Congress Must Create Some Entrepreneurial Opportunities in Crisis

Posted June 26, 2009 at 2:47pm

As we navigate through the economic miasma, Congress has to keep in mind one of the greater long-term dangers that America faces: the flight of venture capital from a United States seen by many investors as stagnant in its growth prospects — and competing with places like India and China and other emerging nations that look to have much more robust growth for several years.

[IMGCAP(1)]Dealing with the short-term risks, including the still-tangible (Federal Reserve notwithstanding) danger of deflation and the need to clean up the financial sector and the mortgage market, is paramount. So too is focusing on big problems like health policy and climate change. But along the way, we have to find ways of making sure we promote and enhance capital formation, capital investment, entrepreneurship and the kind of risk-taking (with an appropriate ratio between risk and reward, something lost in recent years) that has made us the envy of the world for a long time.

One terrific way to do this is a centerpiece of the climate change bill that emerged from the House Energy and Commerce Committee in conjunction with other panels: the “green bank.— This plan will leverage public and private investment to create a massive infusion of capital into green projects, with the central goal being to convert a huge slice of our electricity production from carbon-driven to more environmentally clean sources.

Along with the money channeled into loans via the stimulus package, the green bank will attract about $335 billion in equity from the private sector to buy about 120 gigawatts of clean energy capacity, about 20 percent of the entire carbon-based electrical generation today, with no increase in electricity prices. Along the way, we may see a million permanent jobs created. If most of the work done in these energy projects is based on existing technology, the massive capital invested here will undoubtedly spur innovation in science and business, helping the U.S. maintain the advantage that has kept us the No. 1 economy in the world.

It is a start. But of course we need more than that. Here is another idea that deserves a serious look in Congress: a major, American-style microfinancing venture. This idea first came to me when I thought about all the smart, experienced and skilled professionals and other people losing jobs in a downturn where the unemployment levels will continue to rise for at least the next year. So I took White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel’s famous axiom to heart: Every crisis is an opportunity. And here is an opportunity to unleash the entrepreneurial engine for people who had worked in companies and now can form their own businesses if they get a chance.

I refined the notion when I heard another part of the economic story. A company on whose board I serve went through a painful downsizing last year. The CEO decided to take his bonus and create an entrepreneurship fund for employees losing their jobs, giving them an opportunity to make lemonade from sour lemons. One employee who did was based in Atlanta, creating a business impressive enough that my company gave it a fat contract. But despite that fact, meaning a substantial base of guaranteed income over time, no bank has been willing to provide capital because it is a new venture with no track record and because it does not have multiple funding sources. It appears this is the standard practice.

What to do? First, let’s create a microfinancing process, the American counterpart to what Muhammad Yunus, spurred in part by the ideas of President Barack Obama’s late mother, crafted for Bangladesh and other developing countries, trying to take the difficult economy and provide encouragement for people who lose their jobs to become entrepreneurs. Make it a public-private partnership, perhaps in conjunction with Warren Buffett or other wealthy investors, along with major banks and investment houses.

It would have two missions: first, venture capital for people to turn good ideas into new businesses, but via a model much more venturesome and with more risk-taking than that of the Small Business Administration. A few billion dollars could go a long way here, understanding that many of the ventures funded would fail, but some would succeed spectacularly, creating jobs and growth, and probably a lot of innovative ideas along the way.

Second, the venture should become a source of capital for already-created new businesses with real promise but no chance to get the capital from the existing banking system. There ought to be a source of capital for business owners who have a solid plan and real revenue, but don’t have the three or four years of track record that banks now require.

This kind of plan would put Congress firmly on the side of entrepreneurship and provide great openings to talented people out of jobs through the vicissitudes of a tough economy. It seems like a win-win to me.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.