Tag Archives: divesting

ExxonMobil & the New Stoyashchego

A few months ago I read Laura Hillenbrand’s book “Unbroken” about WW II veteran Louis Zamperini. (How is such a life possible?) Then last night we went to see Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies” about lawyer James Donovan and the swap that brought downed US pilot Gary Powers home in 1962. In one scene, Russian spy Rudolf Abel (played by the amazing Mark Rylance) tells a boyhood story about the “stoyashchego” (apparently loosely translates as “standing man”) – a neighbor who Abel’s father says to keep an eye on.  When a hostile militia overruns the town,  this man gets up every time he’s knocked down, resetting himself with steadfast determination no matter how many times he ends up on the ground. Zamperini is the most incredible real life example of this idea I’ve ever heard of. Stories like his are shining reminders – stories about wisdom and grace embodied in people who are otherworldly resolute.

Then, there’s Tim Conway and the rest of us.

Humans can also dupe themselves into ignoring facts and creating really dumb versions of reality. When it comes to global warming, some of the thinking is so mind-bendingly stupid you can only laugh. Like Senator Jim Inhofe using a snowball as a prop on the floor of the US Senate as he rambled on about the climate being just fine. Hello?

But, it’s impossible to smile when you read things like the recent articles by LA Times reporters and others who have been looking at Exxon’s decades of research on the climate. Like the VW diesel fiasco, the story is about very deliberate corporate behavior designed to obfuscate. The VW thing is incredibly sad – well beyond the very human act of simply making a dumb decision. Exxon’s behavior takes it to yet another level. The fact that Exxon was onto the global warming scenario in the 1970’s, and yet has actively worked to have everyone believe something else is not stupid. Given where we are, its beyond comprehension. “No corporation has ever done anything this big or bad” is how Bill McKibben sums it up in an article in The Guardian. Unfortunately, for the folks at Exxon and all their kids and all the rest of us, even that’s an understatement.

One can only assume that ExxonMobil is not the only energy company that decided that this strategy was a good thing.  So, what the hell do we all do? Simple – stand up and “be the change” you hope to see.

For starters, McKibben and the other stoyashchego (let’s go with “standing people”) at 350.org are asking the rest of us to sign a petition requesting that the US Department of Justice investigate ExxonMobil’s behavior. Seems like an excellent idea.

Then, if you’ve got a few bucks set aside in some mutual funds, take a quick look and see if you’re invested in ExxonMobil and its heavy hitter brethren (….it’s really easy to check). There are many better ways to invest your money. Money talks. Politicians listen.

After that – call your US congressional and state representatives and tell them to stop dragging their feet and start talking about solutions.

There’s no dress rehearsal for where we’re headed – the previews are over and the movie has started. Be the change.

Fossil Fuel Divestment Just Got A Whole Lot Easier

I spend a lot of time talking to people about divesting from fossil fuels – family members, friends, people at meetings and seminars – and the occasional random person who makes the mistake of asking what I do.  Most of these people are really concerned about climate change.  Its inspiring to hear that many have taken steps to reduce their carbon footprints. But, only a few people bring up that they’ve divested their investments from fossil fuels.

One problem is that the idea is only a couple of years old. Whether you have a few bucks tucked away for retirement or you’re a Shark Tank gazillionaire, there’s a 99% chance that your investments didn’t come to mind when you first started wondering about things you might do to help slow down global warming.

If you have heard about divestment, there’s also a 99% chance you heard that divestment flies in the face of conventional “wisdom” when it comes to investing. The pivotal barrier is the idea that there are supposedly only a few reinvestment options that are fossil fuel free.  And, by extension, that means that divesting is a financially risky thing to do. Here again, one problem is that the idea is new and any information hasn’t penetrated very far. The second problem is that, to the degree that there is discussion of divestment, much of the thinking is muddled or just plain wrong. Kind of like listening to Donald Trump talking about – well – just about anything.

A new website from the non-profit As You Sow will be a potent weapon in knocking this barrier down. Why?  Because, in a few seconds, you can check to see if a mutual fund has investments in the fossil fuel industry or not.

The goal of the divestment movement is to pull support away from the major fossil fuel companies and shine a big bright light on the nonexistent (or, depending on the country, woefully ineffective or just stupid) policy response to climate change. The tool’s “Carbon Underground 200” screening option allows you to see if your fund holds stock in the companies at global warming’s ground zero. The website also instantly lets people see that many diversified small-cap funds, many sector funds, and a whole bunch of other funds don’t hold these stocks.  Depending on how far future improvements go, the site will also eventually demonstrate that small and mid-cap exchange traded funds (ETFs) and many other mutual funds are inherently fossil fuel free.

Fund holdings information has always been publicly available, but few people are geeky enough to hunt for it. (Guilty as charged.) In the long run, the game changer here is that this tool completely blows up the notion that if you want to divest, you only have a few options. That includes many funds already available in company 401k plans.

Its important to point out that a leading group of forward-thinking investment companies were way ahead of the curve and created funds that are fully fossil fuel free by design, As divestment grows in popularity, the website will help get the word out about these funds, too.

What’s new here is that this tool makes it clear that the set of fossil free investment options is big.  Very big. And, that will draw a lot more people to the idea. The power of personal divestment is in the number of people who take the leap. For this side of the divestment movement to make a difference, we need people to divest and we need them ASAP.

Andy Behar and the smart, inspired people of As You Sow (and their partners) have just fired off the 21st century “click heard ’round the world.”  Thank you folks – nicely done.  (Wouldn’t it be great to see Steven Colbert, Bill McKibben and Andy checking out the site….Steven – you there?)

Fossil Fuel Divestment Means Lower Returns – Huh?

One of the key arguments against divestment that shows up again and again in the press and on the web is the idea that fossil fuel divestors will sacrifice investment performance. Or, stated another way, their investments will do worse then those of people who choose not to divest. On the surface, it seems a simple point – if you don’t invest in a major sector of the economy (i.e., the fossil fuel industry), you’ll be missing out. But, as is true with most simple arguments in an increasingly complex world, this soundbite analysis is wrong on multiple levels.

By a big majority, most people who have stock market investments put their money into mutual funds or exchange traded funds (ETFs). And many people also follow the general investment axiom that it’s a smart idea to be diversified. So, the more relevant question is – what happens if a diversified mutual fund or ETF does or doesn’t hold stock in the fossil fuel industry?

By definition, a diversified fund isn’t going to invest a high percentage of its money in any one industry. If you look at the Security and Exchange Commission filing information for diversified funds, you’ll generally find that somewhere between 0-4% of such a fund’s holdings are in the fossil fuel industry. So, for the sake of argument, let’s say that on average a typical diversified fund invests 2% of its investors’ money in these companies.

Let’s look at a hypothetical fund we’ll call the “incredibly neutral mutual fund (INMF).” The INMF manager’s general performance turns out to be supremely neutral. Somehow, with all the ups and downs of all the industries in the fund’s portfolio of stocks, the gains of almost all the stocks that do well are almost exactly counter-acted by the stocks that do poorly, and every year the fund’s annual return is basically 0%. But, there is one exception to this staggeringly bland performance – the fund’s investments in the fossil fuel sector.

Suppose that in an incredibly amazing 10-year streak, the combined fossil fuel investments in INMF go up 50% every single year. But, since the fund only invests 2% of its money in fossil fuels, the investors will gain just 1% each year. A return of 1% per year — that’s what you get if the fund manager has a completely unrealistic ability to pick an astounding set of fossil fuel stocks year after year after year.

Human beings and markets being what they are, a more realistic view of a fund manager who has a strong ability to pick fossil fuel winners (and avoid losers) would be if that part of the fund  had a consistent return of 5-10%. Now, the annual total return to you as a fund investor has fallen to between 0.1-0.2% per year. If you had invested $5,000 in INMF, your first year return would be $5-$10. The total cumulative ten-year return range would be slightly more than $50-$100 (due to compounding).

So, can moving away from fossil fuels negatively affect investment performance. Possibly. But if you invest in broadly diversified funds, the potential effect is tiny. The variation would be swamped out by the manager’s many other fund investment decisions, and also the myriad economic impacts that push all the other sector investments in the fund  up and down.

And, here’s a far more important point. New stocks that replace the fossil fuel investments may do as well as, or better than, the fossil fuel stocks that were removed. In which case, the divestor has lost nothing or may indeed do better after divesting.

The core argument that divestors should expect to lose out is just not accurate or reasonable.  More to come on how to put this idea into action…..

Personal Divestment From Fossil Fuels: What’s Your Goal?

In the run-up to the recent UN Climate  Summit, the idea of personal divestment from fossil fuels went from virtually total obscurity to receiving some coverage in the popular press. Unfortunately, many of the stories and blog posts missed key points — and others demonstrated muddled thinking and misleading conclusions including the idea that divestors will lose out financially (more on this in future posts).

In talking about the emerging discussion of personal divestment, an obvious place to start is the simple question: “Why should I make the effort to divest from fossil fuels?”

Here are four good reasons:

  • Divestment means not benefiting from the damage being caused by the fossil fuel industry. Every dollar earned from an investment in the fossil fuel industry represents a benefit derived from the continued growth of an industry that is the core driver of global warming and of growing hardship across the planet. Fossil fuels are also a focal point of on-going conflicts and wars  – carrying with them vast loss of life and displacing families by the hundreds of thousands.  (Coverage of the latest Pentagon assessment.)
  • Divestment sends a clear, unequivocal message. This is about numbers – not in dollars – but in people. If millions of people remove their financial interest in fossil fuel companies, that will send a very clear and very powerful message to governments, legislators, institutional investors, and the global business community. It will also signal a demand for change in other pivotal parts of the economy where consumption of fossil fuels can be reduced through innovation – enabling  new ways to generate energy and improving the energy efficiency of the things people use every day.
  • Divestment is a reminder. The more that each of us pays attention to all the ways in which energy plays into our lives (including our investments), the more likely we will move ourselves and our families toward generating and consuming energy in a sustainable and socially responsible way.
  • Divestment provides reinvestment opportunities. The clean energy economy is growing, and that growth is going to accelerate. New companies are being created every day, and established companies are quickly moving to create new products – including things like home energy networks, advanced energy storage systems, and smart efficient vehicles. That innovation will continue to ramp up, and it will last for decades. Whether your investment style is aggressive and “growth” oriented, or conservative and “income” oriented, the emerging new energy economy provides compelling reinvestment opportunities.

Whether these ideas, or others put forward by other divestment proponents, resonate for you, the most important thing is to realize that what you do with your money matters.  It matters a lot.

If you’re already a divestor, “thank you.”  If you haven’t already, head over to GoFossilFree and DivestInvest – and add your name to the lists of people who have become divestors.

If you’re not yet a divestor,  ignore the noise – the science is telling us that there is absolutely no time to waste.