Measuring Microenterprise Profits: Don’t Ask How the Sausage is Made

  • Date Posted: March 8, 2011
  • Authors: Suresh de Mel, David J. McKenzie, Christopher Woodruff
  • Organizations: World Bank
  • Document Types: Evidence or Research, Evaluation
  • Donor Type: Foundation

Abstract

A large share of the World’s poor is self-employed. Accurate measurement of profits from microenterprises is therefore critical for studying poverty and inequality, measuring the returns to education, and evaluating the success of microfinance programs. However, a myriad of problems plague the measurement of profits. This paper reports on a variety of different experiments conducted to better understand the importance of some of these problems, and to draw recommendations for collecting profit data. In particular, we (i) examine how far we can reconcile self-reported profits and reports of revenue minus expenses through more detailed questions; (ii) examine recall errors in sales, and report on the results of experiments which randomly allocated account books to firms; and (iii) asked firms how much firms like theirs underreport sales in surveys like ours, and had research assistants observe the firms at random times 15-16 times during a month to provide measures for comparison. We conclude that firms underreport revenues by about 30 percent, that account diaries have significant impacts on both revenues and expenses, but not on profits, and that simply asking profits provides a more accurate measure of firm profits than detailed questions on revenues and expenses.