Sunday, December 18, 2011

This Holiday Season, Think Outside the Big Box

Here's a post that I wrote for American Public Media's Marketplace on shopping local, with an intro by Marketplace's economics editor Chris Farrell:

It matters where we spend our money. For instance, I like supporting local entrepreneurs whenever possible -- especially small business owners active in the community. Engaged entrepreneurs can make a big difference to the health of a neighborhood.
I learned a lot about the benefits of local from reading Locavesting: The Revolution in Local Investing and How to Profit From It by Amy Cortese.  "Just as 'locavaores' eat mostly foods that have been raised or grown in a radius of 100 miles or so, some people are investing the same way," she writes. "I call them locavestors." 
As we head into the last weekend for holiday shopping, I thought I'd ask Amy for insight about buying local. 
Read the full post here.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Cheeseheads, Unite

The Green Bay Packers are the envy of the NFL, but for more than their undefeated record. They are also self-funded. When the Packers need money for stadium improvements or to get them through a rough patch, they simply turn to their fans—who also happen to be owners.

Green Bay is the only team in the league that is owned by its fans, dating back to 1923. It has sold shares four times in its history and today is owned by 112,205 fans. On Dec. 6th, the team launched its fifth stock sale—its first in 14 years—to help pay for improvements at Lambeau Field, the stadium named for the team's legendary manager (not a promotion-hungry corporation).

Shares are being offered for $250 a piece, with a $25 handling fee. The shares do not earn dividends. Nor can they be traded, and they will not appreciate (or depreciate) in value, other than on the collectibles market. Nonetheless, the official Packers web site,, was deluged with fans buying—and crowing about—their new shares.

"I'm an OWNER!!!!!!! One of the BEST days of my life......" wrote a fan who goes by the name CHEESEHOUND on the site.

For some investors, that may seem like a raw deal with little pay-off. And perhaps the Packers should be offering some sort of upside or profit participation (although technically the team is a nonprofit). But fans—and all of Green Bay—benefit in very real ways.

For one, there is the revenue that a popular team brings to the area. In 2009, the Packers and Lambeau Field contributed approximately $141 million in economic benefits to Brown County, where Green Bay is located, as well as 760 jobs and $80.6 million in wages, according to an economic impact study. That's in addition to $5.7 million in taxes to local and state coffers (see a pdf of the study here).

And the community-ownership structure has ensured that the team has stayed put in a small town, rather than follow the money to a glitzy new home like so many sports franchises have done. A big reason is a clause in the team's articles of incorporation that stipulate that, if the team were to be sold, any profits would go to the Green Bay Packers Foundation, which makes donations to charities and institutions throughout Wisconsin. That has effectively stymied any attempts to cash in.

Ownership by fans may also account for the extreme loyalty inspired by Green Bay, where the open-air stadium is regularly packed with "cheeseheads" despite freezing temperatures. (The new funding will help pay for seating for an additional 7,000 people).

Finally, while the fans may be largely funding their team's capital expenses (the Packers also have a bank loan and government incentives that help pay for the current round of stadium improvements), at least it is voluntary. Most major sports franchises end up wrangling millions of taxpayer dollars to build or refurbish stadiums. In fact, taxpayers frequently foot the bill for these boondoggles whether or not they ever step foot inside the new stadiums or can afford their luxury-priced seats. And often the debts drag on for years. A New York Times article last year examined how New Jersey residents are still paying for the old Giants stadium, which carries $110 million in debt even after it was demolished to make way for the new Meadowlands stadium.

Often, the publicly-funded stadiums are used to steal a team away from their home. As the Times article explains: "politicians and business leaders pushed for taxpayer-financed stadiums to lure teams. To name a few, New York built Shea Stadium for the expansion Mets, Atlanta put up Fulton County Stadium to lure the Braves from Milwaukee, and Oakland built a stadium to entice the Athletics to move from Kansas City, Mo."

So, Packers fans may not get rich on their shares, but this little town of 100,00 still has a team to call its own. As Wikipedia reminds us, "Today 'Green Bay Packers' is the oldest team-name still in use in the NFL, both by its nickname and by virtue of remaining in its original city."

By the way, you don't have to be a cheesehead or even a sports fanatic to benefit from community ownership. Today the model is being applied to everything from department stores to renewable energy projects—with winning results.  Now that's something to root for.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Un-Walmart

A few weeks ago, I boarded Amtrak's Adirondack train and headed to Saranac Lake—or at least as close as I could get to the isolated village in the Tri-Lakes region of upstate New York. I went to cover the opening of the Saranac Lake Community Store, a department store that was organized and financed by residents who raised more than $500,000 from the community by selling shares in the store. The village badly need a general store: its lone Ames department store had closed, and while there was a vibrant mix of merchants on Main Street, certain items such as bed linens and underwear required a 50 mile drive to the nearest big box store. Yet the only retailer interested in locating in Saranac Lake was Walmart, which wanted to build a supercenter there. Many locals rightly feared that a store that huge would swamp their village, with its year round population of 5,000. So they took matters into their own hands and decided to open their own.

As I wrote in my story for  the New York Times, it's the retail equivalent of the Green Bay Packers: a department store that won't pick up and leave when a better opportunity comes along or its parent company takes on too much debt (as the bankrupt Ames chain did).

The story was the #2 most-emailed story in the Times for much of the day, which I think reflects how the idea of community ownership and initiative resonates in these days of protest and unrest. Last week, I heard from Melinda Little, one of the organizers of the store and the current president of its board, who said that her phone has been ringing off the hook since the story ran with calls from "folks all over the country who want to invest and/or want to emulate the model." One local small business owner made a $6,000 investment. (The share offering closes in December).

Community-owned stores are not unfamiliar in the American West, where towns with dwindling populations have a hard time attracting and retaining businesses. They are also thriving in the rural UK, where villagers have banded together to create their own general stores, pubs and post offices when faced with shutdowns. There are now over 260 community owned shops in England, Scotland and Wales, according to the Plunkett Foundation, a UK organization that helps rural communities combat decline in their areas by setting up community enterprises. Each year, some 400 village shops are shuttered, with community owned ones replacing about 5% of them, according to Plunkett. These enterprises are often more than just a shop, they are the beating heart of village life.

They have also proven to be quite resilient. Community shops have a 97% success rate, compared with a national UK business survival rate of 46.8%, according to a report produced by the Plunkett Foundation last year (a pdf of which can be found here). The shops operate with an average gross margin of 21%, in part due to the a large reliance on volunteers, and 22% of net profits are reallocated to community projects.

Retailing is a notoriously tough business, especially in an age of mega-retailers who wield their clout to demand price concessions from suppliers. Yet that model may be running its course: Walmart's same-store sales in the U.S. have been down for 9 consecutive quarters, and behemoths like Borders and Blockbuster have gone bust. And as the success of 'buy local' campaigns has shown, people may be tiring of the soulless, cookie cutter big box shopping experience.

A community-owned enterprise, in contrast, is about more than commerce, it is about relationships and a sense of place. And that engenders loyalty and trust that a big box will never have, even if profits are modest. The Saranac Lake Community Store shows that alternatives are possible. And for that we should be thankful.

Update: Port Townsend, Washington—a town north of Seattle with a strong local investment ethos—plans to open a community-owned store to replace a general store that recently closed. Read the Seattle Times article here.

Monday, October 24, 2011

CDFIs: Under the Radar No More

There are so many interesting issues brought up by the Starbucks "Create Jobs for USA" program, the subject of my last blog post. As noted, Starbucks will take donations from customers and pass them along to the Opportunity Finance Network (OFN), a network of community development financial institutions, or CDFIs. OFN will then make grants to individual CDFIs that apply for the funds. Joe Nocera of the NY Times points out that CDFIs, which lend to underserved communities and entrepreneurs, operate "mostly under the radar." Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz had never heard of them before an employee proposed the partnership. Nor have most people.

That is a shame, because these organizations do an enormous amount of good. In particular, community development loan funds, a type of CDFI, engage in the sort of relationship-based lending long abandoned by big banks and even many smaller ones. Rather than simply rely on credit scores and cookie cutter lending models, CDFI officers meet face to face with entrepreneurs and assess whether they have the knowledge, character and business savvy to succeed. The 180 CDFIs that are part of OFN have lent more than $23 billion to entrepreneurs and individuals through 2009.  In 2008 alone, they made $2.3 billion in loans, including to more than 51,400 micro-businesses that created or maintained 223,738 jobs.

All the more amazing, they did that with a minuscule charge-off rate—1.3%—that would make Bank of America green with envy.

How are they so successful? For one, because CDFIs focus on a particular region, they are intimately familiar with the neighborhoods they are lending into. And, when a borrower runs into trouble, they work with her to avoid a default. (Imagine your megabank lender doing that!) They also seem to be pretty good judges of character.

Community development loan funds get their capital from big banks, which give them low-interest loans as a way of fulfilling their Community Reinvestment Act mandates to lend locally (something the big banks are no longer equipped to do well themselves). They also receive grants from foundations, to help pay for operating expenses or create reserve funds for losses. Although they haven't marketed themselves, many community loan funds also take investments from individuals. 

Typically, individuals can make an investment—usually a minimum of $1000, but sometimes lower—for a period of one to several years. In return, they receive a modest fixed return, typically 1% to 3% for a short term loan and up to 5% or more for a 10-year loan (based on current rates), with principal returned at the end of the loan period. It's like a locally-focused CD, except that the funds are not FDIC insured. But then, it is rare, if not unheard of, that a loan fund does not return capital and keep to its promised rate of return—even throughout the financial crisis.  Best of all, as an investor, you know that your money is going to work in your community and helping budding entrepreneurs get a foothold—not generating trading profits or lining some fat cat banker's pockets.

The Starbucks campaign is shining a light on these under-appreciated financial institutions. But if you'd like to do more than donate a five-spot, consider investing in a CDFI in your region—there are more than 800 certified CDFIs across the country, so most regions have one. The Coalition of Community Development Financial Institutions offers a search tool on its site at CDFI Coalition The Opportunity Finance Network offers one as well at

Another easy option is to invest in Calvert Foundation Community Notes, which invests the money in CDFIs across the country (you can choose which region you prefer). An advantage of the Calvert Notes is that they are available through most major brokers (I bought mine through Charles Schwab—and it's about the one thing in my portfolio that hasn't lost money this year!) For more information, go to You can also invest in community development loans funds, including Calvert Notes, on

And, if I may close with a shameless plug, if you are interested in learning more, I devote a chapter in my book to CDFIs. I call it "The Biggest-Impact Financial Sector You've Never Heard Of."

A "Grande" Idea - Let People Profit From Crowdfunding

Starbucks' recent announcement that it will start taking donations from its tens of millions of customers to help fund small businesses was a grande - no, make that venti-sized - idea. As the NY Times' Joe Nocera explained in his recent op-ed, "We Can All Become Job Creators," Starbucks will act as the middleman, passing along the donations to the Opportunity Finance Network, a group that represents 180 community development financial institutions (CDFIs), which lend to communities underserved by traditional banks. 

With tight credit still holding back many small businesses that might otherwise expand and hire, Starbucks and its CEO Howard Schultz have been rightly praised for this innovative program. It will be interesting to see how many caffeinated customers step up to become small business donors, or "Americans helping Americans," as the wristband they will receive for donations of $5 or more reads.

If the experience of sites like Kiva, Kickstarter and IndieGoGo is any indication, there is a lot of pent up desire among Americans to help out entrepreneurial ventures that they care about. Kiva allows people to make small loans to micro-entrepreneurs around the world and in cities like Detroit, while the other two sites are a conduit for donations to artists and entrepreneurs, such as musicians and filmmakers. Kiva has facilitated nearly $250 million in loans from more than 600,000 individuals, and Kickstarter users are pledging funds at a rate of $2 million a week.

That's impressive. But to really crack the small business capital market open, we need to make it part of the mainstream financial landscape. In other words, let people earn a profit on their money. Donations and no-interest loans are great and have helped a lot of people, but they cannot serve the vast demand for small business capital in this country. That's why I advocated in my own recent NY Times op-ed for changes to our securities regulations that would allow businesses to raise funds from many small investors—a practice known as crowdfunding.

As I wrote in that op-ed:
[Crowdfunding is] the sort of person-to-person (or P2P, in industry jargon) funding that characterized financial transactions for millennia, before our mediated, securitized financial system took holdCrowdfunding has the sort of populist, common-sense appeal that resonates with free-market libertarians and champions of the working class alike. By marrying online social networks with finance, crowdfunding offers a more democratic model of finance, in which individuals can directly fund other individuals or businesses that they deem worthy, without going through a bank or Wall Street middleman. 
Unfortunately, in this country, it's illegal to raise funds this way in return for a profit. Once a financial return is promised or implied, the offering becomes a security in the eyes of the Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC) and the legal hurdles go way up—putting public capital out of reach for most small businesses.

The laws, put into place after the 1929 stock market crash, were intended to protect investors from unnecessary risk. But the effective result is this: wealthy investors can invest in pretty much anything they like: private equity, hedge funds, venture capital. But ordinary investors (the 99%, you might say) must stick to publicly traded securities.

The problem is, most small business can generally not afford to go public—consider that the median IPO size was $140 million in 2009, up from $10 million twenty years ago! Nor do many want to, given the market volatility and Wall Street's fixation with short term results. (There is also a certain irony to this. In order to protect "unsophisticated" investors, the SEC confines them to the public markets. How safe do you feel about your stock market investments these days?)

So, no surprise, the financial landscape today is dominated by big business investment options. Think about your 401K (if you are fortunate enough to have one of those employer-sponsored plans). These plans offer a menu of funds that invest in the stocks and bonds of large companies (even a "small cap" firm falls between $50 and $300 million—the size of a large cap in the 1980s!). There may be some government bond or emerging market funds thrown in as well. But what you will not find is a small or local business fund. Those things do not exist.

Eight decades after the legal framework of securities law was put into place, the Internet and social networks have transformed the way we do everything, and the regulations look wildly anachronistic. And the vast majority of Americans are prohibited from investing in small and local businesses they want to support, and these firms in turn are cut off from a huge pool of badly needed capital.

That's why there is so much excitement about the growing bipartisan support for a crowdfunding exemption. President Obama has championed crowdfunding through his Startup America initiative, and House Republican Patrick McHenry has drafted a bill that is winding its way through the House. There are also grassroots petitions calling for a crowdfunding exemption before the SEC. The proposals vary in their details, such as the caps on the amount individuals could invest in each deal, but all would allow ordinary investors to put small sums of money in small businesses without requiring the business to go through a long and costly registration process with the SEC.

Yes, small businesses can be risky, but the small sums involved would ensure that no single investor could lose the farm on an investment. And here at Locavesting Central, we believe that community-based crowdfunding—where businesses are reaching out to their customers, neighbors and supporters— would further mitigate the risk. That's because local business owners have a reputation in the community, and potential investors have a greater knowledge of the company and the market it operates in—a key concern of the SEC. (ProFounder, an interesting crowdfunding startup in Los Angeles, is promoting such a "community-funding" model). What's more, I believe that this kind of investing—where individuals have a literal stake in their local businesses and therefore their communities—can help in the renewal of democracy and civic engagement. 

Of course, there is no guarantee that anything will come of these crowdfunding proposals, that's why it is so important to speak up. So sign the petitions (links below), call your elected representatives, and drop a few coins in the donation can at Starbucks.

  • The Sustainable Economies Law Center has filed a petition with the SEC that would allow individuals to invest up to $100 in small companies. Details, including how to post a comment with the SEC can be found here
  • Startup Exemption is another campaign to change the law—add your signature here

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Community Capital

It’s not fun being an investor these days. The options are pretty stark: parking your savings in an inflation-lagging money market fund or T-bill (or under the mattress), or rolling the dice in a stock market that has careened wildly amid global uncertainty.
But a growing number of investors are discovering alternatives in the small businesses in their own backyards. Just as locavores eat a diet sourced close to home, these investors—call them locavestors—are investing that way. The idea is to earn profits while supporting your community.
Read the rest of my guest blog post for American Public Media's Marketplace, with an introduction by Chris Farrell, here.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Pennies From Many

AS Congress considers President Obama’s job package, one measure seems to have rare bipartisan support: a proposal to loosen some of the outdated securities regulations that hamper small businesses in raising capital.

The Obama administration, not surprisingly considering its own success in gathering small donations during his campaign for the presidency, is supporting crowdfunding, a financing model that relies on collecting small sums of money from many people over the Internet.

Read the rest of my op-ed in today's New York Times here

Saturday, September 24, 2011

A Grassroots Stimulus Program

In a deeply divided nation, the one thing we can agree upon is the need for jobs. The economy cannot recover until millions of people are put back to work and consumer spending once again flows. But it’s doubtful that any meaningful job-spurring policy will surmount the political gridlock in Washington.

Don’t look to Corporate America for salvation either: our biggest and most profitable corporations are sitting on piles of cash pile while focusing their investments overseas. And Wall Street is too busy chasing trading profits to engage in the kind of productive capital-raising that was once its mainstay.

So how are we going to begin rebuilding the broken economy and creating jobs? Where is the investment going to come from? One answer is taking shape in dozens of towns and neighborhoods across the country, as citizens from Brooklyn, NY to Port Townsend, WA are figuring out ways to invest in the local businesses that create jobs and help build strong local economies.

Read the rest of my guest blog post on CNBC's Bullish on Books. 

Monday, September 12, 2011

Extreme Financial Markets are the New Climate Change

The front page NY Times story today, Market Swings are Becoming the New Standard, wasn't exactly a revelation—anyone who has watched their life savings whipsawed by global macro trends and speculation over the past few years knows that the markets have become unnervingly volatile. But what struck me about this article was the similarity to global climate change. 

Listen to Andrew Lo, professor of finance at the M.I.T. Sloan School of Management: 
“The last few years have been the most volatile for all of recorded history,” noted Lo. For evidence, he says that 10 of the biggest 20 daily upswings and 11 of the largest 20 daily drops since the beginning of 1980 to the end of last month have occurred in just the last three years.
Similarly, the past decade has included 9 out of the 10 hottest years on record, going back to 1880 when global temperatures were first tracked.  As wild fires rage in Texas and the northeast recovers from epic flooding, extreme weather has become the norm. Now, it seems, we can add extreme markets to the new normal.  

Certainly some traders are profiting richly off the volatility, but for most individual investors, it is stomach churning to watch their investments swing so wildly (and mostly downward). As the Times points out, volatility is a problem because it scares investors and companies alike from the markets and undermines confidence, which can reinforce negativity. Global events—from Europe's debt crisis to U.S. political dysfunction—have contributed to the volatility. So have high frequency trades fired off by computer algorithms and exchange-traded funds that can be flipped like pancakes. In other words, global financial change has manmade causes, just like climate change. And the perpetrators, whether polluters or high frequency traders, foist their external costs onto society at large. 

Against this backdrop are increasing calls for market reforms. Some observers are even suggesting the creation of a safe market for long term investors that would be walled off from high frequency traders and market manipulators. As I detail in my book, Locavesting, one way to do that is through the reintroduction of local stock markets like the ones that used to flourish across the country until technology and globalization made them obsolete. There are efforts to launch local exchanges in Lancaster, PA, Hawaii, and Toronto, among other places. They all seek to bring together a region's long term investors with its small businesses and entrepreneurs to create strong local economies.  Think of them as little bastions of productive calm amid a raging global storm.  

Thursday, August 4, 2011

What's wrong with this picture?

Luxury goods are flying off the shelves as revenues at Tiffany, BMW and LVMH soar, the NY Times tells us in a Page 1 story today.  Turn to the business section, and we learn that American fast food companies are investing in Russia, where—as in China and India—the middle class is growing. At home, however, the diminishing middle class is hunkering down for a potential repeat of 2008. Meanwhile, despite the hit the S&P has taken over the past week, corporate earnings are the highest they've been in four years, fueled by growth in overseas markets.

Is there a better argument for supporting our tax-paying, job-creating locally-owned businesses? 

Monday, August 1, 2011

Community-owned Post Offices

The financially strapped U.S. Postal Service is planning to close thousands of low-traffic post offices across the country. Some are in big cities like New York and Chicago, but many are in sparsely populated rural areas such as Waverly, Washington and Mountain City, Nevada. In all, 12% of the nation's post offices could be closed. The U.S. Postal Service is looking to partner with small businesses to fill the void, reports MSNBC.

There's another model that communities about to lose their snail may want to consider. In the U.K., where hundreds of rural shops, pubs and post offices (or combination of the three, as is common) have closed in recent years, communities are banding together to own and operate their own shops and post offices, which are at the center of village life.

The village of Berrynarbor in Devon (population: roughly 750) is one example. In 2004, it was faced with the closing of its only shop and post office when the postmaster was to retire. Today, the post office—which also sells groceries and operates a cafe—is owned by the community and staffed by nearly 30 volunteers. There are around 250 such community-owned shops in the U.K., including 40 that opened in 2010 alone, according to the Plunkett Foundation. 

In these cost-slashing days, it's a model to keep in mind.

"Systemic Risk" in the Supply Chain

There's been a lot of talk about systemic risk since 2008, when we abruptly learned that the concentrated power of a handful of financial institutions could blow up the global economy. But systemic risk is not confined to the financial system. It has also become embedded in our global industrial system, as a smart story by Matt Stoller in The Nation points out. We witnessed this recently when the double-punch of an earthquake and tsunami in Japan knocked out a major supplier of auto parts, causing shortages that torpedoed sales at major auto makers.

The disaster also affected other, less publicized areas, such as the market for video tape, when a Sony plant was taken offline. Next time it could be life-saving medicine or the ubiquitous consumer electronics we take for granted. (China, for example, controls production of 97% of the world's rare earth metals, which are critical to many manufactured goods, from cell phones to hybrid cars).

There's a reason why a "smart" energy grid is distributed, and the most resilient computer networks (like the Internet) spread processing across many computers. When we become reliant on one "node" in a system - whether it is an electric grid, a  computer network, or an economy - the system is vulnerable to disruption.  

The article,  "How America Could Collapse," explains how our industrial supply system is full of systemic risk that could disrupt the flow of everything from food to smart phones. The problem: American corporations have outsourced so much manufacturing and production to other countries that we are dangerously dependent on foreign suppliers and imports. We have hollowed out the economy (just ask one of the 25 million un- or under-employed). 

Stoller says we need to re-engineer our global supply chain, re-orient the economy towards manufacturing and rededicate our corporations to productive uses. Good luck with that last one.

In the meantime, the localization movement taking place across the country is beginning to rebuild local economies from the ground up. By nurturing and investing in homegrown enterprises, organizations like the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE), the Transition Network and Slow Money are helping communities become more productive, prosperous and self sufficient—and perhaps less likely to be broadsided by the next global disaster du jour.

Local production will never completely displace our global economic system. But it can reduce our vulnerability to systemic shock. And in these volatile times, wouldn't it be nice to have a back up plan?

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Beware politicians protecting "small business"

Here we go again. Every thorny issue facing Washington—from financial reform to taxes to the current debt ceiling debacle—eventually becomes framed as doing what is right for small business. Which would be fine, if it weren't so often just a flimsy cover for a Big Business agenda. The latest example: House speaker John Boehner's rebuttal speech on raising the debt ceiling (to pay for expenses that Boehner and his fellow members of Congress have already approved, it bears repeating).

Boehner sprinkled his address with references to small business. Referring to President Obama's plan to cut spending while also closing corporate tax loopholes and letting tax breaks expire for the nation's wealthiest citizens, he said: "Having run a small business, I know those tax increases will destroy jobs."

Not so, according to some business leaders. As the American Sustainable Business Council, a coalition of business networks, pointed out in a letter to Boehner
"Please understand that not all business leaders agree with many of the points you make daily in the name of defending the private sector. It is inaccurate to lump together large and small business—and businesses in every sector of the U.S. economy--as if
all of our interests were exactly the same. Some might see this as a strategy to use the halo of small business to camouflage the excesses of big business."
The Council goes on to state that many business leaders believe raising revenue must be part of the solution, and that government services are critical for economic health.
"Cuts to programs for the young, old, disabled and unemployed will hurt not only our customer base, limiting their capacity to buy our products, but our nation as a whole. Further, we disagree with the perspective that any tax increase destroys jobs. We believe that there are important distinctions to be made between good taxes and bad taxes, between incentives that create jobs and real value for the economy and those that don’t. There are expenditures that are critical to improving productivity and the nation’s infrastructure and those that are a waste of money. Removal of certain subsidies for mature industries, in our view, does not constitute a tax increase but rather a smart business decision. This is how we run our companies – moving resources towards areas of greatest need in a constantly changing marketplace. "
The letter, written by executive director David Levine, points out that during the 1980s, Reagan raised taxes many times while  unemployment continued to fall. Ditto Clinton in 1993. And that corporate taxes as a share of federal receipts are at an historic low—all facts Boehner conveniently omits.

The Council raises two other important concerns: that the largest corporations rarely pay the statutory tax rate —after all, that's what their armies of accountants are for. Instead, the tax burden falls to small businesses who, despite creating almost all net job growth, are left footing the bill. And second, that job creation is the number one priority, so reduced tax rates should encourage jobs to be created here at home, not shipped overseas.  The Council's recommendations are a sane counterpoint to the shrill voice of the multinational-dominated Chamber of Commerce (although it would like to preserve Big Business tax breaks, even the Chamber insists the deficit ceiling must be raised).

Will Boehner take note? He may have once run a successful small business, but his sympathies seem to lie more with the deep-pocketed corporations that are filling his campaign coffers (and the Tea Party freshman that have hijacked the Republican party). Consider the following:

Three of the Speaker's five biggest funders this year are employees of three Wall Street firms: the hedge fund Paulson & Co., Moore Capital Management of New York, and Cantor Fitzgerald, reports

Securities and insurance firms were among his top donors last year,  according to the Sunlight Foundation. (The Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan organization that advocates for more transparency in government,  provides several handy tools to do your own sleuthing, by the way).

Not to pick on Speaker Boehner—he's just using the standard playbook for politicians these days. But when you hear an argument wrapped in the patriotic banner of small business, consider carefully the source.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Science can be crowdfunded, too

Interesting story today in the Times about scientists turning to crowdfunding to finance their research. Now there's an experiment to watch...

Credit Unions Want to Lend

Credit unions are expanding their business lending to fill a void left by banks. As USA Today reports: "Over the past year, credit union business lending is up 5%, while bank business lending is down 3% — a decline of about $95 billion, according the Credit Union National Association." So what do banks do? They fight a proposal that would allow credit unions to lend more to small businesses, naturally.

Right now, commercial lending by credit unions is limited to 12.5% of their total assets - a threshold that many credit unions are reaching. Bills in the House and Senate would raise the limit to 27.5% of assets, which credit union officials figure could unleash $13 billion in new small business lending in the first year.

The bankers argue that lifting the ceiling on commercial lending would put credit unions, which are tax-exempt and subject to different regulations, on unfair footing. Well, let's take a closer look.

Credit unions are exempt from federal income tax because they are non-profit cooperatives: owned, controlled by, and managed on behalf of their members. As such, they are governed by elected directors who serve as unpaid volunteers. Like other cooperatives, they distribute excess earnings back to members in the form of better rates and lower fees. Bank profits, in comparison, largely go to fat bonus payouts for execs and dividends to outside shareholders - you can bet Jamie Dimon is not returning it to you, dear customer! Capital standards for credit unions are more strict than banks, one factor that explains why relatively few were affected by the leverage-fueled meltdown of 2008. Credit unions are also constrained in how they can raise money. By law, they are barred from issuing stock, so the only way for credit unions to accumulate capital is through earnings - that is, the old fashioned practice of making good loans.  

If banks think credit unions have it so good, Mark Wolff, a spokesman for the Credit Union National Association,  urges them to go ahead an become a credit union. "You'd have to stop paying your directors, your CEO would have to take a steep pay cut... but hop on board!" Somehow, he told me, "they never seem to take us up on it." 

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Slow Money NYC

My piece on the recent Slow Money Entrepreneur Showcase is in the current edition of Edible Brooklyn!

Friday, July 1, 2011

Profits over People

The Economix blog today reports on a devastating new report  by Northeastern University that shines a light on the lopsided economic recovery that has showered profits on large corporations while workers continue to be squeezed.

Here it is in black & white: Since the recovery began in June 1999, “corporate profits captured 88 percent of the growth in real national income while aggregate wages and salaries accounted for only slightly more than 1 percent” of that growth — a situation the researchers call unprecedented. Keep that in mind next time you hear corporate executives and their lobbyists complaining of unfair policies. You can download a pdf of the report, "The Jobless and Wageless Recovery," here.

Monday, June 27, 2011

A Tale of Two Media Models

I am struck by two very different stories about media outlets in the last few days. The first is about a "tiny" local tv station, KXMC in Minot, North Dakota, that has become a lifeline to residents and evacuees desperate for information about the floods that have ravaged the area. The station, owned by a local family and staffed by another family—a father and two sons—has provided round-the-clock coverage of the flood.  Live coverage like that is expensive, but as the KXMC owners told The NY Times, "We don't know what the financials are going to be, but neither do a lot of other people here." In other words, providing crucial news to the community takes priority over profit calculations.

Contrast that to The Tribune Company, publisher of proud newspapers such as the LA Times and Chicago Tribune, and the subject of a devastating new book by James O'Shea (a former Trib editor) called "The Deal from Hell: How Moguls and Wall Street Plundered Great American Newspapers." The book tells the story of the disastrous merger of those two papers and their near-evisceration at the hands of financier Sam Zell.  In a review of the book in Sunday's NY Times, Bryan Burrough writes:
"For years, most large American newspapers were owned by families — the Grahams in Washington, the McCormicks in Chicago, the Chandlers in Los Angeles — but as those families grew and spread, their far-flung members sought greater returns. Beginning in the 1960s, many of the companies began going public, and therein can be found the underlying problem. 

The demands placed upon publicly held companies — more profits, a higher stock price — cannot easily be reconciled with the demands of quality journalism, which needs more people and higher salaries than a cut-rate alternative. When newspapers faced any kind of challenge, whether from the Internet or higher newsprint costs, the answer has long been to cut costs, which leads inevitably to lower-quality journalism."
So what does the future hold for journalism? Well, James O'Shea left the Tribune for the Chicago New Cooperative, one of a crop of new nonprofit  news organization providing high quality, relevant journalism. There's also a movement to support community-based local, low power radio. But yet another story courtesy of the Times points to another outcome: "A Newsroom That Doesn't Need News."   

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Eat, Play, Drink...

It's (still) Eat, Drink Local Week in New York! For a schedule of locavore events in the 5 magnificent boroughs, see Edible Manhattan's guide.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Reducing Corporate Welfare is NOT a Tax Hike!

Bipartisan talks on reducing the deficit have fallen apart - surprise! - over the issue of increasing the revenue side of the government's balance sheet in addition to simply cutting expenses. Is eliminating some tax breaks to some of the world's richest and most profitable companies -- including Exxon Mobil, Royal Dutch Shell and BP - really a tax increase, as Republicans insist?

For a clear-eyed discussion of the issue, read Caroline Baum's piece on A staggering $1 trillion in tax breaks are doled out every year - at the expense of American taxpayers. Federal tax revenues, by the way, are at their lowest levels in 60 years. And corporate taxes are around 1% of GDP,  a third of what they were in the 1950s and the lowest percent of GDP among major nations. (For a visual chart from the Tax Policy Center, click here.) Many of our biggest corporations (hello, GE) pay NO income taxes at all!

So let's stop falling for the line that these are tax increases. It is eliminating corporate welfare, clear and simple, to some of the wealthiest and politically-connected corporations on earth. So yes, let's rethink the 35% corporate tax rate. But let's also be clear that, as the NY Times has periodically pointed out, "nobody pays that."

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Land of Plenty?

Nearly 2/3 of all fruits and vegetables and 3/4 of all seafood consumed in the U.S. come from outside the country, according to an eye-opening FDA report covered in the NY Times.  Does that seem crazy to you, too? And consider that, in one recent 12-month period, there were 40 recalls of imported foods that were considered an imminent threat to health. It gets worse: More than 80% of the active ingredients for the drugs we gobble down in this country are made abroad - mostly in plants in China and India that are rarely inspected by the FDA. Same with vitamins and medical devices, all of which fall under the purview of the FDA. Yet, as The Times points out, "instead of increasing the [FDA's] budget to perform those inspections, house Republicans voted last week to cut it."  Almost makes you want to reach for the Xanax...
Read the full FDA report in pdf format here. And support your local food producers!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Monday Madness

Just back from the BALLE conference in Bellingham WA, an inspiring gathering of people from around the country,  and the world, who are working to build "local, living economies." In case anyone needs to be convinced of the need for BALLE-like alternatives, spend a half-hour reading the NY Times today. From "hit & run" Wall Street business models, to the ludicrous (and ultimately wasteful) lemming-like behavior of Silicon Valley VCs ($15 million for a grilled cheese app?), to the self-serving efforts of the country's biggest corporations to shelter their vast cash piles from taxes, it will get your blood pumping. And don't forget "Afghanistan's Last Locavores," a compelling look at the government's shortsighted development strategy in Afghanistan, where we are transforming a traditional, sustainable way of life into a "consumer-oriented, mechanized, fossil-fuel-based economy." It's all in the name of "quick wins." As Wendell Berry famously said, this is truly the culture and economy of a one-night stand!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Do we really have to ask?

A piece in Smart Money questions whether the stock market is still fair in an age of high-speed trading, where a handful of deep-pocketed traders can jump ahead of everyone else. As one trader explains: "When the exchanges were member-owned they looked out for ordinary investors, but now that they've shifted to a for-profit model they're taking care of their big customers. They've found a way to make money for doing nothing." 

Individual investors and companies, especially smaller ones, are no longer well-served by this system - and that is one of the key arguments for the creation of local stock exchanges that serve their regions, such as those proposed in Lancaster, PA, Hawaii, and Toronto. Check them out!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Where are the banks when you need them?

Hedge funds stepping in to fill a void left by banks? This is why we need alternatives.

Hipsters run afoul of the SEC, or, how NOT to raise money

When Pabst Blue Ribbon, the Milwaukee-based beer company beloved by hipsters, was up for sale a couple of years ago, two advertising execs had an idea:  Why not reach out to other PBR fans via Facebook and Twitter to raise the roughly $300 million that would be needed to buy the company? The men received pledges from 5 million people totaling $200 million - or about $40 a person - before the Securities and Exchange Commission shut them down. The problem: they did not register the securities with the SEC.  Companies are required to register with the SEC and provide financial and other disclosure to investors to help them make informed decisions - basic investor protections established after the Great Depression to deter scam artists. But registration is costly, and, as the PBR example shows, many people aren't aware of the basic laws regarding  capital raising.

At the same time, crowdfunding is emerging as a powerful way for companies to raise money by aggregating small sums from many investors—especially when banks are reluctant to lend and the stock market is closed to many smaller firms. Although fundamentally flawed, the PBR campaign shows the potential of crowdfunding—when done right. (So does the wild popularity of Kickstarter and Kiva, but those sites do not promise any profit or ownership). The SEC has a duty to protect, but our Depression-era laws are woefully outdated in the Facebook age, and all too often hinder the flow of capital to worthy businesses that would use the money to develop new products, hire workers and expand. Social media and technology are making it possible for companies to reach out to their loyal customers and supporters in new and transparent ways. The SEC should be studying how to harness that power for productive use. A proposal before the SEC would exempt crowdfunded investments of $100 or so per individual from registration. More on that here.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Community capital across the country

Busy week, but I wanted to post a few stories that attest to the groundswell of interest in local investing...

- A story in the High Country News about a small business in Colorado that raised $270,000 in loans from local residents (and thanks to Jeff Milchen of the American Independent Business Alliance for pointing out!)
- A piece about the wonderfully named No Small Potatoes Investment Club in Maine, which lends to the areas farmers and food producers
- And last but not least, another excellent article by the New York Times' Graham Bowley about our broken financial markets.


Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Hot off the presses: Locavesting hits stores today!

My book Locavesting  - and namesake of this blog - is now available in stores! If you are interested in hearing the inspiring stories of citizens and communities that are finding innovative ways to fund their local businesses (you know, the ones that create jobs, pay their taxes, and contribute to healthy local economies) while revitalizing their Main Streets and downtowns, I hope you will consider it. 
I promise it's a good read!  (:

NYC: Let a 1,000 cupcakes bloom

Like many cities, New York has seen its manufacturing base shrink by two-thirds since 1990. But there's been a bright spot: jobs related to food production rose 6% last year in the city.  That may not be a surprise to anyone who has followed the explosion of gourmet food trucks and artisanal food producers or lined up for pupusas or People's Pops at the Red Hook ball parks or the Brooklyn Flea.

But if small businesses in general have a hard time raising capital to expand, the challenge is even more daunting for food-related entrepreneurs, which are considered too risky by many banks. That's why NYC's efforts to help young food entrepreneurs is a great example of smart local government policy. The Bloomberg administration is putting $1 million into a $10 million fund (the rest comes from Goldman Sachs!) that that will help finance local food entrepreneurs. In addition, the city is transforming unused buildings into commercial kitchens and light processing centers that small food businesses can use. As Seth Pinsky of the NYC Economic Development Corporation tells the NY Times today, not all of these entrepreneurs will be successful. "But you don't need everyone to succeed. You want as high a percentage as possible to continue operating. You then need some of the businesses to go from small to medium sizes, and you want a small percent to really succeed and become large businesses."

Let a thousand cupcakes bloom! 

Sunday, June 5, 2011

What a difference one citizen can make...

I've been enjoying the occasional dispatches from writers around the country in the Opinion pages of the New York Times. Today there is a particularly inspiring piece by Ben Fountain about how one Dallas resident restored an overlooked neighborhood's long-shuttered art deco theater, turning it into a thriving performance space and community gathering spot. As often happens, that one act of faith has had a powerful spillover effect, attracting not just culture-starved customers but new businesses to the block, including an independent bookstore, a barbecue joint, a grocery store and a vintage clothing boutique. This is how neighborhoods are revitalized.

As Margaret Mead once said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever does."    

Friday, June 3, 2011

WSJ on Locavesting

The Wall Street Journal ran a piece yesterday about local stock exchanges and "loca-vesting." The idea of local exchanges—like the ones that used to thrive across the nation before markets consolidated—is gaining ground as a way to support the growth of job-creating regional businesses for whom a Nasdaq or NYSE listing is prohibitively costly. The localized markets would also provide an important source of liquidity for local investors. The examples and concepts in the article will be familiar to early readers of my book, Locavesting, which will be in stores next week(!). But it is good to see mainstream media taking notice of this important trend. Local exchanges, it should be noted, are just one example of the many innovative models being tested across the country to once again allocate capital to the community-rooted businesses that are so vital to our local and national economies. I coined the term "locavesting" to refer to the entire sweep of these efforts, from community finance to crowdfunding to local exchanges. 

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

"Dollars to Doughnuts"

A nice review of Locavesting by Hardy Green, author of "The Company Town" and former book editor at Business Week. You can read it here.