Peter van de Ven, OECD Statistics and Data Directorate
Worried what the future holds in store for the world economy? Picking through national accounts data can improve your understanding.
It’s 2018 and that means a decade has passed since the collapse of financial markets that led to the onslaught of the worst economic and social crisis in our lifetimes. And we are not out of the woods yet! Indeed we are still grappling with the consequences of the crisis today. True, the economy as measured by GDP and employment have returned to their pre-crisis levels in many countries, but unorthodox monetary policies remain in place, such as expanding the money supply through “quantitative easing” and low or even negative interest rates. Some experts worry that we may be entering into a new era of asset price bubbles. Central bankers are pulling their hair out trying to figure out how to reverse these policies without disrupting capital markets and the economy at large. Rapid credit expansion is happening in emerging market economies, which may exacerbate financial vulnerabilities worldwide, while high public debt levels in developed countries could cramp governments’ ability to act if there is another financial crisis, as it has in the past.
Trying to understand all these phenomena underlines how useful and important it is to be able to reach for timely, reliable and comprehensive data to help you monitor financial and economic developments, and their interconnections across sectors and countries. The framework of financial accounts and balance sheets (part of the system of national accounts) is the mechanism that delivers essential macro-economic information to help assess financial risks and vulnerabilities, and analyse links between the world of finance and the “real” economy, key elements that policymakers need to make informed decisions.
However, policy analysts and researchers often overlook this rich source of information, and underestimate the useful role such accounts play in the pyramid of official statistics.
Financial accounts and balance sheets basically provide a complete and consistent overview of the assets and liabilities of sectors such as households, non-financial corporations, financial corporations, and government, as well as the financial relations of a country with the rest of the world. You can derive, for example, how much national governments and households are indebted, according to narrower and broader definitions. The financial accounts and balance sheets not only provide information on the stocks of financial assets and liabilities, but show how savings are used to invest or how investments are financed by incurring liabilities, and how stocks are affected by holding gains and losses. They show, for example, how investments by corporations are financed by retained profits or by additional borrowing. Or whether holding gains on assets accumulated by pension funds help to sustain the payments of future pension benefits.
The macro-economic framework brings coherence to hundreds of statistical sources on finance available for our countries, be it annual reports of corporations, government financial budgets, supervisory information for banks, insurance corporations and pension funds, foreign direct investment, or statistics on household wealth.
The fact that interpreting financial accounts and balance sheets can be a challenge should be no excuse for not looking at them. Back in 1777, David Hume started his Essays on Commerce and Trade with a surprising warning that can apply to the intricacies (and importance) of financial accounts: “The greater part of mankind may be divided in two classes, that of shallow thinkers who fall short of the truth; and that of abstruse thinkers who go beyond it. The latter class are by far the most rare and, I may add, the most useful and valuable.”
Why is there such a lack of awareness of the system of national accounts? For a start, few university degree programmes in economics include macro-economic statistics in their curriculum. There is discussion about GDP, household disposable income and debt, but there is very little education on how these aggregates are defined, what they include or exclude, and how they are measured.
The OECD has decided to take these challenges on by publishing more accessible explanations of the basics of national accounts. Understanding Financial Accounts responds to the renewed interest in monetary and financial stability issues, and in monitoring financial risks and vulnerabilities, including their impact on growth and employment. You will not be surprised therefore to find a special emphasis on the links between the financial accounts and balance sheets and the non-financial accounts section of the system of national accounts, which deals with the “real” economy. As an example, it shows that in some countries non-financial corporations did not invest their earnings in new capital assets such as new production facilities and employment, but instead used their profits to invest in liquid financial assets. All too often, financial accounts and non-financial accounts are treated as separate systems, partly because they are compiled by different national statistical authorities, but also because policy and research frequently concentrates on one or the other.
If you are a young statistician, student, journalist, economist, or concerned policymaker, delving into national accounts will take you straight to the heart of financial developments in OECD economies. You might not be able to predict the future exactly, but you will be better able to understand and respond to it, when it comes.
Understanding Financial Accounts is the fruit of a fully co-operative effort between the OECD and the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), the European Central Bank (ECB), Fondazione AIB, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), National Central Banks (Austria, Italy and Portugal) and National Statistical Offices (Australia and Canada) and the Treasury of Canada.
van de Ven, P. and D. Fano (eds.) (2017), Understanding Financial Accounts, OECD Publishing, Paris, http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264281288-en.
©OECD Insights April 2018
Bill Below, OECD*
Big data is in the spotlight again, this time with controversies surrounding Facebook’s handling of personal data raising eyebrows. As technologies and social media continue to evolve, are users’ best interests being looked after? Bill Below looks at some of the issues.
Growing up, I had a front-row seat to the rise of the computer age. One of my first memories in the early 1960s was going to my dad’s place of work—he was an engineer for Howard Hughes in Los Angeles. There, I listened to a computer singing via voice synthesis. It was just like HAL 9000, the one who wouldn’t open the pod doors for Dave in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (our picture). My father would go on to apply his considerable programming skills to the world of politics. He used computers to assist in the reapportionment of congressional districts in the state of California, and pioneered the use of demographic data and voter lists to generate political direct mail. He still has one of the first political form letters he created hanging on his office wall. It’s from the early 1970s, the time of punch cards, tape drives and “big iron” (mainframes). It’s in Spanish, addressed to a woman with a Hispanic surname, promoting a local candidate. Sprinkled seamlessly in the body of the letter is a handful of customised fields. It was the state-of-the-art in voter targeting at the time.
Getting to know you
Since those early days, the data explosion has radically transformed what we can know about pretty much anyone. And data input from social media accounts is changing the game once again. With big data comes big responsibilities. Are political campaigns living up to this?
In a 2013 paper, researchers at Cambridge University presented the results of a study that showed Facebook “Likes” to be strong predictors of personal attributes. For example, based on Likes alone, the model correctly discriminated between homosexual and heterosexual men in 88% of cases (homosexual and heterosexual females in 75% of cases), between African-Americans and Caucasian-Americans in 95% of cases, and between Democrat and Republican in 85% of cases. Some of the other attributes deduced were surprising and even disturbing, such as predicting cigarette, alcohol and drug use—and IQ (for reasons unknown, “liking” curly French fries correlates to high intelligence).
According to the study, relatively basic digital records of behaviour can be used to “automatically and accurately estimate a wide range of personal attributes that people would typically assume to be private”.
“A bit scary”
One author of the 2013 report felt that the fact that information can now be automatically inferred for millions of people without them even noticing is “a bit scary”. He also suggested that such data techniques might expose individuals “to a degree potentially well beyond what they expect or would find comfortable”. At least until certain changes were made in Facebook’s data-sharing policy, this information could be accessed without the express permission of the individual being profiled.
Similar technology would eventually make its way into the political arena through the firm, Cambridge Analytica.
“Scraping” or extracting large amounts of data from social media accounts may be relatively new, but political campaigns have long borrowed techniques from consumer marketing. In one sense, marketing a candidate presents the same challenges as marketing dish powder or breakfast cereal. And just like products, a candidate can be “versioned”, with different features and messages tailored to different audiences.
Taking a closer look
The author of the Cambridge University study isn’t the only one asking questions about the potential power of these technologies. The growth of political microtargeting is causing watchdogs to take a closer look on both sides of the Atlantic.
In May 2017, the UK’s Information Commissioner ordered an enquiry into the use of online political microtargeting leading up to the referendum on whether or not the UK should stay in the EU. The enquiry is ongoing and results should be delivered in the spring. In the US, prior to the present headlines of potentially breached data, both the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Congress have looked into the activities of data brokers, the companies that aggregate consumer, or voter, information, as the case may be. The extent to which the public believes that this issue is critical may have been expressed by the massive sell-off of Facebook shares in the last weeks.
Consumer awareness and control of the data used in tracking and targeting is one of the issues of public concern. In the consumer world, certain profiles could easily be blackballed, while others given high priority. The same is potentially true with voters. According to US Senator Ed Markey, co-founder of the Bipartisan Congressional Privacy Caucus, private data and the way it is used has the potential to determine an individual’s access to education, healthcare, employment and economic opportunities. For example, using correlations from your Facebook Likes, a prospective employer could conclude that, despite what you say on your resume, organisational skills are not your forte. It could be a deal-breaker.
Taken to an extreme, information that is ostensibly off-limits could be used surreptitiously against you, such as private information on health, sexual orientation and personal beliefs.
Shifts in public trust inform online strategies
With public trust in major political parties low, targeting voters through topics they care about can be a strategy for reaching individuals with weak party affiliation. On top of this, diminished trust in public institutions and the media gives more weight to the attitudes and behaviour of friends when we are making decisions. Indeed, research by the American Press Institute found that “a trusted [online] sharer of news has more significant effects on beliefs about news than a reputable media source”. So-called “targeted sharing“ applications try to benefit from this by encouraging online users to loop friends into a given campaign promotion, very probably grabbing data as it goes. Yet, other online factors can turn off voter trust. This can include unfavourable attitudes towards the idea of targeted political messaging and the invasion of privacy it entails. In one study, 86% of US respondents said they did not want political advertising tailored to their interests.
Playing by the rules?
Those using microtargeting techniques could run afoul of consumer privacy protections if they fail to inform customers or voters of how they are using their data. The current European Data Protection Directive, for instance, which will be supplanted by the General Data Protection Regulation in the EU in May 2018, explicitly protects a person’s right to privacy, particularly with respect to the processing of personal data.
The difference between voter targeting and voter manipulation is a fine line, often a question of integrity or ethics rather than outright illegality. Yet, there are forms of influence that, while not necessarily illegal are undesirable nonetheless. Influencing voter opinion based on clearly false information, or appealing to racist, xenophobic or hateful sentiments are a few that come to mind.
Only now is social media waking up to the need to be vigilant about those willing to use their platforms to exert an illegal or corrosive influence on politics. It poses important questions regarding one of the most ubiquitous business strategies of the online world: free services in exchange for personal data.
Should social networks that are existentially bound to a model of monetising user data be trusted to always keep the user’s best interest in mind? Not as long as money is being made selling that data to third parties.
*Bill Below works as writer and editor for both the OECD Directorate for Public Governance, and the OECD Directorate for Financial and Enterprise Affairs
References and links
©OECD Insights March 2018
Alessia Forti, OECD Directorate for Employment, Labour and Social Affairs
When the global economic crisis bit deep after 2008, so many men fell out of work in the OECD area that the data pointed to a so-called mancession. Italy was no exception, and indeed there was even some hope expressed there that the recession might finally push more women into work instead. For those policymakers eager to see more women in employment, it was a false dawn.
The global recovery appears to be underway now, and still less than half of all working-age Italian women go to work. This is the worst gender balance among OECD countries, after Korea, Japan, Mexico, Portugal, and Turkey. There are several reasons for this and one of them is the time women spend doing unpaid work. On average, women in Italy spend a little more than five hours a day cleaning, doing laundry, cooking, and taking care of children. Italian men spend an average of just above two hours a day on the same.
This gender gap is something the Italian labour market can ill-afford. Saddled as it is with a rapidly ageing population, the absence of women in the workforce is further depressing Italy’s economic growth. In fact, OECD projections show that if as many women as men join the work force by 2030, GDP per capita will increase by an additional 1% a year.
That Italian women are not joining the workforce is not for lack of education. Not only are their levels of literacy and numeracy skills comparable to those of men, but younger women are more likely to hold a university degree than young men. However, it is possible that gender stereotypes about certain education tracks and jobs have pushed women toward fields of study that are in low demand in the job market. Young women are underrepresented in some vocational education and training tracks (VET) which have good job outcomes. For example, while over 80% of graduates of the newly established Istituti Tecnici Superiori find employment in the year following graduation, only around one in four enrolled students are women.
Even when women do manage to get a job, it is not easy for them to reconcile work and family life. As in other countries, childcare can exacerbate existing inequalities at home. Alas, Italian legislation does not do much to help parents equally share these duties. Paternity leave lasts only two days in Italy, the shortest in OECD countries where it can be two weeks or longer. And while it is true that Italian fathers are entitled to several weeks of parental leave, only 1 in 10 takes it. Few children (aged 0-2) are enrolled in formal early education and care.
It also falls to women to take care of older relatives. Over a fifth of the Italian population is aged 65 or above, the highest in the OECD after Japan, but adequate and accessible long-term care services for the elderly are often lacking.
Holding a full-time job can be difficult if you have to take care of children and older family members with little help. International experience shows that a good way for women to combine work and family life is to have flexible work arrangements, such as part-time. But in Italy, part-time work is seldom used as a means to reconcile work and family life. In around 60% of cases, it is imposed by employers and often involves working on weekends, afternoons, and evenings. Indeed, Italy has among the highest shares of employed women working on Saturdays and Sundays, according to Eurostat.
Italy has recognised these problems and is now working on boosting job opportunities for women.
The previous government stepped up efforts to increase the availability of childcare facilities and help families meet the cost of childcare through bonuses, vouchers, and other types of subsidies.
To stimulate demand and job creation, tax exemptions have been introduced for firms hiring women who have been unemployed for a long time, who live in disadvantaged areas, and who work in economic sectors with large gender occupational gaps.
Another welcome step is the recent effort to tackle a long-standing discriminatory practice in the workplace whereby firms ask women to sign an undated letter of resignation (the so-called dimissioni in bianco), which is used in case of pregnancy to justify their dismissal. The reform replaces these paper-based resignations with online procedures for voluntary job leave, making falsification by employers difficult.
These family-friendly policies are steps in the right direction. Hopefully, in the longer term they will generate a much-needed shift in people’s mentality and reduce stereotypes about the role women play in the labour market and society at large.
References and links
OECD gender data portal: http://www.oecd.org/gender/data/
OECD family database: http://www.oecd.org/els/family/database.htm
ISTAT (2015), “Come cambia la vita delle donne”, Istituto Nazionale di Statistica.
OECD (2016), Skills Matter: Further Results from the Survey of Adult Skills, OECD Publishing, Paris
Thévenon, O. et al. (2012), “Effects of Reducing Gender Gaps in Education and Labour Force Participation on Economic Growth in the OECD”, OECD Social, Employment and Migration Working Papers, No. 138, OECD Publishing, Paris http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/5k8xb722w928-en
Tamara Krawchenko, Centre for Entrepreneurship, SMEs, Regions and Cities
Buiksloterham is an old industrial waterfront area north of central Amsterdam. Gas and oil producer Shell used to be located here, as was an airplane factory, shipbuilder and other assorted manufacturing. But the companies have moved out, leaving an empty site with polluted soil. Amsterdam city planners took a novel approach: they opened Buiksloterham to bidders for temporary use, with the site development criteria of building structures without foundations (due to soil issues) and fixing up the area. Rather than imposing a detailed urban plan for the area, they established “rules of development”, which allowed latitude in terms of construction, but made requirements regarding mixed commercial/residential use, and the height and density of buildings.
For one innovative project, De Ceuvel opened small business offices and studio space, as well as a café, in revamped houseboats. Former squatters and artists have established cultural spaces here, attracting creative businesses like MTV, who moved its European headquarters here. The area welcomed its first residents in 2014 and approximately 3,000 homes will be developed over the coming decade, many of them self-built as part of the city’s active “do it yourself” (DIY) approach to housing.
Buiksloterham’s rehabilitation benefitted from high social trust in the Netherlands, which makes for collaborative planning and smoother redevelopment processes. It reflects the country’s history of careful water management, which has bred a culture of co-operation and consensual decision-making, involving citizens and other players. This is called the “polder model”, named after the low-lying land reclaimed using dykes and canals, without which large parts of the Netherlands would simply be under the sea. The polder model also helps explain today’s Dutch planning model in which each level of government has near-autonomous oversight of its own area of planning interest, rather than classic “top-down” decision-making.
This culture of social trust and collaboration has enabled Amsterdam to adopt more flexible approaches to land-use planning, encouraging temporary, do-it yourself and even experimental land use. The confidence that there will be opportunities along the way to negotiate and develop solutions to problems that might arise allows for inventiveness.
The degree of social trust in a society is a major factor in how well, or badly, the system works. The higher the social trust, the smoother the process is, while places where such trust is lacking have a much bumpier ride. This affects planning culture and impacts everything from day-to-day work practices to the number of appeals (and delays) which planners must deal with.
Prague’s state planning legacy
The Czech Republic is a country that has much lower levels of social trust than the Netherlands: there, trust in others lies below the OECD European average at 5.3, versus 5.8 out of 10, according to our study. Historical relations also loom large here, though not as beneficially as in the Dutch example: under the old Soviet-led regime, planning was highly intrusive. In the early days of the new parliamentary republic—the so-called “wild 1990s”—there was backlash against this intrusion. Massive privatisation of formerly public lands followed and foreign investment flooded into the city, particularly into Prague’s historic core. Corruption and opaque processes eroded trust between developers, residents and public officials, and has coloured relations between these groups to this day. As a reflection of this, recourse to appeals and litigation in the development process are common.
Prague, which is in a period of growth and investment, is trying to rebuild these relationships. At play are large-scale brownfield redevelopments of land not currently in use. Potentially, they can transform entire neighbourhoods.
How can cities with lower levels of social trust improve the planning process? One answer is to win more trust back. Open, transparent and meaningful public engagement is therefore critical. But as strategic or detailed land-use plans are only adopted every several years, it is important to engage local people on an ongoing basis. This needs to be done at the neighbourhood level, particularly when there are major changes happening in a community. It is also important that planning be made more responsive across the board. One thing that can help with this is for cities to regularly evaluate and report on key indicators and trends—it needs to be open to adjustment and improvement along the way, and residents and businesses should be part of this process.
To learn more about our work on the governance of land use, see: www.oecd.org/gov/governance-of-land-use.htm
References and links
OECD (2017), The Governance of Land Use in OECD Countries: Policy Analysis and Recommendations, OECD Publishing, Paris
OECD (2017), Land-use Planning Systems in the OECD: Country Fact Sheets, OECD Publishing, Paris.
OECD (2017), “Land-use trends, challenges and opportunities in Amsterdam”, in The Governance of Land Use in the Netherlands: The Case of Amsterdam, OECD Publishing, Paris
OECD (2017), The Governance of Land Use in the Czech Republic: The Case of Prague, OECD Publishing, Paris
Clara Young, OECD Observer
My mother opened a radiology and ultrasound clinic in Vancouver in the 1970s. Her business flourished for over 20 years, and is still going strong. When she and my father divorced in the 1990s, the bank called her in and said she could not be the sole owner of a home mortgage–it had previously been partially underwritten by my father. My mother was a small business-owner whose ability to pay a monthly home mortgage was being questioned. Who knows what happened when she had to acquire expensive computed tomography (CT) scanners and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) equipment? Her financing predicaments then would make many a woman who owns a business today shake her head in recognition.
In researching this piece, I went on the Aboriginal Women’s Business Entrepreneurship Network website and clicked on their videos on how to obtain financing. They advise women to use their own personal savings to start their businesses as well as to borrow from friends and family. Bank loans, overdrafts and credit lines are, not surprisingly, a distant third option, sometimes because women lack credit histories or are discriminated against in their credit scoring. In OECD countries, only 26% of women believe they would be given access to the necessary finance to start or grow a business, against 34% of men.
Governments can help women here. The French Fonds de garantie à l’initiative des femmes (FGIF), for instance, guarantees loans of up to €45,000 for women entrepreneurs. Microfinance loans of, typically, under €25,000 are another way to get small start-up loans to women business owners.
How about higher-risk equity financing, like angel investments and venture capital? In the US, it’s estimated that only 15% of venture capital investment went to women-owned businesses in 2014, with the number plummeting to a little over 2% in 2016. This is no surprise. Studies show that women obtain much less financing than men in traditional pitch competitions. Ireland has opted to support women-led ventures by investing in them: the Competitive Start Fund for Female Entrepreneurs invests up to €50,000 in tech or manufacturing ventures run by women in exchange for an equity stake of up to 10%. Private women-run venture capital funds, like Springboard Enterprises in the US and Rising Tide Europe, are also focusing their financing on women-owned start-ups.
For women’s businesses to expand, say, internationally, hire more people or, like my mother’s clinic, invest in new, costly technology, equity financing is needed. Says Laurence Mehaighnerie, a woman, who co-founded the Paris-based venture capital firm Citizen Capital in 2008, “I sense that women entrepreneurs feel they can do more on their own and need less money, which can mean less growth and success in the end.” Changing the business environment to make banks and investors more amenable to women entrepreneurs will allow women-run businesses not just to survive, but, thrive.
References and links
Visit the Aboriginal Women’s Business Entrepreneurship Network at https://www.nwac.ca/
Read the OECD policy brief on women entrepreneurs at www.oecd.org/cfe/smes/Policy-Brief-on-Women-s-Entrepreneurship.pdf
Read “Study: Attractive men fare best in gaining venture capital” at http://news.mit.edu/2014/study-says-attractive-men-fare-best-in-gaining-venture-capital
Alison Rygh, OECD Public Governance Directorate
In 2016, the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) gave Google’s artificial intelligence company DeepMind access to healthcare data on 1.6 million hospital patients. The data was to be used for an app that identifies kidney problems. None of the patients had been contacted to give their explicit consent to such an arrangement, and the UK data guardian, the Information Commission, subsequently ruled that the NHS had not adequately protected the privacy of their data.
It is incidents like these that make Open Data Day, 3 March, something we should sit up and take note of. What exactly is open data, and more to the point of this article, what is open government data? Governments produce and commission huge quantities of data and information that cover the likes of maps, public transit schedules, meteorological information and much more. When government data is made publicly available it becomes open government data. In principle anyone can access, use, reuse and share the data, as long as the source of the data is properly accredited.
There are very good reasons for opening and sharing government data. For a start, it empowers citizens to evaluate public expenditure, or to improve or even get rid of certain services. The more datasets that are opened up, the better and more robust government decision-making will be. After all, decisions will be backed up by evidence and benefit from informed public participation as well. Open government datasets can also foster economic development because data, such as geo-spatial or cartographic information, can be used to improve private sector business models.
Governments that simplify their data-sharing practices and use data more openly tend to be more efficient. Take the “once only” principle, for instance. We as citizens should only have to provide the government with our personal data, such as name, address, birthdate, once, after which it is stored digitally in one central registry. It can be called up whenever we, for example, apply for government childcare assistance or subsidised housing. Not only is this more user-friendly but it allows services to be better tailored to our needs.
But efficiency isn’t everything. Democratic governments must be directed by citizens on how to use our personal data. We as citizens must decide how open or private we want our data to be. Clearly, there is a balance to strike between these safeguards and ensuring open data for better public governance. With people’s input, governments can set the boundaries in a trustworthy manner so that we can be assured that our personal data is protected or being shared ethically.
Citizens’ awareness and agreement to the government’s use of their data are therefore key. Belgium, Estonia and Spain are good role models, where each person can access their own online “citizen folder” to see if their data is being consulted or reused, and for what purpose.
The digital world clearly poses challenges for personal data, its storage and use, which may be compounded or possibly resolved by artificial intelligence (AI). What happens when governments begin to navigate personal data using algorithms, and make policy decisions based on this? The more open the better, right? These algorithms should be open and accessible so that governments can be held accountable. France is currently preparing a legislation on open algorithms with people’s rights in mind.
While Open Data Day celebrates openness and transparency for better public policymaking, and showcases the products and innovations that come from working collaboratively on open data, it’s also a day for reminding governments that we care about how they manage our personal data. A great way to become more aware of what governments are doing in regards to open data is to consult the OECD OUR Data Index which assesses governments’ efforts to implement open data in three critical areas: openness, usefulness and reusability of government data including the availability and implementation of efforts to protect and anonymise personal data before publication.
Has this open data movement made you more or less “open” with your personal data? Tell us your story by emailing us at: [email protected]!
References and links
See more on Digital Government and Open Data at www.oecd.org/gov/digital-government/
Read the OECD Recommendation on Digital Government Strategies at www.oecd.org/gov/digital-government/Recommendation-digital-government-strategies.pdf
Access the OECD Data Index at www.oecd.org/gov/digital-government/open-government-data.htm
Open Data Charter at https://opendatacharter.net/
Open Data Day http://opendataday.org/#what
Oderkirk, Jillian and Elettra Ronchi (2017), “Governing data for better health and healthcare”, in OECD Observer No 309, Q1, http://oecdobserver.org/news/fullstory.php/aid/5780/
Revell, Timothy, “Google DeepMind NHS data deal was ‘legally inappropriate’”, New Scientist, www.newscientist.com/article/2131256-google-deepmind-nhs-data-deal-was-legally-inappropriate/
Balázs Gyimesi, OECD Observer
“Every crowd has a silver lining,” said P.T. Barnum, America’s “greatest showman”. For businesses, Barnum’s play on words is especially true: crowds are becoming something of a motherlode of funding for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). With bank lending declining, smaller businesses are looking for alternative ways of financing. Thanks to the world wide web, they can now solicit funds not just from banks and professional investors, but from virtually anyone with internet access. This approach can take different forms. Besides crowdfunding (where many individual contributions–usually sourced online–make up the funding), examples include online invoice financing (where SMEs, for instance, can borrow online against unpaid invoices) and peer-to-peer lending activities (online services that match lenders with SME borrowers). Together, these funding opportunities constitute the online alternative finance market.
The volume of alternative financial instruments has generally increased in recent years. Looking at changes between 2013 and 2016, however, it is clear that the development and size of the alternative finance market varies greatly between countries. China is by far the largest market for online alternative financial instruments, expanding exponentially from US$5.6 billion in 2013 to US$243.28 billion in 2016. In comparison, the total market volume of the online alternative finance industry in the US amounted to only US$34.5 billion in 2016, despite a steep rise from US$4.4 billion in 2013. The European alternative finance market, on the other hand, has stayed well below the volume of the US and the Chinese markets, having raised US$2.1 billion in 2016 and only US$0.3 billion in 2013. The UK alternative finance industry has volumes well above that of the other EU28 countries combined, having raised over US$5.6 billion in 2016.
With rising volumes, alternative instruments increasingly complement traditional sources of financing, and this has called attention to the need for a regulatory framework for crowdfunding. In crafting regulation, however, governments should keep in mind how crucial online alternative finance is to businesses. With bank lending on the decrease, every small business needs its silver lining.
OECD (2018), Financing SMEs and Entrepreneurs 2018: An OECD Scoreboard, OECD Publishing, Paris. http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/fin_sme_ent-2018-en