Search This Blog

Monday, 1 July 2013

Breaking news: Corporate investors start to develop a conscience! Will this become a trend during the next decade?

Money it's a hit
Don't give me that do goody good bullshit

It is definitely a time of depression that we are currently in.

In 2008, the global economy entered into a rollercoaster, put in motion by the default of Lehman Brothers as a consequence of ubiquitous lending and excess debt. In the end, it didn’t matter much whether it were the subprime mortgage loans which sparked this global crisis or that it had been another flawed product or wobbly financial situation.

Lehman, the very large American merchant bank, disclosed with a big bang the structural imbalances in the global economies for the eyes of world. Imbalances, that before had been looming under the surface, invisible for the unsuspecting viewer. The bank became the trigger in a global domino network, where everything was interconnected with each other and one dropping domino stone could cause a financial cataclysm.

Initially, state officials everywhere and a substantial number of macro-economists thought that the crisis could be contained by throwing numerous billions of money at it, in order to stop this runaway train and kick-start the global economies again.

However, the most important thing which happened was that the systemic risk transferred from the small and large banks and their share- and bondholders, to the local governments of individual countries and eventually to the central banks and governments of the United States, Europe and the Asian countries. 

The central banks in the world became the ‘lenders of last resort’ for structurally insolvent 'zombie'-banks, while the taxpayers became the party, which had to foot every bill.

Creditors, lenders, share- and bondholders, who had obviously taken excess risks in the past, were pulled out of misery by the lower and middle classes in all countries; all in the name of the ‘stability of the financial system’, which would otherwise become under jeopardy. Thus started one of the largest transfers of wealth in history, from the middle classes to the highest classes.

The middle classes became confronted with the consequences of their excess consumption in the previous years and their excess debt on housing, vehicles and durable consumption goods. They decided that ‘enough was enough’ for their gathering of debt.

Banks had suffered from a lack of risk awareness in the years until 2008 and since then lost large amounts of money on bad investments. They remained in an undercapitalized zombie-state, in spite of all (inter)national financial aid programs, which offered billions and billions of euro’s in rescue amounts.

Since their 'rescue', these banks continuously refused to borrow money to all small and medium enterprises, that didn’t have ironclad business plans and enough rock-hard collateral to lend money upon. Instead, the banks worked on their capitalization levels, in order to meet the solvability and liquidity demands, as set by the Basel agreements.

The situation became that consumers slowly accepted the new austerity as a fact of life and refused to buy anything beyond the necessary. Banks, at the same time, refused to lend money to companies, although these desperately needed the investments and loans to stay afloat and become healthy again. This became the end for increasing numbers of companies.

This sobering development led to a plunging consumption, dropping imports and exports, diminishing housing prices and a general drop in demand for (durable) consumption goods and vehicles all over Europe and the US. In the process, it also led to massive loss of jobs and - consequently - soaring unemployment. This development reinforced once again austerity among the populations of the western countries 

Thus, the large economic crisis became a depression: a time of enduring economic hardship, seemingly without a way out. Where in general normal recessions  only last for two or three years, the current depression lasts already for five years and the end of it is nowhere in sight yet.

Such a depression comes accompanied with general sobriety and forced frugality for the middle and lower classes. On top of that, it often causes a flow of pessimism and anger among the parts of the population, which are most hurt by the crisis. A nasty side-effect of this pessimism and anger is that it leads to general distrust between civilians, companies and government officials and mutually between people.

In such a depression, the smallest tensions between people, companies and governments could already lead to outbursts of public outrage and violence. We saw this not only happen in Greece, Spain and Turkey, but especially in the Arab world, where the ´Arab spring´ soon turned into a nasty winter with massive violence and a rising death toll everywhere. Also in the Far East tensions between groups of people or between the people and the governments ran high on more than one occasion.

Even in the ‘peace-loving’ and stable Western countries, the tolerance for human errors and dishonest behaviour has been very low during the last five years. 

It is therefore no coincidence that these years disclosed so many scandals concerning individual people, companies and governments. 

In optimistic times people don’t bother to look very hard into rumours and simmering scandals, as they don’t want to spoil their optimistic mood. 

However, in times of depression, when general tolerance runs low, people want answers when something bad or unfair happens to them. They want swindlers, dishonest policitians and fraudulent companies to be brought to justice. Any which way...

While this pessimistic and angry mood in society can be very negative and even brutal at moments, it has also a cleansing effect on all parties to whom it concerns. 

Companies, people and politicians, who became ‘Once bitten, twice shy’, often try to improve their general behavior and ways of doing business. 

Consequently, they become less prone to errors, fraud and inappropriate actions, as the eyes of the ‘angry, moral majority’ force them into better, less risky or fraudulent behaviour.

This side-effect of a depression might explain, why today one bank and a number of institutions, operating as corporate investors, announced a significant change in their investment policies:
  • The Dutch sifi bank Rabobank;
  • The  pension funds:
    • Zorg en Welzijn (i.e. Healthcare and Wellbeing);
    • PME (Metal-Electro);
    • PMT (Metal and Technique);
    •  Pensionfund for Commercial Shipping
  • The pension execution organizations PGGM and MN


The Dutch financial newspaper Het Financieel Dagblad wrote that the Dutch sifi (systemically important financial institution) bank Rabobank does not want to invest in shale gas projects anymore. Here are the pertinent snips:

Rabobank Groep does not supply loans anymore, when the money is used for the extraction and exploration of shale gas. This was stated by the bank in a statement on its corporate website.

In the article, Rabobank explains its point of view for doing business in the oil and gas industry. The cooperative bank puts environmental sustainability at the front and excludes explicitly all activities that have to do with ‘unconventional fossile fuels’, like oil and gas, extracted from tar sands and shale. 

More and more American farmers fear a lack of clean water, due to pollution coming from the extraction of shale gas.

Pensionfund Zorg & Welzijn

Today, the very large pension fund Zorg & Welzijn announced that it will put all tobacco companies on a black list, which means that the pension fund will not invest in these companies anymore. Again, the FD published this story:

This Monday, 1 July 2013, pension fund Zorg en Welzijn (PFZW) stated, that it put tobacco companies on the exclusion list for investments, with immediate effect.

PFZW tried to start a discussion with tobacco producers, about various problems concerning the production in the tobacco industry, like labour circumstances, children’s labour and the marketing and sales of tobacco products to youngsters. However, these discussions didn’t lead to improvements, according to the pension fund. 

Besides that, the pension fund points at the awkward relation between the product tobacco and the healthcare industry, in which all 2.5 million participants in the pension fund work or have worked. “The product doesn’t fit to us”, according to a spokesman of the pension fund.

All these circumstances combined, this led to an exclusion of tobacco producers as targets of investments.

PGGM and other pension funds

Today, the Dutch pension execution organizations PGGM and MN and the industry pension funds PMT, PME as well as the Pension fund for Commercial Shipping, all declared that they had put the American hypermarket chain Walmart on their blacklist for investments.

The FD wrote the following article about pension executioner PGGM, while the other names were mentioned in a similar article by the Telegraaf :

Dutch pension execution organization PGGM has sold all the Walmart shares that it held and put the American hypermarket corporation on its blacklist, according to the pension executioner in a press statement on its website this Monday.

“The immediate cause for this step is the fact that Walmart does not want to approach us in our concerns about the labour circumstances within the corporation at the domestic market, the US. Besides that, the executive management of Walmart does not stand open for a fruitful dialogue with an important shareholder of Walmart”, according to PGGM.

PGGM stated that it had many discussions with Walmart, concerning its worries about the labour circumstances  there. The hypermarket chain restricts employees in their possibilities to organize themselves in unions. “This is not only a breach of International Labour guidelines (ILO), but also of the codes that Walmart itself sets for its suppliers”.

Besides that, questions about a bribery scandal at subsidiary Walmex remained repeatedly unanswered and the pension executioner didn’t get the chance to discuss its worries directly with the executive management of Walmart itself.

Although three separate policy changes in one day, among institutions in The Netherlands, must definitely be coincidence, it is yet a tell-tale signal of the changing mood among people and companies.

Perhaps, these decisions by these institutions have all been taken out of political or business opportunism, rather than from the heart. Probably, these institutions felt forced by the ‘communio opinis’ of their grassroots and participants. Never mind, in cases like this it is the result that counts for the choices that have been made, not the motivation behind these choices.

I hope that these ‘new ethics’ will indeed become a trend for the next decade and that it will lead to companies, which are not only paying lip-service to ethical ways of doing business, but also put their money where their mouth is.

And, when the Dutch banks and pension funds are involved in such decisions, it will be a lot of money to put somewhere else. And so the current depression brings also something good.

No comments:

Post a Comment