At our November 22nd, 2019 luncheon event, the subject of climate change arose rather unexpectedly as a recurring theme in speeches and table conversations. When you pair that with other changes in the business zeitgeist, such as BlackRock (the world’s largest asset manager) CEO Larry Fink’s annual shareholder letter stating “I believe we are on the edge of a fundamental reshaping of finance“ because of climate change, you know we’ve begun to enter new territory at the highest levels of corporate leadership.
How does this new business thinking align with the Caux Round Table for Moral Capitalism’s Principles for Business? What is the direction a responsible business should take? Is it all doom and gloom or are there potential opportunities to explore? What do you think?
Please join us at 9:00 am on Thursday, February 27 at the University Club of St. Paul to discuss what business can do to address this issue.
Registration and a light breakfast will begin at 8:30 am and the event at 9:00 am.
Cost to attend is $15 for Business and Public Policy Round Table members and $35 for non-members. Payment will be accepted at the door.
One hundred years ago this past January 17, Americans tried to elevate the moral quality of all citizens with the passage of a criminal law. They prohibited, on pain of punishment, the production and sale of alcohol. The social experiment lasted 13 years during which time much crime was committed through the illegal production and drinking of alcohol.
Alcohol was deemed to be a good without merit to the extent that individual judgment was not deemed sufficiently potent to cause consumers to give up drinking beer, wine and spirits and so force producers out of business for lack of customers. The state was given the responsibility of making such decisions for individuals.
The law was draconian and totalitarian, though passed with majority support. The ideology, more a theology, put forth to justify such an abridgement of individual freedom believed that God would bless and protect only a community of righteous people. Since the drinking of alcohol was deemed unrighteous, a nation of drinkers would not receive God’s blessings. To save American, therefore, in God’s eyes, people had to be made to be righteous.
The effort to impose morality by law is commonplace among our species. Most criminal laws are justified by a moral norm, say, thou shalt not kill. In Imperial China over the centuries, filial impiety was illegal. Under legalized Sharia rules in some countries, people are punished for, say, blasphemy. Chairman Mao made the unrighteousness of wrong thinking an offense leading to re-education under state supervision. China today uses coercion to re-educate Uighur Turks in Xinjiang province to “uplift” their beliefs and habits in line with government preferences.
But the human spirit is such that laws can’t instill morality. People are contumacious, which is to say that they, at times, choose immorality or consumption of un-meritorious goods and services over the socially proposed “right” way to live.
Today in the U.S., old laws against same-sex marriage, sodomy and use of marijuana have been repealed. The people’s will changes and so the law changes accordingly.
The new movement associated with Greta Thunberg on climate change or to impose a Green New Deal on the greedy, selfish and rich has overtones to me of using the state to impose morality. I doubt the efficacy of any such attempt.
Which leaves us with the problem of just how to minimize bad choices and encourage wisdom, prudence and mercy among our kind.
A recent commentary by Bagehot in the current Economist put a twist on post-modern capitalism. The comment was on “Megxit” as an expression of the current geist.
Bagehot wrote: “The Sussexes are doing something new. They are embracing capitalism in its rawest, most modern form: global rather than national, virtual rather than solid, driven by its ineluctable logic, constantly to produce new fads and fashions.”
And then noting that: “This type of capitalism is the inverse of feudalism. In feudal society, you are bound to your followers by mutual bonds of obligation. In 21st century capitalism, you accommodate followers in order to monetize them.”
Commoditizing royalty is just an extension of middle class consumerism and fits with Thorstein Veblen’s theory of conspicuous consumption, where what you buy is what you are. Marx’s disdain for the cash nexus which corrodes all moral relationships still seems apt.
A few days ago, Larry Fink, Founder, Chairman and CEO of BlackRock, sent his 2020 letter to corporate CEOs. Once again, his understanding of what success in modern capitalism requires aligns with our Principles for Business. His prescriptions also align with the recent statements on stakeholder capitalism from the Business Roundtable and World Economic Forum.
Mr. Fink said the goal of his management of funds entrusted to his company is to achieve “long term value.”
This year, he focused his concern on how climate change will impact the costs of capitalism and the valuation of firms. He wrote:
“Climate change has become a defining factor in companies’ long-term prospects. Implications of physical climate risk is deepening our understanding of how climate risk will impact both our physical world and the global system that finances economic growth.
Will cities, for example, be able to afford their infrastructure needs as climate risk reshapes the market for municipal bonds? What will happen to the 30-year mortgage – a key building block of finance – if lenders can’t estimate the impact of climate risk over such a long timeline and if there is no viable market for flood or fire insurance in impacted areas? What happens to inflation and in turn interest rates, if the cost of food climbs from drought and flooding? How can we model economic growth if emerging markets see their productivity decline due to extreme heat and other climate impacts?”
“From Europe to Australia, South America to China, Florida to Oregon, investors are asking how they should modify their portfolios. They are seeking to understand both the physical risks associated with climate change as well as the ways that climate policy will impact prices, costs and demand across the entire economy.”
“As we approach a period of significant capital reallocation, companies have a responsibility – and an economic imperative – to give shareholders a clear picture of their preparedness.”
“These questions are driving a profound reassessment of risk and asset values. And because capital markets pull future risk forward, we will see changes in capital allocation more quickly than we see changes to the climate itself. In the near future – and sooner than most anticipate – there will be a significant reallocation of capital.”
“Our investment conviction is that sustainability and climate-integrated portfolios can provide better risk-adjusted returns to investors.”
“In a letter to our clients today, BlackRock announced a number of initiatives to place sustainability at the center of our investment approach, including: making sustainability integral to portfolio construction and risk management; exiting investments that present a high sustainability-related risk, such as thermal coal producers; launching new investment products that screen fossil fuels; and strengthening our commitment to sustainability and transparency in our investment stewardship activities.”
“The importance of serving stakeholders and embracing purpose is becoming increasingly central to the way that companies understand their role in society. As I have written in past letters, a company cannot achieve long-term profits without embracing purpose and considering the needs of a broad range of stakeholders. A pharmaceutical company that hikes prices ruthlessly, a mining company that shortchanges safety, a bank that fails to respect its clients – these companies may maximize returns in the short-term. But, as we have seen again and again, these actions that damage society will catch up with a company and destroy shareholder value. By contrast, a strong sense of purpose and a commitment to stakeholders helps a company connect more deeply to its customers and adjust to the changing demands of society. Ultimately, purpose is the engine of long-term profitability.”
“Over time, companies and countries that do not respond to stakeholders and address sustainability risks will encounter growing skepticism from the markets and in turn, a higher cost of capital. Companies and countries that champion transparency and demonstrate their responsiveness to stakeholders, by contrast, will attract investment more effectively, including higher-quality, more patient capital.”
We are pleased to have Larry Fink’s analysis so supportive of our work.
In our recent San Francisco round table discussion on valuation, George Hara of Japan made a very telling presentation of what he calls “public interest” capitalism as a more sustainable and productive way of creating wealth for society. His presentation can be found here.
Mr. Hara’s approach to stakeholders is consistent with the Japanese ethical principle of Kyosei, which contributed to the development of our Principles for Business and so is in complete harmony with our advocacy of a moral capitalism.
Included in this issue is a piece on the 100th anniversary of the Treaty of Versailles by our editor, Rich Broderick. The rest of the edition is about the 25th anniversary of our Principles for Business, which were celebrated on November 22.
The December issue will be sent out mid-month and include the proceedings of our 2019 Global Dialogue, while January will be sent out at the end of the month.
On this first day of a new year and a new decade, I want to thank each one of you for your thoughtful support and your leadership in our global community.
The past few days have brought many reviews of what was notable – bad and good – during 2019 and the decade 2010 through 2019. With trends of events and the signs of our times not so auspicious, I looked askance and only briefly at most of that judgmental commentary.
What was stirring in the back of my mind was global warming and what we might do in that regard. Bad weather events seem to be increasing. There is certainty among some that industrial human civilization is the cause of our misfortune, but doubt among well-informed others that we are not entirely to blame.
Those most worried tend to blame capitalism on the usual grounds – responding to our materialism and our self-promoting ambitions, private enterprise promotes consumption. The system has been so successful in meeting human needs and wants that it has arranged for the production of energy on a vast scale. Today, our production of energy, especially electricity and in transportation, adds CO2 and other greenhouse gases to the planet’s atmosphere, trapping heat and raising temperatures. The increase in temperatures, we are told, makes for new weather patterns and accelerates dryness in certain climes, such as southeastern Australia yesterday and today. Wildfires there are immense and rainfall is down 40% from the norm.
My thoughts this New Year’s Day are: yes, industrial civilization has converted naturally sequestered carbon into CO2 in the atmosphere; that is a function of technology made possible by first research science with experimentation and then by using proven science in technology to advance human civilization; that to no longer use current technology for the production of electricity requires the invention of new technologies.
The current technologies for energy production, though largely created by capitalist societies, were also used by all socialist regimes to fuel their economics and make their electricity. The source of the problem is not a system, but humanity itself. As the American cartoon strip of the 1950s once notably said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
The historic role of capitalism was to jump start the industrial revolution and then, year on year, make the new form of civilization more and more technically advanced to the maximum possible scale. Markets are without question the most effective social dynamic for spreading technology and its capabilities to more and more people in every part of the world.
It is said from time to time that poor people in the U.S. today life longer and better lives than did kings and queens of yore.
So, global warming should be a call to use capitalism, not destroy it.
Market capitalism should be used to invent and commercialize new technologies to produce electricity in new ways which do not require the off-gassing of CO2.
One thing capitalism could do is invent ways of capturing CO2 and sequestering it or using its carbon in circular economy fashion so that it does not enter the atmosphere in gaseous form.
What about, then, a technological revolution in agriculture where trees and plants pull great amounts of CO2 from the air?
What about new technologies to store the energy produced from solar cells – using compressed air shifting from compression to decompression or giant weights on pulleys in mine shafts or pressurizing water so that when it is released, it drives a turbine to generate electricity or liquifying air by cooling so that when it warms, it expands to drive turbines?
Similarly, if we want our civilization to abandon cheap plastics which do not degrade, use capitalism to create and sell new technologies. BP, Dow, Coca-Cola, Danone and Unilever are investing in the chemical recycling of plastics to break them down for reuse. PureCycle Technologies has a new method of purifying polypropylene into a resin which can be used in making new products. A researcher at the University of Portsmouth has fashioned a bacterial enzyme which can avariciously digest polyethylene terephthalate plastics used for plastic bottles.
And what really has me puzzled is the widespread prejudice against the use of nuclear power. Is it certain that humanity can never invent a technology which will provide for the safe use of nuclear reactors or find secure storage for spent fuel or even come up with reusable sources of fission? I, myself, have a prejudice that the technology of the huge experimental ITER Tokamak fusion reactor in southern France will ever prove to be commercially viable or the plasma contained within magnetic fields will not someday burst its walls and melt everything it touches.
Yesterday, the CEO of Boeing, Dennis Muilenburg, was discharged from his office. His story is a modern corporate morality tale. A large, profitable and respected corporation but which did not adequately manage its risks in developing a new aircraft has paid for its oversights. And, more unusual, a senior officer of the company has been held personally responsible for management shortcomings.
As a result of its own errors, Boeing has decided to shut down production of its 737 Max jet. Some 400 already built aircraft are grounded. They cannot fly until safety concerns are resolved in favor of passengers who would fly in the planes.
Boeing’s decision to take action and not just do business as usual reflects stakeholder theory. Boeing now recognizes its need to care for a certain class of remote stakeholders – the passengers who are stakeholders of Boeing’s customers, the airlines. Boeing’s financial success in the long run depends on the safety and satisfaction of those passengers. Boeing’s responsibility to those passengers arises from its obligation to sell a safe product to its customers so that those customers can provide a safe service to their customers.
What began as a short-term fix to Boeing’s profitability concerns has now metastasized into a possible question of firm survival.
In order to save capital in bringing a new short haul aircraft to market to compete with Airbus, Boeing decided to upgrade the existing 737 design and not start from scratch in designing a new plane. Cash flow pressures caused by production delays in manufacturing the 787 Dreamliner drove the decision to save money in bringing the new 737 aircraft to market. But adding larger, more efficient engines to the standard 737 body and wings gave the new model, the 737 Max, excessive lift in flight, forcing the nose up and threatening a stall of the engines. Boeing’s response to this design flaw was to add software which would override the pilots and push the plane’s nose back down should such unwanted lift occur.
In two accidents, the software worked as intended, but inexperienced pilots tried to keep the plane level and both times the affected planes, responding to the software and not the pilots, nose-dived into fatal crashes.
Boeing’s decision to add large engines to the existing chassis was penny wise, but very pound foolish. The decision and the steps then taken to offset its shortcomings made for an escalation of corporate irresponsibility.
Boeing initially placed too much emphasis on financial metrics and not enough on what is actually a more strategic consideration – the ability of the company to deliver safe products. The company’s management lost sight of its core purpose. Profit is not the purpose of a company, but only the derivative, second-order consequence of performing its mission well.
Had Boeing back then built for itself a culture around stakeholders first and foremost, a culture which believed in the August statement of the Business Roundtable or the December Davos Manifesto 2020 of the World Economic Forum (or which managed according to our Principles for Business), the 737 Max most likely would not have been built and a better, safer aircraft would have been produced in its place.