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Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The antisocial nature of investing

The recent rise of Bitcoin has highlighted the seamier side of investing. With certain investments, you're implicitly rooting for ugly things. With Bitcoin, for instance, you're on the side of the drug cartels which want to be able to make large cash-equivalent transactions without banks involved. You're on the side of corrupt dictators who want to keep their ill-gotten gains when they flee their countries. And you're on the side of anyone who doesn't want to pay taxes.

Very few investors would admit to this publicly, but they're effectively hoping for the cartels and dictators to thrive and provide a demand for Bitcoin.

If you invest in cigarette companies, like Philip Morris, you essentially want more people to become addicted to cigarettes. As Warren Buffett said about Philip Morris back in the 80's, "It costs a penny to make. Sell it for a dollar. It's addictive. And there's fantastic brand loyalty." (He later declined to invest because he didn't want the bad publicity; but he was right in his analysis.)

If you invest in a defense company, like Raytheon or Lockheed Martin or General Dynamics, you're rooting for war, never mind the collateral destruction. You've become part of the military industrial complex. (Most of us associate that phrase with the student protests of the 1960's, but the man who coined that phrase was actually President Eisenhower, who knew whereof he spoke.)

But it's not just the cigarette and defense companies -- the traditional villains -- whose investors root against humanity.

If you invest in an oil company, you're rooting for the price of oil to go up. If that means war breaking out in, say, Nigeria or Iran or Saudi Arabia, so be it. The more destruction, the more money you make (assuming your company doesn't have wells there).

Either way, you're certainly hoping that there's a lot of demand for oil -- even if that means more pollution.

If you invest in a biotech, you're basically rooting for more people to get whichever disease your company can cure. And, you don't want their drug to be so effective that it can completely cure the disease, but to be something patients need to rely on for the rest of their lives.

When Hurricane Harvey hit Houston this past August, 35 people lost their lives. But the flooding also damaged a lot of cars, which needed to be replaced -- and GM stock went up!

If you invest in a leveraged volatility index like UVXY, or a short ETF like SDS, you want the stock market to take a big fall -- meaning, you want a lot of people to lose money, since that's what would cause your stock would go up.

In fact, any time you invest in any company, you're essentially rooting for its rivals to fail, even if that means that their employees lose their jobs and their investors lose their money.

This might present a moral quandary for some people.

(It doesn't seem to for me.)


Anonymous said...

Plenty of people from all kinds of perspectives have noted this. It's the ultimate example of distancing and moral hazard. I think even Lawrence Summers once blurted out that shareholder capitalism has great potential for disaster.

Imagine a company is accountable to shareholders who are often not individuals but groups such as pension funds etc that are run by people accountable to the people who submit their bank accounts who often don't even really know what their fund is being invested in.

There are so many levels of dissociation and distance that all incentivise anti-social and short-term decisions.

John Craig said...

Anon --
Ah, I hadn't realized I was being quite so unoriginal with this post. But I guess it's a pretty obvious line of thinking.

BTW, I also agree with the who say, well, if I didn't invest in this particular defense company, someone else would, so what difference does it make? (They're right, it makes none in terms of the decisions that defense company makes.) And if no one particularly wanted to invest in its stock and the stock were, say, halved as a result, that probably wouldn't make any difference either, in terms of the decisions the company made about which munitions to manufacture.

And I also agree, to some extent with the munitions manufacturers themselves, who say that by making deadlier weapons, they're ensuring that no one wants to tangle with us and therefore they're promoting peace. At a certain level, they're right.

All this stuff is arguable, in terms of both the harm and good all these corporations do. And once you get past the simple-minded arguments, it's just a question of how you want to look at it. But the point of this post was not whether any individual as in investor is doing any hard or good (I think most have a negligible effect either way), but rather, what are they *rooting* for in their heart of hearts. And I have to admit, there have been times when I've found myself thinking some pretty un-Christian thoughts.

Anonymous said...

If you don't invest, then the economy cannot move forward and we end up in a stagnant society.
Damned if you do, damned if you don't.


Dave Moriarty said...

I recently read “Bridge of Spies” which was also a movie with Tom Hanks. the book is a very good read.The non fiction book detailed the capture of Gary Powers the U-2 pilot and the subsequent exchange for a Russian spy. The U-2 flights were conceived to get a look at the facilities in Russia and determine the firepower and the gap between US and Russia . Our pals in the CIA were involved in what was in effect a search for weapons of mass destruction.Sound familiar? As you know Powers was shot down and captured. Shortly thereafter, as a grade school student at the Allen L Joslin School in Oxford, Mass., I was directed to prepare for the Russian bombing invasion by ducking under my ½ inch plywood desk. I recall mentioning to the teachers that I had some doubts the ½ inch plywood would prove effective given the mushroom clouds we had seen on TV but was told to hush and follow instructions. This action predicated a life long distrust of authority making suggestions that were questionable but fortunately I have been able to get this far without a team of defense attorneys at every step of the way.

But conspiracy theorists may offer the CIA WANTED Powers to get shot down to nip d├ętente in the bud. It seems Khrushchev was ready to throttle back – as he had been faking the depth of the firepower and knew he could not keep spending .
Missile builders on both sides then would be motivated to keep the Cold War going strong – and the stocks of the defense companies – Eisenhower and his warnings about the military industrial complex make it possible to construct a narrative which achieved precisely the goal.
Shortly after Powers was shot down congress authorized the money for lots of missiles and defense spending - a coincidence- I think not .

We had a recent hunt for weapons of mass destruction which failed miserably in Iraq yet cost trillions of dollars and the loss of lives- but the defense stocks did well so there is that benefit.

So now we hear all about our pal in North Korea. He is painted with a brush to instill fear that North Koreans will be parachuting into Park Slope, Utah or one of my favorite places Scottsdale , Arizona soon and abducting children and the like after he flattes Seattle and Portland.

I have a feeling after starving for years, the North Koreans are a very tough crowd and certainly more fierce than our teenagers who throw a fit if separated from their phone for 5 minutes .

But if we were to own defense stocks or ETF predicated on the market going down are we not rooting for our boy Kim to rattle some cages and maybe shoot down a plan or sink a carrier?

John Craig said...

Dave --
Wow, interesting theory about the CIA wanting Powers to get shot down. I'd never heard that one before, but it makes sense. To most people, preserving their own job is the most important thing.

Ha, I had the same though while getting under the desk, but I wasn't the type of kid who'd say anything.

Yes, there were a lot of people who said the iraq War happened so Dick Cheney's former company Halliburton could make a lot of money. I never bought that, although that was definitely a side benefit for Halliburton.

Agree about the Koreans in general, I've always thought of them as extremely tough.

As to your last question, I suspect there are a lot more people who think that way than would admit to it.

Anonymous said...

if you invest in XRP/Ripple, you are wishing that people transfer money faster and for lower is entirely benevolent unless you feel sorry for existing financial institutions...I am up 800% on the coins too, just saying...if I can just get another 800% out of it, I'ma buy a dusty second home in spooky remote Utah

John Craig said...

Awesome, congratulations.

But c'mon, realistically, Ripple will do better for all the reasons I stated above -- like drug cartels and dictators needing and using it more.

I drove through the southern part of Utah via 15 and 70 this past April. Incredibly beautiful, and incredibly remote.

Anonymous said...

I think you’re missing the point of why bitcoin exists. It was created in an effort to democratise money and cut the banking system out totally. The banks cannot profit from bitcoin and it’s in their interest to make it irrelevant, hence the lack of payment processing support that you see for it.
It’s like saying TOR was created to sell drugs/weapons/your poison of choice, when it wasn’t it was created to keep government communication anonymous. Turns out that it’s also useful for criminal activities.
It’s also not correct to say that you would be rooting for criminals to succeed. The value of bitcoin is supply and demand driven, what you are really hoping for is that other investors think that they can either make a quick buck out of it or they see it as the currency of the future. Bitcoin itself is traded like any other commodity and most trading of bitcoin is I believe done as Futures.