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How alternative finance can offer a better banking future

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How alternative finance can offer a better banking future

Do you know where your money is? If you immediately think of cash, then there’s a good chance you’ve just patted a pocket or looked in a purse to reassure yourself. But if you thought of your savings and investments, then there’s actually a good chance you have no idea where your money is – other than to draw the quick (and misleading) conclusion that it is “safely in the bank”.

After all, where else would it be?

We recently saw the revelation that another major bank – this time Germany’s Deutsche Bank – could collapse. According to Germany’s economy minister, Sigmar Gabriel, it “made speculation its business model”, though now claims to be the “victim of speculators”.

But there is an alternative to this banking model that isn’t based on financial speculation. Research that colleagues and I have done into economic resilience would suggest that many people might be better off investing in alternative finance and, to encourage them, the government should guarantee alternative finance investments up to a maximum of £5,000.

Finally, an alternative

The UK is the home of Europe’s rapidly-growing alternative finance (or “alt fin”) movement, which is fast becoming a major player in the financial sector. Valued at £3.2 billion in 2015, a big part of its appeal is that we can often know more precisely where our money is and what it is doing. Whereas with mainstream banks, your money is used to fund various investments, often on financial markets that you have no control over, investors in alternative finance projects tend to invest in a specific project.

Alternative finance has been around since at least 2004, with the founding of online peer-to-peer lender, Zopa. But a far broader range of options have sprung up since the financial crisis. In our research, we found online peer-to-peer platforms that bypass the banks entirely, community share schemes that allow both direct investment in and democratic influence of a given project, and crowdfunding to support a local SME business take off. Greater transparency so that people know exactly where their money is and what it is doing is key.

Beyond this there are many different financial arrangements, all with different implications for funders and fundraisers. Peer-to-peer loans, bonds and debentures have to be repaid with interest. Community shares are regulated to keep dividend payments low, but give shareholders a say in the governance of the fundraising organisation.

Government backing?

Despite the very public loss of reputation suffered by high street banks following the financial crisis in 2007, we still seem to trust them with our money. In wondering how mainstream banks were able to return so quickly to “business as usual”, one answer is that we did too. A big reason for this might be that we didn’t know what else we could do with our money and the perceived risks of new ways of investing.

There are understandable anxieties about alternative investments at a time of significant restraints on household budgets, especially when two in five of the UK workforce have less than £100 in savings. This is why the government should step in and guarantee retail investments in alternative finance.

It’s a relatively small ask compared to the Financial Services Compensation Scheme, which is the current guarantee of cash deposited in UK-regulated accounts in banks and building societies up to a limit of £75,000 – even though such investments provide very little financial return to savers or deliver tangible social or environmental value from this money.

Alt fin tries to provide us with a way of diverting our money away from habitual patterns of economic behaviour. And it is delivering real social and environmental benefit to communities. These include renewable energy schemes, community home building, or renovating disused land into play spaces for children.

One of the banks that has been bailed out by the government since the financial crisis. Elliott Brown, CC BY

We argue that the government should help the process of building trust in alternative finance investments by providing this maximum guarantee with the condition that investment is directed into the “real economy” and not just financial markets.

Proceed with caution

Of course, any such guarantee should be approached with caution. After all, this suggests a breaking of the “risk/return” cycle – a basic tenet of banking that with any investment comes risk – and potentially opens the way to abuse, with people making risky investments with the comfort of a government backstop.

But if we are to build a more resilient financial system, we need a far greater range of options for where to direct our money. Alternative finance is not perfect, and a growing entanglement with mainstream finance may see the sector start to resemble mainstream practices. To manage the process of truly democratising finance and providing genuine alternatives to putting our money “safely in the bank”, the Financial Conduct Authority should play a leading role as regulator.

And if a taxpayer guarantee sounds contentious, it is worth remembering that the risk/return cycle was significantly broken by the process of bailing out the banks in 2007-08. Banks, too big to fail and to jail, currently create 97% of “money” through credit, preferring to speculate on money and financial markets in the hope of creating profit, rather than investing in the “real economy”.

If the practice is good for safeguarding the hidden financial speculation of the few, why not for safeguarding the transparent material social and environmental gains for the many?

In continuing to assume the mainstream banks are the safest place to invest, we might be missing the opportunity to make our money do good by working harder for us and our communities.