Showing posts with label Social Enterprise. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Social Enterprise. Show all posts

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

House Rent Blues: On legal loansharks and crowdfunding

So I haven’t managed to get a blog post out for a couple weeks. That’s partly because I’ve been having some cash-flow management problems, due to some crap planning on my part and some unfortunate payment delays. This is an ongoing issue in freelance life, to smile through gritted teeth when someone at an organisation tells you the admin guy went on holiday and forgot to process your invoice. In a situation when one’s reserves are marginal, small frictions in the system can wipe you out.

Needless to say, when my landlord sent me an sms a few weeks ago saying ‘You haven’t paid your rent, and you have six months of bills to pay too,’ I got a deep down chill. My landlord is a cool guy. He only has one name, and our contract is informal at best, built on trust and belief in human nature rather than legal structures. That’s why he gave me some leeway, and that’s also why I didn’t want to abuse that trust. So I called up my friend George, and asked him what I should do. He wrote a song for me with some suggestions about how to deal with the house rent blues:

It’s an ancient blues, the house-rent blues, and financial services for people suffering from cash-flow irregularities are probably as old as the moon. Short-term loans attached to long-term shackles have long been the speciality of a certain class of societal demon called the Loan-Shark. I’ve been seeing the Loan-Shark in my dreams, under a bridge, at the crossroads of Highway 61 and Highway 49, right there in Clarksdale where John-Lee Hooker wrote the song. In that dream the Loan Shark says “35% interest per month, secured on your soul” and hands me a contract to sign. “That’s pretty steep” I say, “Are you regulated by the SEC?” He’s taken aback. “Hell no brother, but you can count on me.” I look at the small print on the contract. It says: “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.” Yes it’s true, the Devil uses clich├ęs from the Eagles.

The dark desert highway of the Loan Shark extends around the world. You find them in Brazil, you find them in them in South Africa. In Bangladesh you’ve got the ‘5-6’: The guy that loans you 5 taka in the morning, and gets 6 taka back from you at night. That’s 20% interest in one day, which is about 7200% interest annually, uncompounded. That what you call raping the time value of money.

Anyway, in dealing with my cash-flow problem I decided to stay away from Brixton’s loan sharks and to take a look at the legal pay-day loan services. Payday loans are like advances on a salary. You show them proof that you will be getting paid at some point. They advance you the money. You pay the money back with interest when you salary comes through. It’s a way to tide you over liquidity crises.

There’s a big new payday loan outlet that recently opened up by the Brixton Academy, opposite the St. Barnados Charity Shop. I had to wait for a while to get served, and watched a women in her early 30s sort of plead with them for a two-day extention on a £200 loan that she couldn’t quite pay back yet. I’m not sure there was a pleasant story behind her situation, and the lady who served her was gently refusing. It can’t be an easy job dealing with people on the thin-edge of financial stability.

When my turn came, I got served by a young guy who was quick to tell me that the company is actually American, and that they have six outlets in the UK, the Brixton branch being a flagship of sorts. As for the terms of their payday loan: 25% per month, which is 300% per year, more modest than the classic loan shark, but ridiculous costly nevertheless. In order to get a £625 pound advance on your paycheck, you’d have to pay them back £780. I asked what would happen if I didn’t pay back in time. He said the matter is then passed on to their payment delinquency service, who would organise an ‘alternative payment plan’.

I reckoned I might check out some of the online payday loan services instead. Payday UK comes top of the search results. Again, the terms of the loan are 25% interest per month. Yep, for a £400 advance, you pay back £500 in a month. Wonga is another one, only this time it has a deceptively cuddly name and even worse terms: For £400 loan, you pay back £525 within a month. This really does not seem like a sustainable business model and people looking for £400 advances aren’t really the kind of people who should be spending £125 on liquidity management. There must be social enterprise models waiting to emerge in this space…

Out of curiosity I visited the pawn shop. Pawn shops allow you to pledge gold or jewelry as collateral in exchange for a loan. I didn’t actually have anything valuable to pawn, but if I did, their deal was better, at 6% interest per month. 

The lower interest rate is a due to the fact the loan is secured on some valuable bounty, so if you don’t pay back, they just keep your stash. Collateral lowers your ‘cost of capital’ because it provides protection to the lender, and it’s one of those unfortunate realities that those who possess collateral tend to be wealthy individuals. Some might say that that’s a reason why wealth tends to concentrate around existing wealth… ahem, Mr. Marx.

So what do you do when you don’t have collateral to base a loan off? You label yourself an entrepreneur, and you raise money against the fabulous future wealth that you claim you'll create. That’s what I was thinking when I went to a talk on crowd-funding, given by Theresa Burton from a company called BuzzBnk. The idea behind crowd-funding is that you attract small-scale (philanthropic) investors to contribute to your cause. You need a catchy story to get people to invest in you though, and ‘Can you guys give me £400 so that I can pay my landlord’ is not going to cut it. On the other hand, ‘Can you give me £3000 so I can finish my book’ just might…. Did I mention that I’m writing a book? (more on this topic later)

In the end, time constraints required that I turn to the most powerful and ancient financial service: Angel investors…. By which I mean friends, the great providers of flexible and low interest loans. Thanks guys.

The moral of the story then is that I continue to live an unsustainable life and have a great new idea for an unprofitable business: A freelancers’ co-operative to help London’s army of freelance workers deal with the ordeals of invoice delays. This sounds like a good idea, to sink my energy into something which will have… um …. marginal and sporadic cash flows attached to it, at best.

But who needs stability when you have one bourbon, one scotch, and one beer…

As for how I defeated the Loan-Shark, I had another dream last night: 

Sunday, 15 May 2011

The Politics and Culture of Social Finance: Big Society Bank

London is the home to a small but growing ‘social finance’ community. It’s an imprecise term, but in general social finance is seen to encompass finance for social causes, finance for public services, finance for social enterprises, and finance for vulnerable communities. That covers a pretty wide scope, ranging from crackpot schemes to move back to a barter economy, all the way to mainstream debates about alternative finance sources for public services.

On Wednesday I attended PopSe!, a ‘popup think-tank’ on social enterprise. The theme of the day was social finance, and in particular, the issues around the UK government’s plans to set up the ‘Big Society Bank’.

That’s a pretty politicised name for a bank, and gives rise to interpretations of it being the thin edge of a wedge the government is promoting to take the slack from its public service pull-back. To be accurate though, the Big Society Bank is not really a bank. It’s more like an investment fund, and it will start with £100 million, to be used for the purpose of providing wholesale finance to other social finance organisations. In other words, it’s supposed to be a financier for social financiers.

In the grand scheme of things, a hundred million pounds is pretty tiny, but a handful of mainstream banks have pledged to put cash in as well. All this raises fears of it becoming a window-dressing operation for banks’ CSR departments, as well as the government. The murky political undertones, and it’s potential to be used as a means to change in the culture of social services, means there’s a fair amount of skepticism about this new ‘social investment bank’.

At Wednesday’s discussion session, participants expressed concern at the lack of specific detail on what the bank’s remit was. It’s supposed to support social financiers, but will that include credit unions and community development finance institutions – CDFIs? Would it really support existing social finance institutions, or would it actually compete with them, as some fear. We wondered who would get employed there – would it be staffed by jaded ex-public sector employees, or ex-investment bankers carrying sad tales of emptiness in the fast-lane, in search of something meaningful?

All these details will be ironed out in due course. What I’m more worried about is the culture of social finance: The problem is that it’s still so bloody un-sexy, bogged down in public sector buzzword speak, phrases like ‘enhanced service delivery’ and ‘outcomes-based commissioning’. There’s little in the way of hard technology and cowboy venture capitalists. Instead, there’s abstract concepts and social metrics designed by people with concerned looks on their faces. It’s self-conscious, and that makes me suspicious to its potential for overhyping itself.

My last question at the meeting remained unanswered: What relevance does the Big Society Bank have to large-scale housing, health and education needs in the country? A one hundred million fund ain’t even going to come close to touching those issues. Social finance needs to be upscaled beyond being an add-on to the small-scale social enterprise sector. It needs to move beyond Bono sunglasses and Apple Macs. It needs serious realism.