Image by Jennifer Luxton.
There’s a financial fault line that runs through the heart of our economy. Wall Street’s most recent rumblings—which saw the major indices take a dive in response to weak growth in China—are a stark reminder of the danger. If the stocks go tumbling in, so do our businesses, jobs, paychecks, and pensions. The tremors may have subsided for the moment, but if we’re to give the late financial seismologist Charles Kindleberger any credit, the next big one could be right around the corner.
According to Kindleberger’s classic book Manias, Panics and Crashes, the market sees notable financial quakes or “panics” roughly every seven years or so. The frequency has increased recently, with significant panics occurring in 1989 (Savings and Loan crisis), 1992 (Britain’s Black Wednesday), 1997 (East Asian crisis), 1999 (Tech Bubble), and of course 2007-08. Whether the recent seven-year twitch turns out to be just a minor temblor or a foreshock to something much worse remains to be seen.
But one thing is for certain: If we don’t find a way to shift our increasingly financialized economy to stable ground, the next big crash is inevitable.
The Wall Street formula for disaster is simple: ever-greater money chasing ever-bigger bets with ever -faster payoffs on ever-riskier financial products equals crashes of seismic proportions. Greater, bigger, faster, riskier. It’s like a twisted Daft Punk song.
But like an effort to rebuild and resettle an entire city away from a fault line, the task of reconstructing the financial system on firmer footing is gargantuan. Commonly cited solutions—like breaking up the big banks and reinstating the Glass-Steagall Act, which prohibited banks from gambling with their customers’ deposits until it was repealed in 1999—will help. But by themselves they amount to shoring up skyscrapers against collapse and do not confront the underlying problem. Not to mention that they do nothing to change the fact that most of us would still live in substandard walk-ups in the shadows of towering wealth.
To ensure stability and equity, what we really need is a comprehensive rebuild beyond the quake zone.
Thankfully, the cohorts of new economy innovators that I refer to in this series as “checkerboard revolutionaries” have been leading that effort for years. Look closely and you’ll see their sturdy and equitable structures taking shape across a new financial landscape.
Surveying the new financial landscape
Some of these new-economy financial structures depend on community money. For instance, there’s the up-and-coming investment vehicle called the direct public offering (DPO), which allows you to skip the Wall Street casino and hand your money directly to the companies you support. DPOs are a bit like Kickstarter-style crowdfunding campaigns, in that the money flows in from a social network of backers who generally believe strongly in the mission of the company. Many investors in DPOs are thus drawn from companies’ existing customer bases—as in the case of Annie’s Homegrown, which raised $1.3 million through a DPO in 1995—or live nearby and share its values—as in the case of the People’s Grocery in Oakland, California, which is conducting a DPO of its own right now.
But unlike Kickstarter fundraisers, DPOs offer investors a financial stake in the company. They’re also governed by state-level regulations that help ensure the legitimacy and quality of the offering.
Other structures depend on a mix of public and private funding. For instance, the last several decades have seen significant growth among community development financial institutions (CDFIs) –enterprises whose primary purpose is to provide investment dollars to low-income communities. Common examples include some credit unions and community banks. Currently there are more than 900 CDFIs nationwide that are eligible to apply for funding through a competitive grant program administered by the Treasury Department.
Since its launch in 1994, this program has awarded $2 billion in federal funds to CDFIs, helping them to channel tens of billions more in private investment dollars into some of the nation’s most financially underserved neighborhoods.
Other types of new-economy investment vehicles include Evergreen Direct Investing—a kind of DPO for institutional investors like pension funds; the preferred-share offering, which has allowed companies like the worker-owned Equal Exchange to raise amounts that exceed what DPOs tend to allow; and the investment cooperative, which allows communities to pool their money through a democratic nonprofit that invests in local wealth-building projects like small businesses and affordable housing.
It’s a varied list, and it goes on. But for all its variety there is a certain commonality to the principles that underlie it. These include the fostering a sense of greater mutual concern and commitment between investors and companies, and the intention to grow real locally-rooted wealth. But, critically for the long-term sustainability of the system, these financial tools share one additional common principle: patience.
By contrast, impatience rules Wall Street. Mainstream markets favor assets that pay big and deliver fast. The upshot is a system loaded down with escalating levels of risk, as the values of stocks and other financial products balloon out of proportion to the income the underlying enterprises generate through the sale of actual products or services. The need for speed has produced a market where a clear majority of shares change hands through computerized, high-frequency trades that often occur on the order of milliseconds. And this culture has also spawned legions of business managers fixated on boosting quarterly earnings numbers, rather than the long-term health of their companies.
If you want to build a mere façade of prosperity, a house of cards, then fast money is the way to go. But an economy that’s built to last and built for all requires the time and care that’s only possible with a patient financial system. The Italian economist Mariana Mazzucato lays out the concept elegantly in this video.
What patient finance looks like
The new-economy finance experts at Cutting Edge Capital champion a DPO model that demonstrates the benefits of patient finance. For starters, there are the conditions for cashing out. According to Cutting Edge’s Andy Bamber, patient financiers may have to wait several months to sell their shares back to the companies he advises, while selling one’s shares to a third party is often off the table by default.
This eliminates a hallmark speculative strategy known as arbitrage—wherein traders buy a stock with the intention to sell as soon as the price rises—and consequently the wildly changing prices that go along with it. Indeed, arbitrage is why high-speed trading is even a thing to begin with. For what those fast financers are seeking to profit from are tiny price shifts that might earn them only pennies per share, pennies that add up to big bucks when multiplied across the huge share volumes they typically trade in.
Then there’s the matter of the way shareholders get paid. A dividend is effectively an annual interest payment to shareholders, taken out of company income. Most dividend payouts, or “yields,” under the Cutting Edge model fall in the reasonable range of 4 to 5 percent a year, while Wall Street speculators might purchase shares with yields as high as 50 percent. The modest yields offer a greater incentive for an investor to hold on to their shares for a number of years, to allow time for interest to grow. Moreover, companies can choose to pay the accumulated dividends in one lump sum along with the principle value of the share after a set period of years—at which point the share may expire. By requiring investors to wait, say, five years for their dividends, companies are able to use their income to grow in the short term so that they are in a better position to repay in the longer term.
Patient financiers also have to be OK with not taking over companies and selling them off at a profit. This isn’t to say that company management could not choose to sell out to a larger company at some point. Indeed, that’s exactly what Annie’s Homegrown and Ben & Jerry’s did in the years following their DPOs. But such cases tend to be the exception, not the rule. Bamber’s clients, for instance, have made it clear to investors that they’re not in business to be bought out, and their shareholders have not received the voting rights they’d need to force a sale.
What do investors get for sacrificing speed and control? It’s mostly the knowledge that they’re building real businesses dedicated to growing community wealth and to promoting other new-economy values such as workplace democracy. By putting limits on investor privilege and curbing the speculator profit motive, patient finance reorients the purpose of investment toward actually developing the long-term viability of enterprise, so that it becomes a source of prosperity for all stakeholders—not just shareholders.
Yet, for all its promise and recent progress, the patient financial system is tiny in comparison to its impatient counterpart. Just consider that, over the last five years, the eight companies on the Cutting Edge roster have managed to raise somewhere in the neighborhood of $5 to $10 million, according to Bamber. (The uncertainty in that figure is due to the fact that the companies do not have to inform Cutting Edge of the total amount that they have raised, or that they’ve run “quiet DPOs”, as Bamber puts it.) Without detailed state-by-state research on DPOs, we can’t say for sure how many other socially and environmentally responsible companies have used similar types of offerings in the last five years. But Bamber estimates that the number is likely in the hundreds and the capital raised in the tens of millions.
Compare that to the billions that flow into Wall Street each year, when big companies like Shake Shack or FitBit go public, and you begin to grasp the scale of the challenge.
To shift enough investment capital away from casino finance and restore stability to the economy, the hard work and creativity of the pioneers of patient finance will not be enough. As I’ve argued throughout this series, checkerboard revolutionaries will need to muster national-scale social and political support for their solutions to displace the status quo.
Systemic solutions for systemic change
One model for the type of systemic support patient financiers might turn to is probably familiar to many readers. It’s called the financial transactions tax (FTT), which many public figures, from former secretary of labor Robert Reich to presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, have called for. The basic idea is to place a small tax on the sale of securities like stocks and derivatives. To date, more than 30 countries, including some members of the European Union, already have such a tax. With an FTT, the more often you trade, the more often you’re taxed, and ostensibly this will encourage you to slow those trades down.
And of course there’s the added benefit that an FTT can raise public revenue—a lot of it. Indeed, according to the Tax Policy Center even a tiny .01 percent FTT, comparable to Europe’s tax on derivatives trades, could pump nearly $200 billion dollars into public coffers over 10 years. Imagine what would be possible if we dared to push for a tax that was an order of magnitude greater or beyond, as Senator Sanders has called for?
And that’s precisely what we should be imagining if we really want to shift the system in the direction of patient capital. For while that one one-hundredth of one percent might cut down on the worst forms of high-speed arbitrage, it will certainly not be sufficient to stabilize the fault line. A larger tax would of course require a revolutionary shift in our political system, but given Wall Street’s current power, so too would the smaller tax. So we might as well think big and begin voicing our support for policies and policymakers that would really challenge the status quo.
Of course imposing a serious FTT is only part of the puzzle. The other piece concerns how to use the trillions in revenue it could raise. Without doubt, there are any number of worthy public investments in desperate need of a shower of revenue after a long fiscal drought, from clean energy to education, social security, health care, and infrastructure. But ultimately, the best antidote to an economy built around fast money is the creation of a new one built around patient money and long-term community wealth creation.
What would that look like? Higher taxes on Wall Street transactions could be used in part to fund significant tax breaks or credits for enterprises and investors wishing to engage in Cutting Edge-style DPOs or other channels of new-economy finance. Alternatively, it could fund a dramatic expansion of the successful federal CDFI Fund, which would result in direct investments in some of America’s poorest places and launch a new War on Poverty we’d have a real chance of winning. In fact, similar programs offering public grants (or even-low interest loans) might be established to give new-economy businesses like worker-owned cooperatives the seed money they need to establish themselves as an attractive investment opportunity for private financiers.
But along with these new sources of federal funds, we’d also need new policies to provide better oversight, improve the regulatory process, and ensure that we’re encouraging the types of products and business practices that will truly grow democratic and sustainable community wealth.
For it’s important to recognize that not all DPOs are created equal. Yes, they all provide a route around the brokerage middleman and ensure your dollars go right to the company. And yet the offerings themselves can be structured so as to replicate some of the worst practices of impatient finance—from absentee ownership to shareholder supremacy and hostile takeovers. Indeed, as mentioned above, two notable DPO beneficiaries—Annie’s Homegrown and Ben & Jerry’s—ended up as appendages of large multinationals.
So rebuild we must. But as we do, we need to keep an eye on the ground for any cracks that may appear and make sure what we’re building is resilient and meets the real needs of our communities.