Goldman Sachs explains: social impact bonds are socially bankrupt
Have you ever heard of a social impact bond? It’s a kooky financial instrument – a bond that “pays off” when some socially desirable outcome is reached.
The idea is that people with money put that money to some “positive” purpose, and if it works out they get their money back with a bonus for a job well done. It’s meant to incentivize socially positive change in the market. Instead of only caring about profit, the reasoning goes, social impact bonds will give rich people and companies a reason to care about healthy communities.
So, for example, New York City issued a social impact bond in 2012 around recidivism for jails. Recidivism, which is the tendency for people to return to prison, has to go down for the bond to pay off. So Goldman Sachs made a bet that they could lower the recidivism rate for certain jails in the NYC area.
Or who knows, maybe they sold that bond three times over to their clients, and they are left short the bond. Maybe they are actually, internally, making a bet that more people are going to jail in the future. That’s the thing about financial instruments, they are flexible little doodads.
Also, and here’s a crucial element to look for when you hear about social impact bonds: the city of New York didn’t actually put up an money to issue the bonds. That was done instead by Goldman Sachs and MDRC, a local nonprofit. However, NYC might be on the hook if recidivism rates actually go down. On the other hand fewer people would be in jail in that case, so maybe the numbers would work out overall, I’m not sure. Theoretically, in that best case scenario, the city would also have the knowledge of how to reduce recidivism rates, so they’d be happy for that as well.
Which is how we get to the underlying goal of the social impact bond: namely, looking for privately financed “solutions” to social problems. The reasoning is that governments are inefficient and cannot be expected to solve deep problems associated to jails or homelessness, but private companies and possibly innovative non-profits might have the answers.
As another example, there’s a Massachusetts anti-homelessness social impact bond initiative, set up in 2014 with $1 million in philanthropic funding and $2.5 million in private capital investments, with the following description: “the investors assume project risk by financing services up front with the promise of Commonwealth repayment only in the event of success”.
There are actually a ton of examples. This is the new, hot way to create social experiments. Take a look here for an incomplete list. It’s international, as well; it’s done mostly in the US and the UK, but New Zealand is throwing its hat into the ring as well.
It’s a good idea to try things out and see what works for the big problems like homelessness and recidivism. That’s not up for debate. However, it’s not clear that social impact bonds are the best approach to this. There’s a real danger that it’s going end up being a lot like the charter school movement: they juice their numbers by weeding out problematic students, they are unaccountable, and even when they tout success their “solutions” don’t scale.
Here’s a big red flag on the whole social impact bond parade: Goldman Sachs was caught rigging the definition of success for a social impact bond in Utah. It revolved around a preschool program that was supposed to keep kids out of special ed. Again, it was hailed by the Utah Governor as “a model for a new way of financing public projects.” But when enormous success was claimed, it seemed like the books had been cooked.
Basically, Goldman Sachs got paid back, and rewarded, if enough kids who were expected to go into special ed actually didn’t. But the problems started with how find the kids “expected to go into special ed.”
Namely, they administered a test known as the PPVT, and if the kid got a score lower than 70, they were deemed “headed to special ed.” But the test was administered in English, when up to half of the preschoolers didn’t speak English at home. And also, the PPVT was never meant to measure kids for special ed needs in the first place. In fact, it’s a vocabulary test. Kids are shown a picture and a word or two of description – in English – is spoken, and the kid is supposed to say the number of the picture associated with the description. Here’s a sample:
Lo and behold, after a couple of years where the kids learned English, most of them headed to normal classrooms, and Goldman Sachs got paid back. From the article:
From 2006 to 2009, 30 to 40 percent of the children in the preschool program scored below 70 on the P.P.V.T., even though typically just 3 percent of 4-year-olds score this low. Almost none of the children ended up needing special education.
Let’s take a step back. We’re asking for help from private finance companies to solve big hard societal problems, and we’re putting huge money on the line. There’s a problem with this approach. We asking for gaming such as the above. We should expect to see more of it.
Worst case scenario: financiers are betting against the “socially beneficial” outcomes. It’s possible, we saw it happen in the housing crisis. From their perspective, it doesn’t make sense to have a market where you can’t bet against something, and if they think the chances of a positive outcome are overblown, they’d be stupid not to. And of course, if they can influence the result directly, then why not. It could get ugly.
Here’s my hope: that we soon realize that engaging like this doesn’t solve any problems, and moreover it wastes time and money. Financial incentives are not compatible with the scientific approach, and basic research depends on money not being directly involved. When private financiers want to get involved in this stuff, it’s because they can profit off of it, not because they want to help.