Thursday, 26 September 2013

We Need Let The Crowd into Financial Services

What a difference a year makes. At an industry event yesterday none other than Nicola Horlick, a well-known fund manager, confirmed her faith in crowdfunding as way of people putting money directly into the lifeblood of the economy, at a time when bank finance for small businesses is limited. Her own film finance vehicle raised £150,000 by issuing shares within weeks of an initial discussion with Seedrs CEO, Jeff Lynn, about how the crowd might help. A year ago, she wouldn't have given it a moment's thought. 

Of course, Nicola was referring to equity crowd-investing, which is the latest type of crowdfunding to burst into life. People have been donating to each other's projects via online marketplaces for nearly a decade and lending to each other online since 2005. Even the UK government is lending along side savers on peer-to-peer lending platforms. 

But these 'direct finance' marketplaces are no longer simply challenging a dozy bunch of retail banks. The addition of crowd-investing in shares and bonds is a direct assault on the sophisticated world of venture capital, private equity and boutique investment banking. 

Silicon Roundabout has launched a rocket attack on Mayfair.

This trend has raised a few bushy eyebrows down at Canary Wharf, where the paint is still wet on the signage at the hastily re-named Financial Services Conduct Authority. Not everyone at the FCA is excited by the prospect of just anyone being able to put a tenner into a business run by Nicola Horlick. In fact, the 'hawks' down there seem to believe that ordinary folk should content themselves with a low interest savings account, a lottery ticket and a flutter on the nags between visits to the nearest pub. If you can't afford to lose a grand, say the hawks, then you've hit the economic buffers. The banks can enjoy the use of your savings for free, while the government enjoys the betting taxes and the excise on your beer and cigarettes.

And we wonder why the poor get poorer.

You might also wonder, as I did yesterday, how 'the government' might explain to the same person who is banned from buying a share in the local bakery why he is still be free to blow £10 on a drug-fuelled quadruped at a racetrack, or donate it to a band that might go triple platinum and never have to share a penny of the upside with those who backed them.

But that's where you're reminded that the government never puts itself in the citizen's shoes; and there's really no such thing as 'the government' anyway. Just individual civil servants at separate desks in separate buildings, each looking at his or her own policy patch and waiting to be told what to do. Collaboration is not a creature common to Whitehall. In that world, no one at, say, the Treasury snatches up the phone to share a bold new vision for driving economic growth from the bottom-up with the folks over at Culture Media and Sport, or Business Innovation and Skills or Communities and Local Government. 

Or do they...?

At least those in Parliament, bless them, did collaborate in response to the ongoing financial shambles. Julia Groves of the UK Crowd Funding Association quoted some choice words on alternative finance from the report of the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, and I've set out the full quote below (as I have previously). Julia also put it very nicely in her own words: "Wealth is not a skillset." We need to let the crowd into financial services, and we need to keep the 'crowd' in crowdfunding. Let's hope this time the following message permeates all the way to the remaining hawks at Canary Wharf.
"57. Peer-to-peer and crowdfunding platforms have the potential to improve the UK retail banking market as both a source of competition to mainstream banks as well as an alternative to them. Furthermore, it could bring important consumer benefits by increasing the range of asset classes to which consumers have access. This access should not be restricted to high net worth individuals but, subject to consumer protections, should be available to all. The emergence of such firms could increase competition and choice for lenders, borrowers, consumers and investors. (Paragraph 350)

58. Alternative providers such as peer-to-peer lenders are soon to come under FCA regulation, as could crowdfunding platforms. The industry has asked for such regulation and believes that it will increase confidence and trust in their products and services. The FCA has little expertise in this area and the FSA's track record towards unorthodox business models was a cause for concern. Regulation of alternative providers must be appropriate and proportionate and must not create regulatory barriers to entry or growth. The industry recognises that regulation can be of benefit to it, arguing for consumer protection based on transparency. This is a lower threshold than many other parts of the industry and should be accompanied by a clear statement of the risks to consumers and their responsibilities. (Paragraph 356)

59. The Commission recommends that the Treasury examine the tax arrangements and incentives in place for peer-to-peer lenders and crowdfunding firms compared with their competitors. A level playing field between mainstream banks and investment firms and alternative providers is required. (Paragraph 359)."

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