At least that was the fantasy headline I hoped would appear on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. But the one I feared would startle me awake one morning was, “Anti-GMO Activist Outed: Investment Portfolio Contains Monsanto Stock!” Imagine my chagrin when a couple of days after Christmas with not much else to do, I took a look at what my financial manager had selected for my modest retirement fund. “Holy #&*+!” I exclaimed, “I own 4.3 shares of Monsanto, Inc!”
If I didn’t act quickly, my activist cred would be forever sullied. Had I been a member of the French Resistance, I would have been executed for consorting with the enemy. Though our food movement tends to be somewhat kinder, I could definitely kiss those speaking invitations at Slow Food dinners goodbye as well as my reserved parking spot at our farmers’ market.
I called my Hartford, Connecticut-based financial manager immediately. Being it was the holidays, he answered his cell phone from a chairlift suspended 30 feet above an Aspen ski slope. Before he could say, “How was your Christmas, Mark?” I screamed, “Jesus Christ, Benson (the name has been changed to protect his firm from lawsuits by thousands of outraged food activists), didn’t I give you a long list of stocks I did not want to invest in, and wasn’t Monsanto at the top of the list? And don’t you remember that my op-ed strongly endorsing Connecticut’s GMO-labeling legislation (the first passed in the nation) ran in the Hartford Courant?” He said that he indeed remembered my list, but noted that it was so restrictive that it left little more to invest in than Mr. Cuddle Puppy, a free-range pet store chain that hasn’t paid a dividend in six years. He apologized and said he’d take care of the matter as soon as he got back to his timeshare.
How did this unseemly event come to pass? Over the course of 40 years as a community food organizer, my salary eventually soared to the mid-five figure range. This allowed me to squirrel away enough money to open a modest retirement account and begin to entertain hopes of passing away my final years in a state of blissful ease at Organic Acres: Righteous Living for Active Seniors. Their marketing brochure was seductive touting their sumptuous local, organic meals, fair trade denture cream, and GMO-free incontinence pads. Compared to Big Tony’s Discount Senior Village, whose “semi-sunny quads are cleaned once a week whether they need it or not,” Organic Acres looked pretty enticing.
But how would I ever save enough to pay Organic Acres entry fee and maintenance costs that required a lifetime among the one percent? It was then that I decided that I needed the services of a professional financial manager. While I was all for investing my funds locally, the prospect of earning .0001 percent at the Smiley Face Community Savings Bank was frankly underwhelming. My money would grow faster if I planted one hundred dollar bills along the drip tape in my garden.
When my funds were augmented with a portion of my deceased father’s estate, I assumed that investment managers would be crawling all over me for my business. Think again. With my total funds available for investment considerably south of $500,000, all the potential managers I interviewed ended our conversation with a smug grin. For anything under half-a-mill, I was chastised, they would charge a management fee that might, in a boom year, keep my net earnings even with inflation. And when I added, in what I thought was a tone of humility that I was plagued with a nagging social conscience, and therefore my investments must adhere to socially responsible investment (SRI) criteria, the prospective advisor would suddenly pick up his cell phone. Funny I thought, I never heard it ring.
It was at this point that I turned to Benson, an old friend and former activist himself who, after setting his own eyes on Organic Acres, made a career switch to financial management. Since he was just starting out, Benson was hustling for clients, and though I was on the puny end of whom he wanted, he consented to take me on.
At about the same time that I entrusted Benson with a portion of my retirement funds, I began a more earnest investigation into the concept of SRIs. It was an emerging though murky sub-field that offered returns that were often below market, but earned the shareholder a greater sense of moral propriety. As the 1960s baby boomers started looking for places to put their money to avoid spending their golden years at Big Tony’s, more investment firms began luring this demographic with portfolios that mimicked the marketing prose of the SRI concept, but rarely its content. Like so-called “natural food,” many of their claims proved meaningless and often descended into financial “green washing.”
But my search yielded one firm that appeared relatively free of cant – the Calvert Social Investment Fund. It presented a portfolio that, while not pure by any means, possessed few if any of the gun-toting, cigarette smoking desperadoes that make up much of the American corporate experience. And even more impressive, Calvert had a respectable rate of return, though slightly below major indexes such as the Russell 1000.
It’s most recent annual report (September 30, 2013) leads off with this statement: “Calvert is the leading investment management firm using sustainability as a platform to create value for investors.” Besides listing their more conventional holdings – Wells Fargo, United Parcel Service, AT&T – they proudly featured community investments like WIN-WIN (Women Investing in Women) and Shangri-La Farms, a China-based company that trains minorities to be beekeepers.
Perhaps most shocking to me was the reflection by D. Wayne Silby, Calvert’s Founding Chair who observed that we may be approaching a period that some economists call the Great Stagnation, but that “perhaps these will be the times that remind us that true wealth is really in our relationships, our communities, and our spiritual practices. Maybe a more local focus, from the foods we eat to the ecological health of our immediate environment, will bring us sustenance and richness….” Whoa! I don’t know what drugs this financial guru is on but I sure want some.
Though a considerable wad of my cash ended up in the Calvert Fund, I’m not trying to promote their services or adorn them with garlands of gold. Their portfolio, for instance, also contains such purveyors of fat, sugar, and mischief as McDonalds and PepsiCo. According to Calvert’s annual report, the justification for keeping company with such companies was that as a shareholder, Calvert had the opportunity to engage them on “a range of corporate responsibility and sustainability issues.” In the case of McDonalds this has supposedly led to improvements in “its supply chain labor policies and practices, diversifying its menu options, and disclosing their nutritional content.”
In the case of PepsiCo, Calvert claims that “PepsiCo management credited our recommendations with influencing their decision to strengthen their human rights policy framework.” While I’m certain that a team of investigators could take exception with these statements, another team of ethicists would be equally consumed with the question of whether our responsibility is to disconnect from those who do some harm, or to stand in their midst with the hope of changing their behavior.
One certainty is that I am at least free of Monsanto whose midst as well as drift I would just as soon avoid. My chewing out of Benson should hopefully keep him more alert to the tendency of far too many money managers to allow the evildoers to get their noses under our tents. But the larger question of personal responsibility remains, and will likely plague me until my ashes are mixed into the compost heap. If I don’t plan as responsibly as I can for my future, the burden will fall on my children or whatever remains of our nation’s civil structure to care for me. If I simply put my money in the bank, low interest rates and normal inflation will gradually erode my savings.
If I was only thinking of my future – which would sacrifice responsibility for other concerns like the environment – I could invest in Monsanto which achieved record annual earnings growth of 20 percent over each of the last three years ($14 billion in net sales in 2013 alone). Calvert at least offers the compromise of reasonable returns derived from a portfolio scrubbed of the worst of the worst, as well as a plan for engaging those portions of corporate America that are morally suspect. To invest with the highest degree of social purity, in other words, may be as irresponsible as investing in those with the fattest payouts.
In the meantime I will keep a watchful eye on my portfolio, struggle with life’s contradictions, and keep punching back at the dark beast who rules the night. And maybe with some luck I can work an angle with Big Tony for a double room instead of a quad and apply what’s left of my organizing skills to rally the residents for more local and organic food.