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Grenfell Tower symbolises how social housing across Europe has suffered under austerity and the new financial calculus of many local governments (Image: ChiralJon, CC BY 2.0)

Guest post by Sebastian Möller

The crisis of housing in the UK became internationally apparent with the horrific Grenfell Tower fire in June 2017. British cities, London in particular, lack affordable homes, and the condition of the social housing stock in many local authorities at best leaves much to be desired, and at worst is hazardous for the health and life of residents. Grenfell is exemplary for the devastating state of social housing, reminiscent to some of the Victorian era, when Friedrich Engels wrote his impressive ethnography on the living conditions of workers in England. Read the rest of this entry »

There is great ambiguity on the true representation of the ‘’adoption’’ of International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS). What constitutes the ‘’adoption’’ of IFRS? At what point can a country, company or entity claim to have adopted IFRS? What is the best measure for IFRS adoption?

International diffusion literature and transnational governance literature provides insights as to the point of departure of how global norms are translated into local laws. It suggests that laws, norms, ideas or global regulations when diffusing turn to be reshaped and edited as they are transformed into local practices. To be exact, actors translate ideas, recombine new, externally given elements and old locally given ones to form local laws. Scholars in this arena argue that, in this context, never can we suggest that passive adoption of global standards has taken place. Yet, in many other contexts, actors at both the local level and the transnational level have tended to refer to such process as ‘adoption’ as opposed to a reflection of the variant of the law, idea or norm so implemented. In many cases, only portions of the diffused law or standards are implemented. Nevertheless, actors often refer to such as adoption as opposed to a modification of the diffused law. At other times, different actors refer to the modification of the diffused law as the adaptation of the law. This ambiguity so created has led to mixed results when looking into the idea of International Financial Reporting Standards.

In the global accountancy arena there have been several calls for the world to embrace the idea of a single global high quality accounting standard- thus IFRS. These calls have been stronger following the recent financial crisis as the world continues to pursue globalization strategies and capital flows across borders became even more pronounced. In this direction, accounting standard setters have been working to design high quality accounting standards that is applicable by nearly every country irrespective of the unique economic and cultural conditions that confront these entirely diverse countries and continents. These standards promulgated by the International Accounting Standards Board (IASB) has however, been applied in different ways than that put forth by the global accounting standard setter (IASB). In this blog entry, it is my aim to try to provide some lines of reasoning on the true meaning of IFRS adoption. I do not claim that this is the first of such arguments. However, it is my claim that global standard setters, local actors responsible for the implementation of IFRSs have often referred to entirely different versions of IFRSs when referring to IFRS adoption. If indeed IFRSs were adopted, we should expect a single version of the standard in all the jurisdictions that claim to have adopted the standards.

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Finance: The Discreet RegulatorIsabelle Huault and Christelle Richard (eds.), 2012: Finance: The Discreet Regulator: How Financial Activities Shape and Transform the World. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

The power of financial markets and financial actors over economies and societies is as hard to deny as it is to conclusively prove. From subprime mortgages to Greek debts to microloans, different people and different sectors all feel it in their own ways. “Financialisation” (Epstein, Krippner), “finance-led growth regime” (Boyer), “financial market capitalism” (Windolf) represent only some of the attempts to come to grips with this sea change; but none have provided decisive answers as to the “why” and “how”.

A new book proposes seeing finance (in the tradition of the French “Régulation School”) as a type of regulator – a subtle, insidious one. “Finance: The Discreet Regulator: How Financial Activities Shape and Transform the World” collects perspectives on how “financial markets are the seat of regulatory processes initiated and developed by core-capitalist financial institutions such as banks and audit firms”. Read the rest of this entry »

Hugh Sinclair is a (self-described) whistleblower who recently published a book coming clean with the microfinance industry. Paul Lagneau-Ymonet and Phil Mader had the privilege to ask him how microfinance went astray and “betrayed” the poor, and why the public and donors are being deceived. His book “Confessions of a Microfinance Heretic: How Microlending Lost its Way and Betrayed the Poor” has been widely noted by international media and his blog follows the day-to-day antics of the microfinance industry.

Hugh, you worked in microfinance for 10 years, so you must have at least for some time believed in this as a tool for reducing poverty. When did you become disillusioned, and why?

I can’t say there was one moment of revelation. The first concerns started on my very first project. I was working in Mexico with a Grameen replica institution, and right from the beginning I noticed many of these people aren’t using the money for a productive use, and many of them aren’t actually very poor at all. But I told myself maybe I’m just in a bad institution.

I worked in Mexico for a couple of years, then I moved to Mozambique. There I discovered an even worse situation. Not only was microfinance not having much impact, but the institution that I was working at was misappropriating the savings of the clients. They were forcing the clients to make a savings deposit, and then they were using that deposit to subsidise their own operating costs, which generally involved paying high salaries to ineffective expat senior managers to fly business class and drive around in fancy 4x4s, which to me didn’t seem like a particularly good use of the client savings. It’s theft – I mean, you can’t just take people’s savings and spend them on your salary.So I thought: wow, this is a terrible institution. But maybe I’ve just been unlucky that I’ve stumbled into a few bad ones. Why don’t I go over to Europe and work at a microfinance fund, and my knowledge about the difference between a good and a bad microfinance institution will be useful to direct their money towards good microfinance.

“The problem is that [microfinance funds] have a weird set of incentives that aren’t aligned with their own investors, and also aren’t aligned with the interests of the poor.”

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CRESC, the Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change, is a well-known institution for many working on finance in sociology and political science, as well as researchers in cultural and media politics. By uniquely bringing together researchers from these fields, its annual conference in Manchester is an inspirational forum for unorthodox interdisciplinary exchange, without the numbing genericity of academic mega-conferences.

The theme chosen for this year’s conference (5-7 September) proved an excellent basis for taking stock of economies and societies in crisis: “Promises“. One striking feature of this conference was the presence of journalists, NGO representatives, and professionals like asset managers (as spectators and presenters) alongside academics, which added diverse perspectives and precluded overly technical/theoretical debates. (Other conferences may follow this good example.) Being spoiled for choice among the many panels, I mostly attended the ones on finance, missing the more culture-heavy sessions. Therefore, the three observations which impressed themselves upon me relate to the more political-economic questions in coming to grips with the present state of capitalism. Three insights from Manchester:

1. Financialisation is so pervasive and wide, many facets are only now being explored. Read the rest of this entry »

Why should Africa adopt IFRSs? Adoption is less of the story.. not practicing what you preach is the bigger evil.

In the past decade the rise in the use of the International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) in many countries around the world has moved the wave towards developing countries considering adopting these standards. Factually, about 120 countries presently use IFRS across the globe. Out of this number about 13 countries in Africa have already adopted (i.e as issued by the IASB without any modification) or adapted (.i.e with modification to meet local socio-economic needs of a particular accounting jurisdiction) to IFRS.

A diverse Continent a uniform accounting standard? Primarily, former Anglo-Saxon colonies have adopted IFRSs.

(Source: Data from PwC IFRS map, Own drawings)

However, it is quite surprising that Africa as whole is considering adopting IFRS given the chaotic nature of these standards on the international front and the often unseen justification given for the adoption of IFRS particularly in Africa. Many international organizations like the World Bank , the World Trade Organization , USAID and UNCTAD  have all been arguing for the adoption of IFRS in less developed countries . There are many reasons why Africa should not adopt IFRS. I will try to explain and to some extent justify this line of reasoning.

Politics over Economics

First, the merits of IFRS often mentioned include, improved comparability and uniformity of financial statements among companies and countries, resulting in a decrease in the equity cost of capital, improved transparency, a decline in information processing cost and a reduction in risk of international investment decisions amongst others. Whilst these benefits look very desirable, it is also the case that these benefits cannot be reached in every economy.

To be clear, IFRSs were designed for developed and matured capital markets. At least the economics speaks for itself. It is an undeniable fact that financial statements assist investors in making critical investment decisions. As pointed out in the general purpose of financial statements in the conceptual framework of the IASB, financial statements should aid users in valuing securities, be it when buying or when selling.

The argument for the use of IFRSs in developed countries in plausible. However, what I find puzzling is the push for IFRS adoption even in countries that have no stock markets or stock market listed companies. I do not deny that quality financial reporting should be present in economies where there are no capital markets. But I also admit that such countries have totally different financial reporting needs than industrialized countries. Accounting systems of a country are traditionally shaped by its socio- economic, cultural and political environment. Some economies are totally different from others and therefore we must recognize that these differences in accounting needs shape financial reporting.

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This is the second part of a three-part series on the regulation of securitization before and after the crisis. This part’s topic: The states’ helping hand: finance ministries and the expansion of securitization in the EU.

As I explained in part 1 of this series, securitization required the transfer of credits from banks’ banking books into shell companies, where the cash flows from these credits would be redirected to serve debt instruments that the shell company (or Special-Purpose Entity, SPE) emitted. The banks remained linked to the revenues and risks of these assets by providing liquidity lines to these shell companies in case the market fell dry.

When the crisis in the subprime mortgage market became evident, the buyers of debt instruments emitted by SPEs which had assets on the asset side whose cash flow was seen as deteriorating. Buyers in the market refused to take up the risk, as they could not price it and feared to have to take losses. In this moment, the liquidity lines of banks were drawn, and banks bought the papers from the SPEs they had initially set-up to get rid of these assets.

Now that they ended up refinancing the assets they had sold to the SPE, they in fact became again the owner of these assets, which is why they reappeared on their balance sheets, but only in the worst of moments. The first SPEs which experienced such a buyers strike were those which did not even have a liquidity line and where the buyers were supposed to carry the entire credit risk themselves. Rather than imposing losses on their clients, many banks took the assets they had transferred into the balance sheets of these SPEs (called Structured Investment Vehicles) back on their own books for reputational reasons. Banks argued that they could better cope with the deteriorating value of these assets by holding them to maturity and that imposing losses on their clients would endanger their future financing possibilities.

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This is the first part of a three-part series on the regulation of securitization before and after the crisis. Why were the banks so affected by the run on the shadow banking sector, which was formally off-balance sheet? How can we explain the lack of regulation in the shadow banking sector? How did governments promote the expansion of the credit supply via the shadow banking system?

Securitization has had a very bad press reputation in recent years (but see “securitization is not that evil after all”), being related to overly complex re-securitizations, which became impossible to value during the financial crisis of 2007/2008. Before that crisis, securitization was en vogue, favored by most financial economists as a way to spread credit risk from banks into the financial markets, thereby increasing the resilience of the financial system as a whole (s. Bhattacharya et al 1997). The idea was to liquefy credits, to turn them into tradable assets, generating deep secondary markets in which traders could constantly readjust the amount of risk they held in their portfolio. Banks could refinance the credits they gave and thereby expand their lending. Credit would become cheaper, as the demand for securitized assets generated from credit increased, raising the available supply of credit.

Turning credits into tradable assets requires that the transfer of these assets into money is possible instantaneously and without loss of value. Otherwise, the entire idea of readjusting one’s portfolio to changing market circumstances; which is what underlies modern portfolio theory (also the Black-Scholes formula requires continuous adjustment of the traders position, which is why trading in continuous time is a necessary assumption for the pricing to work). Credits on banking books, in contrast, are held on the book of the banook  at historical cost accounting (s. Sigrids work on fair value accounting); i.e. not changing their value from the contracted valuethe moment the contract is signed. Only if banks undertake corrections in value to account for expected losses does the value of these credits in the books of the bank change.

In this blog I will look at the infrastructural preconditions of securitization (Special purpose entities, in the following SPEs) and the shifts in how they were proposed to be treated at an international level and how they were treated on a national level before the crisis and after the crisis. Before the crisis, there was pressure by the Committee of European Banking Supervisors to not force these SPEs on the balance sheet of banking groups (CEBS 2004). After the crisis, we can witness a 180° shift in the position of the financial stability board which states that it wants full prudential consolidation for sponsored SPEs. In my three blog entries I will have look at the impact these transnational recommendations had before the crisis on actions of national governments and will speculate about the fate of the current regulatory proposals in the future. Read the rest of this entry »

This is the second half of my search for the causes of the microfinance crisis and suicide tragedy in Andhra Pradesh. In my last posting, I outlined the macro causes as I saw them. I found evidence that MFIs were charging borrowers interest rates over and above what they actually could have charged them. I also found that the government failed to regulate despite an evident lack of self-regulation; that is, until Andhra Pradesh clamped down two weeks ago. In this posting I search for micro-level causes.

Since my last post, SKS on Saturday posted profits up by 116 percent y-o-y (read: more than doubled), and also apparently held a secret board meeting over the weekend. You don’t need to be a Marxist to find a steep rise in profits disturbing for a bank which lost at least 17 of its clients to debt-driven suicide in the same quarter. Yet the crisis in AP is far bigger than SKS, and the five biggest MFIs’ have realised this and collectively announced last Friday to restructure distressed loans. Finally. It took nearly two months of suicides, a heavy-handed regulatory clampdown and a media backlash to drive enough sense into the MFIs. The women’s Self-Help-Group movement is also pushing for better regulation. How did we get here in the first place?

The poor are prone to debt traps

The media have caught onto some of the macro issues, but here I will identifiy drivers for the heavy debt burdens and suicides which operate at the micro level. We must be aware that suicide in India is already shockingly common among farmers. But many, if not most victims in AP were small traders, not subsistence farmers, so we’re dealing with a new phenomenon here.

It is no surprise that highly-indebted microfinance borrowers can be driven into debt spirals towards MFIs under conditions of heavy marketing, misinformation, social pressure to join self-help groups, and the vagaries of economic life at the bottom of the social order. If one thing goes wrong (an illness, a crop loss), an apparently sensibly invested loan suddenly turns into an insurmountable debt burden (see these media reports for illustrations of microfinance-funded debt traps). In reality, “India Shining” is home to some of the poorest people in the world. As we saw last week, some microfinanciers are apparently out of touch with this reality. Atul Takle of SKS went on the record telling the Associated Press, “I personally don’t think a person would take her life for 225 rupees ($5.08) a week.” But four out of five people in India live on less than 20 Rupees a day (2007; latest figure I could find).

This (self-drafted, non-exhaustive) list outlines individual causes for the poor taking on unsustainable debt. It shows that there are mulitple reasons for the poor falling into microfinance debt traps, and that most are outside of their control. Read the rest of this entry »

Capitalism as a system transcends borders, and so does the latest capitalist crisis. Sometimes pictures tell a story better than words. A brilliant animated cartoon appeared this summer on youtube, illustrating a lecture by CUNY-based British social theorist David Harvey in which he outlines his explanation of the 2008-20xx economic crisis.

Harvey’s analysis of the structural politico-economic origins and mechanisms of the crisis is poignant. The witty animation brought to life by the RSA is a true delight, regardless of what one may think of his arguments. A certain part of Harvey’s narrative caught my eye in relation to microfinance (more below). But first, let me briefly recap his story (in an unduly simplified manner). Harvey says:

There are five common explanations of the crisis, all of which are somewhat true:

[1] It stems from human nature – predatory instincts, greed, etc.

[2] The regulators failed, therefore institutions need to be reconfigured.

[3] Everyone believed in a false theory – forget Hayek, return to Keynes!

[4] It has cultural origins – homeowning-obsessed Americans and lazy Greeks, your fault!

[5] It’s a failure of policy – too much regulation of the wrong sort.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Book

Governance across borders: transnational fields and transversal themes. Leonhard Dobusch, Philip Mader and Sigrid Quack (eds.), 2013, epubli publishers.
September 2017
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