During the 2008 credit crisis, a horde of central bankers, Treasury officials and large corporations screamed that the end of the world was upon us — unless trillions of your money were spent (or created) to prop up the existing financial and banking systems.
The presumption was that the existing structure must never be changed, or the Fed’s control over the financial and monetary system ever brought into question. Everything is just as it should be. This is a minor blip on the radar screen, nothing to be concerned about, provided certain steps were taken.
So we were all looted. There was the debt run-up, the new regulations, the funny money creation, the absorption of bad debt that was revarnished and relabeled as assets, the complicated payouts to every institution that Bernanke and his friends deemed to be too big and too crucial to our well-being to be allowed to fail. The government must be permitted to throw around inconceivable amounts of money, they said, in order to save our glorious system.
Democrats, Republicans, liberals, conservatives and every conventional media outlet on this green earth agreed: No expense can be spared to solve this great emergency. Anyone who resists this multiyear bailout, began under Bush and continued under Obama and to be continued by whomever follows, is clearly an egregious cretin who doesn’t understand the depth of the emergency we (as a nation) face.
Yet here we are not too many years later, and it seems that entrepreneurs understand something that the political and banking classes did not understand: The system is rotten and needs to be fixed. It doesn’t serve consumers, which is to say that it does not serve society. There are too many layers between us and the people running the show.
These young entrepreneurs have been hard at working to find new ways for us to develop financial relationships with each other, human ways that don’t rely on force, fraud and freaking out at every sign of trouble. The most-remarkable thing is how they are doing this within the rigid existing structure, regardless of every barrier thrown in their way.
I’ve been exploring some fascinating new digital-age systems for banking, money, loans and payments. If you aren’t following this stuff day to day, you would miss them. They might be used by millions to transfers billions of dollars, yet even still, they aren’t in our purview. This is because people are using digital media as never before to create and innovate in ways that the mercifully spared money institutions of old could not even imagine.
Let’s name a few from simple to complex. And let me say, just before marching through these things, if you have had a rotten day, working in a routine job in which nothing new ever happens, or you have been sitting in a desk listening to some drone professor babble on about the dated falsehoods that clog his brain, these little tools will seriously lift your spirits.
Squareup. This is an innovation by Jack Dorsey (Twitter fame) and his friends, and came about only in 2010. The first problem they were trying to overcome was there has to be an easier way for merchants to accept credit cards. They decided to give the hardware away for use on simple mobile phones, and then charge per transaction. Win!
In the course of developing the business, which is valued already at $1 billion, they solved an even stranger problem that all of us have but never really noticed that we have: If we don’t have our wallets with us, we can’t buy anything.
Now this is genius: Square allows you to pay by saying your name. The merchant matches a picture of your on the square system with your physical face. You look each other in the eye and the deal is done. Anyone can sign up. Yes, it is incredible. Simple and wonderful.
The Lending Club. Again, this is mind-blowing. The Lending Club matches up lenders and borrowers while bypassing the banking system altogether. The idea emerged in October 2008, just as the existing credit system seemed to be blowing up. Today, the company originates $1 million in loans per day.
Anyone can become a lender with a minimum investment of $25 per note. Lenders can choose specific borrowers or choose among many baskets and combinations of borrowers to reduce risk.
Any potential borrower can apply, but of course the company wants to keep default rates at the lowest possible level, and these are published daily (right now, they are running 3%). As a result, most applications to borrow are declined (this is good!).
The average rate of interest on the loans is 11%, cheaper than credit cards but more realistic than the Fed’s crazy push for zero. As a result, the average net annualized return is 9.6%.
The focus if of course on small loans for weddings, moving expenses, business startups, debt consolidation and the like. If you are an indebted country with large unfunded liabilities, you probably can’t get a loan. But if you are student with a job who needs upfront money to put down on an apartment, you might qualify.
Dwolla. This is a super-easy, super-slick online payment system that specializes in linking payments through social networks like Facebook and Twitter. Like most of these companies, the idea was hatched in 2008 in response to the crisis. The system was breaking down and needed new services that worked. Dwolla got off the ground in 2009, and today, it processes more than $1 million per week.
An easy way to understand Dwolla is to view it as the next generation of PayPal, but with a special focus on reducing the problem that vexed PayPal in its early years: getting rid of credit card fraud. Dwolla is focussing its product development on ways to pay that do not require sending credit card information over networks.
Dwolla has also taken a strong interest in the Internet payment system called Bitcoin, a digital unit of account that hopes to become an alternative to national monetary systems. It is a long way from becoming that, but it is hardly surprising that a young and innovative company would be interested in competition to failed paper money.
These are a few of the services, but there are hundreds more. None were created by the money masters in Washington. They are results of private innovation, individual entrepreneurs thinking their way through social and economic problems and coming up with solutions. They accept the risk of failure and enjoy the profit from success.
What they all have in common that is missing from the current monetary, financial and banking structure — a maniacal focus on serving the individual consumer. If or when the official structure blows up, such private enterprises will be there to save us.