A conversation with Charley Cummings, founder and CEO of Walden Mutual Bank, about building a cooperative bank, owned by the customers, and why starting a bank might be the most impactful thing you can do in your regional food system and much more.
LISTEN TO THE CONVERSATION ON:
Why did Charley after founding a successful, local, animal protein, direct to consumer, grass fed and finished business decide to start a bank, and not a bank built for an exit, but a mutual one, basically a cooperative, owned by the customers? And to make matters worse the last mutual bank in the US was started over 50 years ago. It is safe to say the regulators weren’t really going easy on Charley when starting the bank.
WHERE YOU BANK REALLY MATTERS
People are keen on the fact that where you bank really matters. Your banking relationship is incredibly impactful. It is probably the most impactful purchasing decision you make as an individual. You can achieve impact with something as simple as a banking relationship.
”Trying to devise an alternative for a depositor that wanted to have an impact with their deposit dollars, the same way that people have shown a desire to do with investment dollars, that was a big part of the impetus.” – Charley Cummings
”$100,000 in a bank account with one of the top five banks is equivalent to the average American’s carbon impact for an entire year, driving, flying, eating, purchasing, whatever. And the reason is that the top five banks in this country are the single largest investors in fossil fuel development. $1.2 trillion since the Paris Agreement was signed. And ultimately, that’s your money.” – Charley Cummings
WE NEED MORE LONG-TERM INVESTMENT OPTIONS SPECIFICALLY FOR LAND
Many places suffer from high land prices, which forces into extracting even more value from the soil to pay a shorter-term loan, or you need to find other solutions.
”One thing we see on the farm side is: land values are such that oftentimes, the income profile of a small farm cannot support a loan for the land that amortises over 10 or 15 years” – Charley Cummings
”What banks fundamentally do is take what are ultimately short term on demand deposits, and magically transform them into long term loans. That’s the bank’s fundamental role in the economy. And so, it’s very difficult to justify a 30-year loan from a safety and soundness perspective, because you have to know that you have 30-year money to support that loan.” – Charley Cummings
”A very straightforward way to reduce the monthly payment required is to extend the maturity of the loan. And so, the question was, how can we write 30-year loans, or at least experiment in writing loans that long and holding them on our books, because there’s no way you could sell these? Well, if we had longer term money, we could do that. And so, the 100- year CD is intended to allow us to write loans that long, potentially even longer than 30 years.” – Charley Cummings
THERE ARE NO SILVER BULLETS WHEN IT COMES TO REGENERATION
When it comes to carbon and to making agriculture more sustainable, everybody’s looking for silver bullets and Charley is pretty sure there aren’t any.
”But if you look at corollaries elsewhere, it sure seems like this isn’t going to be solved overnight. And it’s not going to be solved by a single technology, or a single entity […] There’s an investment culture that swarms around a single idea, and then it doesn’t pan out, and then you see swarming to the next one. And so, I think that’s just an important caution to have in mind: there’s not going to be a silver bullet.” – Charley Cummings
THE SILVER BULLET OF REGENERATION IS ACCOUNTING
There is not going to be a silver bullet, but if there was one, Charley would make a bet on accounting.
”If there is a silver bullet, the one that I would make a bet on is accounting. And the reason is because what’s measured is what’s managed. And if we start paying attention to the depletion of natural resources or negative externalities, like pollution of air and water and those companies are forced to integrate that into their financial statements, that really changes the world. And there are a number of efforts underway on that front. […] And I’m really excited about that, because I think that’s really what moves the needle, and changes our collective understanding of what matters because without that, we’re just sort of flying blind.” – Charley Cummings
”The entirety of the impact investment movement is just a collection of sort of disparate, sometimes made-up metrics that don’t matter and don’t provide any sort of commonality or comparability. And as long as that’s the case, an annual impact report from a public company, it sure looks like a marketing pamphlet, more than an audited set of financials. And imagine if those two things were one and the same.” – Charley Cummings
WE NEED MORE DECENTRALISED FOOD AND AGRICULTURE SYSTEMS, JUST LIKE ENERGY SYSTEMS
If Charley could blow it all up and start all over, he would have a much more decentralized and therefore resilient food system.
”The consequences of putting 5% of US pork production, under a single roof, not a single company, a single building, and then, when that plant had to shut down, look at the consequences, from a larger market perspective, it just created this panic. And so, whoever thought that was a good idea, should probably move on to a new career.” – Charley Cummings
”I think fundamentally, a more decentralized system would avoid some of the negative externalities that the current structure has. It can’t be someone else’s problem somewhere else, because it’s right in front of you.” – Charley Cummings
”That’s why I’ve become such a fervent believer in regionalised food systems, but would also apply that same lens to energy, waste, all things, natural resources. Because again, when it’s someone else’s problem somewhere else that just leads to really terrible consequences. Environmentally, but also in the long term, potentially, socially, and politically.” – Charley Cummings
OTHER POINTS DISCUSSED
Koen and Charley also talked about:
- Ways to turn a billion into 100 billion
- Do right by what make sense in your own backyard
- The role of the bank in the economy
- Tim Coates – Sell flood mitigation to institutional players to finance water cycle restoration
- Thomas Rippel, checking in on land ownership, stable coins, pensions for farmers and city folks
- Thomas Rippel, using a blockchain to help Farmland Stewardship Organisations grow
- Soil Builders, updates on green bonds in regen ag and the land ownership in the commons in the US
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The above references an opinion and is for information and educational purposes only. It is not intended to be investment advice. Seek a duly licensed professional for investment advice.