I was at a talk the other night by an investment company in which the head of research spent a lot of time extolling the virtues of ‘high quality companies’ and suggesting in the strongest possible terms (by naming it at least three times, for its steady growth, its popularity in times of recession, and its admirable gifts in job creation) that we should buy into one in particular. And the name of this wonderful opportunity was Wal-Mart.
Quite rightly, the first question he got after finishing was whether he ever looked at the social record of companies he recommended. After some shuffling of his papers he admitted that no, he didn’t look at that at all. You folks, he said, pay me to find you companies that will give you good returns, not to examine how they behave. Shades of Gordon Gekko.
This chap had also spent some time explaining how lessons had been learned from the Depression so we couldn’t possibly end up back there.
But what have we learned really, if we’re being encouraged to put our money down into the same environment of amorality that caused the collapse of companies like Lehman and Bernard Madoff? If we are told it’s ok to overlook how companies behave, and never mind how they earn their profits, as long as they continue to pay us our investment income, then are we not responsible for kicking morality further into the gutter?
And holding Wal-Mart up as an investor’s paradigm? A company that can create all those McJobs precisely because it’s beaten its competitors into the dirt through use of sweatshops, tax dodges and keeping its pay scale right along the poverty line. And whose business strategy is to kill off small, independent and family-owned stores; the very stores that hire people who know their products and can provide intelligent advice when selling them. A company that wants to bite off the biggest chunk of our shopping dollar by driving down quality standards – nurturing public hunger for cheap, disposable goods; exporting our manufacturing industries to the cheapest supplier – and through opportunistic expansion into areas like organic foods.
We will surely get the kind of world we deserve, if this is the kind of company we choose to support with our investment money. And, it goes without saying, with our shopping dollar.