Last week, I decided it was high time to revisit how we view socially responsible investing and the identification of vice or "sin" stocks. Instead of targeting companies and industries that provide products that customers may abuse, perhaps we should target those in which products abuse their customers.
The topic seemed worthy of a two-part examination. Let's take a look at some other areas where people should be far more cognizant of the risks of vice in investing.
The bad seed
Several reader comments on last week's column pointed to a company I had failed to mention (and for many, it may go without saying). Monsanto (NYSE: MON ) has quite a reputation for alienating and scaring the public, and its controversial reputation could be the basis of an article all by its lonesome. Plug "Monsanto" into Google and the fifth suggested search term is "Monsanto evil."
Monsanto provides genetically modified agricultural products that many critics contend haven't been adequately studied before becoming major components of the American food supply. Just about all U.S. corn and soybeans now have foreign genes. These genes allow soybeans to resist a common herbicide, and engineer corn to produce its own insecticide.
Given the vast amount of products we consume that include corn or soy as crucial ingredients, that's an awful lot of genetically modified stuff Americans are eating by the shopping cart-loads. Consumers' best protection if they want to avoid such foods is to buy organic, which by definition excludes genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.
The FDA has long contended that genetic modification doesn't materially change the foods in question, but if that's the line the agency is selling, many people aren't buying it.
For example, take Monsanto's strong political ties. Michael Taylor, a former Monsanto executive who had a policy-making role regarding Monsanto's genetically engineered bovine growth hormone for dairy cows, received the role of deputy commissioner for food safety at the FDA from the Obama administration. A recent petition circulated asking the White House to cease FDA ties to Monsanto, and described Taylor as a "fox watching the hen house."
Labeling mandates for genetically modified ingredients have been unsuccessful so far, despite the fact that in 2010, 9 out of 10 American consumers polled by Thomson Reuters and NPR said they'd prefer labeling. Labeling, after all, would give American consumers the information and the opportunity to make the informed choice they deserve in any transaction.
Monsanto also retains a long-standing reputation for bullying farmers. For example, Monsanto has battled against farmers' age-old practice of saving seeds and has enforced its patents even against farmers whose crops were contaminated with Monsanto's genes by the natural (and insidious) process of cross-pollination. A 75-year-old Indiana farmer is taking Monsanto all the way to the Supreme Court as we speak in a case due to be heard within the next several weeks.
Critics of GMO critics argue that Monsanto could be considered very socially responsible, since its technologies increase crop yields and result in the use of fewer pesticides and other chemicals (although recent signs of growing insect resistance and "superweeds" cropping up related to some of Monsanto's solutions may change that story). Meanwhile, the company is working on new ways to address scary future issues like water scarcity in farming. Monsanto's website even describes itself as "A Sustainable Agriculture Company."
There's a lot that leaves a bad taste in one's mouth about Monsanto's business practices and political connections, and the fight to keep transparency out and GMOs in the American food supply. Monsanto hasn't garnered a very positive perception from the public at large, despite its efforts to convince people that it's environmentally responsible and a transparent, ethical company.
Interestingly, though, other companies also play around with genetic modification and have experienced far less public backlash. Take Dow Agrosciences, a subsidiary of Dow Chemical (NYSE: DOW ) , which also works on genetically modified agricultural products. Dow Chemical is also tied to India's Bhopal disaster, a tragedy that fell off the public's radar but is a terrible piece of corporate history nonetheless, with negative effects lingering in the area to this day.
False sense of security
Health insurance companies: There's nothing like the "comfort" of paying for insurance to shield you from the cost of health problems and even catastrophes, then realizing that when the worst happens, your insurance company tries to weasel out of paying up for the services. (Didn't you read the fine print?) That's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to health insurance companies' unpleasant ways.
In August, a ReviveHealth survey of 400 hospital executive respondents (35% of all hospitals) voted WellPoint (NYSE: WLP ) the worst health insurance company when it comes to issues like reputation, contract negotiation tactics, and claims processing. Nonprofit Blue Cross scored poorly for payment rates, and UnitedHealth (NYSE: UNH ) got dinged on timely claims payments and claim denials, among other things. However, UnitedHealth's score has been improving over years' time. (In case you're curious, Cigna (NYSE: CI ) had the best reputation.)
It may be nice to have the "security" of insurance, but not when that promise ends up being false advertising.
Last but not least, health insurance companies end up shielding true pricing from consumers, basically distorting the marketplace. For example, a $15 co-pay for a doctor's appointment may feel close to "free," but guess what: It's not. Although many people tend to see insurance as a failure of the market, it generally has a pretty distorting effect on the market since customers have no idea what the real costs are, which has done a big part in helping health care costs skyrocket over decades' time.
Screening for goodness
Thanks a lot, Monsanto; I'm out of room. Next week, I plan two more follow-ups based on more reader comments about industries to consider as the new face of vice, as well as a more positive piece.
Despite all this talk of evil, sin, vice, and abuse, socially responsible investors today are actually fortunate. There are more positive companies than ever to choose from, so investors can screen for good instead of against evil. More consumers are aware that good companies deserve their business, too.
Good is where the future growth is. Wickedness is the worst risk.
What do you think of companies like Monsanto and the health insurance industry? Add your thoughts in the comments box below, or nominate your own candidates for vice industries most of us don't even think of.
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