Goldman Sachs gets into social impact bonds - but what are they?

Ryan Shorthouse of the Social Market Foundation explains the reasoning behind social impact bonds.

Fiscal retrenchment is catalysing radical thinking among policymakers about how to get better public services for less money. Social impact bonds (SIBs) are currently fashionable in policy debates as a possible means of financing interventions. With SIBs, social investors fund a particular service, and only get a return if the intervention improves outcomes which will lead to reduced government expenditure in the long-term. In the current environment, Government wants to pay investors only out of identifiable savings. And an idea that started here in the UK has now gone global. Just last week Goldman Sachs announced that it was spending $9.6 million on a 4-year programme aimed at reducing recidivism of offenders at Rikers Island prison in New York.

SIBs are potentially an ingenious way of getting more bang for taxpayer bucks at a time when public money is short. They are a vehicle for encouraging innovation in public service delivery because they devolve the financial risk to investors and organisations who can affect outcomes on the ground. At a recent SMF conference, Iain Duncan Smith MP said:

It could mean a change to the whole way that Government and private sector work together to solve social problems.

The first ever SIB launched in 2010 and funds work to reduce re-offending among offenders released from Peterborough Prison. Philanthropic investors will receive a return on their investment if the interventions funded achieve at least a 10 per cent reduction in reoffending each year, or at least 7.5 per cent across all three years. Other schemes are now emerging: in Manchester, for example, the Council is sourcing funds from social investors to provide intensive support for eight young people with challenging circumstances to live in foster care rather than in residential care.

SIBs are an important part of the funding jigsaw. But they are not the magic bullet for all public services. Social investment – where investors invest in the work of charities and expect a return – is still small: in 2010, £190m was sourced for social investment compared to £3.6bn in philanthropic grant funding and £55.3bn in wider bank lending. And SIBs only constitute a small part of all social investment. The small scale is mainly down to a lack of decent investable propositions. There are at least three big reasons for this.

First, because SIBs are embryonic market information about the likely risk and reward in different service areas is poor. Investors are jumping into the unknown. Little is known about how effective new interventions could be at, say, cutting re-offending levels, so investors don’t have much to go on in assessing the investment proposition. This uncertainty is exacerbated by the length of time it may take for outcomes to be observed, especially for early intervention programmes. The Government has helped set up Big Society Capital which it hopes will co-invest with private investors to send a signal to them and mitigate their risks by accepting lower interest rates or taking on the junior part of a debt. It is also hoped that Big Society Capital will fund new products that support impact measurement.

Second, there is a risk that investors are not paid appropriately. In most public services it is difficult for government to identify whether outcomes have improved, let alone to attribute those improvements to the work of the provider. If re-conviction rates fall after an intervention how can government distinguish between its being the result of the intervention or perhaps a change in the local policing strategy? An up-tick in re-offending could be the consequence of high local unemployment, or a statistical blip, rather than ineffective interventions. Correctly attributing outcomes to their cause is notoriously difficult. But without resolving that challenge both government and investors will remain reluctant to embark on large scale SIBs.

Third, even where outcomes are measurable, quantifying the financial benefits for taxpayers is tough. Improved employment outcomes for unemployed people or better GCSE results for children in care may be good in themselves, but quantifying the public savings is no simple task. All the more so if those savings are spread across a number of government departments, making coordination difficult.

The potential for SIBs and other payment by results schemes to revolutionise public service delivery lies in the incentives they create for providers to innovate. But there are many hurdles for government to overcome if this approach is to enter the mainstream. Improving measurement and data collection, working across departmental silos, and simply taking a punt on financially risky ventures to find out what works may all be necessary steps. In time SIBs could save government money. But the first steps on the road will be costly. And right now that’s not something that government wants to hear.

A guard at the entrance of Rikers Island in 1955. Photograph: Getty Images

Ryan Shorthouse is the Director of Bright Blue, a think tank for liberal conservativism 

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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation