Social Banking and Social Finance: Answers to the Financial Crisis?

Reuben W. Hills Conference Room
  • Roland Benedikter

From 2007 to 2010, a financial and economic crisis gripped the United States, Europe and the world. 7 million Americans lost their jobs, 10 million were pushed below the poverty line, thousands of families lost their homes, and many lost their savings. Somewhat lower numbers were reported from Europe, although the structural mechanisms behind the crisis were seemingly similar, eventually affecting not only the West, but the whole world. It is foreseen that the effects of the crisis will last for years, and it is still uncertain if a full recovery will be possible.

Given that a variety of highly speculative practices put into place by the banking and finance sector during the "neoliberal“ decades between the early 1990s and 2007 allegedly played a role in triggering the crisis, the request for more down-to-earth and sustainable ways of dealing with money and finance has surfaced to international attention. Particularly in Europe, social banks were among the most successful financial institutions during the crisis years, with annual growth rates of up to 30%, factually doubling their assets between 2007-10. This unprecedented success was supposedly due to the fact that many European savers shifted their assets from mainstream banks to social banks, driven by the hope that the latter would handle their money in less abstract and egoistic, and more realistic and community oriented ways. In recent years, social banks have forged influential global networks such as the Global Alliance of Banking on Values and the International Association of Investors in the Social Economy, which pursue the ambitious strategy of reaching out to 1 billion people by 2020.

Given that, not least as a result of the crisis, increasing numbers of people are improving their financial literacy and are taking a growingly critical stance towards the mainstream international banking and finance sector as we knew it before the crisis, the seminar poses the questions of whether (and how) social banking and social finance may concretely contribute to improving the current financial system, and how they might help to restore confidence in capitalism by providing “best practice” examples in selected fields.

The seminar will try to provide some answers to these questions by examining the pros and cons of contemporary social finance and by outlining perspectives of structural complimentarity and cooperation between speculative and sustainable finance.


Audio Synopsis:

In his seminar, Professor Roland Benedikter argues that too little has been done to reform the banking and financial sectors in the wake of the recent crisis, then presents social banking and social finance as an alternative system. First, he argues that the widespread bank bailouts of the past few years have "saved the wrong system" and points out that many of the largest US banks, for example, have actually grown since the crisis despite calls by the Obama administration for these banks to downsize or break in to smaller pieces. He acknowledges that new measures initiated by both the Obama administration (establishing a consumer protection bureau; imposing limits on fees by financial intermediaries) and by European countries (banning high-risk transactions in Germany; reducing public liability for private bank bailouts) are steps in the right direction. He adds his own suggestions, including increased regulation, better international agreements on regulating capital flows, a fee on high-risk speculative transactions, and a preventative tax on banks to protect against future crises. Many of these reforms, however, have faced enormous opposition from the major players in the banking and finance sectors in Britain, the United States, and China.  Progress seems to have stalled, with popular figures like Niall Ferguson, who once led calls for dramatic reform, now insisting that the system is too resistant to change, and that simpler goals such as a new hippocratic oath for the financial sector will suffice.

Benedikter then presents social banking and social finance as an answer to the seemingly intractable problems of the traditional system.  He first describes the industry in terms of what it is not. Traditional banks, he argues, made three major mistakes leading up to the crisis: irresponsibility (loans that were too high, too much derivative investment); lack of transparency; and unsustainability (by participating in speculation and contributing to market bubbles). The current economy, he explains, is based on a tripolar system: a "real" economy of manufacturing and tangible goods; and two "side economies" of real estate and financial derivatives, which have steadily drawn capital away from the real economy since 1989. A breakdown of this unsustainable system was predicted by multiple think tanks before 2007, based partly on the frantic growth of the derivatives market (from  $100 trillion to $516 trillion annually between 2001 and 2006 - for perspective, Benedikter cites the annual world GDP figure of approximately $50 trillion).

Social banks, on the other hand, invest 100% of their capital toward responsible, transparent, and sustainable ventures such as green technology and social initiatives. Banks emphasize knowing their customers, which requires them to operate on a smaller scale than traditional banks, and conversely customers know where their money is invested and can even participate in making investment decisions. These decisions  are meant to take the potential social as well as financial return on an investment into account. Benedikter describes this as a "Triple Bottom Line" approach, emphasizing profit, people, and the planet.

A discussion period following the presentation addressed questions including:  What are the mechanisms available to enforcing the triple bottom line approach in social banking and social finance? Are social banks guided by a common charter? What are the details of the proposed high-risk transaction fee? Why have some US social banks been successful while others have struggled?