Cooperative Banking, the Exciting Wave of the Future
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Values-based banks and CDFIs are a move in the right direction, but their market share in the U.S. remains small. To see the possibilities of a banking system with a mandate to serve the public, we need to look abroad.
Germany and Japan are export powerhouses, in second and third place globally for net exports. (The U.S. trails at 192nd.) One competitive advantage for both of these countries is that their companies have ready access to low-cost funding from cooperatively owned banks.
In Germany, about half the total assets of the banking system are in the public sector, while another substantial chunk is in cooperative savings banks. Germany’s strong public banking system includes 11 regional public banks (Landesbanken) and thousands of municipally owned savings banks (Sparkassen). After the Second World War, it was the publicly owned Landesbanks that helped family-run provincial companies get a foothold in world markets. The Landesbanks are key tools of German industrial policy, specializing in loans to the Mittelstand, the small-to-medium size businesses that drive the country’s export engine.
Because of the Landesbanks, small firms in Germany have as much access to capital as large firms. Workers in the small business sector earn the same wages as those in big corporations, have the same skills and training, and are just as productive. In January 2011, the net value of Germany’s exports over its imports was 7 percent of GDP, the highest of any nation. But it hasn’t had to outsource its labor force to get that result. The average hourly compensation (wages plus benefits) of German manufacturing workers is $48—a full 50 percent more than the $32 hourly average for their American counterparts.
In Japan, the banks are principally owned not by shareholders but by other companies in the same keiretsu or industrial group, in a circular arrangement in which the companies basically own each other. Even when there are nominal outside owners, corporations are managed so that the bulk of the wealth generated by the corporation flows either to the workers as income or to investment in the company, making the workers and the company the beneficial owners.
Since the 1980s, U.S. companies have focused on maximizing short-term profits at the expense of workers and longer-term goals. This trend stems in part from the fact that they are now funded largely by capital from shareholders who own the company and want simply to grow their returns. According to a 2005 report from the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels, equity financing is more than twice as important in the U.S. as in Europe, accounting for 116 percent of GDP compared with 62 percent in Japan and 54 percent in the eurozone countries. In both Europe and Japan, the majority of corporate funding comes not from investors but from borrowing, either from banks or from the bond market.
Funding with low-interest loans from cooperatively owned banks leaves greater control of the company in the hands of employees who either own it or have much more say in its operation. Access to low-interest loans can also slash production costs. According to German researcher Margrit Kennedy, when interest charges are added up at every level of production, 40 percent of the cost of goods, on average, comes from interest.
Globally, the burgeoning movement for local, cooperatively owned and community-oriented banks is blazing the trail toward a new, sustainable form of banking. The results may not yet qualify as the Golden Age prophesied by Hindu cosmology, but they are a major step in that direction.