ANU might be distorting markets, but markets are distorting society

The world urgently needs renewable alternative sources of energy. Rolex Dela Pena/EPA/AAP

John D. Rockefeller turned in his grave when the news drifted down to Hades that the Rockefeller Brothers Fund is divesting from fossil fuel companies … even from John D’s once very own Exxon.

The shrill yelps that greeted ANU’s similar decision confirm that others too feel threatened. The decision was likely arrived at through the confluence of economic/financial and moral/political criteria.

On the economic side, ANU’s view seems to be that fossil fuel companies are becoming dangerously risky as the world acts on climate change through the development of alternative sources of energy, actions that will leave assets stranded. On the moral/political side, its view seems to be that burning fossil fuels is wrong because of the damage it does to society.

Therein lie the dual threats. On one hand, the (supposedly flawed) economic analysis threatens the industry as it is currently structured. On the other hand, the very use of moral/political analysis threatens economics as it is currently structured. To use other than “pure” economic/financial criteria is an affront to the dominant paradigm that economics is a value-free, “objective science” and that, as a consequence, free markets produce optimal economic outcomes. Hence free markets are sacrosanct.

According to that paradigm, the market is always right. Its righteous power ensures fossil fuels are correctly priced given the risks involved. Correctness is attained through the objective actions of rational corporate decision-makers responding to price signals who drive their fossil fuel companies to adapt to the changing world.

For true believers, that most companies have made but token, PR-driven changes, typified by BP colouring its bowsers green, confirms the incorrectness of ANU’s decision. For them, taking any investment action on climate change is likely “sub-optimal” as even if markets don’t instantly set the right price (a possibility they admit to sotto voce), doing nothing remains optimal over the shorter term until pricing signals become clearer.

But waiting for greater clarity, waiting until the assets are exposed to a “clear and present danger” of being stranded or until correct pricing is almost certainly correct, is surely “sub-optimal” risk-management. Increasingly institutional investors do see climate change affecting their portfolios and justify their actions through economic/financial risk analysis. Too often for paradigm believers an unstated moral/political framework underlies those decisions and actions.

A common strategy, less extreme than ANU’s, is to underweight exposure to fossil fuels and hedge the remaining exposure with overweights to alternative energy, perhaps augmented by actively encouraging portfolio companies to reduce their carbon emissions. A different strategy, one adopted by the Yale Endowment, is to ask the funds’ investment managers to “avoid companies that refuse to acknowledge the social and financial costs of climate change and fail to take economically sensible decisions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions”.

The approach taken by the ANU and some large Dutch pension funds is to divest totally from fossil fuels … now. From a long-term perspective that’s justifiable even within the narrow confines of maximising expected risk-adjusted returns, but it does expose the fund to the risk of shorter-term underperformance. ANU did consider social, moral and perhaps political criteria, which inflamed market fundamentalists - hence the yelps.

Why can’t investors have morals?

Yet all decisions do and should have moral, social and political dimensions. Would those making value-free purely financial decisions have invested in gas chambers in 1941, a legal investment with spectacular prospective returns, or would even they find it too morally repugnant?

Making trade-offs between the social and the economic, between the “soft” and the “hard”, requires a wisdom and judgement untouched by universities’ narrow “value-free” training. ANU’s public statements lacked that judgement. To declare that it won’t invest in anything that does “social harm” is naïve and disingenuous. Will it divest from armaments, alcohol and from banks that lend to harmful activities? Will it divest from the sovereign bonds of all countries that do “social harm”?

Harvard, one of the keepers of the value-free paradigm, argues for a clear separation between the financial and the social; it doesn’t wish to be a “political actor” - implying that the courses it teaches, the appointments it makes, the research it does, the consulting to corporations it undertakes and the advice its professors gives to politicians are all value-free. How’s that for naïve and disingenuous?

Those who see a nexus between the economic and the social, who reject the value-free belief as not just false but undesirable must confront Milton Friedman’s famous dictum that “the sole purpose of a company is to make (legal) profits”. His dictum is four-times wrong.

It is technically wrong because directors are legally responsible for the entire company not just the equity holders. It is systemically dangerously wrong because the purpose of companies should be to produce goods and services people will pay for. Profits are a consequence not the aim. Once profit becomes the aim companies can readily justify the legal selling of NINJA loans to poor unemployed people in Alabama, with the massive human and global consequences we’re still struggling with. It is wrong structurally because companies are social constructs, so decisions will always be redolent with non-objective, extra-rational, value-laden, non-economic influences and outcomes. Was decision-making at the University of Chicago really not like that?

But Freidman’s grandest failure is that he is wrong socially: we expect more than mere legality from every other entity. We expect more than mere legality from our friends, relatives and colleagues; we expect more than mere legality from universities, pension funds and governments, from all entities that form our civil society. Do we want companies and funds to be the only entities excluded from our social norms?

The shrill yelpers see their oft-heard tag line, “governments distort markets” being threatened by the little-heard “markets distort society” … and it should be threatened. Our world urgently needs alternative renewable sources of energy and alternative renewable sources of economic thinking.

The Conversation is a non-profit + your donation is tax deductible. Help knowledge-based, ethical journalism today.