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Is relationship-based lending really the second best?

Franklin Allen, Meijun Qian, Jing Xie
16 Jun 2022 00:00:00 | Update: 16 Jun 2022 00:38:20
Is relationship-based lending really the second best?

There is a widespread belief that alternative financing channels that rely on social or business connections are costlier or riskier and that they are used only when asymmetric information and adverse selection cause financing through banks and equity markets to be unavailable. This perspective contradicts several empirical observations: alternative financing remains strong in many economies with developed banks and markets; trade credits are employed more by large or monopoly firms than small firms; and firms that use alternative financing sometimes perform better than those accessing bank loans.

In a recent working paper, we resolve the puzzle by developing a framework that allows competition dynamics among various financing channels in the same funding markets. The study reveals that standard bank financing is not necessarily optimal even when there are no information asymmetry or moral hazard problems. Alternative financing methods are preferred by a range of lenders in the market who have implicit benefits with lenders in transactions. These methods offer lower financing costs and lead to better project outcomes.

Implicit benefits often arise between borrowers and lenders due to social relationships, business connections, repeated interactions, and transactional externalities. For example, corporate insider debtholders have careers and income tied to firm performance. A financial institution providing credits to firms may simultaneously hold the firms' equity. The supplier providing trading credits benefits from the buyer's survival and business expansions. Implicit benefits could also be a reputation concern in repeated games, a spillover effect to other clients, or collateral values associated with social or business relationships.

We use a continuous parameter in the model to subsume a variety of scenarios that correspond to various financing channels with different extents of implicit benefits in real-world practice. These financing channels compete in the same market with no asymmetric information, difficulty in evaluating projects, or capital structure or tax concerns. This approach distinguishes itself from previous studies that approach the topic by demonstrating the desirability of particular alternative channels in coping with specific market imperfections.

Lenders and borrowers aim to maximize their expected utility, respectively, by considering not only their own payoffs in the focal transaction, but also the implicit benefits linked to the other party's payoff from the focal transaction and related investment. Knowing each other's purpose and project conditions, as in a Nash equilibrium, lenders decide on the interest rate and borrowers decide on the level of effort put into the financed project. As a result, in a competitive financing market, although the interest is the same for all financing channels due to funding competition, the borrowers exert greater effort on the project, which leads to better payoffs for both lenders and borrowers. In a monopoly market, although lenders raise the interest rate, they do not reap all the surplus, to induce greater effort from the borrower for the project. This incentive increases with the extent of implicit benefit, leading to rising payoffs to lenders and sometimes borrowers. These results challenge the conventional belief: rather than second best, alternative financing methods, such as family loans, trade credits, and business group financing, are the preferred choice by a range of lenders and borrowers in the market. 

In contrast to the conventional assumption that financing through formal institutions is optimal, bank loans could be the second best alternative among various financing channels. This idea seems counterintuitive to the financial market trend. We enrich the model with project heterogeneity, social-economic dynamics, advantages of financial intermediation, and information networks. These features in the modern economy explain why formal financial institutions like banks become favored, despite the advantages of other financing methods in the general setting.  For example, when project size and complexity expand, specialized expertise and large funding pools in financial institutions become essential. The implicit benefits arising from social networks and repeated games shrink when community mobility increases in modern society.