I've hugely enjoyed the documentary series tracing Dave Fishwick's valiant efforts to start a small community 'bank' in Burnley high street.
I say 'bank' because, while it made for good television to say so, Dave didn't necessarily mean "bank" in regulatory terms. His goal was to enable local people to lend to other local people and businesses without profiting unduly. He rightly thought that's what banks are supposed to do, so he was determined to call himself a 'bank' to make the point. And his good-humoured, optimistic crusade has certainly rammed the point home.
While Dave also didn't necessarily set out to launch a peer-to-peer lending marketplace, his path to launch was eerily familiar to those who have done so. The FSA wouldn't speak to us either, prior to the launch of Zopa in March 2005, but was all too keen to discuss the detail afterwards. Fortunately we'd done our homework and didn't have to stop taking money. At least that made for good TV in Dave's case.
Since 2005 a dozen other management teams have also threaded their way through the regulatory maze to directly link savers and borrowers, or investors and entrepreneurs, via online 'P2P' lending or crowd-investing markeplaces. And it's good to see that Dave's journey has led him to adopt the peer-to-peer model on the high street. He may be facing the bricks-and-mortar problems that the online models solve, but at least he's shown there is very real demand for innovation amongst people who still manage their finances by walking around. And the benefits to the 200 local borrowers who are paying a net 5% to local savers are undeniable.
Unfortunately, there are still unnecessary difficulties in structuring these businesses, regardless of whether they facilitate loans or investments in shares or debt. The sources of that uncertainty were summarised here in January 2012, here in February 2012, here in June 2012 and here in July 2012. Industry CEOs and others met policy and regulatory officials to discuss these difficulties at a summit in December 2012, and again last month (as summarised here). The salient points were also explained again in my submission to the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards.
However, while it's clear there is plenty of shared frustration and many officials have been supportive in discussions, there is worryingly little sign of actual regulatory change.
We need a lot more war stories like Dave's.