Frankenstorms, Black Swans, and Other Investing Risks

Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change.

-- Mary Shelley, Frankenstein 

Last year this time, the mid-Atlantic was confronted by a perfect (and perfectly horrifying) storm some dubbed Frankenstorm. The name captured Halloween timing, but symbolism points to Victor Frankenstein's piecemeal and unnatural monster, a creation who wreaked havoc and tragedy.

One year later, we should absolutely remember the victims of this terrible event. However, we should also soberly ponder the big picture in unprecedented, extreme weather events and other climactic disruptions.

The impact has continued to burden more people than we realize. We should also remember that we shouldn't ignore harbingers of events that many consider impossible -- and may later claim they were unforeseen. Some companies are already acknowledging the truth.

Passing the (recovery) bucks to taxpayers
This week, sustainability advocacy group Ceres recently released a report, "Inaction on Climate Change: The Cost to Taxpayers," revealing an important factor Americans and investors should consider in an already difficult economy.

According to Ceres President Mindy Lubber, extreme weather events in 2012 left taxpayers a major bill: $300 for each American, adding up to $100 billion. The funds filtered into recovery efforts in crop, flood, wildfire, and other disaster relief efforts .

Still, many public and private entities are missing the plot. Although there's growing awareness that increasing disasters cost money and even endanger future resources, positive movement still lags.

Public funds that end up decreasing corporate liabilities is a problem, not a profit builder investors should take for granted and even expect. The idea that somebody else should clean up the mess has been too prevalent. The term "moral hazard" means that any kind of bailout encourages logical, if not ethical, economic reasons to act irresponsibly.

Ceres pointed out that only half of destructive and costly weather events' damages are currently covered by private insurance, for example. That's just one example of the public absorbing a huge portion of the tab and too many corporations shirking costly responsibility.

First movers
Some companies are already voluntarily making moves in the right direction. Last month, CDP (formerly known as The Carbon Disclosure Project) released a report showing the business strengths and profitable climate change initiatives from incorporation action into businesses.

Many investors aren't yet convinced that eco-friendly attributes are business positives to track, but financial good sense along with good corporate citizenship are increasingly proving out as strong business building.

More companies are directing capital expenditures into reducing emissions -- $50 billion has been invested on an annual basis . That hasn't been a mistake.

The CDP's S&P 500 companies that responded reported $4 billion in monetary savings: $1.2 billion in product innovations, $991 million in energy efficiency, and $708 million in retooling transportation fleets and usage .

According to this rundown, 20 companies account for 85% ($3.5 billion) in savings reported, as well as 90% of carbon emissions reductions. Not surprisingly, these are major companies: Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT  ) , Ameren (NYSE: AEE  ) , Waste Management (NYSE: WM  ) , and Exelon (NYSE: EXC  ) are on that top 20 list .

Here's a handful of interesting initiatives announced within the last month or two.

Wal-Mart's social reputation isn't stellar, but it's an environmental first mover. In early October, the megabargain retailer said its Great Value line will include inexpensive energy-saving LED light bulbs, accessible to a larger, budget-minded customer base .

About two weeks ago, Waste Management revealed a "landfill gas to energy" initiative to deliver natural gas to Ameren's Illinois pipelines. This clean natural gas will fuel fleet trucks and other equipment using this energy source .

In the press release, Waste Management's vice president of renewable energy stated an interesting and specific detail that speaks of green transformation of an established business: "While we are well known as a waste and recycling company, we're also an energy company."

In a seasonal press release for Halloween, Exelon subsidiary PECO encouraged customers to use its online tool called PECO Smart Home E-Audit, to help combat "vampire" energy drains that most consumers are unaware of in their homes and appliances.

Investing in companies with "quality premiums"
If only 20 companies make up significant moves here, there's a lot more progress to be made -- as well as a lot of business growth, savings, and better returns from companies that react.

Skeptical investors can also check out a report from Sustainable Insight Capital Management and CDP: "Linking Climate Engagement to Financial Performance: An Investor's Perspective." It points out superior returns from companies with sustainable environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors.

The report found that companies exhibiting climate engagement signal a "quality premium" of 5.2% higher return on equity, 18.1% cash flow stability, and 1.8% more dividend growth. These companies are not priced higher than peers due to these factors, making them even better values for investors .

Remember: There are black swans
Both the public and private sectors have to move in concrete directions. Frankenstorm was unforeseen, nailing unprepared parts of the East Coast with destruction no one expected. How is it possible the City that Never Sleeps would shut down, for example? What about parts of the Jersey Shore, where citizens are still struggling with the aftermath ? Yet it did happen.

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein published far before its time. The science fiction classic outlined the tragic and often deadly unexpected results of arrogance, hubris, and playing a god in perfect control.

A measured, wise, and positive course of action on climate change is a far better way to deal with lessons that should have been learned long ago.

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

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  • Report this Comment On November 06, 2013, at 9:18 AM, borneofan wrote:

    Calvin Coolidge refused to indulge in federal disaster aid. If FEMA and the pork barrel indulgence of national disaster were repealed, then the taxpayers would not subsidize unsustainable coastal development.

    The costs of socializing property ownership are higher than they appear, and not just due to moral hazard.

    Where do I send my $300 to end the war on weather?

  • Report this Comment On November 07, 2013, at 4:05 PM, SkepikI wrote:

    Regardless of your belief in human induced climate changes (I am a skeptic, imagine that...) improving efficiency is its own reward, so I am interested in managements that can RELIABLY EXECUTE promised efficiency improvements. I am less interested in managements that arbitrarily engage in lame projects that don't pay off, even if they get some ephemeral "sustainability cred" for it.

    The exception that I can make for the lame projects is if it translates in to more and better business for them because they have correctly analyzed their CUSTOMERS response to them. After all, I really can't argue that some lame sustainability project is somehow more lame than TV commercials aimed at idiots....

    Show me the results and I will ignore the source's mistaken science and lack of serious error analysis. No results to accompany the flavor of the month social myth? Take a hike....

  • Report this Comment On November 07, 2013, at 4:12 PM, SkepikI wrote:

    Delivery of Landfill gas to clean gas pipelines is fraught with risks. It better be A LOT cleaner than when it comes out of the landfill - there are numerous landfill gas power projects in the US. Nearly all of them have trouble with the odd impurities in the landfill gas taken out without any real treatment.

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