The argument for institutional divestment, which includes a fossil-free Yale, doesn’t have much financial merit. But it is convincing from a more philosophical perspective: Divestment by an important institution sends a message that can create a positive snowball effect. On a personal level, this is socially responsible investing (SRI), or investing only in companies that act responsibly by your standards. Unfortunately, SRI has few positive outcomes and, moreover, great potential to harm your future.
Let’s start with institutional divestment. It is not a tool for financially affecting fossil fuel companies and generally isn’t represented as such in any advanced discussion. Imagine you buy a $100 share of Exxon when they “go public” and offer their stock up for sale. Exxon gets to spend that money on developing new technology, and as it grows more valuable, your stock grows too. You then sell that share for $125 to someone else — you divest from Exxon. But Exxon feels nothing; they got their money earlier on. You are the one who profits from the sale. The new holder of that stock will hope to profit as you did.
But if you had as powerful a voice as, say, Yale’s investment team, others would take notice. It might become trendy to get rid of Exxon stock. This, in a nutshell, is part of what campaigners for divestment hope to accomplish. But it is extremely unlikely that this would bring financial ruin to the company. Rather, as endowments unloaded shares, other investors would buy them, perhaps even at discounted prices. Divestment is not completely ineffective, and may stigmatize fossil fuel investments, but it is just one small piece of the climate change puzzle. But institutions and individuals invest differently.
Conscientious financial behavior in your personal life can take many forms. For many, it’s SRI. While you can’t force an institution to divest, you can proactively and responsibly invest your own money. But for individuals without a million-dollar portfolio, it does more harm than good. For one, there is no evidence that an SRI mutual fund — a bundle of hundreds or thousands of individual companies’ stocks — provides investors with greater returns. In fact, there is mounting evidence to the contrary. Furthermore, SRI funds typically carry fees that are higher than those of normal index funds. Because it costs money to evaluate the good/evil balance in a company, investors will see fees eat away at their returns year after year.
Arguing about returns with someone interested in SRI is likely fruitless: Many of us feel willing to accept smaller gains in exchange for doing the right thing. But in this case, doing the right thing helps nothing but our own egos. There is a strong argument that says SRI helps the “bad guys” who don’t mind investing in irresponsible companies. As responsible investors sell off shares of, say, Exxon, investors who don’t care about SRI buy those shares, benefiting from their temporarily lowered price — a side-effect of the sale of large amounts of stock.
Finally, even if SRI funds could offer competitive returns at competitive prices and cause minor financial harm to evil companies, would they be worth embracing? I say no, because we can’t determine what companies fall under the SRI umbrella. Nestle has dedicated itself to economically empowering women and educating customers about being healthy. It’s also behind a deadly epidemic of heart disease and diabetes in Brazil. The story’s analogous at Apple and dozens of other on-message and modern companies. And while oil companies may seem evil, they are job creators and, yes, powerful investors in renewable energy.
With your heart in the right place, you could enter a death spiral and end up only investing in companies that have never burned a drop of gasoline, but there are more powerful ways to make your money talk. Predictably, it’s giving. You can give when you can or commit to donating, say, 5 percent of each paycheck. As long as you direct funds toward an organization that is effective, you’ll save a lot of time and maximize the good that each of your dollars can do.
You can (and probably should) also boycott corporations. If you think you could influence others to do the same, go for it. While Apple won’t ever notice an undergraduate divesting a few shares to another investor, they’d notice if they couldn’t manage to sell any MacBooks at their New Haven location. Drops in the bucket can absolutely make a difference. But we shouldn’t put our hopes in a strategy that will bring about no change while setting us behind in our own financial lives.
Louis Defelice is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College and the creator of the financial website www.wonderlearninvest.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org