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Creative Destruction in Small Business Bankruptcy

posted by Jason Kilborn

Two distantly related items caught my eye this morning, as both reinforce the need for "creative destruction" as a response to all-too-common small business failure.

The first was a NYT piece on the travails of a female entrepreneur in China. It tells a heart-wrenching story of a system in which the state brutally represses honest but unfortunate debtors, including via the infamous blacklist that prevents defaulters from using air and train travel (effectively curtailing re-entry into business, even if financial and economic factors might otherwise allow this). This is a story about what it looks like when there is no bankruptcy backstop, no reset button to start fresh and undertake a new venture with the hard lessons of failure firmly in mind.

The other item explores the transition from such an unforgiving system--in Spain--after the introduction of a discharge for (most) small business debt. The linked Bank of Spain working paper offers further evidence of the salutary effects of small business bankruptcy that discharges individual entrepreneurs and encourages them to restart. The reform fostered the "creative destruction" of these entrepreneurs' ventures, with the failed firms exiting the market (rather than lingering as productivity-depressing zombies), which "leads to technological change and higher productivity growth" as "the introduction of the fresh start policy promoted firm creation among Spanish micro-firms, especially in companies with a high share of intangible assets, which are likely to be involved in innovation activities, and in sectors with high productivity." Nicely linking the two contrasting accounts from China and Spain, the Bank of Spain paper concludes, "This finding also suggests that a starkly pro-creditor personal bankruptcy law with no real fresh start, like the Spanish one before 2015, may be an important barrier to entry for small businesses." Indeed.

It still surprises me that lawmakers around the world continue to resist this long-established truth for small business, powerfully undermining the most important driver of economic development worldwide. Worse yet, the mere introduction of a personal bankruptcy law with a debt discharge is not enough--the system actors have to actually support a fresh-start policy rather than actively undermining it, which turns out to have been the disappointing result of the first two years of such a system in Shenzhen, China. One hopes that national legislatures, like small entrepreneurs, can learn from failure and move forward with proper personal bankruptcy laws when given a fresh opportunity to do so.

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