By Michael Shuman
Nov 8, 2011
I personally support the spirit of Occupy Wall Street, especially the spotlight it has cast on the shocking level of inequality in our country. But the movement oddly conveys a very mainstream message that Wall Street can and should be fixed. Just clean up our existing financial institutions – make them more accountable, honest, transparent – and all will be well. Really?
I think it would be smarter to end our relationship with Wall Street. Just say “no.” There’s another 99% that begs our attention—the 99% of Americans who are not permitted to invest in local small business. A growing body of evidence suggests that these are the businesses that are essential for growing jobs, incomes, equality, entrepreneurship, smart-growth, and green communities.
If we were to legalize investment in local businesses, including co-ops, farms, and community investment funds, Wall Street would be history. And the good news is that it’s on the verge of happening.
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For decades, we’ve lived under an oppressive system of investment apartheid. The 1% who are millionaires (known under federal securities law as “accredited investors”) are free to invest in anything they choose. With the referees in their back pockets and all kinds of home-court advantages, it’s easy for them to win the wealth-accumulating game. The other 99% of us are stuck with the slim pickings of the Fortune 500 public companies listed on Wall Street—the companies least connected to the well being of our communities.
Before small businesses can accept investment from the 99%, they have to spend many tens of thousands of dollars on legal, accounting, and government filing fees. While most of us would like to invest in small businesses in our community, practically speaking, securities laws make it impossible.
This is a far more extreme big-business bias than exists in banking, where we can easily move our money to local banks and credit unions. Worse, we have four times more money in Wall Street investments – stocks, bonds, mutual funds, pension funds, and insurance funds – than we do in banks . We are the ones fueling the multinational companies we distrust.
If we could overhaul securities laws that we enacted during the early Jurassic Period, local businesses could be fabulous investments. They are the most important job producers in the economy. They account for more than half of private sector jobs. They are increasingly competitive—so much so that their their share of the national workforce actually growing. Stunningly, sole proprietorships are three times as profitable as C-corporations.
For the first time in decades, reform is finally possible. A remarkable coalition has emerged bringing together leaders of the Tea Party and the Obama Administration. They agree that investment apartheid should be abolished. Republican Representative Patrick McHenry of North Carolina is leading the charge in the House to legalize small businesses raising money through large numbers of small investments (aka “crowdfunding”), with minimal paperwork, for companies raising less than $1 million. Recent changes in his bill (HR 2930, The Entrepreneur Access to Capital Act) actually make it very similar to reforms President Obama proposed in his jobs package in September.
On November 3, HR 2930 passed the House with overwhelming support (407-17). But passage of crowdfunding legislation is still uncertain. Senate Republicans may be afraid to support anything that Obama has proposed as part of his jobs package. And many Democrats are defending the status quo, because they are understandably afraid of deregulating the financial industry. What Dems don’t appreciate, however, is that the key to Wall Street reform is to ratchet up regulation at the top and loosen things a bit for the 99% at the bottom.
The Occupy Wall Street protestors could make a critical difference here. They – and we – should occupy Congress until they legalize local investment. Once that occurs, we’ll see thousands of small companies owned by their customers. We’ll see the emergence of local stock exchanges that will provide investors with liquidity. We’ll see mutual funds with local securities (none exist today), and local pension funds.
Consider what happens when the first trillion dollars of our long-term savings move from Wall Street to Main Street. Stock prices of giant multinational public companies will go down, and the price of local business shares will go up. A stampede of investors moving their money could follow. We might quickly see the largest transfer of capital in human history, from increasingly untrustworthy Fortune 500 companies to the local businesses we care about.
Millions of Americans have already changed their buying habits to buy local. Now’s our chance to invest locally too! My dream is to transform the place into a quaint Big Apple tourist site, where we can pay our respects to the mistakes of the 20th century that we thankfully stopped making in the 21st.
LEGALIZE LOCAL INVESTMENT
photo credit: Spencer McCormick, creative commons license.