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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Jeremy Corbyn has defied the odds and embarrassed his critics

The pundits were wrong, writes Liam Young. 

On Tuesday I said that Labour would need time to show any drastic improvement in nation-wide elections. With the results now clear I still hold to that premise. After a scary result in Scotland, a ‘holding on’ in Wales and a rather better than expected showing in England it is clear that the public has produced a mixed bag of results. But for Labour, something very interesting has happened.

Before the results were announced pundits were predicting roughly 200 seat losses for the Labour party across local councils. Some of Jeremy Corbyn’s strongest opponents suggested that Labour would lose councils in the South owing to the anti-austerity message being viewed as irrelevant. There was also the suggestion that Labour would gain votes in the heartland of the North where it already controlled a great number of seats. It seemed that the pundits were wrong on both counts.

One thing is clear and undeniable. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour has defied the odds at this election. It looks like the party will lose no more than 30 council seats and that its vote share on 2015 will be up by roughly 4 per cent at the expense of the Tories. People will rightly say that this is depending on the standard the results are measured by.

But I think that John McDonnell made a convincing argument last night on exactly how to judge this performance. Given that many simply want to spend time speculating about Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership it seems entirely reasonable to measure Labour’s success based on the party’s movement since he became leader. As mentioned above if this is taken as the standard Labour has increased its share of the vote and has beat the Tories after being some 14 points behind in the polls just a few months ago.

Commentators were arguing even at the point of polls closing that Labour would lose control of key councils such as Southampton, Harlow, Carlisle and Nuneaton. Yes – everybody remembers Nuneaton. But these predictions proved false. Labour did not just hold on to these areas but in a great deal of them the party increased its share of the vote and indeed its share of council seats. Labour has truly defied the odds across England.

The information that was shared in the weeks before the election on Thursday suggested that with Labour’s current position in the polls it would lose 170 seats. Some went as far as to suggest we would lose towards the 300 mark given the crisis Labour found itself enveloped in during the run up to voting. Opponents were kind enough to note that if we achieved parity with the Tory vote we would only lose 120 council seats.

While any loss is regrettable I have made my view clear on why Labour faced an uphill climb in these elections. Despite the rhetoric we have lost just over 20 seats. I agree with John McDonnell’s call this morning that it is time for the ‘begrudgers’ to ‘put up or shut up’. No wonder they are being so quiet.

Liam Young is a commentator for the IndependentNew Statesman, Mirror and others.