In the past decade, we’ve witnessed countless cases of companies breaking the law and harming the environment in their frenetic quest for profits. The most recent high profile case is Volkswagen’s cheating in the emissions scandal^. Or was the toxic spill from a mine in Brazil^ worse? In case we’re undecided, perhaps the disastrous explosion in China^ can take the prize? All of these happened in the space of four months in 2015.
Now, just think about how many companies get away with extremely dangerous practices just because we haven’t caught them or because disaster hasn’t struck yet. I believe there is an explanation for these behaviors. And, as it is often the case, understanding the causes of an undesired behavior can give us clues about how we can change it.
A life-form analogy
Profit is the motivating force behind a company’s decisions. Following a natural tendency, the individuals that have teamed up to form a commercial entity share the desire for prosperity. This collaboration between individuals is similar to the association of more cells that constitute a multi-cellular organism. Companies can therefore be seen as a sort of life-form. The environment where many of the larger life-forms exist is called the stock market.
One of the most important changes that the stock market has seen in the past decades is the worrying drop in stock ownership time. Actually, this has outright plummeted in recent years. What this means is that companies have less time to prove themselves to investors and, often, this negatively impacts their long-term strategies.
The stock market is forcing corporations to make a profit as large and as soon as possible, lest investors simply pull the plug and move on to the next “growth opportunity”. This childish attitude on the part of the investing public forces many economic entities into a ruthless quest for profit. The alternative is death and, like any life-form, a company will do everything in its power to survive.
As with all ecosystems, there is a relationship of interdependence between companies and the stock market. While companies adapt to their environment, they also have the power to change that environment. The problem is that, for the time being, there’s a lot of greed and paranoia swirling inside this ecosystem.
The rules of the game
If the stock market influences the companies’ behavior, it stands to reason that skillful changes in the market could help companies to become friendlier. The main issue in the investment game is that most of the players are, to put it mildly, uneducated. Fewer investors than ever hold a company’s stock for more than a year. Like hyper-active children, most of them stumble into speculation, fattening the paychecks of brokers and stressing out everybody in the market.
With or without the stock market, companies are bound to sometimes play dirty due to their desire for profit. Unfortunately, the lack of proper investment principles on the part of the public becomes yet another reason to adopt bad policies and take massive risks.
A ruthless stock market may mean better profits for a while, but it’s us breathing in Volkswagen’s fumes; losing our planet under mountains of sludge; having our life blown to bits due to the fact that some manager decided to improve his bottom line by neglecting the security of a warehouse that contains 900 tons of ammonium nitrate. I’m referring, of course, to the three articles that are linked in the first paragraph.
We’ve built a jungle-like environment for these corporate life-forms, and we’re reaping the rewards. As companies are becoming more and more disconnected from humanity, our values and ideals become secondary – all bow in front of the throne of the quarterly financial statements. It’s survival of the fittest.
The most obvious way to break this vicious circle we’re in is, of course, education; not only financial education, but also psychological education. Financially, investors need to understand the concept of long-term investments. Psychologically, they need to be prepared to weather the ups and downs of the stock market and to hold onto their assets (provided that those assets are of a company that the investor truly cares about, has vetted and has faith in its long-term vision).
Certain changes of policy must be applied on the companies’ end as well. We should take back our governments from the greedy claws of lobbyists. Through the increased independence thus gained, we can facilitate the creation of a strict code of conduct for corporations, enforceable through larger fines and increased regulation.
Some will cry that this will stifle innovation. Perhaps it will, to a certain degree, which is why any such measures must be taken together with the companies and the people that brought their success. Let us not forget that these entities are comprised of our brothers and sisters.
Too many times have we, as a species, decided that we know best when we intervene in an ecosystem. We must heed the delicate balance of the stock market and the companies that inhabit it. Now is the time for dialogue, for finding a harmonious way to co-exist with these corporations, before they decide that they don’t have any need for humans. Even if we don’t manage to create true artificial intelligence, automated processes will continue to make humans obsolete.
Note 1: For those interested in the stock market, I can recommend one of the best books I’ve ever read on the subject of financial and psychological education in investment: Benjamin Graham’s “The Intelligent Investor”. Warren Buffett is one of the author’s students.
Note 2: I’ve entered the stock market roughly 8 months ago and so far, never sold a single stock. I’ve invested in two established, dividend-paying North-American semiconductor companies, one major software company and a promising (but high-risk) computer games studio in Sweden.