“The crazy thing is it’s easier for most people to invest in a company halfway across the world than in their own backyard,” says Amy Cortese, author of the recently published Locavesting: The Revolution in Local Investing and How to Profit From It. Cortese, a former BusinessWeek editor, got her first glimpse of the revolution in 2009, as she witnessed communities swallowed up by the hangover of the economic collapse. “Wall Street rebounded, bonuses were back, everything was looking up, but it was so starkly different on the ground, on Main Street.” Cortese spent the next year on a journey to uncover the most innovative experiments in citizen finance around the world, from local stock exchanges to cooperatives and DIY IPOs. Fast Company spoke with Cortese about “locavesting,” the term she dubbed that, similar to the spirit of locavores, describes the movement to rebuild sustainable communities by investing in businesses within 50 miles of where you live.
Fast Company: You open the book posing this really interesting question, first posed to you by Woody Tasch, founder of Slow Money: What would the world be like if we invested 50% of our assets within 50 miles of where we live? Can you paint that picture for me?
Amy Cortese: Americans have about $26 trillion dollars in investments, and now it’s probably closer to $30 trillion. Imagine if half of that, $15 trillion, was invested in local communities rather than multinational conglomerates that are outsourcing jobs and not investing domestically. I think we’d be living in a far different world. That said, it is a little idealistic to think we’ll ever get to 50% any time soon. But even think about 10% or 5% or 1%. One percent of $26 trillion is $260 billion going to the Main Street economy and that’s a lot.
Isn’t that a bit of back to the future? Basically, what our country looked like 100 or 200 years ago?
Yes, exactly. From the earliest days of the country, investments were local. There were informal networks of investors and merchants, and that’s how industries were built, how regions prospered, and local stock exchanges turbocharged that. But since the 1930s when our securities regulations were largely put into place, it’s gone in a different direction. After the Great Depression they created laws that governed how you could invest and trade. That had the unintended consequence of hampering a lot of local investment. One of the main things it did was create two tiers of investors. The first was accredited investors: If you were wealthy you could invest in anything you wanted, there no limits. But if you were an ordinary investor, which was 98% of the population, you could only invest in publicly traded companies that registered with the SEC. The intent was to protect individual investors from unnecessary risk and unscrupulous snake oil salesmen. All the locavesting things that are happening now are working within the few narrow openings in the securities law that allow people to invest in things other than publicly traded companies.
In your reporting, did you find evidence that communities that invested locally were more resilient during the recession?
Yes, absolutely. One of the best examples is Hardwick, Vermont, where community investing has been unfolding for a decade. It started when the area’s new generation of farmers and entrepreneurs began getting together to help each other work through business issues. Many of them, such as Tom Stearns of High Mowing Seeds and Pete Johnson of Pete’s Greens, were experiencing rapid growth and would run into cash flow problems, so they began lending money to each other to get through lean times. Around 2005, Stearns raised $1.1 million from a group of (accredited) local investors, all within 50 miles. Other community investments followed. Claire’s Restaurant, which showcases food grown or raised by the area’s farmers, sold prepaid “food coupons” to 50 residents for $1,000 apiece, which entitled them to $25 off a meal once a month for four years. It’s sort of modern day barn raising. All of this mutual support and reinforcement has attracted more entrepreneurs to Hardwick, like the Vermont Food Venture Center, a shared use facility for food producers and startups, which has relocated to Hardwick from Burlington to be part of the action. In the last three years, while most of the country was struggling with unemployment, Hardwick created 100 food and agriculture-related jobs, increasing local jobs by 25 percent.
What was one of the most interesting models for locavesting you discovered?
Do It Yourself IPOs–DPOs, as they’re called–are really interesting. It’s just like an IPO but without the Wall Street middleman. What does Wall Street do for its 7% fee? They market the shares to their client base. But if you’re a company that has a very strong following, enthusiastic customers, a known presence in your community, you don’t need that Rolodex. DPOs are perfectly legal under SEC laws and they can be done for very little money.
Are they listed anywhere?
That’s the nut of the problem. They can be traded. The company can set up a bulletin board and trade them, or they can trade on an OTC market which is not ideal. The problem is liquidity, and that can scare off potential investors. That’s the idea of a local stock exchange, where people could go public and trade their shares. A lot of people are surprised to learn that 100 years ago we had many local stock exchanges across the country and those exchanges helped fuel their local industries. Today our markets are global and efficient but not serving the types of companies they used to. Local exchanges would be very regionally focused. You’re not going to have the speculators and robotraders, I don’t think people will be shorting the local hardware store.
[Image: Flickr user *julia]