Invest for Your Pocketbook, Not Your Conscience

TheStreet.com

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- The horrific mass shooting at a public elementary school in Newton, Conn., in December thrust the thorny questions about runaway gun violence in America into the national spotlight. For investors, one of those questions is clear: what responsibility do we hold, if any, for the social ills caused by businesses in which we are stakeholders?

The California State Teachers' Retirement System, known as CalSTRS, signaled its answer after the Newton shooting by voting to sell off its holdings in gun manufacturing companies. That appears to have prompted private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management to sell off its stake in the Freedom Group, a company that manufactures the Bushmaster semiautomatic rifle that authorities say was one of the murder weapons used in Newton.

As the largest teachers' retirement fund in the U.S., CalSTRS is an important client for Cerberus. Its vote after the Newtown killings expressed the view that the manufacture and sale of firearms in the U.S. is one of the reasons why this country is experiencing so much gun violence and its members aren't comfortable profiting -- however indirectly -- from that business. And Cerberus reinforced the message with its sale.

For the record, I hold public schoolteachers in California and every other state in the highest esteem. They are the real heroes in my book, and in light of what occurred in Newton, I don't question the wisdom of CalSTRS' actions here. We must acknowledge, however, that these moves on the part of CalSTRS and Cerberus will probably have a negative effect on their investment returns, and that will ultimately leave the teachers in California with less in their pension fund.

This sacrifice may well be justified in this instance, but I'm generally uneasy with the notion that investors need to weigh the social impacts of the companies represented in their portfolio -- particularly when they're paying professionals to maximize their returns. I don't care for investment products that offer investors a "socially responsible" investment strategy.

After all, social responsibility -- when it comes to Corporate America -- is highly subjective. Are Apple's AAPL labor practices socially-responsible? What about its tax avoidance schemes?

What about the makers and sellers of junk foods? Or weapons of mass destruction? What about companies that cause environmental damage? If we buy into the science of global warming and all its implications, can we invest in companies related to the fossil fuel industry? What about the major financial institutions that required a federal bailout to avoid losses that would have wiped out the global financial system? Where does one draw the line?

It's hard enough for the average investor -- or the professional asset manager, for that matter -- to make the right decisions when evaluating the prospects for a financial security to deliver healthy returns. We ought not to raise the bar of success even further out of reach by requiring them to evaluate the social value to society of their investments as well.

When it comes to firearms, most U.S. investors have some stake in gun manufacturers like Smith & Wesson SWHC and Sturm, Ruger & Co. RGR , perhaps through a mutual fund held in their retirement account. Does that mean the people who form the majority in media polls showing support for more gun control are hypocrites?

I think not. The correct venue for addressing these issues is through public policy, advocacy, the democratic process and civic action. If investors anticipate that changes to public policy or public attitudes are going to hamper the financial performance of a company, then of course they should adjust their investment strategy to reflect that. But giving up the fruits of an investment in good business because it engages in activities you disagree with politically or morally is generally not wise.

When it comes to their investments, people should vote their pocketbooks and save their conscience for the ballot box or the checkout line. We invest our hard-earned savings to maximize our wealth, and in the U.S. today, wealth is power and freedom. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court has said that money is protected political speech under the Constitution, so if you have a social conscience, you'll be much more successful in furthering your agenda if you have more money with which to support your views.

If people with a social conscience put strict limits on their investment strategy in order to maintain social purity in their portfolio, their portfolios will suffer and their ability to support their views will too. At the same time, those with an opposing viewpoint are bound to prosper and get their way.

At the time of publication the author held shares of AAPL.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

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