The End of Banks as We Know Them?
September 16, 2013 Editor 0
Last week my father received a phone call from the branch director of his long-standing bank to offer him a new product. My father, instead of listening with confidence to the advice of a trustworthy agent, was immediately suspicious. He dreaded another 30-page prospectus full of small print — and another potential trap. My father’s experience is mirrored all over the world. Millions of people have lost confidence in banks.
But the dissatisfaction and disappointment with our banks runs deeper. The last bank in my hometown closed a year ago. After serving the community for more than thirty years, it was no longer seen as economically viable. Another casualty of cost cutting, it simply closed its doors — even though local people and businesses that had used that bank all their lives still relied upon it. Again, this story is repeated around the world. This, we are told (in expensive TV ads), is progress. A global world needs global banks — whether we as their local customers like it or not.
But something has been lost along the way. Even before the banking crisis of 2008, something was gradually, but undeniably, in decline. Trust. Millions of savers and borrowers listened (and still listen) to reports of record profits at their bank — even as they are told their local branch is closing to save costs. The two facts do not add up. Today, the belief among ordinary account holders that banks are there to serve us has all but disappeared. Where once they were regarded as pillars of the community, banks are increasingly seen as the unpalatable face of big business.
In many cases, banks have sacrificed the needs of the local community — and indeed the belief in the community ideal — in the scramble to go global. That globalization has come at the cost of local service. What the banks seem to have forgotten is that the global village is made up of millions of local communities. (The banking sector is not alone in this. In industry after industry, companies have gone global with something approaching abandon, often with little regard for the local communities that gave them life.)
So, why is this and does it matter? And, perhaps more importantly, can anything be done to fill the yawning gap in local communities all over the world? My research suggests that there is a viable alternative to local banks. It is something I call community financing.
Community financing refers to a form of cash-flow that channels the financial resources of the savers of a community into the well-being of that community via economic activities, which members of the community believe should be undertaken and therefore willingly supports with their savings.
There are many examples of Community Finance initiatives around the world, some large some small. Think of Kiva, Kickstarter, or microlending. But it’s not all about internet startups or social enterprise. One of my favorites is the story of the JAK Members Bank (or JAK Medlemsbank), a co-operative member-owned financial institution based in Skovde, Sweden. The bank does not participate in capital markets; all of its loans are raised solely from member savings. In 2011, JAK had assets (savings) of 131 million Euros and 38,000 members, who are each allowed one share in the bank and determine its policies and direction.
JAK relies on the “saving points” system — members accrue points for saving and use them to apply for a loan. The idea is that you are allowed to take out a loan for yourself to the same extent that you allow other people to receive loans. The bank uses a simple accounting rule to ensure its own sustainability: overall, earned savings points must equal spent savings point. JAK does not charge or pay interest on any of its loans (a principle it shares with Islamic banking).
To see how this works in practice, consider a true story. An entrepreneur in the small community of Skatteungby, some 300 kilometers from Stockholm, asked the JAK Bank for a loan to develop a shop. Although he remained ultimately responsible for paying back the loan, the project was able to go ahead because he enjoyed the support of individuals within the community who wanted the shop. Enough people in his local community made a deposit from their personal savings into the account to finance the shop, fulfilling the saving schema that JAK requires for granting a loan. In this scheme, the risk stays at the bank, the responsibility of repayment to goes to the entrepreneur, and the community foregoes the potential gain in interest in their deposits in exchange for having a local activity in the town desirable by many of their members. This is one of the sharing risks schemes that characterize community finance.
Such initiatives are now on the increase around the world, not just in emerging economies but in the developed economies of the West. They offer a fresh approach to financing local businesses and providing local banking services. They also offer a chance of redemption for the traditional banking system.
Let me explain.
Since modern banking began in the 17th century to offer a channel from people’s deposits to people’s needs, the number of people using the banking system has grown steadily reaching percentages of more than 90 percent of bank users in countries such as the U.S. or the UK, making it difficult for citizens to believe that we could do without them. But, since the beginning of the 20th century, different crises of liquidity and debt have given banks a bad reputation.The growing distrust of conventional banks is provoking an outflow of deposits to entities outside the conventional banks and even some outside the regulated system in different crowd-finance platforms, peer-to-peer lending systems and cooperative lending entities. These initiatives are suddenly becoming popular. They provide micro lending services to local community businesses. Some such as Accion in the USA , or Fondo de Solidaridad de Granada, have been around for years. Others, such as “Bank on Dave” in the UK are newer.
Elsewhere, other alternative community financing initiatives are underway. For example, new technologies have made it possible to develop crowd sourcing lending platforms, such as Kickstarter in the USA, or or Goteo in Spain , for peer-to-peer financial services. Some of these initiatives are regulated by financial authorities, some leave on the margins as private associations, but all are becoming increasingly popular to fill the gap left by traditional banking. In parallel financial inclusion, through financial literacy or providing banking services to financial excluded communities are part of the new landscape such as Kenya Post Office Savings Bank.
The fact that people may trust more an unknown virtual platform in the web than its neighboring bank is not as crazy as we might think, if we consider that default rates of some of these systems are estimated to be less than two percent when the banking system might get as high as eight percent or even 10 percent in the case of credit cards.
And yet can we seriously envision that the next level of finance, at least for the personal loans or small business, will leave the banks? And do we really want it to? If this happens, the long process to provide the financial system with regulation and security controls will be undermined, and we would lose centuries of banking expertise in analyzing loans and risks. If banks are perceived to be providing loans to the governments and large corporations ignoring the personal loans and/or small business, alternative systems will grow provoking serious consequences for depositors as well as for the system itself, unless there is a way to re-gain the lost confidence.
My generation (and my mother’s before me) grew up watching It’s a Wonderful Life in tears every Christmas eve. The classic film offers an eloquent lesson in how much good a bank can do for a community. For decades it has been the most avidly watched Christmas film. Deep down many of us believe that, as James Stewart puts it, “A good bank is the one that does good to its community and a bad Bank is the one that feeds the avarice of corrupt individuals.” Simple but powerful.
For traditional banks, the clock is ticking. But it’s not too late.
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