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Reflections on investing in Community Bonds and opportunities to improve the market

Lars Boggild

Lars Boggild

Senior Manager, Banking and Investments, VCIB

Quick disclaimer: I work for a mission-driven commercial lender that is privileged to work with many issuers of community bonds, some of which I’ve invested with personally. I manage these conflicts carefully and am not involved in lending relationships around these. This is also not financial advice, and if thinking about community finance opportunities you should receive advice relevant to your own situation.

My first real experience with community finance was in 2010 with the growth of the Community Economic Development Investment Funds (CEDIFs) program in Nova Scotia. Through the Farmers Market Investment Cooperative, I was able to invest directly in the redevelopment of the Halifax Seaport Farmers Market. It was an instructive example of a community coming together to build the economic infrastructure it wanted. It was also, sadly, a bust. While the market itself still continues as a beautiful space, some failures in governance and differing incentives between the tenants of the space (to naturally keep costs down) and the private investors (to see their investment returned with some profit) let ultimately to a wind-up and handover of the space to the port authority as a permanent owner. It appears the market is now being relocated to another part of the port, and the space the coop helped finance the improvement of turned into a “living lab” for the transportation sector by the port authority. Well, do hope they enjoy the green roof!

Since relocating to Toronto almost seven years ago, it’s been exciting to play witness to and support a growing community finance sector in Ontario. Through the leadership of organizations like the Centre for Social Innovation, community bonds have become much better understood by the coop and nonprofit sectors. The Feed-In-Tariff (FIT) programs in Ontario, while no longer offering new support, spurred the creation of a community-based renewable power coop sector that creates fertile ground for more work in driving the low-carbon transition. Now organizations like Tapestry Community Capital are helping professionalize the delivery of these tools and campaigns, so I certainly expect more to come.

I’ve invested in a total of 15 community bond or community share offerings, including the farmers market. For the purposes of this I’m excluding both broader based green bonds (for example CoPower and RE Royalties) as well as preferred share issuances by Credit Unions. While both can also be impactful investments, they aren’t focused to a given community project or projects, so I don’t think of them as the same. Here’s what that sub-portfolio looks like for me:

Overall, this constitutes about 11% of my investment portfolio, from which I exclude our home. I’m generally comfortable with this level, and would consider going up to 15-20% in the right circumstances despite the lack of liquidity because my partner and I are young and we’ve got good coverage of our fixed costs from our income. We’re pretty concentrated in an early investment in Zooshare, and while there’s been a couple of moments that have made me nervous with that, I’m excited about a virtual ribbon cutting on the project this Spring. When that investment matures later this year, I’m intending to try to reinvest towards other impact investments to hopefully diversify more. I’m satisfied with the yield we’re getting from these investments, and while there are concerns about inflation looming in general, there’s still a strong premium over lower risk fixed income options.

What do I like (sometimes love?) about Community Bonds and Investments?

  • They are a meaningful way for signature projects in the community to access additional capital, often at a greater risk tolerance than institutional investors or lenders would provide.
  • They help us realize the economy isn’t something that happens from the outside to us, but something we actually all actively create through our decisions on where to buy, invest, and work.
  • They aren’t strongly correlated with the broader investment market, and so can be value-adding as a stable fixed income tool.
  • They can allow for targeted investment in the themes we’re most passionate about.

What don’t I like as much?

  • There’s low liquidity or market for these investments. While there’s sometimes a bit of a waitlist an issuer can try to sell your investment into, that’s too much work for most.
  • There’s a lot of refinancing risk, as full redemption at maturity is often dependent on someone else coming in to refinance a projects or additional reissuance of more community bonds that others subscribe to
  • There’s a bit of a “first mover” risk in these investments, as a well subscribed campaign gives greater likelihood that these projects can be achieved than a more minimally subscribed campaign. Generally this risk is partially managed by having a trustee not release investor funds until after a minimum amount is reached, but there’s value in having greater confidence of a project’s success. I’ve observed that this leads to a bit of a momentum effect in these campaigns.
  • The flip side of targeted investment is that unless you’re willing to roll up your sleeves on a portfolio of community investments, you’re likely to not be particularly diversified.

One idea to improve the Community Bond Market: a “market making” fund

I wonder if there could be a benefit in a Canadian (or provincial if required) community bond fund that would invest exclusively in community bond and share offerings. This could do a few things that could strengthen this market for investors and offerings alike:

  • For investors: A turn-key mechanism to invest in a more diversified pool of community finance offerings.
  • For issuers – campaign momentum and confidence: The fund could commit to anchoring new community bond campaigns with an investment, that would be replaced by direct investors if the campaign is successful. For example the fund could commit to investing up to 20% of an offering (up to some maximum of the Fund’s own portfolio such as 5-10%), which is replaced as other community investors buy-in. This would give campaigns early momentum, fill in some gaps in capital access as a backstop, and give other investors a vote of confidence if the offering had undergone an anchor investors due diligence.
  • For issuers – a liquidity mechanism: For any approved offering above, the fund could commit to being willing to buy-out individual investors interests in the same offering, subject to the Fund’s own liquidity requirements and concentration limits. This could de-risk the ability for an individual to invest by providing a safety mechanism for unexpected emergencies.
  • For issuers – reducing refinancing risk: As a dedicated fund for the sector, such a fund could also ensure that unique market moments don’t heighten refinancing risk by providing the same backstop as for initial offerings.

As food for thought, there are some issues with the idea I recognize right away:

  • Investor interest: I wonder if I’m unusual in how I think about impact. I’m fairly embedded in this work, and care about these approaches as more economically democratic, so I feel comfortable with the idea of investing in a fund, that is investing in these offerings, vs. needing to see/feel the individual projects being supported. I wonder if there are enough investors who would similarly value the diversification and more turn-key solution to investing in these approaches?
  • Capital cost: For such a fund to work, it would have to operate on a very streamlined basis (and likely as a nonprofit) to keep costs down and operate viably. Ultimately the fund would need to invest in community bond offerings at a higher rate than what it could offer investors, and so the benefits to investors in diversification and simplicity would need to be greater than the financial delta they could achieve investing in offerings directly.
  • Capital deployment: While the community bond market continues to grow, the build up of a portfolio based on infrequent offerings (they’re pretty cyclical with the RRSP season generally!) would create a meaningful cash drag unless there were opportunities to act on right away. This could really damage the economic viability of the fund.

I’m curious what others experiences have been with community bonds and share offerings. Would this kind of fund have ever made a difference for you or the investors you’ve collaborated with? Are there other, better ways to improve this area so community investment can thrive?

About our guest author: Lars Boggild is a creative thinker working at the intersection of finance and social change. He currently supports new business relationships across lending and investments for Vancity Community Investment Bank, Canada’s first bank dedicated to social and environmental impact. Prior to VCIB, he worked at Rally Assets leading impact investing advisory projects that built practical strategies for asset owners to deploy more of their investments towards social and environmental good. Lars also sits on the Canadian Community Economic Development Network’s National Policy Council, the Investment Committee of the Evangelical Lutheran Foundation of Eastern Canada and is the Board Chair of Not Far from the Tree, Toronto’s urban fruit picking project.

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