29 Apr 2016

Social bond programme stalled by negotiations

10:05 am on 29 April 2016

Negotiations for the government's first social bond are still going on nearly a year after it was announced - and despite expectations it would already have been implemented.

Nearly $29 million was set aside in last year's Budget to roll out four social bond programmes.

Sign for ANZ Bank

Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

A social bond uses private investors' money rather than public funds to provide a social service.

But uncertainty over whether the government would guarantee the security of the private funding appears to be a stumbling block.

The most likely investors - philanthropic organisations - have so far not committed to putting money in.

In June last year the government announced it was negotiating with parties interested in being the first social bond partners for a programme to support people with mental health issues into employment.

While the programme was expected to be implemented early this year, contract negotiations with Wise Group and ANZ are ongoing. ANZ would act as a financial advisor, not the investor.

Social bonds are a relatively new funding programme globally and are completely untested in New Zealand, but have been touted by the government as an innovative way to fund social services and achieve results that will improve peoples' lives.

A set of outcomes are agreed and if those outcomes are achieved the government pays the investor a return.

Social bonds structure

Photo: SUPPLIED

However, there is no guarantee of a return or a guarantee to limit an investors' loss, which has been suggested as the main factor preventing investors signing up to the programme.

Philanthropy New Zealand has about 250 member organisations and it's chief executive Liz Gibbs said none of its members had committed to investing in the bonds.

Some form of security from the government would make it a significantly more attractive proposition, she said.

"Having some upfront investment from government securing or underwriting part of that risk - because this is a new initiative and a new space in New Zealand - would make it infinitely easier for more philanthropists and private investors to get on board."

Government confident despite delay

Finance Minister Bill English is confident there will be people willing to take the risk.

"I don't think there will be a shortage of money if the parameters are clear, particularly in this world of very low interest rates there is plenty of investment cash around which is looking for a better return and willing to look at types of investment that they weren't in the past."

Toby Eccles is one of the architects of social bonds which were introduced in the United Kingdom in 2010 and are now also being tested in other countries, including the US and Australia.

Bill English during caucus run 1.03.16

Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

The UK has a much more mature social investment market than New Zealand, but despite that Mr Eccles said only philanthropists have so far put money into social bonds in that country.

"We haven't had fully commercial investors in any social impact bonds as yet in the UK... in the US we're seeing some of the private banks start to sell these models to their high net-worth clients."

But Mr English believed there will be a mix of investor types interested in social bonds in New Zealand.

He would not rule anything in or out when asked about a guarantee, and would also not rule any type of investor out when asked if foreign funds could be used in the programme.

Mr Eccles said a guarantee had not been necessary in more developed social investment markets such as Britain and America, whereas Australia has required more risk sharing.

The Ministry of Health's website still says that it expects this bond to be implemented in early 2016.

You can hear more about social bonds on Insight on Sunday Morning with Wallace Chapman.