Mutuals have been muc h in vogue with all 3 main parties in the Uk in recent years. It is true that John Lewis has been trading very well. There is something satisfying about their model of staff participation in the success of the business which attracts both Labour and Conservative to them.
However, when it comes to the financial sector both the Co-op and Equitable Life have shown a darker side to mutuals. Politicians need to learn from these bitter experiences that the mutual model can be both risky and unfriendly to customers and employees alike.
The mutual model has largely disappeared from the Building Society movement. There were too many small societies with insufficient capital. Some got into trading difficutlies and needed to look for larger partners. Others decided that becoming a for profit bank was a better way to expand their service and finance themselves in the future, so they converted willingly. We need to ask why this was so?
One of the main weaknesses of a mutual is the absence of enough retained profit to give the business balance sheet streength. Mutuals often pay out too much to satisfy their demands of their mutual owners, leaving them weak should profits slump or assets fall in value. Well based banks and insurance companies need a good reserve to fall back on, and sometimes need the support of shareholders able and willing to put in new capital. Mutuals have neither of these safeguards.
Mutuals can also lack the competitive edge and the close scrutiny of management that occurs in quoted PLCs. Equitable Life was so keen to pay out more to its policyholders that it made them promises it could not possibly fulfill. Its Board and management did not recognise this problem, and allowed promises to be made and liabilities built up over many years before the truth came out about its plight.
So too with the Co-op bank. Far from proving to have a superior moral model to that of the profit making PLC banks, the Co-op Bank managed to build up a large portfolio of assets which were full of problems. It has now had to make enormous write offs. To cap it all, it hired a CEO who wanted a huge salary, which was unpopular with many of the true believers in the Co-op approach.
We should beware of the idea that there is a moral superiority in mutuals when we look at two of the largest, Equitable and the Co-op. We should also recognise that their enthusiaism to pay out too much to co owners made them far more vulnerable to a downturn and to adverse conditions.