Problems for impact investment in Sweden

Over the last few years at ClearlySo we have been travelling regularly to continental Europe as part of what we do. We have done business on the continent, and have also used these trips to learn about new innovations in impact investment (such as SIINCs from Germany and “90/10 funds” from France) and to identify financial institutions with a developing interest in impact investment. We believe that accessing new pools of capital is of great benefit to our entrepreneurial and impact fund clients looking for investment.

Sweden as a country seemed promising. It is liberal (small “L”), progressive and open to new ways of thinking. In addition, the positive and non-adversarial relationships between business, finance and the government have made Sweden a role model to which other countries aspire. One recent development in this regard is the introduction of a six-hour workday throughout Sweden. This is intended to make Swedes happier, but in a particularly Swedish twist, experts there also believe it will make Sweden more productive. It is already one of the most productive in Europe:  in 2014, per capita GDP was $45,143, significantly higher than the UK ($39,136). This is despite the fact that people in the UK worked 4% more hours each year.

Given such an open-minded, progressive approach, I felt confident that impact investment would be surging in Sweden. Sadly this appears not to be the case, based upon conversations I’ve had with experts. There seem to be few high impact entrepreneurs, at best one or two impact investment funds, very little government involvement and near zero involvement from the mainstream financial sector (although this is true of the UK mainstream as well).

This surprised me. However according to the experts I met, while Swedes are intellectually open to new ideas, they are actually relatively conservative (small “C”) in terms of implementing them. Swedish society already works rather well, and there is a reluctance to tamper. People earn high incomes, income disparity is well below UK/US levels, and taxes are higher, but the public expects and receives much higher quality social services than other European countries. This is in fact part of the problem for impact investment in Sweden: although Swedes cite all sorts of social problems, in fact, the Swedish social compact operates relatively well.

There are also two deep-seated beliefs I encountered which act against impact investing or even philanthropy. First, there is genuine suspicion of mixing the profit motive with social outcomes. I would not describe it as closed-mindedness, but just a wariness of this very Anglo-Saxon idea. This is then amplified by a particularly Swedish aversion to charitable giving. According to the Charities Aid Foundation (2012) Swedes gave 0.16% of GDP to charity. This compares with 0.54% in the UK and 1.44% in the USA. It is in Sweden where we see the clearest distinction between the Anglo-Saxon model of earning/giving and its model of using taxation to fund social welfare expenditure.

Such an environment is not particularly fertile soil for high-impact enterprises or impact investment in general. In fact, along my European journeys, I found that troubled economies were more hospitable to the necessary innovations (maybe out of desperation). In 2007 I journeyed to 10 Balkan countries and found flourishing innovations in places like Serbia and Bosnia as individuals grappled with deeply troubled societies in the aftermath of a brutal civil war.

I know very few Europeans who would trade places with Sweden as a successful economic model. On a recent trip to Stockholm, any slight disappointment I felt in Sweden’s current approach to impact investing was overwhelmed by the beautiful weather, celebrations of Walpurgis Night, May Day and the 70th birthday of King Carl Gustav. Stockholm is very close to paradise on earth. Nevertheless, this is not to say that Sweden is a lost cause from an impact investment perspective – the banks do, for example, raise money for overseas projects (most notably through microfinance). Once Sweden has considered the model and made it relevant to their domestic needs, I have no doubt that impact investment will eventually flourish in Sweden.

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