Rolling Jubilee: can a crowdsourced bailout of personal debt work?

A new spin-off of Occupy Wall Street wants to cancel debt. Can it?

This is an interesting thing. The Rolling Jubilee:

A bailout of the people by the people.

We buy debt for pennies on the dollar, but instead of collecting it, we abolish it. We cannot buy specific individuals' debt - instead, we help liberate debtors at random through a campaign of mutual support, good will, and collective refusal.

So how does this work? Distressed debt – debt which is in default – is frequently more trouble than it is worth for banks. Those institutions specialise in making money from money they hold, not recovering money they are owed. So if they have too much trouble getting that debt repaid, they sell it on. Someone pays less than the full value of the debt, and hopes to profit by recovering it and pocketing the difference

For really troublesome debt, sometimes that value can shrink to pennies in the pound – hence the Rolling Jubilee's plan, to buy $16,000 of debt for every $500 they raise (that is, $32 for $1).

That's how it works. But will it work? Maybe.

The legal mechanics of what they are doing are pretty clearly in their favour. Debt collectors really can cancel the debt if they want.

The problem is that if you try to actually do that, you may find very quickly that people stop selling you debt.

A similar idea was proposed a while back by an organisation called American Homeowner Preservation. It also deals with distressed debt, but focuses exclusively on mortgages, buying up pools of bad loans, and restructuring them to make it easier for the homeowners to pay them off.

But the original plan was simpler still. Felix Salmon explains:

Investors would buy a house in a short sale at the market price, and then lease the home back to the homeowner until the homeowner had the ability to get a mortgage and buy it back at a pre-set price.

The idea might have been elegant, but it didn’t work in practice, because the banks wouldn’t play ball: they (and Freddie Mac) simply hated the idea of a homeowner being able to stay in their house after a short sale, and often asked for an affidavit from the buyer saying that the former owner would certainly be kicked out.

There's not really any cold hard economics at play here. The banks have no reason to care what happens to a house after they've sold the mortgage for it, but they do. The best explanation for their stubbornness is that they fear that organisations like American Homeowner Preservation are creating a sort of moral hazard by reducing the penalties for defaulting on mortgages.

Will the debtholders be similarly reluctant when it comes to playing along with Rolling Jubilee? We'll see, but I don't have high hopes for a change in tactics any time soon.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.