Podcast

milo827/Shutterstock

Michael Shuman: The Benefits of Deploying Investment Capital Locally Vs Wall Street

Better returns, stronger communities
Sunday, March 23, 2014, 6:01 AM

The Federal Reserve and other central planners have worked overtime to lead the world back to "recovery" from the depths of the 2008 financial crisis. Using one of their main signaling indicators, they've succeeded: stock market indices are hovering near all-time highs.

But, as has been often discussed here, are we really better off for it?

Recent survey data from Bloomberg show that 4 out of 5 Americans don't feel any more financially secure as a result of the stock market rescue. 62% believe the country is headed in the wrong direction:

“I keep hearing in the news and reading in the paper that it’s getting better,” said Patricia Picerno, 52, of Sandy Hook, Connecticut. “That’s for people who have money; for the person in the middle who doesn’t have any money, I don’t think it’s changed at all.”

"I don't think there’s anything real behind it,” said David Skelly, 47, a policeman in Kankakee, Illinois. “It’s just an artificial boom.”

Such results communicate a profound and deep mistrust of Wall Street, and deservedly so. By failing to hold Wall Street even marginally accountable for its financial and sometimes criminal sins, the current and prior administrations have aided and abetted the shredding of market and political trust in America.

So what can be done about the fact that investing with Wall Street is sometimes a sucker’s game in which we have little or no trust? How do we find hope and meaning in a world where the powerful look out for themselves first, second, and always?

In this week's podcast, Chris talks with Michael Shuman, author of Local Dollars Local Sense: How To Move Your Money From Wall Street to Main Street & Achieve Real Prosperity. Shuman has written eight books on community economics and believes that deploying your investment capital locally offers the best financial return prospects vs investing it in traditional stocks and bonds -- plus yields an additional valuable community resilience multiplier that Wall Street doesn't:

Let’s set aside the strange and mystical qualities of money that are printed out of the Federal Reserve and are kind of the magic wand of the national government. But at the local level, there are real resources—real wealth, real economic activities that are taking place—and people are using that money in terms of buy things from those businesses and invest in those businesses. The more that people can localize their transactions and keep their money circulating within their communities, while they can never completely disconnect from the Rube Goldberg machine of the global economy, they can insulate themselves (...)

A lot of the work that I do is on the economic virtues of locally owned business. And we now have a really huge body of evidence that communities with the high density of locally owned businesses prosper. There was nice regression analysis published in the Harvard Business Review in the summer of 2010 that showed that in communities with a lot of local businesses, you had the highest probability of per capital job growth. We have a study that came out of the Federal Reserve in Atlanta last September looking at all counties in the United States showing that those counties with the highest likelihood of finding a local business have the highest per capita income group and the highest probability of eradicating poverty. So these are all, I think, very powerful data that ought to lead one into—all things being equal—to put your money into a local business.

There is a widespread misunderstanding that local small business is not very profitable. And in point of fact, we know from statistical abstract in the US that sole proprietorships are three times as profitable as C corps with partnerships falling in between. And if you look at the latest data in Canada, which is much more refined, it shows that the most profitable companies in Canada have ten to twenty employees and they have about double the profitability of the firms that are being traded on the Toronto Stock Exchange where everyone has their money. So if we can figure out a way to get investment in local businesses right, this is where people are going to get the best rates of return. 

Click the play button below to listen to Chris' interview with Michael Shuman (43m:48s):

Transcript: 

Chris Martenson: Welcome to this Peak Prosperity podcast. I am your host, Chris Martenson. You know, this morning, I am reading through a set of results from a poll, a headline of which is that most Americans say the stock market surge of the past few years has bypassed them. Barely one in five—just 21%—said that the market’s gains have made them feel more financially secure. David Skelly, a 47-year-old policeman in Kankakee, Illinois said, “I do not think there is anything real behind it. It is just an artificial boom.” By 62% to 30%—two to 1—respondents said, “The nation is headed in the wrong direction.” Patricia Picerno, a 52-year-old Connecticut resident, said, “I keep hearing in the news and reading in the paper it is getting better. That is for people who have money. For the person in the middle who does not have money, I do not think it has changed at all.”

Now what is really being communicated here, I believe, is a profound and deep mistrust of Wall Street, and deservedly so. By failing to Wall Street even marginally accountable for their financial and sometimes criminal sins, the current and prior administrations have aided and abetted the shredding of market and political trust in America.

So what can be done about the fact that investing with Wall Street is sometimes a sucker’s game in which we have little or no trust? How do we find hope and meaning in a world where the powerful look out for themselves first, second, and always? Lots. Lots can be done. And to help us understand both the context and the content behind reclaiming our rightful connection between work and returns is Michael Shuman, an economist, author, attorney, and entrepreneur, who is the Director of Research for Cutting Edge Capital. Michael is one of the world’s leading experts on community economics and he has authored, co-authored, or edited eight books on the subject. His most recent book is Local Dollars Local Sense: How to Move Your Money from Wall Street to Main Street and Achieve Real Prosperity. Welcome, Michael.

Michael Shuman: Very nice to be with you today.

Chris Martenson: So from your perspective as one who interacts on a daily basis with local businesses, did the poll I cite somehow mischaracterize the mood on Main Street?

Michael Shuman: No, I think the poll is quite accurate. The only modification I would add is that unfortunately, I think many in the public have short memories. And I exempt the people who are your listeners because they are following, I think, more real signs in the marketplace. But I think many people in the general public have much better memories for good times than for bad times. And so the fact that the market performed very well last year gives people the delusional sense of, “Oh, now we are back to normal.” And what is not understood or appreciated is that normal is pathetic. I mean, even leaving aside all of the corruption and foul play that you were talking about, just taking straight data from the market, one interesting exercise is to take the data from the economist Robert Shiller, who won the Nobel Prize last year. He is a Yale economist and he, on his website, has the returns of Wall Street every year since 1871. And if you duly add in dividends and take out inflation, you find that in any average 12-month period, the rate of return has been 2.6%. And at 2.6%, there are a lot of compelling investment alternatives at the local level that we ought to be looking at.

Chris Martenson: Well, you know, and certainly that echoes, too, the idea that the policeman in that poll mentioned, which is that it is all artificial. There is a strong sense in my listenership, and I see increasingly across the airwaves, too, a sense that we are in manufactured territory. It is bubble territory and a lot of things have been inflated. But what people are interested in, obviously, are real returns. Bubbles represent an extraordinary amount of risk out there.

And so the term “investing,” let’s talk about that word “investing” then. It has really been so heavily marketed by the financial industry that I think nearly everybody, when they hear the word, they immediate think of: that means you send your money off to play in a distant stock or a bond market. But what can and should investing really mean in this day and age? Can we reclaim that word a little bit?

Michael Shuman: Yeah, I think that is right. And I mean, one kind of fun exercise that I do in my last book is try to equate investing with how you might improve your own household finance. And really, I mean, it is very clear that given the tax laws and given the fact that we have gone through a housing bubble already that reinvesting in your own home is almost always going to be a better rate of return than you are going to get in Wall Street. Reinvesting in your neighborhood, in a group of homes in your neighborhood, is going to be significantly better.

You know, if we were to say that Wall Street was to do an average of a really robust 5% instead of the 2.6% average that I mentioned before, you can start running through, well, if I had, say, a ten-year wasting asset investment, say, in energy—and by “wasting asset,” I mean I have no confidence that investing in energy efficiency was going to increase the resale value of my house—I would need something like a 15% rate of return on that for the ten years in order to justify making the investment. So if I was to put $1,000 into energy efficiency rather than my 401K, could I get a $150 rate of return? Absolutely. It would be a simple task to get a $150 savings on your energy bill for a $1,000 investment. You could put $1,000 into a bicycle and if you could save yourself gas expenses of $150 a year, it would be worthwhile making it. In fact, you would probably save that gas in a month. If you put, say, that money into a great coffeemaker, you could prevent yourself from spending the money on one Starbucks latte a week and get a better rate of return.

So the point is that you are right, the investment industry makes us try to bifurcate our thinking that what we invest in at a distance is one thing and what we put in our own household or how we manage our household is something else. But it all comes from the same pocket.

Chris Martenson: Perfectly well said. I love that because that is absolutely something we have been hammering on over in our little corner of the world is this idea that investing can mean all kinds of things. And so this is something that lots of our listeners are hungry—no, starving—is for these good local investment ideas that they can feel good about, too.

So let’s talk specifics. You mentioned the coffeemaker, sort of some household improvements people can make. But what sorts of examples can you provide to help us start to understand the opportunities? Do you have these in buckets that will help us sort of parse through them?

Michael Shuman: Yeah, I think so. So really, the bucket we just talked about is, I think, of the highest relevance to about 80% of the American public. Which is to say that by the time 80% of the American public retires—and who knows what that term means anymore—but you know, gets of an age where they start thinking about changing their relationship to work. The typical American family has put away in their 401K or their IRA about $70,000. And you know, many financial advisors say, “Well, you should only be investing—spending rather—4% of that a year,” to take account of the fact that most of us are going to live well into our 80s. And that means you have enough money for groceries after taxes. I mean, so we have insured that a huge number of Americans are going to be living their retirement years in poverty. And that assumes, by the way, that Social Security remains solvent and active.

Chris Martenson: Big assumption.

Michael Shuman: Exactly. And you know, if Social Security falls apart, I mean, it is going to be a total catastrophe.

But I think the main point I want to make here is that for most Americans, the only wealth they will ever know is in their home. And so getting that investment right, making sure that people right-size their home purchase, make sure that people get into ownership of their home as soon as possible.

Now, let me also say that the very, very first thing that someone should do in order to localize their money and reinvest in their community is get out of credit cards. So getting yourself out of debt, getting yourself out of Master and Visa and American Express is the most important step. Because all of those credit cards are going to be sucking your money into great financial centers away from your community. And the rates of return that you get—I mean, a typical credit card now is charging 20% to 30% interest a year, which is unbelievable. But if you can get yourself out of that, that is a 20% to 30% rate of return that you are going to enjoy each year.

So assuming you are debt free, I think getting into your home is the next piece of your investment puzzle—getting to be an owner, getting to be an owner faster. I mean, if you have extra money and you have a mortgage, paying it down faster, paying it down in ten years instead of thirty is a significant improvement over Wall Street.

And I am not saying this to encourage people to buy excessive houses but frankly, again, given the tax laws, suppose you are debt-free, you own your home free and clear, do you now start investing in Wall Street? And the answer is no. Because now, you can start investing in home improvement, so these are the things that we talked about before—energy efficiency, you could build a greenhouse to grow your own food. You could perhaps start using your home for other kinds of home-based businesses.

But let’s say you are totally done with that. You are the most energy efficient person in the world. The next thing that you might think about doing is investing in your kid's house. And really, if you start playing this out, you can go very, very far down this road before you can justify—and this, again, this is in strictly empirical terms—before you can justify putting a penny on the market in Wall Street.

Chris Martenson: So this is fascinating. The idea here is obviously, you get out of high yielding debt because you are never going to earn 30% on Wall Street. But even investing in your own home so that you own it sooner because even if you have a really tasty 4.5% mortgage, you still cannot get 4.5% on Wall Street today so that makes it a better use of cash. Because that is a guaranteed 4.5% return, right? When you are paying it down early.

Michael Shuman: Well, that is right. And then there are several other considerations, though, that really boost what you are going to get out of your home. So among them are the mortgage interest deduction on your taxes. Another thing is that you need to take into account when you do sort of a lifetime assessment that your alternative to being an owner of a home is to rent your home or rent your apartment. And so you need to take into account all of the money that you would otherwise have spent on a rental if you are an owner. And the faster you can achieve that ownership and save the money you would have put into that rental, that is a savings and a return, as well.

So you know, I play out these calculations in the last chapter of Local Dollars Local Sense. I need to do more work in that because I think the numbers have gotten only better in the couple of years since the book has been published. But what I would encourage listeners to do is just think about what are all of the untapped savings that are in your control. And control, I think, is really a central issue here. You know, that this is part of the illusion that Wall Street has convinced us of. That if you throw your money into the hands of an expert in New York or San Francisco and you just trust that person to invest the money worldwide, you will have a swimmingly great retirement and live happily ever after. This is an absolute lie. And if we can just convince people that actually, there is no smarter person about your own financial situation and the opportunities for savings than yourself. And if you can control the fate of your home and the fate of your energy efficiency and the fate of your credit situation, boy, you are going to have such a greater probability of success.

Chris Martenson: All right, so let’s say I have paid off my home, I do not have any credit card debt. I have even helped invest in my kids’ homes if I happen to have kids at that stage of life. And now, there is still something left over. We know that investing always requires capital and there is always that initial task of any active investment, which is matching a business opportunity with capital. How are you helping individuals, communities, local businesses go about matching opportunities with capital?

Michael Shuman: Right. So this gets into, you know, what is 90% of the dialogue about local investment. And before diving into this, I just thought I would mention that in Local Dollars Local Sense, I spend about ten chapters just going through all of these different local investment tools. And then, really the last thing that I wrote was what we just talked about, about household investment. And really, it left me in the position of realizing quite embarrassingly that much of what I have written is now irrelevant for most of the readership.

But what I am saying really is that I am very glad we have done this conversation in this order because I think this is the right way of looking at it.

Chris Martenson: I agree.

Michael Shuman: And so when you get to the other kinds of investments—I mean, I do think there is a long list of things to think about. But let’s sort of start at the bottom of the food chain and work our way up. So you know, the simplest things for people are thinking about credit unions and banks—where you do your simplest transactions. And we now have really, really good data that small banks and credit unions are going to recycle a much greater percentage of the money you put on deposit into locally owned businesses. And let me just pause for a second here and just say that a lot of the work that I do is on the economic virtues of locally owned business. And we now have a really huge body of evidence that communities with a high density of locally owned businesses prosper. There was nice regression analysis published in the Harvard Business Review in the summer of 2010 that showed that in communities with a lot of local businesses, you had the highest probability of per capita job growth. We have a study that came out of the Federal Reserve in Atlanta last September looking at all counties in the United States showing that those counties with the highest likelihood of finding a local business have the highest per capita income group and the highest probability of eradicating poverty. So these are all, I think, very powerful data that ought to lead one into—all things being equal—to put your money into a local business.

And let me also say one other thing, too, which is that there is a widespread misunderstanding that local small business is not very profitable. And in point of fact, we know from statistical abstract in the US that sole proprietorships are three times as profitable as C corps with partnerships falling in between. And if you look at the latest data in Canada, which is much more refined, it shows that the most profitable companies in Canada have ten to twenty employees and they have about double the profitability of the firms that are being traded on the Toronto Stock Exchange where everyone has their money. So if we can figure out a way to get investment in local businesses right, this is where people are going to get the best rates of return.

So returning then to the point about credit unions and banks, we know that even though small and medium scale banks—so just focusing on the banking part of the universe, which is by far where most banking capital is—that those banks account of 20% of all banks’ capital. That is, you know, large and super sized banks are 80% of banking capital out there. But that 20% is responsible for most of the small business lending in this country. And it is just an astonishing fact about how many fold more probable it is that your dollar in a local bank is going to go into a local business.

Chris Martenson: Well, I am glad to have the data on that. That has always been a working assumption of ours and we have known that places with lots of local businesses seem to be more energetic, thriving. And you know, obviously, it makes sense if the dollars are being earned by people who live in your community, they are going to be saved and maybe spent by people in your community so that is a really good thing.

And what I want to talk about then is so if somebody is looking for local business opportunities, you mentioned credit unions and small banks. So that is a way to somewhat passively keep your dollars in the community, right? I open a bank account and I am still getting very low rates of return even if it happens to be a super well run small bank and credit union. By the way, all my money is in such local banks. But still, you know, I am going to trust that the bank is going to do a relatively good job and that is great.

What about for people who are looking to be a little bit more active in that investment process? Where do they start?

Michael Shuman: Right. So the next place where I think you will want to look is the sort of emerging universe of portals where you can find crowdfunding opportunities for various kinds of business. And if you go to the biggest of the portals whether it is, say, the Lending Club or Prosper, which are lending sites, or it is Kiva, which is more of an interest-free kind of lending that is more like anti-poverty banking—these sites make it not very easy for you to put money in your community. And so there is sort of a new generation of sites that are going to increasingly identify the whereabouts of the businesses or individuals you could be lending to through these sites. And I think the rates of return are pretty decent on these things and this will be a growing simplification for people to reinvest locally.

Two years ago, President Obama signed the so-called "Jobs Act" or Jumpstart Our Businesses Act. And what this act did—I mean, I will just simplify it a little bit—is it took the process of unaccredited investors. So let me pause for a second and point out that the way that securities law in the United States is set up, you can call it investment apartheid. If you are in the richest 1%, you can invest in anything, no questions asked. If you are in the other 99%, you may only put a penny into a local business if that business has done $25,000, $50,000, $100,000 of legal work disclosure documents. What the Jobs Act has effectively done is made it possible for these businesses to go to a new generation of investment portals and these portals will probably charge you—we do not know for sure—but probably will charge you more like $5,000 or $10,000 to make it possible for the unaccredited investors to invest in your company.

So from the standpoint of your listeners, you know, once there is a green light on the Jobs Act—and what has happened now is the Securities and Exchange Commission has issued its final guidelines. It has taken in some comments but it still has a couple of steps to make them final-final. And then FINRA, which is the regulatory oversight of the investment industry, they also have to do some implementation of the crowdfunding rules. But we pretty much know what they are at this point. And the best guess is that by this summer—summer of 2014—the green light will be given and a whole mess of new sites will start appearing that will be facilitating crowdfunding so that the unaccredited investor can put money into businesses in your community.

And I guess the one final thing I want to say about this is that the unfortunate part of the Jobs Act, from my perspective, is that it legalized crowdfunding over vast distances. So you could be living in California and you could receive invitations to come to portals with securities from businesses all across the United States. And people have argued—and I think they are right—that many of those long distance kinds of pushes for capital are going to be suspicious, potentially fraudulent, and people should be nervous about them.

So it is important, I think, for your listeners to understand that the subset of crowdfunding opportunities that should be especially focused on are those that are local. Those where you know the business, you can talk to the entrepreneur, chit-chat with the workforce, try out the goods and services. Preferably, it is a business that has been around for a while and is doing a modest expansion so you have confidence in the design of the business. But that is the kind of thing that people should be focused on in putting their money in.

Chris Martenson: I completely agree. And this is really a time to know your investments. And so to the extent that this crowdsource piece becomes just another way to dis-intermediate or have new distance investing. Here is the best description I have heard of this so far is that what you are really talking about is we want to support our local entrepreneurs. These are people who are going to add value and not all entrepreneurs are created equally so you want to know your entrepreneur. But once you do, it is really important to understand the deal as best you can. So the best way I have heard this explained is when you take your money and you invest it in Wall Street or in distance investing or you give it to some expert to run for you, that is called lazy money. What we are doing there is we are taking hard earned money—that part was not lazy—but then we are rather lazily saying we are going to give it somewhere and it is going to hopefully come back bigger. Un-lazy, or active investing, means you have got to know what you are talking about. Talk to the people, see their operation, taste their goods, experience their services, figure it out. And it will be pretty rapidly obvious where the winners are in this story. No guarantees, right? You could still lose your money. But the winners are much easier to spot if you have had that hands-on experience with the business. This is pretty much what you are saying, right?

Michael Shuman: Yeah, I think that is absolutely the case. And you know, if we were to get a little bit more nuanced about it, I mean, what I would say is that there are reasons—understandable reasons—why local investment is a little more risky in the current market, given the institutional structure of things. And there are some reasons why local investment is less risky. An example of why local investment might be a little more risky is that you are going to have fewer things to choose from and your probability of choosing wrong is greater. Okay, that is fine, we understand that.

On the other hand, what we just talked about, the fact that knowledge really brings down your risk, is a critical advantage of local investment. We know, for example, that local banks, which do highly knowledge-specific review of potential borrowers, have much lower default rates than bigger banks that do computer generated reviews of credit scores. And you know, to me, I mean, it just makes sense that if you know somebody, if you know somebody has a good reputation, you are going to have more confidence in where your money is going.

Chris Martenson: So more risky and less risky, fewer choices but among those choices we know a lot more. So I want to talk about this risk component. And specifically, I want to turn now to the idea of resilience. So 2008, 2009, horrible years for many businesses but especially small businesses. What if there were another such financial accident courtesy of the central authorities over which we have zero local control? How does the sort of local investment you are advocating for, how does that make our communities more resilient in the face of such instability? Or does it?

Michael Shuman: Well, so I guess one response I would give is: Let’s set aside the strange and mystical qualities of money that are printed out of the Federal Reserve and are kind of the magic wand of the national government. But at the local level, there are real resources—real wealth, real economic activities that are taking place—and people are using that money in order to buy things from those businesses and invest in those businesses. My feeling is that the more that people can localize their transactions and keep their money circulating within their communities—while they can never completely disconnect from the Rube Goldberg machine of the global economy, they can insulate themselves just a little bit. And I feel like the really good examples of resilience are more apparent now if we look, say, at electric utilities rather than economies although, I mean, I think we can make the economy argument.

But you know, if you look at, say, municipally owned utilities, when Enron went through its shenanigans and the California electricity market went crazy with extremely high prices and then people realized that Enron was just engaging in a Ponzi scheme—just people bidding for nothing. A couple of utilities in California that were able to insulate themselves from these wild gyrations of prices were the municipality owned utilities like Sacramento and Davis and Palo Alto. And I think that this was a lesson to us that if you can create your own thing, your own institution—economic institution—you can better withstand a world of uncertainty and a world of likely cataclysm. And I feel that economically—I mean, another good example might be food. That if you are relatively self reliant on food and you live in Western Massachusetts, which has a really good healthy local food system but it has taken a lot of work by many groups over twenty years to get you to that position. But that relative degree of self reliance on food will pay off huge dividends if there are sudden cutoffs in supplies of international food or inputs to food. You know, if there is another Mad Cow scare and you are dependent on imports of outside beef or there is a sudden scare about a chicken flu, aviary flu, and suddenly, you do not have your own indigenous supply of growing your own chickens.

So I think it is very important for us to move our communities towards self reliance knowing that it is going to be imperfect. We should not let perfect be the enemy of the good. But if you can do a somewhat better job of self reliance, you will prosper in the short term and you will insulate yourself, insure yourself against calamity in the long term.

Chris Martenson: I could not agree more and it is one of the reasons I do—another one of the reasons I keep my money in a local bank. I have my money in a cooperative and a savings bank both very local to my region. And it is in part because I know that if I went with a Citi or a Chase or a so on, these are large international corporations with massive derivative exposures on their books. And if they get into trouble on the derivative exposures, all the branches close and I have no control over that. And I know that I can walk into my cooperative bank, speak with the President—wonderful guy, he knows every one of the loans he has ever made. And I have looked at the kinds of places they keep their money. If any bank is going to survive a midlevel crisis, this one will be there standing and working just fine where I could easily see the big ones getting shuttered because they have a systemic risk that is very large—it is actually impenetrable and rather inscrutable. None of those things are places that I like to invest in. I like my investments and deposits—which are really unsecured creditor’s deposits into a bank—I like to know where I am putting my money at all times.

So I think that is really the theme I have got here is—what I am hearing you say is: Know where your money is going, you know? We have been separated from it, it has been bifurcated. Let’s bring it back. Let’s just make it simple. Just understand where your money is.

Michael Shuman: Yes. And actually, you know, there is, I think, an interesting example of how this plays out with community economies overall, which is: In 2008, 2009, while it is true that across the United States unemployment just blew up, averaging over 9% and in many places, significantly higher. You know, there are a few metro areas in the United States where unemployment actually stayed pretty low. Some of those areas are places like Wyoming and North Dakota, which have extensive tapping of fossil fuels. So North Dakota has had its oil boom and Wyoming has long had this oil and gas industry. And so they were able to take advantage of rising fossil fuel prices and sort of pump up their economies and keep employment high.

But there are some other places that do not so easily fall into that category. And a good example is Metropolitan Burlington, Vermont. Burlington, Vermont had an unemployment rate throughout the economic crisis—2008 to 2012—of under 5%. There is no significant natural resource that they were tapping like oil and gas. Instead, you know, they have a food economy but food was not a ticket to prosperity elsewhere in the country. They have a tourist based economy but most people think of tourism as not a very good way of generating prosperity and wages. They are not manufacturing things in the same way.

What I attribute Burlington’s success to is that for the last twenty-five years, their economic development team, led in part by a fellow named Bruce Seifer, focused not on the attraction of global companies but focused instead on the nurturing of local business and local entrepreneurship. And they did it in a hundred different ways. They have done it through a very careful downtown development of Burlington, they have done it through entrepreneurship programs and lending programs targeted to women, immigrants, minority groups. They have done it through interesting types of smart growth. They have done it through helping to organize small local business alliances as something different from the typical Chamber of Commerce, which usually gives bigger companies a louder voice. And I just feel like, you know, that is a testament—that is a design of economic development that more and more communities should be paying attention to.

Chris Martenson: And it is working in a region, as you said, that really, in terms of natural—it is making a go of it given what it has got and it does not have a vast extractable sort of—what would we call that? It is like a trust fund, you know? The Bakken in North Dakota, they are eating into their trust fund. Have a party, that is all good and everything, but what happens when that party is over? Which it someday will. And Burlington, you say, has got a pretty good handle on how to navigate that space.

Michael Shuman: And we know, I think, just looking at larger trends in economic history—and Jane Jacobs was a great regional economist who wrote about this twenty-five or thirty years ago—that it is the cities and metropolitan areas that have systematically diversified their businesses and became more self reliant that actually were able to generate the most prosperous economies.

Chris Martenson: Well, this is a fantastic theme and it is something anybody who is listening, I want to mention this, that the seminar that Adam and Becca and myself are putting on in April—entrepreneurship has floated right to the top of the concern list of things that we are really going to be talking about. Because as we look into this new future, you know, what does entrepreneurship really mean? Well, it means that you understand value, you understand your value in this proposition, and you can spot it when you see it. And really, it talks to a framework of being flexible and adapting with the times that we think is going to make just all the difference in the world as we go forward.

And Michael, it has been great talking to you and hearing that communities who have embraced this idea of really promoting their own and adding value and keeping that value in their communities have what sounds like a really solid body of evidence now that we can look at in terms of job creation, in terms of per capita income retention and growth and things like that that all say prosperity really does fall more within our control than maybe most people think.

Michael Shuman: The evidence, I think at this point, is irrefutable. And it is good news. Because if the evidence came down that well, you know, self reliance was good for safety against international cataclysm but it meant you had to have, like, an additional point of unemployment, we would be in a quandary. But all of the variables are pointing in the same direction of the right thing to do.

I just want to say finally that the people who stand in the way of this are just the protectors of old-style economic development, the protectors of the old-style investment and financial industry, and the securities regulators who just totally misunderstand that in the name of protecting people, they have forced us into a monopoly with Wall Street that is the most insecure kind of future we can have.

Chris Martenson: Yeah, a little bit of irony there. I am not sure it was entirely accidental but I will spot them that if you wish [laughter].

Michael Shuman: Yes [laughter].

Chris Martenson: Well, you have got a lot of things coming up. You are a very active person. First of all, do you have anything you want to let people know about? Events? And second of all, where can people follow your work more closely?

Michael Shuman: Yes. Well, I am literally just now launching a new website, easy address—MichaelHShuman.com. And that is where I post most everything. I blog periodically and post announcements of where I am speaking. So next week I am—well, I think by the time this podcast comes out, next week will be a different animal. But in the near future, I am going to be speaking in Ohio and British Columbia, Yukon Territory—I do a lot of work in Canada. There are annual conferences of two different business alliances. One is called AMIBA, which meets in Minneapolis in May and Bali Business Alliance for Local Economies, which is meeting in Oakland in June, so I participate actively in both of those.

But the other thing that I do, and would love to let your listeners know about is—today we bulldozed through a lot of material in a short amount of time, but if folks want to get a little bit deeper in this, I do all-day workshops on local investment. And again, details about that are available on my website.

Chris Martenson: Well, fantastic. And I really would encourage anybody listening who is interested to go look at that and look into it. Because really, I am convinced this is absolutely not something that we should be doing but also, something we probably must be doing. The warning signs are all out there for anybody who cares to look that we are still on a very unsustainable course financially, fiscally, monetarily as a country. And that feels a little overwhelming and overpowering but I do not feel overwhelmed at all. I do believe that many local communities are going to do this—manage the future well—and some will not. And the difference is going to be, I believe, the things that you and I have been talking about today.

So thank you so much for your time, Michael, and I hope our paths cross soon.

Michael Shuman: I look forward to that. Thank you.

About the guest

Michael Shuman

Michael H. Shuman is an economist, attorney, author, and entrepreneur, and one of the world’s leading experts on community economics. He has authored, coauthored, or edited eight books. His most recent book, published by Chelsea Green, is Local Dollars, Local Sense: How to Move Your Money from Wall Street to Main Street and Achieve Real Prosperity. His previous book, The Small Mart Revolution: How Local Businesses Are Beating the Global Competition (Berrett-Koehler, 2006), received a bronze prize from the Independent Publishers Association for best business book of 2006. He helped co-found Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE), which represents 30,000 local businesses in North America in 80 communities, and is now a Fellow there. A prolific speaker, Shuman has given an average of more than one invited talk per week, mostly to local governments and universities, for the past 30 years. He has lectured in almost every U.S. state and eight countries.

Related content

11 Comments

Oliveoilguy's picture
Oliveoilguy
Status: Gold Member (Offline)
Joined: Jun 29 2012
Posts: 403
Local Development

Chris ....could you drill down more into this idea of local development and perhaps interview Bruce Seifer and those who have made Burlington a success story?   "What I attribute Burlington’s success to is that for the last twenty-five years, their economic development team, led in part by a fellow named Bruce Seifer, focused not on the attraction of global companies but focused instead on the nurturing of local business and local entrepreneurship."

My other takeaway from this piece is that I'm going to walk into the 4 small banks in the town nearby and interview the presidents. First I'll see if they will even talk to me, and then find out how they invest.  Should be enlightening. 

robie robinson's picture
robie robinson
Status: Platinum Member (Offline)
Joined: Aug 25 2009
Posts: 659
I second Oliveoilguy

i'm long time farmer with alot of local business ideas.

robie

Adam Taggart's picture
Adam Taggart
Status: Peak Prosperity Co-founder (Offline)
Joined: May 26 2009
Posts: 1883
Just sent Bruce an invitation

Will update when he responds. 

HughK's picture
HughK
Status: Gold Member (Offline)
Joined: Mar 6 2012
Posts: 394
Encouraging insight and solar power cooperatives

I really enjoyed this interview.  I found this part to be especially encouraging:

So if I was to put $1,000 into energy efficiency rather than my 401K, could I get a $150 rate of return? Absolutely. It would be a simple task to get a $150 savings on your energy bill for a $1,000 investment. You could put $1,000 into a bicycle and if you could save yourself gas expenses of $150 a year, it would be worthwhile making it. In fact, you would probably save that gas in a month. If you put, say, that money into a great coffeemaker, you could prevent yourself from spending the money on one Starbucks latte a week and get a better rate of return.

I don't own land, as I am in a quasi-rental situation connected with my workplace.  The great thing about this is that it allows my wife and I to save a lot more than if we had to pay rent privately.  But, we don't want to put all of our savings into paper financial instruments, that's for sure.  And, as of now, we don't have an opportunity to invest in primary and secondary wealth in the form of a homestead, which is why this interview was so encouraging.

Making small investments that allow us to spend less can make a HUGE difference for people that need to watch their monthly budget pretty carefully.

For example, ten years ago, I bought a pair of electric clippers, in order to buzz my hair, which - in spite of my wife's comments - is how I've cut my hair since I was in high school.  I think it cost less than $20 at the time, and getting my hair buzzed once at the nearest barber here in Switzerland would cost me over $25 at a minimum - possibly much more.  What a massive ROI that little investment produced, although my wife would say that there is certainly an esthetic cost; oh well...

As of now, we don't own a car, but once every month or two, we rent one from the local garage.  It's great because there's no overhead such as insurance, registration fees, inspection fees (which are massive here, btw), etc.  Sure, train tickets are sometimes expensive, but even with that expense rolled in, we are still spending much less on transportation annually than we would if we had a car and paid gas + car overhead.  We set our transport savings to the side because if we have kids someday then we are likely to buy a modest used car, and we should be in a position to do that debt-free and with some of the overhead costs already saved as well.  We're definitely not in a mindset where we have to buy a shiny new car, which depreciates substantially the moment it's driven off the lot. 

Just last week, I finalized our membership in a solar power cooperative here in our area.  I've been going to meetings about this for over a year, and now our cooperative has officially approved the plan and financed 95% of it.  I bought one share for approximately $1100 and the expected - but not guaranteed - dividend is a very modest 3% per year.  While 3% might sound like a pretty good dividend for a stock, the life of this project is assumed to be only 25 years, and there are all sorts of risks, such as the fact that the revenue assumptions are based on elevated prices for kilowatt hours by businesses that have pledged to buy a certain percentage of their electricity from renewable sources.  So, I'm not really crazy about the risk return ratio.  It's possible for me to sell my share, but if I don't sell it, then this doesn't seem to be a profitable investment, unless the price of electricity rises significantly and allows for a much bigger dividend.

Still, this 3% per year beats the almost non-existent interest rate on savings accounts offered by the bank here in town.   Even though I have a lot of concerns and questions about this investment, both on a technical level and on a governance level, I never hesitated in terms of commitment because it's a small enough amount of money that even if it turns out to be a loss, I will have learned a lot more about local investment, solar power, and how well or poorly cooperatives work here.  Fairly soon, I plan to post in more detail about this elsewhere at PP, in hopes of getting some feedback and ideas from other members of solar power coops, or individual owners of PV solar.

Also, this is as much about investing in social capital for me as it is about hoping for a financial gain.  One of the best things about the cooperative is that it gets me more integrated into a constructive project in the community, and helps me meet people here in town that have a similar vision regarding concrete action towards a different type of future.  While it seems to me that such cooperatives also need generate at least a little bit of financial profit to be viable models, I'm happy to participate in an early experiment in the hopes that we'll eventually get it right.

Cheers,

Hugh

Adam Taggart's picture
Adam Taggart
Status: Peak Prosperity Co-founder (Offline)
Joined: May 26 2009
Posts: 1883
Bruce is confirmed

Bruce is in. I'll be working with him over the next day or two to book him as a podcast guest for sometime in April.

Oliveoilguy's picture
Oliveoilguy
Status: Gold Member (Offline)
Joined: Jun 29 2012
Posts: 403
Solar Power Cooperative

HughK wrote:

Just last week, I finalized our membership in a solar power cooperative here in our area.  I've been going to meetings about this for over a year, and now our cooperative has officially approved the plan and financed 95% of it.  I bought one share for approximately $1100 and the expected - but not guaranteed - dividend is a very modest 3% per year.  While 3% might sound like a pretty good dividend for a stock, the life of this project is assumed to be only 25 years, and there are all sorts of risks, such as the fact that the revenue assumptions are based on elevated prices for kilowatt hours by businesses that have pledged to buy a certain percentage of their electricity from renewable sources.  So, I'm not really crazy about the risk return ratio.  It's possible for me to sell my share, but if I don't sell it, then this doesn't seem to be a profitable investment, unless the price of electricity rises significantly and allows for a much bigger dividend.

Cheers,

Hugh

How does the coop work? Is it part of the local utility? or an independent entity?  What is the total project cost? Also total KWH? Any details would be appreciated.

Thanks,

Mark

davefairtex's picture
davefairtex
Status: Diamond Member (Offline)
Joined: Sep 3 2008
Posts: 1421
the "not-car" investment

HughK-

I'm a huge fan of the not-car investment.  Several years ago I did the math - I had a fully-paid-for car and I was living in a big city and I calculated it probably cost me (all in) about $500/month just to keep the beast on the road (reg, insurance, gas, fixing it, tickets, etc).  More if I had a garage.

So I chose to buy a light motorcycle instead.  The bike cost $3000 (used), it was easy to park, cheap on gas, cheap to insure, and if I needed a car for big shopping trips, there was always Zipcar which I did use a few times a month.  And in bad weather - I walked, or took the bus.

That bike gave me $6,000 tax free every year.  Did I mention it was tax free?  Went right into savings.  Good luck finding that kind of return year in, year out.

Not spending money on stupidly expensive consumer products is my favorite investment of all.

HughK's picture
HughK
Status: Gold Member (Offline)
Joined: Mar 6 2012
Posts: 394
Solar power cooperative discussion linked here

Hi Mark and all,

OK, I posted more info on this solar power cooperative that I'm a part of here:

Solar power cooperatives

I'd be grateful for anyone who can share experience regarding other solar PV coops, or private PV power stations.

Thanks for your interest!

Hugh

SailAway's picture
SailAway
Status: Gold Member (Offline)
Joined: Aug 11 2010
Posts: 352
Elio Motors car.

Hi Dave,

Do you know about the Elio Motors car ? Pretty good trade-off between a car and a motorcycle.  84mpg, made in the USA and you can get it for $6,800.

Fred

Wendy S. Delmater's picture
Wendy S. Delmater
Status: Diamond Member (Offline)
Joined: Dec 13 2009
Posts: 1588
May I just say that hearing

May I just say that hearing someone else spout my retirement philosophy is very empowering? And I don't just mean paying off debt and your home; I mean the "investments" in your children's homes and energy efficiency. It's nice to know that someone else considers my retirement investments legitimate. Most folks just think I was nuts to pay the early withdrawal penalty on my 401K and blow it on a big garden, a woodstove, a well, and severe energy efficiency.

Not all of those who raid their retirement funds are daft.

RNcarl's picture
RNcarl
Status: Gold Member (Online)
Joined: May 13 2008
Posts: 361
Pay yourself first!

Wendy S. Delmater wrote:

May I just say that hearing someone else spout my retirement philosophy is very empowering? And I don't just mean paying off debt and your home; I mean the "investments" in your children's homes and energy efficiency. It's nice to know that someone else considers my retirement investments legitimate. Most folks just think I was nuts to pay the early withdrawal penalty on my 401K and blow it on a big garden, a woodstove, a well, and severe energy efficiency.

Not all of those who raid their retirement funds are daft.

I must have my wife listen to this podcast. I want to "raid" my 401K and rid the final consumer (car) debt that we have. She thinks I'm nuts and says, "what will we do when we are old and can't work anymore?"

That is the only reason that I haven't done anything... until now. 

In real terms, the 401K is losing ground every year. I am paying interest on a loan(s) that cost me every month.

As much debate that is going on over in other podcast threads, I think this one is being over shadowed.

Every, and I mean every financial planner that I have had a "sit down" with over the years, say to become debt free FIRST then invest - making exactly the same points being made by Michael in the podcast. In fact even his tone of voice sounded like one guy I talked to. Chris had to pull out of him about talking about community investment. I get that's where Chris wanted to go. But I think Michael showed ways that folks needed to take first. In the prepared section Chris talks about ridding one's personal debt as a way to begin a resilient life.

Simply, there is NO "good" debt. There is "not so bad" debt but no such thing as "good debt." Not so bad debt being mortgage debt if properly structured and not if it is used to finance consumer goods (like a car). In business there is "not so bad" debt if it is used to make the business more resilient. Borrowing to make payroll is like putting a dinner at a restaurant on a credit card.

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
Login or Register to post comments