Socially Responsible Investments and Investors

October 28, 2011 Leave a comment

Santa Clara University, my university, is a Catholic, Jesuit University, and its endowment fund follows its values: the sacredness of life, human rights, opposition to discrimination, opposition to nuclear weapons, and protection of the environment. We want our university’s endowment to earn high returns to support our students, faculty and staff. Do we sacrifice investment returns for our values?

A member of the Church of the Brethren faces the same question. “People from the church ask us fairly regularly whether we give up anything in terms of returns for our values. Often it’s phrased just that bluntly:  “How much does it cost me to invest with you and exclude those things from my portfolio?” It turns out that Santa Clara University and the Church of the Brethren sacrifice no returns for their values. Indeed, evidence from my studies and those of others indicates that wise investors need not sacrifice returns for values.

Who are socially responsible investors?

Social responsibility means different things to different people, and socially responsible investors express different values. Some express a single value, such as protection of the environment, while others express several values, such as avoidance of tobacco, alcohol, and gambling. The differing values are reflected in the many alternatives to the term ‘socially responsible investing,’ including environmental, societal, and governance (ESG) investing, sustainable investing, green investing, ethical investing, mission based investing, values-based investing, and religion-based investing.

“For our church, investing according to socially responsible principles is more a matter of integrity than making a major difference,” said the member of the Church of the Brethren. “That is, if we believe tobacco has an overwhelmingly negative influence on society, we should not profit from it. If we made money on a tobacco investment, on the whole we’re worse off, even if we took every penny we made and reinvested it in beneficial programs… I occasionally see articles by investment columnists on the ‘sin’ funds that invest primarily in tobacco and alcohol, etc., advising people to take their profits from these funds and do good with them.  That argument seems completely backwards to me, because the money is already out there supporting bad things.”

Socially responsible investors draw their inspiration from religion, family, books and their own experiences. “Although I was raised secularly for the most part,” said one investor, “my core values come from my family’s religious tradition, that is, that Jewish people believe in social justice.  My grandfather emigrated from Eastern Europe when he was 14.  He was one of the founders of a major union local and then went on to start his own business.  When I was a teenager, I was doing some work for him when there was a strike at his business, and he told me I couldn’t cross the picket lines.  My mother said, “You have to go to work and help him,” but my grandfather said, “You can’t do that.”  Those are the experiences and the key framework that led me to emphasize feminist and workers’ rights in my investing.”

“I have an undergraduate degree in molecular biology and worked in biotech and the pharmaceutical industry for seven years,” said another investor. “At that point, I hadn’t taken any environmental classes and didn’t even have a strong interest in the environment.  My interest arose later, largely as the result of reading books…I also began to recognize that I didn’t agree with how the pharmaceutical industry was run. I was uncomfortable with several ethical flaws ingrained in the system…Part of me recognized that it’s a business, and it’s not going to change, but I decided I didn’t want to participate any more… I eventually ended up going back to school for my master’s in environmental science and management.”

Do socially responsible investors sacrifice ‘doing well’ for ‘doing good’?

There are three alternative hypotheses about the relative returns of the stocks of socially responsible companies and conventional companies. The first hypothesis is the ‘doing good but not well’ hypothesis, where the returns of socially responsible stocks are lower than the returns of conventional stocks. This hypothesis might be true if the costs paid by a company for being socially responsible exceed the benefits to shareholders. For example, company managers might invest too much in social responsibility because they enjoy the personal honors they receive for being socially responsible, while shareholders receive lower returns.

The second hypothesis is the ‘doing good while doing well’ hypothesis, where the returns of socially responsible stocks are higher than those of conventional stocks. This is possible if managers underestimate the benefits of being socially responsible or overestimate its costs. Consider, for example, the managers of BP before the major oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. They could have invested more in safety measures that would have done good, preventing the spill and the environmental damage it created, and they would have done well, saving the heavy costs of cleaning the spill and compensating victims.

The third and last hypothesis is the ‘no effect’ hypothesis where the returns of socially responsible stocks are equal to the returns of conventional stocks.  The ‘no effect’ hypothesis might be true, for instance, when the extra costs of higher employee pay are equal to the extra productivity of more satisfied employees.

I have found in my studies that the returns of socially responsible mutual funds were approximately equal to those of conventional mutual funds, and that socially responsible indexes had returns approximately equal to those of conventional indexes. These studies are consistent with the ‘no effect’ hypothesis, where social responsibility neither increases nor decreases returns.

Yet perhaps the most important finding is that it is wise to avoid funds with high costs, whether socially responsible or conventional. The returns of socially responsible funds with high costs trailed the returns of socially responsible index funds and asset-class funds with low costs. The same is true for the returns of conventional funds. Socially responsible investors need not sacrifice returns for their values, as long as they invest wisely.

Related Articles:

Statman, Meir, “Socially Responsible Mutual Funds,” Financial Analysts Journal, 2000
Statman, Meir, “The Religions of Social Responsibility,” Journal of Investing, 2005
Statman, Meir, “Socially Responsible Indexes,” Journal of Portfolio Management, 2006.
Statman, Meir, “Socially Responsible Investments, Journal of Investment Consulting, 2007
Statman, Meir, “Socially Responsible Investors and their Advisors, Journal of Investment Consulting, 2008
Statman, Meir, “The Expressive Nature of Socially Responsible Investors,” Journal of Financial Planning, 2008
Statman, Meir, and Denys Glushkov, “The Wages of Social Responsibility,” Financial Analysts Journal, 2009

Breaking the Mental Buck

June 20, 2011 Leave a comment

Should money funds be allowed to continue to price their shares by “buck” accounting, whereby the price of each share is fixed at one dollar? Or should they be compelled to price them by “mark-to-market” accounting, common to all other mutual funds, whereby changes in the market value of shares move their prices higher or lower than a dollar?

Today’s money fund agenda centers on mitigating systemic risks associated with money funds. These risks compelled the U.S. Treasury to offer a taxpayer guarantee on all money funds in September 2008, when the Reserve Primary money fund was forced to “break the buck,” setting the price of shares below a dollar.

A proposal to price money fund shares by mark-to-market accounting has been met with fierce opposition. Paul Schott Stevens of the Investment Company Institute wrote that “investors prize the stability, simplicity, and convenience” of money funds. David Hirschmann of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce wrote that investors would flee from money funds burdened by “the complexity and cost of accounting” of mark-to-market funds. And Kenneth White, a Chicago investor, threatened to liquidate his money funds if their prices were set by mark-to-market accounting.

We cannot understand the passions underlying the money fund debate unless we understand the psychology that underlies the attraction of buck accounting. That psychology centers on our cognitive errors of mental accounting and hindsight, and our emotions of regret and pride. An understanding of the attraction of buck accounting would help us overcome it.

Money funds were introduced in the early 1970s to circumvent regulations that limited the rate of interest banks could pay. They soon turned into substitutes for bank checking accounts. Money fund investors received checkbooks similar to bank checkbooks and could write checks for use everywhere. But money funds were not a close enough substitute for checking accounts because they lacked the “no-loss” psychological benefit.

Investors who deposited a dollar in a checking account were assured that they would be able to withdraw a dollar the following day, week, or year. But money fund investors had no such assurance. A dollar invested in a money fund one day might be worth 98 cents the following day. Investors who contemplated buying a television set for $500 would have had to withdraw 510 shares of the money fund if its share price declined from $1 on the day of the purchase to 98 cents when their check was cashed. The extra ten shares registered as a loss in the minds of money fund investors.

Investing, whether in a stock or a money fund, marks a hopeful beginning. We place a stock into a mental account, record its $100 purchase price and hope to close the account at a gain, perhaps selling the stock at $150. As stock fate has it, the stock’s price plummets to $40 during the following month rather than increase to $150.

Losses make us feel stupid. Hindsight error misleads us into thinking that what is clear in hindsight was equally clear in foresight. We bought the stock at $100 because, in foresight, it seemed destined to go to $150. But now, in hindsight, we remember all the warning signs displayed in plain sight on the day we bought our stock. Interest rates were about to increase. The CEO was about to resign. A competitor was ready to introduce a better product.

The cognitive error of hindsight is accompanied by the emotion of regret. We kick ourselves for being so stupid and contemplate how much happier we would have been if only we had kept our $100 in our savings account or invested it in another stock that zoomed as our stock plummeted. Pride is at the opposite end of the emotional spectrum from regret. Pride accompanies gains. We congratulate ourselves and feel proud for seeing in foresight that our $100 stock would soon zoom to $150. Mark-to-market accounting of money funds opens the door to both regret and pride every time we write a check, but regret is more painful than pride is pleasurable. It is no wonder that money fund investors prefer buck accounting over mark-to-market accounting, and money fund executives hear their voices.

In 1977, following much lobbying by mutual fund companies, the SEC approved the use of buck accounting such that the price of their shares remains at $1 even when the market value of the shares deviates from it. Managers of money funds promised not to “break the buck” and, at last, money funds seemed to have acquired the no-loss benefits of checking accounts.

The promise of managers of money funds not to break the buck was sincere but not guaranteed. The small print always said that the buck might be broken. Still, managers of money funds kept their promise for many years, on occasion paying from their own pockets so as not to break the buck. But when the financial crisis arrived in 2008 the managers of the Reserve fund announced that their fund contained securities of bankrupt Lehman Brothers and they must break the buck and set its shares to 97 cents. The development “is really, really bad,” said Don Phillips of Morningstar. “You talk about Lehman and Merrill having been stellar institutions, but breaking the buck is sacred territory.” This breaking of the buck was prominent among the events that led Henry Paulson and Ben Bernanke to recommend drastic measures, including government insurance of money funds, fearing the panic that would ensue if money fund investors raced to withdraw their money.

The demise of Reserve fund is ironic because Bruce Bent, one of its founders, opposed buck accounting when it was considered in the 1970s. Bent feared that buck accounting would compel money fund managers to buy risky securities in attempts to provide higher returns than their competitors. In a 1978 letter to the SEC Bent wrote that buck accounting “presents the illusion of higher returns in times of declining interest rates” and makes money funds “appear to have overcome the risk” of fluctuating interest rates. Bent noted further that buck accounting would encourage money funds to buy risky securities that “pay higher interest rates than those which must achieve stability by exercising judgment…” Bent vowed not to buy such risky securities, but he broke his vow under the pressure of competition. This is why the Reserve fund held Lehman securities when Lehman went bankrupt. What started as an attempt to turn money funds into no-loss investments ended with very real losses.

Jeffrey Lacker, President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, advocated mark-to-market accounting for money funds, noting that buck accounting promotes runs on money funds. I agree. Regret over losses is likely to seize money fund investors from time to time, but such regret is a small price to pay for a central block of a stable financial system.

Understanding What Investors Really Want In 60 Seconds

April 22, 2011 Leave a comment

What’s good about taxes?

April 5, 2011 1 comment

Few of us like paying taxes and most of us have blueprints for ideal tax systems in which we pay less. The message we send to our elected officials was summarized succinctly by Senator Russell B. Long: “Don’t tax you, don’t tax me, tax that fellow behind the tree!” Our distaste for taxes can be a force for bad, as when it drives us into hiding taxable dollars in offshore accounts. Yet it can also be a force for good, as when it drives us into saving for retirement. Debates about the relative tax benefits of Roth IRAs and regular IRAs often miss their most important benefit. Both Roth IRAs and regular IRAs harness our dislike of taxes into retirement savings.

Investment companies cater to our dislike of taxes. “Nowhere on any tax form does it say you can’t be crafty,” winks an advertisement by an investment company, offering tax-free mutual funds and the picture of a smiling man next to a swimming pool. “How to send less to the IRS,” promises an advertisement by another investment company.
High returns are the utilitarian benefits of tax-free funds; investors who send less to the IRS keep more of their investment returns. But tax-free funds, IRAs and 401(k) accounts have expressive and emotional benefits as well. We express ourselves as high-income investors, with status as high as our tax brackets. We express ourselves as smart, savvy, wily and crafty, which is what it takes to avoid taxes. Pride at avoiding taxes is emotionally satisfying, but the emotions accompanying taxes extend to anger and hatred. We are angry when taxes rob us of personal freedom or when they are wasted by politicians and bureaucrats. “Well, Mr. Big Brother IRS man, let’s try something different, take my pound of flesh and sleep well,” wrote Andrew Joseph Stack III in February of 2009, just before flying his plane into an IRS office building, killing an IRS employee and himself.

My mechanic sent a postcard offering “Tax Break Specials,” saving me the cost of sales taxes. He must know that his typical customers prefer small savings in the form of tax breaks to more substantial savings in the form of cash discounts. We dislike taxes so much that we are willing to forego $5,000 to save $4,000 in taxes. Here is an experiment by Abigail Sussman and Christopher Olivola.

Imagine circumstances where you earn an annual salary of $50,000 before taxes at an American company. Now pretend you are offered a position at one of two European branches at a $75,000 salary. The good thing about Country A is that your daily commute will be 60 minutes shorter than in Country B. The bad thing about Country A is that food would cost you $5,000 more than in Country B. Which country would you choose?

Now imagine identical circumstances except that the bad thing about Country A is that you would pay $4,000 more in taxes than in Country B. Which country would you choose? The first of the two circumstances was presented to one group of people and the second was presented to another group. It turned out that more people in the United States and Britain chose country B when they could save $4,000 in taxes than when they could save $5,000 in the cost of food.

We want to pay no taxes and the pain taxes is especially searing now, days before April 15th. May I alleviate your pain by reminding you that the pain of taxes drives you to greater savings for a more comfortable retirement?

Further reading

Abigail B. Sussman and Christopher Y. Olivola, “Axe the Tax: Taxes Are Disliked More than Equal Costs,” (presented at the 1st Annual Boulder Summer Conference on Consumer Financial Decision Making, June 27–29 2010).

The Temptations of Plus and the Reality of Minus

January 18, 2011 Leave a comment

Charles Schwab’s YieldPlus funds promised returns higher than those of bonds at only slightly higher risk. Schwab classified the funds as ultrashort bond funds yet their holding were concentrated in mortgage backed securities which were decimated in the financial crisis.

The story of YieldPlus is only one example of the sad consequences of investors’ perennial search for returns higher than risk. A century ago investors sought such returns in stocks of mining companies. A magazine of the time told the story of a man, the son of a country doctor, who reached adulthood and was about to go into business. His father took him into the little back office, swung open the door of the rusty old safe, and took out a thick bundle of stock certificates. “My son,” he said, “you are going into business, and, I hope, will make some money. . . . When the time comes you will wish to buy some mining stock. Everyone does. When that time arrives come to see me. I will sell you some of mine. They are just as good, and will keep the money in the family.’”

Lessons from a century ago need repeating because we fail to learn. Almost half a million Italian retirees bought Argentine bonds in the 1990s because they offered higher interest rates than Italian bonds. The word default became an Italian word in 2001 when Argentina defaulted on its bonds. In 2005 Nestor Kirchner, Argentina’s president at the time, offered to pay bondholders less than a third of their investment. When Rodrigo de Rato of the International Monetary Fund called on Argentina to be respectful to bondholders, Kirchner mocked him, “It’s pathetic to listen to them sometimes.” “Enter now,” said Kirchner to the bondholders, “or it will be your problem.”

Banks sold $7 billion of reverse convertibles in 2008, promising returns higher than risks and collecting fees in the process. Reverse convertibles are bonds linked to stocks such as Apple and Johnson & Johnson. Investors were promised high interest rates during the life of the bonds in addition to their invested money when the bonds mature. Yet if the prices of the stocks to which the bonds are linked fall, investors get the stocks rather than their invested money. The high interest rates of reverse convertibles were enticing, but not all investors were aware of their risks. Lawrence Batlan, an 85-year-old retired radiologist, invested $400,000 in reverse convertibles linked to stocks such as Yahoo! and SanDisk. He lost $75,000 of it when stock prices declined. “I had no idea this could happen,” said Dr. Batlan. “I have no desire to own Yahoo! stock or the others.”

The “accumulator” was also an investment that was too good to be true, but this one was offered mainly to investors in Hong Kong. Accumulators obliged investors to buy shares of a stock at a fixed price. Investors profited if the price of the shares increased but lost if the price decreased. Yet the profit potential of investors was limited by a condition mandating that they sell their shares back to the issuer if their price increases to a specified level. The year 2008 was bad for investors in accumulators as stock prices declined and investors nicknamed accumulators “I kill you later.” The fundamental flaw . . . is something that I learned from my grandmother,” said Kathryn Matthews, an investment professional. “You get nothing for free.”

Next time when you see an investment with “plus” in its name, substitute “minus” in its place and see if it is still as enticing.