Geoff Mulgan: Only with an act of political courage can we re-civilise our economy

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Over a year after the darkest days of the financial crisis, many now hope for a return to business as usual. Others argue we'll only avoid future crises if for-profit financial services are balanced by institutions driven by different values and business models.

In the 19th century, most consumers depended on services from building societies, cooperatives and mutuals that were socially owned, and combining business sense with a moral purpose. In the 20th century most of these were squeezed, both by big government providing welfare, and by big businesses providing bank accounts and mortgages, and then towards the end of the century by legal changes that encouraged the managers of building societies to privatise themselves.

All of the building societies that went private effectively went bankrupt; those that held onto their traditional structures survived. A similar pattern has been seen worldwide. Purely commercial financial markets turned out to have a weak grasp of risk. Socially owned ventures generally - but not always - have better judged which individuals or small businesses could handle their debt.

Reforms to strengthen the civil dimension of financial services are now long overdue. First that will require much greater transparency, so that we know more about how our savings are being invested. Second, we need a more tiered financial industry, with local, regional, national and global players operating under different regulations and capital requirements. Third, we need stricter protection for consumers. It surely can't be right that many products are on the market when there is evidence that a majority of their consumers don't understand them.

Fourth, we need more investment to flow into the growing social economy - including the 55,000 or so social enterprises. A good starting point would be the principle that 1% of the assets of pension funds and banks should be in this economy, which has generally turned out to be more resilient than the average.

A civil-isation of the economy is badly needed. But where are the political voices with the courage to make it happen?

The author is Chair of the Carnegie UK Trust Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society. The above is taken from the Financial Services Research Forum seminar on Tuesday

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