- AMERICAN INSTITUTE FOR ECONOMIC RESEARCH - Robert E. Wright - MAY 16, 2022 -
It’s fun to see memes suggesting that Elon Musk should buy Alphabet, Amazon, Coca Cola, Disney, Meta, Netflix, YouTube, and so forth, but of course he cannot afford all that. But we can. By we, I mean value investors. Musk’s purchase of Twitter has validated my critiques (see here, here, here, and here) of ESG-based investment (environment, social, governance), which despite its weak financial record currently constitutes about $2.7 trillion globally. And it has demonstrated the potential power of anti-ESG funds, which I have called Friedman Funds, after Milton.
An anti-ESG Friedman Fund would, firstly, short companies overvalued due to capricious or government-dictated ESG metrics and buy companies undervalued due to said metrics, and, secondly, buy controlling interests in potentially valuable companies that are going broke, or at least earning less than they could, because they went woke, as Musk and his investors recently did.
The goal of the fund would be to earn above average risk-adjusted returns, period.
The effect of the fund would be to increase financial market efficiency and economic productivity by punishing deviations from rational valuations and rational business decision-making processes.
The first approach is widely called value investing. Although understood in general terms by investors since at least the 18th century, Benjamin Graham popularized and quantified the approach in the first half of the 20th century. The gist is to buy stocks when their market price falls below their rational value and to sell or short them when their market price exceeds their rational value. Value investors tend to buy and hold, ignoring daily price gyrations so long as the market price remains near rational value, the price toward which the stock will gravitate in anything approaching an efficient market.
A stock’s price might deviate somewhat from its rational value because investors like or hate the company because of what it makes, or how it makes it, or who runs it, or something its executives say or do. In other words, the shares of presumably “good” companies can gain from a “halo effect,” while shares of allegedly “bad” companies sometimes languish due to a “devil’s horn effect.” Some investors overestimate the importance of those various soft factors on other investors, causing them to value the stock higher (halo) or lower (horn) than the rational investor does.
ESG funds and ESG ratings – given regulatory teeth by the Securities and Exchange Commission directly, or indirectly through bond rating agencies – could produce significant halo/horn effects that value investors could exploit for their own gain while reducing financial system fragility in the process. Because ESG represents politicized and largely subjective concepts, ESG ratings can diverge significantly from reality. Unless checked by value investors, they could easily lead to bubbles (too much investment in certain assets, like dotcoms or mortgage-backed securities) or anti-bubbles (too little investment in certain assets, like fossil fuels).
ESG bubbles could be particularly costly because the overinvestment might go into companies that actually hurt the environment or the downtrodden. As scholars like Ozzie Zehner, author of Green Illusions, have been arguing, and as Michael Moore tried to explain to fellow progressives in his 2019 documentary Planet of the Humans, very few “green” technologies provide net environmental benefits because they are inefficient, rely on tax subsidies, need rare earth metals to work, have major environmental side effects, and so forth. Similarly, as recently pointed out by Harvard Business Review, ESG ratings are not correlated with better environmental or labor regulatory compliance!
Moreover, many social justice initiatives at major corporations, like many government programs, aid Democrat politicians but do little or nothing to help American Indians, blacks, Hispanics, women, or the poor. Once exposed, ESG darlings could become dogs overnight, hurting investors and potentially sparking a financial crisis.
The second approach that a Friedman Fund could take is typically frowned upon. According to the so-called Wall Street Rule, investors who do not like management decisions should sell instead of raising a stink. It’s a good rule of thumb because corporate management is usually well-entrenched. Most stockholder proposals fail because managers dominate corporate elections due to their control of the proxy mechanism and employee-owned shares.
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