The Investment Niche Where Psychos Need Not Apply

Last spring, an article in CFA Magazine made a disturbing proclamation: One in 10 financial-services professionals is literally a psychopath. Most disconcerting of all was the idea that psychopathic traits make perfect sense for your typical financial type or Wall Street trader.

One of the worst misunderstandings in the investing world has been the one that has circulated under the surface of civilized conversation: that goodness, empathy, and even ethical behavior are weaknesses to be overcome when it comes to making money. However, there is an area of investing where those traits are actually rewarded.

Lock your doors (and hold on to your wallet)
CFA Magazine's "The Financial Psychopath Next Door" by Sherree DeCovny (subscription required) ignited a firestorm of discussion that, hey, might have proved that American Psycho was serious social commentary and Christian Bale should have gotten an Oscar for his performance in the movie version.

Not only is the one-in-10 figure alarming, but so is what Ronald Schouten pointed out on Harvard Business Review's blog network: There are even more people running around out there who aren't full-blown, clinically diagnosable psychos, but "almost psychopaths."

Granted, some psychiatric professionals strongly refuted the claim that psychopaths cluster on Wall Street, pointing out flaws in the interpretation of the original study, which simply surveyed about 200 corporate professionals in management-development programs.

Still, it's not hard to understand how people might make the leap, given what we know about traditional behavior on Wall Street. McCovny underlined that a lust for risk, plus intelligence and charm, matched up with a complete absence of empathy, an inability to give a flying blankety-blank what other people think, and a talent for smooth lying and manipulating, would probably enable a person to do pretty well on the trading floor and in deal-making venues.

As Michael Lewis wrote in his Wall Street expose Liar's Poker: "The place was governed by the simple understanding that the unbridled pursuit of perceived self-interest was healthy. Eat or be eaten."

Fortunately, there is an area of investment that more investors should perceive as a better road for all of us. Socially responsible investing doesn't encourage disregard for ethics or ignoring any consideration that goes beyond simple self-interest; it actually brings the greater good into the equation.

Weighing corporate social intelligence
Socially responsible investing includes everything from green investing to screening for positive corporate behavior to simply screening out the worst offenders. Although in many cases seeking out financial outperformance and social good is part of the SRI imperative, the investment process most certainly doesn't condone leaving one's empathy and conscience at the door.

That said, SRI is one of the most philosophically challenging areas of investing.

Tobacco giant Altria (NYSE: MO  ) ranks pretty high on The CRO's annual list of Best Corporate Citizens, coming in at No. 15 in 2012. Many people would put tobacco and alcohol companies and their unhealthy, addictive products among the least socially responsible of stock ideas. However, Altria's philanthropic cred is extremely high, for one thing.

Organizations like The CRO may outline great corporate citizens that not everybody might agree with, but there is a point where it boots some major companies off its list. It "red-carded" and then removed ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM  ) for being found liable for contaminating New York groundwater in 2009. It also flagged and then booted Allergan (NYSE: AGN  ) after quite a wrinkle: pleading guilty to misbranding Botox in late 2010.

Some may see absolutely no ethical problem with investing in financial companies, but SRI mutual fund Appleseed Fund has dubbed too-big-to-fail banks unethical, blocking stocks like Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS  ) and Bank of America (NYSE: BAC  ) from its investment dollars. Still, last February The Wall Street Journal reported that most SRI funds had no united front or standard policy on the issue, even though the Occupy Wall Street movement highlighted such firms' antisocial bent.

Portfolios weighted toward empathy
Socially responsible investing may sound like adding too many layers of complexity, but saying "no way" to a cold view of investing is a less risky way to allocate capital. After all, companies that become known for poor citizenship can pay in many different ways over the long term, whether these involve boycotts, legal costs, or government intervention. In the long run, the most expedient path to short-term profits isn't necessarily the right one.

Paying attention to cold, hard numbers, crunching financial ratios, and weighing a socially responsible critical dive into what businesses do and how they make their profits is a great foundation for truly understanding the stocks one owns.

Let's ditch idealizing the supposedly mad moneymaking skills of traders who shut down all ethical considerations to turn a quick buck. The truth is, over the long haul, ethical investing holds its own as an outperforming investment method.

Obviously, not all investors have a united front on what defines a responsible investment; we could argue about big banks' corporate responsibility for ages. If you're thinking about investing in Bank of America, our analysts have researched an in-depth premium report; get your copy by clicking here.

Check back at Fool.com for more of Alyce Lomax's columns on environmental, social, and governance issues.

Alyce Lomax owns no shares of any of the companies mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of ExxonMobil and Bank of America. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Goldman Sachs. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


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  • Report this Comment On September 28, 2012, at 11:51 AM, Darwood11 wrote:

    Hi Alyce, great article.

    It raises for me a broader concern and this is the issue of financial advisers and even stock brokers being accountable as fiduciaries.

    If one in ten financial services professionals is basically a predator, then the question I have to ask is this. Why aren't these people held responsible to a higher standard when they provide "for profit advice?"

    While this is going on, most States also acknowledge that the "financial crimes against the elderly" are rising and may be an epidemic. In other words, these "financial psychopaths" have targeted the elderly who have decreasing cognitive ability and are vulnerable. It is unconscionable that most politicians in Congress avoid the topic beyond lip-service, or refuse to act to provide pro-active prevention.

    That to me is a real crime.

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