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ESG Investing and Global Poverty: How Can We Help?

·15 min read
  • (1:00) - Haiti’s Struggle for Stability and Economic Progress

  • (11:30) - Development Challenges: Bangladesh in Focus

  • (23:40) - Can ESG Investing Preserve the Planet?

  • (33:30) - Attracting Direct Investors Via Econ Dev Zones

  • (41:30) - Episode Roundup: Podcast@Zacks.com

  • Mind Over Money Archive

 

Welcome back to Mind Over Money. I'm Kevin Cook, your field guide and story teller for the fascinating arena of behavioral economics.

I recently started exploring the world of ESG investing. This is the arena where Environment, Social, and Governance issues and policies are being measured for large public companies and then dictate investment decisions for those desiring to put money in "socially responsible" assets, and thereby do some good with their long-term dollars.

But I found a big surprise in the way that these ESG funds get designed and draw big investment capital. I shared those surprises in an initial exploratory video and article here last week...

ESG Investing: Does It Distort Markets?

In that exploration, I discussed how companies like Apple AAPL, Amazon AMZN, and Tesla TSLA gained such high ESG ratings, possibly at the expense of smaller companies with "greener" technologies and better treatment of workers and shareholders.

I also juxtaposed the relative ESG worth of an investment in Facebook FB vs. the iShares ESG Aware MSCI USA ETF ICLN.

I then took a deeper dive for Zacks Confidential (ZC) members where I tied in the fate of 3rd-world countries and the ensuing threats of sea-level rise caused by climate changes. Here's the link to that report, where I also suggested we could build our own ESG-type investment portfolios with more concentration in things we believed in besides Amazon and Facebook...

ESG Investing: Will It Preserve the Planet?

In that report, I expand on the unintended consequences of ESG and the unusual "Externalities, Incentives, and Feedback Loops" that have been created. If you don't have access to ZC, just email Ultimate@Zacks.com and tell 'em Cooker sent you to get a copy emailed to you.

A Planet From Centuries Ago

In the month of December not so long ago, an American journalist accidentally met an American doctor at an army outpost in rural Haiti. The small town of Mirebalais, a few hours north of Port-au-Prince on the central plateau, had been the scene for a grisly political assassination. And the victim was only the assistant mayor. But it was a shocking spotlight on the political struggles and lawlessness that had been rampant in Haiti for some time.

The journalist, Tracy Kidder, was there to report on the 20,000 US troops sent to reinstate the country's democratically elected government, and also, I quote, "to strip away power from the military junta that had deposed it and ruled with great cruelty for three years." Operation Uphold Democracy was a military intervention designed to remove the military regime installed by the 1991 Haitian coup d'état that overthrew the elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Kidder was talking to an Army Special Forces captain named Jon Carroll who had only 8 men to keep the peace among 150,000 Haitians, spread across about 1,000 sq mi of rural Haiti.

That's when the American doctor showed up at the outpost. A Harvard specialist in infectious disease, and recipient of a MacArthur "genius" grant early in his career, Dr. Paul Farmer worked eight months of the year in Haiti, without pay, helping the poor get some semblance of medical care in a place where many peasants had lost their land to a hydroelectric dam.

Farmer, who also had a Ph.D. in anthropology from Harvard, was still single and lived in a church rectory in a poor neighborhood of Boston while taking on the toughest infectious disease cases at Brigham and Women's Hospital. He co-founded the non-profit Partners In Health in his late 20s as a way to help the people of Haiti.

The journalist was now suddenly witness to a tense conversation between the 35-year old doctor and the 29-year old captain. The doctor heard that the captain and his men had held in custody the possible assassin who beheaded the assistant mayor of Mirebalais. One of the junta's strong men, a rural sheriff named Nerva Juste, was a "frightening figure" to most in the area.

But the Army captain let the thug go because they hadn't found any physical evidence or witnesses.

In the podcast, I read from Tracy Kidder's book Mountains Beyond Mountains about the exchange between the doctor and the captain because it seems like a microcosm of possibly hundreds of conversations that have occurred in 3rd-world countries when 1st-world countries intervene with troops to restore law and order and the people who spend their lives trying to help, like Dr. Farmer, know the problems as well as anyone and have to explain what really needs to be done.

Political and Economic Instability = Zero Law & Order

You might be surprised that the exchange between the daring doctor and the frustrated Army captain took place in December 1994.

Kidder caught up with Dr. Farmer in 1999 to follow him in Haiti and profile his work. That journalistic following and excellent writing eventually became the 2003 book. The title comes from a Haitian proverb, translated as "Beyond mountains there are mountains" which Kidder must have felt described the tireless mission of Paul Farmer.

A lot has happened in Haiti since then. Dr. Farmer built Partners in Health so strong that they were able to fund an impressive hospital in Mirebalais by 2012, even after the devastating earthquake of 2010.

But what hasn't changed is the lawlessness, violence, and epidemic of kidnappings for ransom. I just started reading Kidder's book this year and I probably wondered how much political and economic life had improved 25 years later. We got a brutal awakening that it hadn't improved much at all in April when five Catholic priests, two nuns and three laymen were kidnapped from a commune northeast of Port-au-Prince.

And then the case of five-year-old Olslina Janneus surfaced and sparked outrage. In their article for Reuters in April titled Descent into Hell: Kidnapping Explosion Terrorizes Haiti, Andre Paultre and Sarah Marsh wrote that “Olslina was snatched off the streets of the capital Port-au-Prince in late January as she was playing. The child's corpse, bearing signs of strangulation, turned up a week later, according to her mother, a peanut vendor who said she couldn't pay the $4,000 ransom. The mother's cries filled the airwaves as she spoke to a few local radio stations seeking help raising funds to cover funeral costs.”

She was then in hiding after receiving death threats from the same gang that killed her daughter. "I wasn't supposed to go to the radio to denounce what had happened," she told Reuters.

Paultre and Marsh provided these shocking statistics for the nation of 11 million: Haiti’s epidemic of kidnappings tripled in 2020 to 234 cases compared to 2019, according to official data compiled by the United Nations.

The Reuters authors added, “The real figures are likely much higher because many Haitians don't report abductions, fearing retribution from criminal gangs.”

A Nation That Can't Get Out of Its Own Way

Less than three months after the last big kidnapping story, the President of Haiti was assassinated on July 7 by a group of 28 that included foreign mercenaries.

As if the human misery from failed, corrupt political and economic institutions wasn't enough, now Haiti faces another natural disaster, with the death toll from Saturday's 7.2 magnitude earthquake, in the western peninsula, about to breach 1,500.

By the way, you can follow Sarah Marsh on Twitter to stay tuned to her coverage of the Caribbean @reuterssarah. She is based in Cuba and just published an article on the 16th titled “Haitians say 2010 quake lessons may have saved lives - but not enough.”

I've been trying to learn more about the persistent poverty of Haiti. And I was recently inspired by my colleague and Zacks resident economist John Blank who told us about an economic conference he participated in concerning the struggles and hopes of Bangladesh. The People's Republic of Bangladesh is the eighth-most populous country in the world, with a population exceeding 163 million, in an area of 150,000 square kilometers (that's about 57k sq mi -- smaller than Wisconsin), making it one of the most densely-human countries in the world.

John joined me for a 30-minute discussion on Mind Over Money to sort out the entrenched challenges of helping poor, developing countries help themselves.

Until you listen to our podcast, I want to share two more important perspectives. The first is just a quick bullet history of Haiti's odyssey from the first colony to achieve its independence in 1804 to being stuck among the 25 poorest of 195 nations, with a per capita GDP of just $750.

Fully 22 of those 25 countries are in Africa, and Haiti is the only in the western hemisphere. Here's a timeline of key events and trends that might explain why...

Columbus discovers Hispaniola and gold
Natives decimated, they import slaves from Bahamas
African slaves were trafficked by 1600
1630: Gold gone, Spaniards leave for glitter elsewhere
French begin arriving after 1650
1697: French controlled western third of Hispaniola
St. Domingue most profitable colony: sugar, coffee, cotton
1790: 450,000 African slaves were key to economy
Supplied 60% of world's coffee, but sugar biggest export
1791: Slave uprising led to 12-yr revolution
1804: Napoleon's brother led invasion, wiped-out by yellow fever
Revolution destroyed plantation system: fields burnt, slaves killed
Sugar exports in 1795 were just 1.2% of levels in 1789
Coffee exports in 1795 were just 2.8% of levels in 1789
Emerging ruling class of Mulattos (born of French & slave ancestry)
Former slaves were forced back on to plantations
Land reform in 1809 ended forced labor, gave inheritance rights
Inheriting land in ever smaller subdivisions eliminated plantations
Subsistence farming for a large peasantry essentially killed exports
As population grew, per capita land shrank from constant division
Soil erosion accelerated without large-scale crop rotation
Peasants were taxed as land owners who did not contribute to exports
Corruption accelerated amidst elites and soldiers vying for wealth
Civil war among factions was rampant, coups were frequent
1843-1915: 22 presidents with most overthrown in violent coups
70 years of civil war destroyed any hope of economic progress
1915: Haiti is bankrupt and deep in debt from multiple US loans
Woodrow Wilson invades and occupies Haiti to "ward off Germany"
US established law & order for 2 decades, building roads and schools
1934: US withdraws from Haiti, newly-trained police state prevails
Transportation and education systems virtually collapse
Civil wars died down slightly during police state era
1957: Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier became a brutal dictator
By his death in 1971 his personal wealth vs GDP: $150M/363M
Corrupt power inherited, his son "Baby Doc" took over
Baby Doc overthrown in 1986: personal wealth $1.6 billion
1991: Jean Bernard-Aristide begins a long tenure with coup upon coup
This turmoil in the early 1990s brought US military intervention again
And yet, no long-term solutions anymore than Afghanistan...

These 40 bullets were assembled primarily from an 18-minute YouTube video titled "The Economic Policies That Ruined Haiti" based on Mats Lundahl, Poverty in Haiti: Essays on Underdevelopment and Post-Disaster Prospects (New York and London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

From this "bullet history" you can further imagine the vision and bravery of Dr. Paul Farmer going into Haiti in the late 1980s as much as any Doctors Sans Borders missionary into Africa.

Climate and Poverty

A final word about climate since the IPCC just released a devastating report on the state of global warming and rising sea levels. Here's what I wrote in my ZC report that most people won't be talking about for a few more years...

My Prediction:Lunar Wobbles Will Stimulate Climate Concern... and Sustained Investments This Decade

On July 7, NASA released a report titled Study Projects a Surge in Coastal Flooding, Starting in 2030s. Here was the opening, written by Carol Rasmussen, with key quotes from NASA leaders and scientists...

In the mid-2030s, every U.S. coast will experience rapidly increasing high-tide floods, when a lunar cycle will amplify rising sea levels caused by climate change.

High-tide floods -- also called nuisance floods or sunny day floods -- are already a familiar problem in many cities on the U.S. Atlantic and Gulf coasts. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported a total of more than 600 such floods in 2019. Starting in the mid-2030s, however, the alignment of rising sea levels with a lunar cycle will cause coastal cities all around the U.S. to begin a decade of dramatic increases in flood numbers, according to the first study that takes into account all known oceanic and astronomical causes for floods.

Led by the members of the NASA Sea Level Change Science Team from the University of Hawaii, the new study shows that high tides will exceed known flooding thresholds around the country more often. What’s more, the floods will sometimes occur in clusters lasting a month or longer, depending on the positions of the Moon, Earth, and the Sun. When the Moon and Earth line up in specific ways with each other and the Sun, the resulting gravitational pull and the ocean’s corresponding response may leave city dwellers coping with floods every day or two.

"Low-lying areas near sea level are increasingly at risk and suffering due to the increased flooding, and it will only get worse," said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. "The combination of the Moon's gravitational pull, rising sea levels, and climate change will continue to exacerbate coastal flooding on our coastlines and across the world. NASA's Sea Level Change Team is providing crucial information so that we can plan, protect, and prevent damage to the environment and people's livelihoods affected by flooding."

"It's the accumulated effect over time that will have an impact," said Phil Thompson, an assistant professor at the University of Hawaii and the lead author of the new study, published this month in Nature Climate Change. Thompson pointed out that because high-tide floods involve a small amount of water compared to hurricane storm surges, there's a tendency to view them as a less significant problem overall. "But if it floods 10 or 15 times a month, a business can't keep operating with its parking lot under water. People lose their jobs because they can't get to work. Seeping cesspools become a public health issue."

This coming tidal turmoil will be the result of a perfectly normal cycle in the Moon's "wobble" and its orbit that takes 18.6 years to complete. As Rasmussen writes...

"What's new is how one of the wobble's effects on the Moon's gravitational pull -- the main cause of Earth’s tides -- will combine with rising sea levels resulting from the planet's warming. In half of the Moon's 18.6-year cycle, Earth's regular daily tides are suppressed: High tides are lower than normal, and low tides are higher than normal. In the other half of the cycle, tides are amplified: High tides get higher, and low tides get lower. Global sea level rise pushes high tides in only one direction – higher. So half of the 18.6-year lunar cycle counteracts the effect of sea level rise on high tides, and the other half increases the effect."

In short, a decade from now, coastal flooding will seem extremely frequent and brutal as rising sea levels combine with the next 18.6-year lunar cycle of higher tides.

The IPCC report has good information and conclusions. Sure, a 1-2 degree Celsius rise in average planetary temps doesn't seem that big a deal in the next century. But when you look at the evidence of sea level rise globally as arctic ice caps diminish -- and the fact that the rate of change is accelerating -- a 1-2 meter rise in oceans will devastate many thousands of miles of coastline where many millions of people live. The threat is as real for Florida as it is for Indonesia and Bangladesh. I don’t know that the Caribbean peoples will be phased at all given their constant trouncing by and endurance of tropical storms. But it certainly won't help them.

Bottom line on climate change and tidal turmoil: the perception of advanced climate change will seem more urgent in just another decade. The measure and cost of human impacts may still be under investigation, but the effects will seem very real nonetheless. And this could accelerate the move toward several environmentally-friendly industries like EVs, solar, clean energy technology, smart cities, and ADAS (advanced driver assistance systems) and autonomous vehicles (AVs). So let's assemble our own forward-looking portfolio that might benefit, starting with these 4+ ideas.

You can find those ideas and more by requesting my special ZC report from Ultimate@Zacks.com

Kevin Cook is a Senior Stock Strategist for Zacks Investment Research where he runs the TAZR Trader and Healthcare Innovators portfolios.
 


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