I am not against mutuals. Nor am I starry eyed about them in the way some people are.
They can be a way of giving more of the profit of an activity to the depositors or savers, as they pay no profit and dividend to company shareholders.
This can mean they are riskier than a shareholder business, as they do not have PLC style retained profits as part of their shareholders’ funds or reserves. They might pay too much out. There are no shareholders to fall back on and ask for more capital.
Some people seem to think they are morally superior to for profit businesses. This is odd, as the banks and insurance companies are still for profit, but they want more of the profit to go to the savers or users of their businesses.
The UK mutual sector is now damaged by two spectacular collapses. The UK’s oldest mutual insurance company, Equitable Life, was brought low by promising more than it could afford to pay out to policyholders and savers. The mutual sector’s largest bank, the Co-op, has just reported large losses, insufficient capital and a Chairman who lacked the qualities of mind and character to be a successful bank chairman.
It is difficult to see how either of these businesses had a more moral approach to business than the for profit competitors they faced daily in the market. The Co-op bank was not averse to using the complex ways and products of modern finance. Equitable Life got its sums hopelessly wrong, and ended up dashing the hopes and legitimate expectations of a generation of its savers.
I have no problem with a good well run mutual. This recent history should, however, be a warning of the special risks mutuals can pose. With no shareholdersto provide capital and insufficient conventional profit reserve some financial mutuals can be very risky. I myself always steered clear of Equitable Life because of its structure. As a result I have been able to represent my constituents caught up in that problem without conflict of interests. Quite a lot of MPs were in EL themselves.