Archive for December 30th, 2009

Ethical Investing Dilemmas, late 2009, Part 1

Wednesday, December 30th, 2009

“It’s 11:00.  Do you know what your money is doing?”

This post begins a running theme for this blog:  The Ethical Dimension of Investing.

To whom do you lend?  And what, exactly, do you really “own”?

Did you own the S&P 500 last year?  Ever stop and think how much of that was “invested” in the very same financial companies which have so egregiously failed (in many senses of the world), but which subsequently repaid themselves with public money, outrageous fees, and legislative legerdemain?  Did they repay you?  I did, and they didn’t. I don’t want to be a part of that again!

When you want to “buy a bond”, or a CD, or put “money in the bank”, does it matter who gets the money, or is one’s job simply to choose a secure institution with a reasonable (preferably above average?) rate of return?

I think more is required of an investment than simply “security of principal and a reasonable rate of return”.  I want to know that my money is being put to a use that I can agree with.  I’m tolerant enough not to insist on it, but I think you should too.  It’s hopeless to expect perfection.  But I don’t want to be bankrolling some venture which history will someday judge the modern equivalent of the South Sea Bubble or TulipMania.  I suppose it’s okay to relieve willing fools of their money in a zero-sum game, but a fair amount of “investment” activity is downright destructive. Especially when the willing fools get bailouts at my expense!!!

Indeed, a lot of speculation which appears to be “zero-sum” is, in truth, necessarily negative-sum.  Because even if money just changes hands without an overall gain or loss, nevertheless time is wasted which could have been put to better use.

This is a general introduction. The next post in this series will delve into specifics from my perspective.  But for now I want to mention Move Your Money, which provides a provocative (if perhaps hyperbolic) illustration of the issue!

About the Author and the Blog

Wednesday, December 30th, 2009

“Wisdom Speaker” is a working physical scientist living on the east side of the San Francisco Bay Area.  Wisdom Speaker is between 30 and 50 years old and has a top-tier Ph.D. in his field.  W.S. also has a spouse, 2 children in school, a house with a mortgage, and occasionally a sharp tongue. Like many his age, W.S. manages a portfolio that is “big enough to worry about, but too small to retire on”.

For years, W.S.’s spouse led the family to develop strong saving habits, and over the years they invested using conventional buy-and-hold, dollar-cost-averaging, asset-allocation methods. But in 2005 realized that conventional financial wisdom was no longer adequate to the times. Unfortunately this occurred after buying a new home near the peak of the 2000-2006 housing bubble. Although the home equity could not be saved (for some years, anyway), the housing experience “woke them up” to the speculative/Ponzi financial environment. Time was invested in a more detailed financial education. Abandoning “buy-and-hold” and taking detailed control of the household finances, W.S. went to cash and avoided the 2008 financial panic.

The family finances came out well ahead of their 75/25 allocation benchmark, but now the question arises as to how, exactly, one should invest for sustainable gains going forward.  The classic definition of an “investment operation” is one which, “upon thorough analysis, promises security of principal and a reasonable rate of return” (Benjamin Graham). In short, a sustainable gain!  Now, some of what is often considered speculation is in fact investment (e.g. trading with a high probability of success, but a short time horizon).  On the other hand, the lesson America failed to learn from Enron and the dot-coms is that too often, what is sold as “investment”, is actually speculation – or worse, fraud!  Clearly we cannot trust others to do our “thorough analysis”, guarantee “security of principal”, or deliver a “reasonable rate of return” for us.  How now to invest?  W.S. hopes to share what he has learned about investing for “Sustainable Gains”, and to learn from others with similar interests.

W.S. also believes that Graham missed a critical element of what constitutes an “investment”.  There is an ethical or moral dimension to investing:  one must put one’s time and treasure to good use, and be able to sleep well knowing what the “investees” are doing with one’s treasure.  An “Investment Operation” must be one which “upon thorough analysis, promises security of principal and a reasonable rate of return while putting capital to a use one can agree with.  Wave upon wave of financial scandal shows that this issue is far wider than “socially responsible” index fund sellers would have one believe.  Even the simple act of buying a CD, or a T-bill, has an ethical component. So “Ethical Investing” will be another theme covered here.

Another issue that comes up almost immediately is that the fiat money we use today isn’t wealth, or capital, or anything really.  It’s a bunch of carefully arranged electrons (or paper, or metal disks, but always of minimal intrinsic value) which record the exchange of debts.  But debt is not capital!  Capital is the surplus of production over consumption.  Debt is an agreement to deliver future production in exchange for current production.  True wealth might be better defined as accumulated resources to meet human needs.  W.S. has only dabbled in this area so far, but understanding the “Nature of Wealth” is vital to having “Sustainable Gains” in this area, and will be another theme here.

Finally, there is the eternal issue of time. One can often earn more money, or save it, but one’s time is far more strictly limited. Time spends itself whether one likes it or not, one never knows how much one has left, and it’s darned hard to get more!  But perhaps careful “Time Investing” (not just time management), particularly in conjunction with financial investing, can lead to sustainable gains (measured in terms of any personal goal) as well?  At any rate, between work, family, and personal needs, W.S. feels time-poor, and struggles to fit all the joys and sorrows of life into the 24-hour day, so “Time Investing” will be another theme here.

Hope you enjoy the site!  I look forward to seeing where this goes…

Thoughts on hedging

Wednesday, December 30th, 2009

From July 10, 2009.  This is a comment relative to a post on Aleph Blog.  I held posting the comment here, so I could think this out more, but in the end I like the train of thought as it was and haven’t edited it much…

In the end, ownership is about the strategic selection of risks, calculated risks, where the likely rewards outweigh the risks. If the likely rewards don’t outweigh the risks then ownership (“investment”) is not a good choice. As Ben Graham put it, thorough analysis, security of principal and a reasonable return are the essential ingredients. Complexity bedevils analysis; hedging tends to involve concealment of risks to principal; financial intermediation (e.g. with a counterparty) requires sharing the expected return. The odds of mis-estimating risk become much higher.

On a more philosophical plane: I would hate to live in a world where everyone was “hedged” or “insured” and thought they had no risk, and yet would earn some kind of return. A world of prudent risk-takers, willing to put actual capital on the line because they’ve done their homework and willing to work to make their commitments work out, is better than a world of “hedged” risk-averse “free lunch” seekers who just want some counterparty to make everything all better for them if they turn out to be wrong.

There’s a moral hazard aspect to insurance — think about how popular the high-hazard “extreme” sports are, now that everyone feels entitled to having someone else pay for their wrecks. There’s also the problem that your average individual, regardless of means, is just not sufficiently sophisticated financially to make proper use of these “hedging” tools. We live in a nation where much of the population cannot do something as simple and obvious as paying off their credit cards in full each month! This applies all the way up to the highest levels of business and government — Representatives, Senators and even national presidential candidates are up to their eyeballs in debt that apparently is not in their financial interest. Should we really be turning the Wall Street marketing mafia loose with new “financial innovations”, on such ignorant prey?

My intuition tells me that it would be better for society if people who aren’t comfortable owning a particular asset were encouraged (“invisble hand” style) to stop owning it, NOT for them to maintain “ownership” but with “insurance”. Shiller and other advocates of hedging tools seem to be living in the pre-crash mentality, where financial complexity seemed like a good thing, and counterparty risks could be ignored. Such is not the case now. With the number of publicly filing businesses down about 1/3, and the number issuing “going concern” warnings rising dramatically, it’s flawed logic to assume that “insurance” (as a generic concept) is “guaranteed”. Would you sell a future on your home to the next AIG? The next Countrywide? The next Lehman Brothers? In the absence of financial transparency, how would you know?  Particularly with respect to off-balance-sheet (and allegedly “hedged”) risk exposures, there’s no way to tell that your counterparty of choice won’t blow up in the next 10 years (or whatever time horizon). In such an environment, hedging makes little sense from a Graham-ian investment perspective, because upon thorough analysis the risks are quite likely too high.