Can you ethically invest in unethical companies?

October 22, 2010
The Panelist, devoted to "responsible and ethical investment advice".

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I first met my friend David Neubert in the context of a website he co-founded, called The Panelist, devoted to “responsible and ethical investment advice”. Dave’s moved on to other things now, but he still has opinions on the ethical-investment front. If you refuse to buy stock in unethical companies, he says, you lose diversification. Instead, Neubert looks to change the behavior of companies he’s invested in:

I exercise my ethics through shareholder activism–by supporting, or rejecting, shareholder resolutions with my vote. I like to think of this practice as socially conscious investing…

You have more power than you might think. For example, I own 2,600 shares of Valero Energy, which means my vote amounts to 1/220,000 of the company. Maybe that doesn’t sound like a lot, but compare that to my vote for president of the United States (1/130,000,000 voters); or even mayor of New York (1/4,000,000 voters).

And believe it or not, your shareholder vote may very well make a greater difference than the votes of institutional investors. Most company boards realize that individual investors tend to be more enduring in their views and a whole lot more loyal, making them more desirable shareholders than fickle institutions. If an individual voices an opinion at a shareholder meeting or writes a letter, corporations recognize that there are likely thousands of others just like them and they listen.

I don’t buy it. For one thing, using the vote as a comparison is setting the bar unbelievably low, since voting is statistically certain to make no difference at all:

Even for the most passionate partisan, it’s hard to argue that voting is a good use of your time. Instead of waiting in line to vote, you could wait in line to buy a lottery ticket, hoping to win $100 million and use it to advance your causes—and all with an almost indescribably greater chance of success than you’d have in the voting booth.

And what of Valero, a dirty oil refiner? Is it likely to listen to small shareholders like Neubert? Well, Valero has spent $4 million of its shareholders’ money in support of Proposition 23, which would void California’s 2006 Global Warming Solutions Act. Shareholders like the Unitarian Universalist Association are opposed to that spending, for good reason: the act is a good one and Valero is essentially lobbying for the right to profit from pollution, even after a law banning such activity has been passed.

Here’s how the LA Times reported the shareholder move:

The challenge was dismissed by officials at Valero, which has contributed $4 million to the Proposition 23 campaign. Like the other resolutions, the one offered to Valero’s board comes from a relatively minor shareholder: the Unitarian church…

The filers are a “stockholder activist group,” said Valero spokesman Bill Day in describing the Unitarian Universalist Assn. of Congregations…

The resolutions’ backers acknowledge that they are unlikely to have an immediate effect on campaign spending by oil companies.

The Unitarians have about $15,000 of stock in Valero; Neubert has about $46,000. Clearly, these sums are dwarfed by Valero’s donations to the Prop 23 campaign and equally clearly Valero has made its mind up that theses people are gadflies who should probably just be ignored.

The fact is that Neubert and people like him are not going to change Valero’s behavior. And the diversification benefits of owning Valero stock have never been lower, in these days of ultra-high stock market correlation.

If you consider yourself an ethical investor and you care about global warming, then it’s really hard to justify an investment in Valero, a company which is spending millions of dollars trying to repeal one of the few U.S. laws which takes global warming seriously. Certainly the diversification benefits of owning Valero stock aren’t in themselves sufficient to offset the fact that you, as a shareholder, are ultimately responsible for Valero’s expenditures on the Prop 23 campaign.

Ethical investing can and must go further than the simple obligation which all shareholders have to take their ownership stakes seriously and to vote on shareholder resolutions. It’s all well and good being conscious of the fact that your company is behaving unethically — but once you come to that conclusion, the ethical thing to do is to sell those shares. Otherwise, you bear 1/220,000 of the responsibility for precisely that unethical behavior. Dave Neubert has, in effect, spent $18 in support of Prop 23. What has he done to offset that expenditure?


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