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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Who will win in Manchester Gorton?

Will Labour lose in Manchester Gorton?

The death of Gerald Kaufman will trigger a by-election in his Manchester Gorton seat, which has been Labour-held since 1935.

Coming so soon after the disappointing results in Copeland – where the seat was lost to the Tories – and Stoke – where the party lost vote share – some overly excitable commentators are talking up the possibility of an upset in the Manchester seat.

But Gorton is very different to Stoke-on-Trent and to Copeland. The Labour lead is 56 points, compared to 16.5 points in Stoke-on-Trent and 6.5 points in Copeland. (As I’ve written before and will doubtless write again, it’s much more instructive to talk about vote share rather than vote numbers in British elections. Most of the country tends to vote in the same way even if they vote at different volumes.)

That 47 per cent of the seat's residents come from a non-white background and that the Labour party holds every council seat in the constituency only adds to the party's strong position here. 

But that doesn’t mean that there is no interest to be had in the contest at all. That the seat voted heavily to remain in the European Union – around 65 per cent according to Chris Hanretty’s estimates – will provide a glimmer of hope to the Liberal Democrats that they can finish a strong second, as they did consistently from 1992 to 2010, before slumping to fifth in 2015.

How they do in second place will inform how jittery Labour MPs with smaller majorities and a history of Liberal Democrat activity are about Labour’s embrace of Brexit.

They also have a narrow chance of becoming competitive should Labour’s selection turn acrimonious. The seat has been in special measures since 2004, which means the selection will be run by the party’s national executive committee, though several local candidates are tipped to run, with Afzal Khan,  a local MEP, and Julie Reid, a local councillor, both expected to run for the vacant seats.

It’s highly unlikely but if the selection occurs in a way that irritates the local party or provokes serious local in-fighting, you can just about see how the Liberal Democrats give everyone a surprise. But it’s about as likely as the United States men landing on Mars any time soon – plausible, but far-fetched. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.