Trust and Consequences

The daughter of a friend of mine called me about a Dutch Fraud Film festival. Would I have any examples of fraud to apply for the Fraud Film Festival Prize? The winner would receive funding to produce a documentary. I replied. “Wow. There is no shortage of examples”. Leonard Blankfein’s (Goldman Sachs CEO) Senate Hearings testimony came to mind.

If you look at this clip, it is quite amazing to see how Blankfein defends Goldman’s actions in a very circular reasoning that gets the viewer so confused that one loses the script. The basic question that Senator Levin asked was quite simple. “Is there not a conflict when you sell something to someone and then are determined to bet against that security and don’t disclose that to your client?”

Blankfein’s answer is stunning.

“Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with important matters.”
Albert Einstein
I look forward to greeting you at TBLI CONFERENCE EUROPE 2015 in Zurich November 19-20 and introducing you to people of integrity and trust.

TBLI Testimonial

“TBLI is not just a great place to increase one’s understanding about sustainable investing it is also an excellent place to meet and network; some of the contacts I have made at TBLI have turned into successful and lucrative business partnerships.”

Rufo Quintavalle-Poet, Investor and Director at Agro-Ecological Investment Management

Guest Blog: Rufo Quintavalle

Tracking errors are themselves an error

An article earlier this year in Institutional Investor pointed to low carbon indexes as an alternative to fossil fuel divestment for investors who are concerned about climate change. Citing the example of the Swedish pension fund, AP4, and the French pension fund, FRR, who both use this investment strategy the article describes these funds as “low-carbon equity indexes that closely track blue-chip benchmarks while excluding most carbon-exposed companies in those benchmarks.” Which, translated into terms that people outside of the financial sector can understand, means “a way to say you are doing something about climate change while not actually doing it”.
It is probably already too late to stop global warming of 2?C, although that remains the official goal that negotiators at the COP21 will be working towards. But what is certain is that if there is to be any hope at all of avoiding catastrophic climate change then the world economy will have to fundamentally alter. In such a context any strategy that proposes closely tracking “blue-chip benchmarks” is woefully inadequate since the “blue-chip benchmarks” simply reflect the reality of the world economy as it is and not as it should be.
Proponents of low carbon indexes would say that by excluding the most polluting companies they can contribute to an incremental change towards a low carbon future – companies will be pressurized to improve their performance in order to make it onto the index and a virtuous circle will be set in place. But in the same way that you cannot have your cake and eat it you cannot have an investment strategy that purports to address climate change while only accepting a tiny tracking error relative to the broader economy. The broader economy is itself part of the problem and if we do want to address climate change then what is needed is as large a tracking error as possible. Otherwise we will end up with low carbon indexes that by their own internal logic are obliged to invest in companies such as Royal Dutch Shell (the fourth largest holding of MSCI’s European Low Carbon Leaders Index) and Exxon Mobil (the third largest holding of the equivalent global fund).
The inadequacy of low carbon indexes to address climate change is, to be fair, not an indictment of institutions like AP4 and FRR who are, compared to their peers, among the more progressive of institutional investors. Rather it is an indictment of our financial system as a whole which, as it is structured will never be able to address climate change or indeed any other problem that is time-sensitive and requires systemic change. And ultimately this failure boils down to a philosphical failure regarding moral agency and the true nature of investment. If the goal of investing is simply to mimic the behavior of the broader financial market then the money managers and the people devising the indexes are doing a good job (although one suspects it is the kind of job that could be done just as easily by a computer). But if we are to understand investment as something that does not simply follow the markets but rather seeks to actively create value for society then our financial system is conspicuously failing.
So what to do in a context where the system as a whole is inadequate to serve society? And in which every single one of us is complicit in this problem the minute we take out an insurance policy or start paying into a pension plan? To those with no disposable income at all the most obvious course of action is to lobby your pension fund and your insurer to adopt a genuinely proactive policy on climate change and divest from fossil fuels. For those who do have disposable income to invest and are interested in using their investment dollars to combat climate change then you could consider investing this money outside the stock markets via angel investing, crowdfunding, private equity and other asset classes that your banker will do his or her best not to tell you about. The rewards here are far greater both financially but also in terms of accelerating the transition to a clean, green economy. And finally, since it is all too easy to point the finger at others we ought to examine our own collective responsibility in creating a state of affairs where “investment” has reduced itself to the buying and selling of shares in publicly listed multinationals who never needed our money in the first place.
Bernie Madoff was able to thrive as long as he did because there was a stream of people who liked the idea of a steady “no-risk” annual return of 10%. But ultimately if you are getting returns without risk that means someone else is picking up the bill. In the case of Madoff it was the new subscribers who were picking up the bill for the old ones. In the case of the broader financial system (of which low carbon indexes are merely a symptom) it is the planet as a whole which is picking up the bill for our obsession with “low-risk” listed equities and our refusal to rock the boat.

 

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