Local Dollars, Local Sense


Local Dollars, Local Sense

by Michael Shuman

(Post Carbon Institute, 2012)

Book Review

Michael Shuman’s latest book, Local Dollars, Local Sense is valuable for three different groups of readers: sustainability activists seeking financial support for small locally owned businesses; local business owners seeking start-up and expansion capital; and investors seeking to move their IRA accounts and other Wall Street holdings to safer, more profitable and more socially responsible and environmentally friendly investments.

There is growing consensus among economists and anticorporate activists about the importance of relocalization as the centerpiece part of any realistic solution to the economic, energy and environmental crises that face us. Across the planet, thousands of neighborhoods and towns are coming together to opt out of corporate agriculture and energy production in favor of local food and energy production schemes. The biggest obstacle they face is finding sustainable funding to support their work.

A Dearth of Funding Options for Local Business

At present options for small businesses seeking start-up funding for organic farms, solar installation companies and similar “green” enterprises are extremely limited. A small business owner needing finance has two basic choices. They can take out a time-limited loan at interest or they can sell shares and allow other people to become part owners and share in the profits (or losses).

Even prior to the 2008 economic crisis, it was virtually impossible for small business owners to find conventional bank loans. Nearly all the neighborhood banks we grew up with have been bought out by global investment banks, which have no incentive to make loans to small local businesses. The recent move by millions of Americans to move their accounts out of global banks to local banks and credit unions – which do support local business – has been a move in the right direction. Yet as Michael Shuman points out in Local Dollars, Local Sense, this is merely a drop in the bucket compared to the $30 trillion Americans have invested – mostly through IRAs and pension plans – in Wall Street Fortune 500 companies.

Shuman, a member of the Post Carbon Institute and partner at Cutting Edge Capital makes, a compelling case for moving half ($15 trillion) of it out of Wall Street and investing it locally.  He presents strong evidence that local businesses provide a higher and more reliable return than the Wall Street casino, as well as providing a host of benefits for society and the environment. Unlike multinational corporations, they have to be accountable to local residents who patronize them. This translates into a strong incentive to be environmentally responsible, to treat workers fairly and to contribute positively to the community.

How Banks and Corporations Game the System

Although small local businesses produce 50% of the US GDP, as well as providing 50% have the jobs, fewer than 1% of Americans’ combined savings and investments help to finance local business. Most Americans still keep their short term savings (if they have any) in large multinational banks. In most cases, their only long term savings are tied up in IRA plans and pension funds. With the exception of municipal bonds, nearly all of this is invested in Fortune 500 corporations with no loyalty whatsoever to any community, state or country.

The main reason most Americans invest in Wall Street is because powerful bank and corporate lobbies give them no choice. There are serious legal obstacles preventing people from investing in local business. Outdated securities laws passed during the Great Depression make it virtually impossible for “unaccredited” investors (approximately 98% of Americans) to invest even small amounts in local companies. “Accredited investor is a term delineating the qualifications needed to participate in “high risk” investments, such as seed money, limited partnerships, hedge funds, private placements, and “angel” investments. In the US, an accredited investor must have an income of $200,000 (for three years) and a net wealth of at least $1 million (excluding their residence).

A new business seeking funding from “unaccredited” investors is required to register with the SEC and state regulators. This, in turn, requires the creation of a disclosure and other legal documents at a cost of $25,000-150,000 in attorney fees. The U-7 or SCOR (Small Company Offering Registration) form alone is 39 pages, and each form must be accompanied by 14 disclosure documents.

There seems little hope of reforming these archaic laws while powerful Wall Street lobbies control both Congress and the White House. However according to Schuman, communities across the US are trying exciting new financing models that circumvent existing securities law:

  • Worker and/or consumer cooperatives – workers and/or workers and consumers pool their resources and share ownership in the local business they are starting or taking over from a prior owner.
  • Pre-sales Contracts – companies generate start-up funding by lining up customers to pay in advance for their products.
  • Local Investment Opportunities Networks (LIONS) – local networks deliberately cultivate relationships between business owners and potential investors (the SEC and state regulators often waive the requirement for a SCOR if the investor is a family member or “friend”).
  • BIDCOs (Business Development Companies) – a type of investment club. BIDCOS aren’t required to register with the Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) but must provide managerial and technical assistance to beneficiaries as well as capitol. No Small Potatoes in Maine is an example of a BIDCO
  • Low cost DPOs (Direct Public Offerings) – if the business is limited to operating within state or offers the investment opportunity without public advertising, it may qualify for exemption from registration requirements. The business owner will still need to fill out a SCOR, but a number of public interest attorneys are seeking to streamline the process by creating “fill-in-the-blank” software.
  • Crowdfunding – a technique for pooling of large numbers of small contributions, usually via the Internet, for a specific project. If there is no expectation of return (except for a token gift or premium), there is no requirement to register with the SEC. Small business owners can register potential projects for crowdfunding at Kickstarter.
  • Local/Regional stock exchanges – in 1985 there were approximately a dozen regional exchanges (for example the Pacific Stock Exchange and the Boston Stock Exchange). Most were bought out by either the NYSE the AMEX or the NASDEQ. However according to Shuman, Mission Markets in New York is the most promising model for what future regional exchanges will look like. Mission Markets calls itself a “private marketplace” because obtaining SEC approval to become an “exchange” (where shares are traded) would involve major bureaucratic hurdles and cost half a million dollars.
  • Local Savings Pools – issues interest-free loans for a fixed period. According to Shuman, there is less risk of fraud as lenders and borrowers are more likely to know one another. Since there is no expectation of financial return, there is no requirement to register with the SEC or state regulators.
  • P2P (person-to-person) lending – www.kiva.org, an international microlending (providing loans as small as $25 to third world entrepreneurs) website, is the best example. Inspired by the Grameen Bank founded in Bangladesh by Muhammad Yunis, Kiva has many imitators.