Working Paper Series 4230, The World Bank.
  4. Rafael La Porta & Andrei Shleifer, 2008. "The Unofficial Economy and Economic Development," NBER Working Papers 14520, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  5. Chang-Tai Hsieh & Peter J. Klenow, 2007. "Misallocation and Manufacturing TFP in China and India," NBER Working Papers 13290, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  6. Bruhn, Miriam, 2008. "License to sell : the effect of business registration reform on entrepreneurial activity in Mexico," Policy Research Working Paper Series 4538, The World Bank.
  7. Kaplan, David S. & Piedra, Eduardo & Seira, Enrique, 2011. "Entry regulation and business start-ups: Evidence from Mexico," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 95(11), pages 1501-1515.
  8. McKenzie, David, 2012. "Beyond baseline and follow-up: The case for more T in experiments," Journal of Development Economics, Elsevier, vol. 99(2), pages 210-221.
  9. repec:oup:qjecon:v:124:y:2009:i:4:p:1403-1448 is not listed on IDEAS
  10. Guillermo E. Perry & William F. Maloney & Omar S. Arias & Pablo Fajnzylber & Andrew D. Mason & Jaime Saavedra-Chanduvi, 2007. "Informality : Exit and Exclusion," World Bank Publications, The World Bank, number 6730.
  11. repec:oup:qjecon:v:123:y:2008:i:4:p:1329-1372 is not listed on IDEAS
  12. David Kaplan & Eduardo Piedra & Enrique Seira, 2006. "Are Burdensome Registration Procedures an Important Barrier on Firm Creation? Evidence from Mexico," Discussion Papers 06-013, Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research.
  13. de Mel, Suresh & McKenzie, David J. & Woodruff, Christopher, 2009. "Measuring microenterprise profits: Must we ask how the sausage is made?," Journal of Development Economics, Elsevier, vol. 88(1), pages 19-31, January.
  14. Klapper, Leora & Laeven, Luc & Rajan, Raghuram, 2006. "Entry regulation as a barrier to entrepreneurship," Journal of Financial Economics, Elsevier, vol. 82(3), pages 591-629, December.
  15. Fajnzylber, Pablo & Maloney, William F. & Montes-Rojas, Gabriel V., 2011. "Does formality improve micro-firm performance? Evidence from the Brazilian SIMPLES program," Journal of Development Economics, Elsevier, vol. 94(2), pages 262-276, March.
  16. repec:oup:qjecon:v:122:y:2007:i:1:p:209-241 is not listed on IDEAS
  17. repec:oup:qjecon:v:117:y:2002:i:4:p:1369-1413 is not listed on IDEAS
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  1. The Demand for, and Consequences of, Formalization among Informal Firms in Sri Lanka (AEJ:AE 2013) in ReplicationWiki

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