Financial innovation for social business: what are the risks?

Antonella Noya all’OECD (grazie!) mi ha passato un loro rapporto, The Changing Boundaries of Social Enterprises, in cui si cerca di fare il punto sugli ultimi dieci anni di impresa sociale nei paesi industrializzati. Sono stati anni importanti per questo settore, da tutti i punti di vista: di crescita e strutturazione, legislativo e anche finanziario. Da quest’ultimo punto di vista un riassunto potrebbe essere questo: le imprese sociali sono sottocapitalizzate, e stentano in particolare ad accedere a strumenti finanziari diversi dal prestito (loan) e dal contributo (grant). Molta innovazione finanziaria ha cercato di risolvere questo problema. Antonella Noya at OECD (thanks!) pointed me to their report The Changing Boundaries of Social Enterprises, in which they attempt to render the past ten years of social enterprise in developed countries. It’s been an important ten years for this sector, from all points of view: growth, legislation and finance too. From a finance perspective, an executive summary could as follows: social enterprises are undercapitalized and find it difficult to access financial instruments other than traditional loans or grants. A lot of financial innovation was thrown at the problem.

Il rapporto OECD fa un elenco impressionante: venture philantropy, prestiti “pazienti”, piattaforme di crowdfunding à la Kickstarter, indici per misurare la performance sociale degli investimenti come i Dow Jones Sustainability Indices e così via. Tutto bene? Sì e no. Sì, perché il problema esiste e si sta cercando di affrontarlo. No, perché si stanno facendo cose che ricalcano un po’ troppo da vicino la precedente ondata di innovazione finanziaria — quella, tanto per capirci, che ha portato alla crisi globale del 2008. The OECD report has an impressive list: venture philantropy, “patient” loans, crowdfunding platforms à la Kickstarter, social performance assessment tools like the Dow Jones Sustainability Indices and so on. All’s well then? Yes and no. Yes, because the problem exists and is being looked into. No, because it is being addressed in a way which is a little too reminiscent of that other wave of financial innovation, the one that gave us the 2008 global meltdown.

Considerate Blue Orchard. La loro idea è semplice: mettere in comunicazione gli investitori istituzionali (per esempio i fondi pensione), che vogliono comprare prodotti finanziari etici, con il microcredito. E come si fa? Per cominciare si fanno molti microprestiti. Ciascun prestito corrisponde a un attivo nel bilancio del microcreditore. A questo punto il microcreditore prende tutti questi piccoli attivi di bilancio, e li usa per garantire l’emissione di un’obbligazione (cioè uno strumento finanziario derivato da quello primario, cioè il microprestito) che poi rivende all’investitore istituzionale. Fatto! Quest’ultimo ha fatto un investimento etico senza bisogno di imparare a distinguere tra loro i microprestiti e i microcreditori. Per contro, l’istituzione di microcredito ha reperito liquidità aggiuntiva, e può fare altro microcredito. Perfetto, no?Consider Blue Orchard. It’s a simple idea: connect institutional investors (say, pension funds) wanting to invest ethically with microlending. How does that work? It begins with some institution making microloans. Each of them creates an asset in the balance sheet of the microlending institutions. Now this microlender takes all of these assets, packages them up and uses them as collateral to back a bond (which is a derivative product, its primary being of course the microloans) which he then sells to the institutional investor. And it’s done! The latter has been enabled to invest ethically without actually having to be able to tell which microborrowers to lend to. At the same time, the microlending institution has gained extra liquidity, and can go on to make more microlending. Great!

Non necessariamente. Questo processo in finanza si chiama cartolarizzazione: il suo effetto ultimo è quello di allontanare il debitore dal creditore finale. Prima della cartolarizzazione i mutui casa venivano concessi da banche locali, che conoscevano il debitore ed erano ragionevolmente in grado di valutarne l’affidabilità. Se quest’ultimo si trovava in cattive acque, la banca locale faceva il possibile per consentirgli di ristrutturare il debito: in fondo si trattava di un cliente e di un membro di quella comunità, ed era interesse della banca che la comunità che serviva fosse il più prospera possibile. Con la cartolarizzazione, però, il mutuo del signor Rossi viene impacchettato con altri in uno strumento derivato, e rivenduto a un investitore non locale: se va bene un fondo, se va male un hedge fund molto aggressivo. Appena Rossi ritarda con un pagamento, questo investitore non ha nessuna ragione di essere comprensivo: farà la cosa che gli conviene nell’immediato, visto che non partecipa alla comunità locale in cui Rossi vive. Cosa faranno i fondi pensione che comprano i prodotti Blue Orchard se dovessero trovare che i rendimenti sono troppo bassi? Se decidono che devono rientrare immediatamente dei loro crediti, quale sarà l’effetto di questo rientro sul microcreditore? Può essere costretto a rientrare a sua volta, compromettendo il beneficio sociale di avere investito sul proprio lavoro?Or is it? The process described is called securitization. One of its effects is to separate the borrower from the final lender (in this example the pension fund). Before they got securitized, home mortgages were issued by local banks, that knew borrowers personally and could assess their creditworthiness reasonably well. If they got it wrong and the borrower found it difficult to repay the debt, the bank would do its best to get him back on track, possibly restructuring her debt: after all, she was a client, and lived in the same local community as the bank. The more prosperous the community, the better things were for the bank. After securitization, all this changed: now John Smith’s mortgage is repackaged and sold to a nonlocal lender — a pension fund at best, a very aggressive hedge fund at worst. As soon as Mr. Smith starts falling behind with his payments, this investor has no reason to be understanding: it will try to maximize its immediate gain, as he has no stake in Smith and his community’s long-run prosperity. What will the pension funds that purchase Blue Orchard’s products if they find that the returns are too low? If they decide to exit fast, what will the consequences be for the microborrowers? Could they be forced to pay their debit back or lose their assets too? Could this wipe out the social benefit of the poorest of the poor investing in themselves?

Discorsi simili si possono fare per i “mercati di capitale etico” in via di collaudo in diversi paesi, come ETHEX nel Regno Unito o la Bolsa des Valores Sociais in Brasile. Il mercato azionario che conosciamo ha portato molti capitali alle imprese for profit, al prezzo di indurle a una prospettiva di breve termine: un buon risultato trimestrale è fondamentale per non perdere la fiducia del mercato. Cosa succederebbe alle imprese sociali le cui azioni (sì, alcune emettono azioni) fossero scambiate alla borsa di Londra o New York?Similar questions can be asked for ethical capital markets being rolled out in some countries, like ETHEX in the UK or Bolsa des Valores Sociais in Brazil. The stock market as we know it brought a fresh stream of capital to for profit enterprises, but at the price of making them focus away from long term growth and onto quarterly results. What would happen to social enterprises once their shares (yes, some do issue shares) are traded in Wall Street or London?

Sono domande inquietanti. Ma fare finta di niente sarebbe peggio: non abbiamo scelta se non cercare le risposte.These are unsettling questions. But looking the other way would be much worse: we have no choice butlook fo the answers.

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2 thoughts on “Financial innovation for social business: what are the risks?

  1. Karl H Richter

    Hi Alberto,
    you’ve hit an important issue square on the head: how does one promote the secondary social investment market, which is important for liquidity, without increasing systemic risk and creating a disconnect between investee and investor objectives. There is much to resolve by the social investment industry itself.

    It will be useful to look at other debates as reference points. The dilemma is aligned to an interesting debate in the bond industry about building shock absorbers into debt products. People like Joseph Stiglitz have been arguing for contingent convertible bonds (co-co’s) to be introduced. The idea is to build in fire-breaks which are able to contain situations of rapid portfolio devaluation (and the likes of a Lehmans collapse) thereby preventing consequential contagion spreading throughout the industry.

    Co-co’s are convertibles that convert, or become convertible, if a specified event occurs, rather than being simply convertible at the option of the bond holder. In short, a bond buyer’s interests could be converted to equity in a situation of rapid portfolio devaluation. This preserves capitalisation levels of the issuer, by preserving their tier 1 capital, without forcing them to go bust.

    What I find most interesting, and absent from this debate so far, is that co-co’s also importantly change the motivation (and hopefully behaviours) of bond holders – who potentially become equity investors, and by implication need to be much more engaged in their investments to ensure success.

    Other debates are also relevant in this sphere. Changes to director’s and investors priorities away from short-termism towards long term value creation are constructive, but requires global regulatory consensus and is some time away from being universally implemented. Although recent changes to Director duties in the UK are in the right direction.

    It suggests to me that there are two issues here 1) growing and maturing the social investment market (which as social innovation and investment practitioners we can be activists for), and 2) improving systemic stability of the overall financial markets of which social finance is a sub-set (we can be commentators on).

    Best,
    Karl

    Reply
    1. Alberto Post author

      Karl, thanks for your point. I did not know about co-cos (not by this name, at least): I’ll have to chew on it for some time. As for short-termism, I don’t really see a move away from it either: we can engage in as much wishful thinking as we want, but the thing is the financial system, right now, incentivizes agents to maximize short-term gain. Asking them to restrain from doing so without addressing the issue of incentive redesign is plain hypocritical.

      Reply

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