Elisa Macchi

Elisa Macchi

PhD Student in Economics

University of Zurich


I am a PhD student in Economics at the University of Zurich.

I work at the intersection of development and behavioral economics. I am interested in how the social environment affects economic and health outcomes, with a focus on developing countries. My current field work is based in Uganda.

In my job-market paper, I explore the economic benefits of obesity in developing countries. In settings where information is scarce, wealth signals can play an important role. Here, I focus on obesity as a sign of wealth. Using experimental evidence from Kampala (Uganda), I demonstrate that obese people are perceived as rich and that being obese facilitates access to credit. By exploiting random variation in asymmetric information between borrowers and lenders, I conclude that – in the absence of verifiable data on wealth and earnings – body mass matters because it conveys information about a borrower’s quality.

Starting this Summer, I will be a Postdoctoral Fellow at MIT. In January 2023, I will join Brown as an Assistant Professor in Economics. More information is available in my CV.

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Job-Market Paper

Worth your weight? Experimental evidence on the benefits of obesity in low-income countries.

This paper studies the wealth-signaling value and the economic benefits of obesity, a seemingly irrelevant but harmful status symbol, in low-resource settings. My empirical strategy leverages a set of experiments in which I randomly assign body mass by varying if a decision maker sees an obese or a not-obese weight-manipulated portrait. I provide three main results. First, residents of Kampala (Uganda) perceive obesity as a strong signal of wealth, but not of other traits like beauty or health. Second, being obese facilitates access to credit. In a real-stake field experiment in cooperation with 124 Kampala credit institutions, professional loan officers screen borrowers based on body mass. In an access-to-credit index of loan officers’ evaluations, going from normal weight to obese is equivalent to increasing a borrower’s earnings by 60%. Third, the obesity premium is mainly a response to asymmetric information, thus body mass matters because it signals wealth. To test for the wealth-signaling hypothesis, I vary the degree of asymmetric information over wealth: increasing the amount of borrowers’ financial information available reduces the obesity premium by two-thirds. Since obesity and earnings are positively correlated in Kampala, the results may be consistent with profit-maximizing behaviors. Yet, I find evidence of large misperceptions. Obesity benefits in accessing credit are significantly overestimated —thus inefficiently raising the perceived cost of healthy behaviors, and both loan officers and borrowers appear to place too much weight on obesity as a wealth signal —likely distorting supply and demand of credit.

Other Research