Archive for the ‘pricing’ Category

Price Fixing: Not Just Business

Canada’s Competition Bureau has charged several candy companies with price-fixing. Nestle Canada, Mars Canada, and wholesale distributors network ITWAL stand accused of conspiring to manipulate the price of chocolate here in Canada. According to a press release from the Bureau, charges have also been laid against several individuals, including Robert Leonidas, former President of Nestlé Canada; Sandra Martinez, former President of Confectionery for Nestlé Canada; and David Glenn Stevens, President and CEO of ITWAL.

It’s interesting to note that price-fixing is one of the few pricing-related topics that comes up with any frequency in business ethics — one of the few that makes even a token appearance in any business ethics textbook. For the most part, pricing simply isn’t discussed as an ethical issue, probably because most companies are seen as having so little choice to exercise in the matter.

But price-fixing — attempts by erstwhile competitors to arrange not to compete on price — is a serious ethical as well as legal issue. It is also the subject of considerable cynicism. Many people seem to take for granted the idea that certain kinds of companies — gas companies come to mind, for instance — collude in an attempt to squeeze more money from consumers.

Another kind of cynic will see price fixing as not just common, but justified. After all, it’s just business, right? A manager’s job is to make a profit. And so if price-fixing is a route to profit, wouldn’t that just be part of a manager’s job?

But there is of course a good reason why price-fixing cannot be thought of as just part of doing business. And you don’t need to have a particularly warm-and-fuzzy view of business in order to see it.

But first it’s important to see that the reason why price-fixing is wrong is not just the bare fact that it hurts consumers. In market economies, there is no general prohibition against doing things that hurt other market participants. Markets are supposed to be win-win, but only in the big picture. There’s nothing unethical, for example, about developing a new and better product, one so good that it drives competitors out of business and hence leaves some people unemployed. Likewise, there’s nothing wrong with raising your prices in response to rising costs of production, even if that leaves some people unable to afford your product.

So the reason why price-fixing is illegal, and also unethical, is not that it hurts consumers. The key reason is that it violates one of the basic requirements for markets to work efficiently. In order for markets to function with anything approaching efficiency — never mind fairness — several conditions must obtain: for starters, there must be sufficient information in the hands of both buyer and seller, and the costs of transactions must be borne by the participants, rather than spilling over onto bystanders. But most important for the present case, markets can only be efficient if buyers have real options — that is, if no seller has the power to bully the market. Behaviour aimed at letting one seller, or a group of sellers, bully the market is contrary to the requirements of efficient markets.

And when markets don’t operate efficiently, they lose much of their fundamental ethical justification. So when companies engage in price-fixing, then, they’re not just acting unethically. They’re acting as bad capitalists.

Is Fare by Weight Fair?

Is it fair to charge airline passengers based in part on weight? That’s the plan recently announced by Samoa Air, and it’s a plan that is raising a few eyebrows.

Yes, it’s an ethical issue. But no, there’s no clear answer.

Interestingly, the mainstream media stories I’ve read about this thus far have made little mention of the obvious moral worry, namely discrimination. On the face of it, this looks like systemic discrimination against overweight and obese flyers. You and I could be in adjacent seats, booked seconds apart, but if you happen to be 20 pounds chubbier than me, you’ll pay more.

Whether being fat is sufficiently under personal control to make it a permissible basis for discrimination is hotly debated. But it’s worth noting that a weight-based policy also discriminates against those whose extra pounds are pure muscle. A heavyweight boxing champ would be about fifty pounds heavier than me, and would therefore pay more. The same goes for someone with the same build as me, who happens to be 4 inches taller. So if this is discrimination, it’s discrimination against those who are heavy, not those who are fat.

The other factor not mentioned in the few stories I’ve read about this is the environment. In aviation terms, weight translates into fuel, and more fuel burned means more environmental impact. So in charging by weight, an airline is basically levying a kind of carbon tax. And while how much you weigh isn’t fully within your control, the amount of luggage you bring with you is, and Samoa Air charges based on the total weight of you plus your luggage. Charging more on that total encourages people to carry less, and in principle might nudge frequent flyers, at least, to lose a few pounds. Such reductions eventually mean reductions in carbon emissions, and that’s a good thing. So even if there is a problematic form of discrimination going on here, there’s at least one factor on the other side of the moral equation.

Finally, it’s worth noting that to the extent that we’re worried about discrimination against bigger people (regardless of why they are big), being charged extra for their weight is far from the only price bigger people pay. Sufficiently large people also “pay,” for example, in the form of pain suffered by squeezing into airline seats not designed for people their size. That’s one of innumerable ways in which people who are outside the norm suffer in a world of products and services that are mass produced. But then, if the unusually large person pays a price for being squeezed into a seat designed for smaller folk, the person next to them pays a part of that price, too.

Of course, Samoa Air is a tiny airline, based in a tiny country. And commentators suggest that the company’s example is unlikely to be copied by major airlines. Indeed, it’s probably next to impossible: Samoa Air not only charges more to heavier passengers, it gives them more space — something likely impossible on standardly-configured passenger jets. But it is precisely for this reason that Samoa Air makes for a good case to use in ethics training and education. Before coming down on one side or the other, it’s important to tease out not just that there’s an ethical issue at all, but that there are in fact a range of ethical questions here.

Environmental Profit-and-Loss

It’s attractive, but very dangerous, to try to calculate a ‘bottom line’ for a firm’s social or environmental performance. Attractive, because key stakeholders are increasingly interested in knowing those kinds of details. But the main danger should be obvious: there’s just no way to add up the disparate factors that make up a firm’s social or environmental performance. How do you add together litres-of-water-used plus hectares-of-habitat-destroyed? On the social performance side, how do you sum up number-of-women-in-senior-management plus fair-trade-contracts signed?

The answer of course is that you cannot. You can’t add up things that are represented in different units of measure. That’s not to say that you can’t or shouldn’t track and report these various numbers; but it casts a dim light on the prospects of arriving at a global assessment of a firm’s social or economic performance.

Unless, of course, you simply put a dollar figure on everything, in which case the math becomes quite easy.

That’s what shoemaker Puma has done, with its new Environmental Profit & Loss Account (E P&L). They’ve attached a dollar value to their greenhouse gas Emissions and their water consumption, and compared that to the dollar value of the shoes they produce. And, interestingly, they’re publicizing the fact that, environmentally, they’re in the red. They extract more from the environment than they provide to consumers. Environmentally, they’re operating at a loss.

Now, in standard terms, any firm that uses more (in dollars) than it puts out (in dollars) is going to go out of business pretty quickly. But as Puma’s Jochen Zeitz points out, that’s not the case for many environmental inputs because so many environmental inputs are unpriced — that is, they cost a company nothing. Pollution, for example, when unregulated, costs a company nothing, and when under-regulated costs the company less than the cost such pollution imposes on others. So what Puma has done is put a dollar value on these things so that they can figure out what their environmental bottom line would be, if they actually had to pay for all they consume and all they emit.

There are two key problems with such attempts to calculate an environmental bottom line this way. One is practical: there just aren’t uncontroversial ways to put a dollar figure on every unpriced environmental input. Certainly there are people who can provide methods for doing so; but that doesn’t mean there’s a clear right way to do it.

The other problem is, well, philosophical. It’s not at all clear that everything we want to say about environmental ethics can be summed up in terms of economic impact. What’s the dollar value of the loss of a species? Is the value of beautiful scenery really captured by summing up how much each of us would be willing to pay to preserve it?

Still, Puma deserves credit for this rather striking bit of transparency. Even though the “E P&L” is a pretty incomplete picture, it nonetheless does tell us something about the company’s overall environmental impact, and its commitment to doing better.

(Thanks to Andrew Crane for pointing me to the Puma story.)

Ice Cream, OxyContin, and the 3 Big Questions of Business Ethics

Sometimes it takes a really minor story to illuminate the basic issues at stake in business ethics. Like, for instance, a recent story about a guy selling both ice cream and serious street drugs out of his New York city ice cream truck. Here’s the story, by Jonathan Allen for Reuters: Ice cream vendor gets prison for selling drugs with treats.

That story highlights nicely one of three really fundamental questions that must be asked by anyone seriously interested in business ethics.

The three big questions of business ethics are as follows:

  • 1) What may I do, and what may I not do, in attempting to make a living?
  • 2) In what ways do my obligations change when I act on behalf of others, including employers, shareholders, etc.?
  • 3) What should I do when I see inappropriate business practices that don’t directly affect me?

Each of these “big” questions can of course be subdivided into an entire category of questions. Question 1, for instance, implies a whole range of more specific questions — not just questions about the basic ethics of commerce (Can I lie, cheat or steal? No. Can I exaggerate, or put important details in fine print? Not so clear!) but also questions about Corporate Social Responsibility and corporate philanthropy. The second question covers all the issues that crop up once businesses are staffed by more than a single individual. And the third concerns third-party critique, the work of consumer advocates, and government regulation.

The news story cited above illustrates beautifully Question 1, the question of what you can and cannot do to make a dollar. Louis Scala was, after all, just trying to make a living. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. The catch was the method he chose.

Scala chose to sell two products. One was soft-serve ice cream, a dessert treat sold primarily to kids, who just can’t get enough of the stuff. The other was OxyContin, a highly-addictive narcotic, sold primarily to adults who just can’t get enough of the stuff. Selling the former is considered a reputable way to make a living. Selling the latter (out of the back of a truck!) is what earned Mr. Scala three and a half years in jail. But then, neither of those products is uncontroversial. Ice cream isn’t exactly healthfood, and child obesity rates are on the rise. But on the other hand, it’s a harmless treat, when consumed in moderation. But on the other hand, it’s not always consumed in moderation. But on the other hand…you get the point.

Figuring out what constitutes a legitimate way to make a living — taking into consideration all reasonable details — is far from straightforward. But realizing that the questions we want to ask about business ethics all fall under one or another of the fundamental headings listed above is, I think, a useful bit of mental bookkeeping, which is increasingly important in a world where criticisms, and defences, of business practices are becoming more and more diverse.

Facebook, It’s Not OK to Suck

Facebook users should keep complaining, complaining bitterly, complaining in every possible forum.

Oddly, for all the controversy over Facebook implementing yet another round of changes to its layout and user experience, that controversy has almost been drowned out by arguments over whether it’s appropriate for users to complain about Facebook. Yes, the burning debate among users is over whether there should be a burning debate among users.

Much of the force of the “stop complaining!” camp is rooted in the claim that, hey, after all, it’s a free service and no one’s forcing you to use it anyway. But contrary to what you might have heard, Facebook isn’t optional, and it isn’t free. Let me explain.

First, let’s talk price. Lots of people have already pointed out that while Facebook doesn’t charge users for an account, that doesn’t mean it’s free. The service is supported by advertising, just like TV shows have been since the days of early soap operas. So you are “paying” to use Facebook — you’re paying with your eyeballs. You’re paying with attention, however fleeting, to those ads along the side of the page. And — the more worrying fact — you’re paying with your privacy, as Facebook uses what seems to be increasingly-ornate ways to gather information about you, your preferences, and your web-surfing habits. As the saying goes, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Facebook isn’t an exception.

Think of it this way: Facebook is like a gas-station bathroom. It might be “free”, but that doesn’t mean that quality doesn’t matter. In both cases, the “free” service being offered is there as an inducement. In the gas station’s case, it’s an inducement to stop there for gas (and increasingly for snacks, magazines, etc.). In Facebook’s case, being able to post stuff for “free” for your friends to see is an inducement to look at those ads, and to share your web-surfing habits with that advertising agency. So they have reason to want you to be satisfied, and you have every right to demand excellence in return for your attention.

Second, is Facebook optional? Whether a product is optional or not matters, ethically, because when a product is truly optional, customers can simply exit the relationship, either buying the product from someone else or not buying it at all. Given the option to exit, the dispute between producer and consumer evaporates as the two simply agree to disagree and go their separate ways. (The classic source on this is Albert O. Hirschman’s book, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty.) But Facebook isn’t optional. Ok, I know. Strictly speaking yes it’s optional. But then, so is email, or having a telephone, or having a car. Optional but, for many of us, functionally essential. In this regard, Facebook is a victim of its own success. It has no real competition, and the service is one that many of us cannot simply walk away from. In essence, Facebook has gained a virtual monopoly on what has become part of our social infrastructure. Complaining about Facebook is no sillier than complaining about the state of your local roads or the consistency of your supply of electricity.

So if you don’t like Facebook’s new layout, or if you don’t like Facebook’s approach to privacy, do not hesitate to complain. You’re well within your rights. And if Facebook listens, you might just help make the on-line world a better place.

Post-Hurricane-Irene Business Ethics Roundup

Natural disasters put all kinds of pressures on the behaviour of otherwise-civilized people, and they almost always raise business ethics issues. Here are a few little issues that popped up over the weekend, while hurricane Irene was wreaking havoc on the east coast of North America.

First, a bit of price gouging: Brooklyn’s posh Hotel Le Bleu squeezed Irene shelter seekers for $999 per room

A trendy Brooklyn hotel generated a flood of cash from Irene, jacking up the price of a room to $999 a night on Saturday as the powerful storm zeroed in on New York, employees said….

As I’ve written before, raising prices during a disaster isn’t always unethical — sometimes higher prices provide an incentive for others to rush to send resources to disaster-stricken areas, and sometimes higher prices give citizens an incentive to avoid overusing scarce resources. I’m pretty sure neither of those rationales applies here. [Update: see the hotel's reaction, in the Comments section below.]

The flip-side of the price-gouging story is this one: “Generators, batteries big sellers ahead of Irene”. You can learn a lot about the ethics of pricing by contemplating why hardwares stores generally didn’t jack up their prices. (Yeah, there are anti-price-gouging laws in many jurisdictions, but that’s likely not enough to explain why prices stay stable.) Note that this story mentions that “…an Ace Hardware in Nags Head, N.C., the store sold out of portable generators.” The fact that the store sold out pretty certainly means that some customers went away disappointed. And it’s entirely possible that some of the disappointed needed the generators a lot more than the people who actually got them. Should Ace have found some way of asking customers how badly they needed a generator, or should they have raised the price a bit to make sure that people who bought one really needed one?

Next, from Katy Burne, blogging for the WSJ (just before the storm), “Hurricane Irene Whips Up Trading In ‘Catastrophe Bonds’”. Here’s the technical bit:

Catastrophe bonds, known in the insurance industry as “cat” bonds, are structured securities that allow reinsurers to transfer their own risks to capital-market investors. Investors in cat bonds earn regular payments in exchange for providing coverage on a predetermined range of natural disasters for a set period of time.

Note the similarity here to the controversial practice of short-selling stocks. In shorting stocks in a particular company, a trader is betting that the value of that stock is going to go down — that is, betting that the company will do poorly. Many people find that distasteful. Some have even called it unpatriotic. In buying (or in shorting) ‘cat bonds,’ an investor is wagering on human misery. But note that that’s what insurance companies do, too, and none of us wants to be without those.

Next, there have been a few stories about companies helping out by either donating goods or by fundraising for disaster relief (see here and here, for small examples). Many more such stories have no doubt gone unreported. It’s also been noted that some companies are going to benefit from the storm, especially if (like Home Depot) they sell goods that will be needed for reconstruction. Is there anything wrong with that? (See here for a previous blog entry on profiting from disaster relief.)

Finally, the key business-ethics stories to watch, over the next few days, are about insurance claims. Insurance firms are happy that losses look to be lower than expected. But stories will inevitably pop up about consumers having difficulty getting insurers to pay up. This will, again inevitably, be portrayed as heartless. And in some cases it may well be heartless. In other cases, we’ll simply see that people generally fail to understand the economics — and the ethics — of insurance.

Shoe Shine Ethics, Again

shoe-shineTwo months ago I blogged about the Ethics of Shoe-Shine Pricing, based on my experience at an airport shoe-shine stand. I was particularly interested in the relationship between base price and tipping behaviour. I noted that pricing decisions by businesses might well have a substantial impact on customers’ tipping behaviour, by making it more or less convenient, for example, simply to “round up” to the nearest dollar (or currency denomination). Case in point: I was charged $6.75 to have my shoes shined, and gave the guy a ten. It occurred to me that, had the price been $8.00 instead, I would have given the guy the same ten, but the resulting tip would have been substantially smaller.

Well, I’m back at the airport, and just had my shoes shined. And guess what: the price has gone up. I was charged $8.00, and, yes, as predicted I gave the guy a ten-dollar bill and told him to keep the change. In other words, rather than tipping on any principled basis, I did what was convenient. I suspect the vast majority of customers do the same.

Whoever decided to raise the price from $6.75 to $8.00 may not have thought about a couple of secondary effects of that decision (not that consciousness of these effects would necessarily have altered the decision). One secondary effect is that he or she reduced employees’ tips by $1.25 per shine (assuming most people tip roughly the way I do). That’s a big cut, big enough that it probably ought not to be made thoughtlessly.

The other effect of this pricing decision is of course the effect on the customer. The obvious effect is that a shoe-shine now puts a slightly larger dent in the customer’s wallet. But then, an airport shoe-shine is pretty clearly a luxury good (if a very minor one), and so it’s pretty easy to avoid the price change simply by forgoing the service. But less obviously, the customer now finds it slightly less easy to engage in a minor act of beneficence, namely the act of overtipping. Note that, back when the price was $6.75, my $10 payment amounted to nearly a 50% tip, which is crazy when compared to the 15-20% that most people aim at in response to good service at a restaurant. But shoe-shine customers who are anything like me are still going to do the easy thing (i.e., give the guy $10), even after the change in price. My evidence here is purely anecdotal, but I suspect that people generally value being handed the opportunity to engage in small, reasonably pain-free acts of kindness or generosity. I must admit that, back when I was charged just $6.75, I felt kind of good about having given the guy a “big” tip (percentage-wise) and it made me feel good about the whole shoe-shine experience. Today, the $8 shoe-shine cost me exactly the same (after tip), and the service was just as good, but I went away without that warm-and-fuzzy feeling, having given the guy a “mere” 25% tip.

It’s interesting to note that the ethics of pricing is virtually virgin territory, from an academic point of view. There’s practically nothing on the topic in the scholarly literature on business ethics, aside from a few journal articles on price gouging, a some stuff on price fixing in textbooks, and of course a bit of work on the pricing of executive talent. I’ve always assumed that the paucity of work on the topic has something to do with the fact that pricing is seldom seen (from the outside, at least) as a choice. In theory, at least, companies charge “what the market will bear,” and that tends to mean a number dictated by a combination of consumer demand and the availability of competing products. But for many products, pricing is in fact a choice, and I think the ethics of pricing is far more complex and interesting than most people realize.

Gas Prices, Criticism, and Ethics

There’s more than a little unseemly about the pervasiveness of complaints about the high price of gas. Of course, you can’t really expect anybody really to like high gas prices, at least from a consumer perspective. But disliking something is not the same thing as getting irate and pointing fingers.

Here in Toronto, gasoline prices hit an all-time high this past week. Talk radio jocks and editorialists were all over it. In the US, politicians are railing against oil companies. Of course, this is not the first time that high gas prices have spurred a populist pile-on. It’s a predictable phenomenon in response to perceived price-gouging. (And lets not forget the not-unrelated but misguided calls to boycott BP in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon blowout last year.)

But whining about the price of gas just might be unethical — or at least unseemly — in a couple of circumstances.

One such circumstance is if you really, really ought to know better. And lots of people, including most people editorializing for major newspapers, ought to know better. In fact, most of us ought to know better. We all ought to understand, as citizens, voters, and consumers, the basic interrelationship between supply and demand, and the factors that make price-gouging likely or unlikely, as well as something about how hard it is to anticipate the effects of the price controls some people favour. But I realize that that’s asking for a quantum leap in economic and financial literacy. (Ever notice that no one ever compliments gas companies or stations when their prices happen to be relatively low? This suggests that people think the low price is the right price, a the notion of a “right” price for a commodity is utterly at odds with any reasonably sophisticated view of economics.)

Another problem is when the gas-price complaints are aimed at gas stations themselves. Most of those are actually independently-owned small businesses, with precious little control over the price of gas. And as James Cowan recently wrote for Canadian Business, high gas prices don’t mean big profits for station owners. Picking on small businesses to express displeasure at the effects of fluctuations in worldwide commodity prices is thoroughly shameful.

Finally, I’ve heard surprisingly few people, in all this, bother to challenge the notion that high gas prices are a bad thing in the first place. What happened to everyone’s zeal for going green? Economics 101 says that when prices go up, demand goes down. And we all want demand for gas (i.e., consumption of gas) to go down, right? Now demand for gas, in particular, doesn’t change much when prices go up, but it does go down a bit. So if we want gas consumption to go down (as most of us agree would generally be a good thing) then we should be happy, in our less-selfish moments, to see gas prices going up. Now, admittedly, high gas prices don’t affect everyone equally. But nor do the high price of anything else. One of the few sane voices in all this is The Economist. A recent editorial there pointed out that the most effective thing that governments can do to take the sting out of high gas prices isn’t to do anything directly about those prices, but rather to insist on higher fuel-efficiency standards for cars. This suggests that the bad guys in this story, if you need to point fingers, are more likely to be found among the big auto makers than among the big oil companies. But even that is pretty lame. Car companies only make the cars that people show a preference for buying. Like it or not, not every unhappy story has a villain.

Business Ethics and the Crisis in Japan

A couple of people have asked me recently about what business ethics issues arise in the wake of the Japanese earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis. As far as I’ve seen, the media hasn’t paid much attention to business ethics issues, or even on businesses at all, in their coverage of the disaster(s). But certainly there are a number of relevant issues within which appropriate business behaviour is going to be a significant question. Here are a few suggestion of areas in which the study of business ethics might be relevant:

1) The nuclear crisis. Although their role has not been front-and-centre (unlike, for example, the BP oil spill), at least a couple of companies have played a significant role in the crisis at the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant. The reactors there were designed by General Electric, who surely face questions about the adequacy of that design and the relevant safeguards. And the plant is owned by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO). TEPCO has been criticized for its handling of the disaster, including its notable lack of transparency. TEPCO also faces a difficult set of questions with regard to the ongoing risks to employees, including those who have vowed “to die if necessary” in order to protect the public from further risk. (For more information, see the wikipedia page about the Fukushima I nuclear accidents.)

2) Disaster relief. There is clearly an opportunity for many companies, both Japanese and foreign, to participate in the disaster relief effort. Whether they have an obligation to do so (i.e., a true corporate social responsibility) is an interesting question, as is the question of the terms on which they should participate. I’ve blogged before about the essential role that credit card companies play in disaster relief by facilitating donations; do credit card companies (and other companies) have an obligation to help out on a not-for-profit basis, or is it OK to make a profit in such situations?

3) Pricing. The topic of price-gouging often arises during and after a natural disaster, though I haven’t heard any reports of this in the wake of the earthquake in Japan. It’s a difficult ethical question. On one hand, companies that engage in true price gouging — preying on the vulnerable in a truly cynical and opportunistic way — are rightly singled out for moral criticism. On the other hand, prices naturally go up in the wake of disaster: picture the additional costs and risks that any company is going to face in trying to get their product into an area affected by an earthquake, a tsunami, and/or a nuclear meltdown.

4) Investment and trade. A major part of Japan’s recovery will depend on investment, both investment by foreign companies in Japan and investment by Japanese companies in the stricken areas of that country. This is clearly less of a concern than it would be in a less-economically developed country (like Haiti, for instance), but it’s still relevant. So the question arises: do companies have an obligation to help Japan rebuild by investing? If a company is, for example, deciding whether to build a new factory in either Japan or another country, should that decision be influenced by the desire to help Japan rebuild?

5) Consumer behaviour. Just as companies have to decide whether to invest in disaster-stricken nations or regions, so do consumers. Do you, as an individual, have any obligation to “buy Japanese,” in order to help rebuild the Japanese economy? Does it matter that Japan is a modern industrialized nation, as opposed to a developing one?

Financial Speculation & Ethics

Friday I gave a talk as part of a terrific workshop on the ethics and law of financial speculation, held at the University of Montreal. (The event was co-sponsored by U of M’s Centre for Business Law and the Centre for Research in Ethics.)

As I mentioned in a posting last week, financial speculation is the subject of some controversy. Indeed, there has been plenty of discussion of regulating various forms of speculation, though whether that is possible and how best to do so is also subject to controversy.

Very roughly, “speculation” can be thought of as involving any of a range of forms of relatively high-risk investment. In a way, it is the exact opposite of a slow, safe investment such as buying government savings bonds. But it’s also different from pure gambling: in most forms of gambling, you have no reasonable expectation of making money. You might well win big, and it’s nice if you do, but really all you can expect is to have fun playing the game. Speculation on the other hand involves taking what are hopefully well-informed risks, in the hopes of exceptional returns.

Here are 3 stereotypical examples of speculation:

  • Imagine that a wheat farmer is considering whether to plant wheat an additional, previously-unplanted, field. Imagine that the farmer’s total cost for doing so would be $5/bushel of wheat. If the current price of wheat is hovering right around the $5 mark, that turns planting into a risky proposition. The risk of a loss might make planting just too unattractive. Now imagine a speculator comes along and is willing to take that risk, so she offers the farmer $5.25/bushel for the wheat that has not even been planted yet. With the promise of a modest-but-guaranteed profit in hand, the farmer plants the crop. If, at harvest time, the price of wheat has gone up to $6/bushel, the speculator stands to make a tidy profit. If the price has gone down to $4/bushel, the speculator suffers a loss — but she’s in the business of speculating precisely because she has the resources to absorb such losses, and will just hope that her next investment pays off better.
  • Imagine someone whose job is to invest in futures contracts on commodities such as oil or gold. A futures contract is basically a commitment to buy a specified quantity of something, at a specified price, at some date in the future. The example above involved a kind of futures contract, except in that example the investor actually did intend to buy and take possession of the farmer’s wheat once harvested. But in the vast majority of futures trading, nothing but paper ever changes hands. If a trader finds that other traders have been paying above-market prices for oil futures, she might decide that it’s worth buying some herself, in the hope that the price of oil will continue to go up because of this demand. Other traders are likely to notice, and imitate, her behaviour, with a net effect of pushing oil prices up. None of this needs to reflect any underlying change in consumer demand for oil, or any change in oil’s supply. It can all happen as the result of a combination of hunches about the future of oil and a dose of herd behaviour.
  • Imagine I have a dim view of the future prospects of a company, say BP, so I decide to “short” (sell short) shares in BP. What I do is I borrow some shares in BP, say an amount that would be worth $1,000 at today’s prices. I then sell those borrowed shares. If all goes as I expect it will, the price of BP shares may drop — let’s imagine it drops 25%. I can then buy enough shares in BP, at the reduced price ($750 total), to “return” the shares to the person I originally borrowed them from. And I get to pocket the $250 difference (minus any expenses). Basically, this form of speculation — short selling — is unlike standard investments in that it involves betting that a company’s shares will go down, rather than up, in value.

There is disagreement among experts regarding just what the net effect of speculation (or indeed of particular kinds of speculation) is likely to be. Some think that speculation, as a kind of artificial demand, has the tendency to increase prices and perhaps even to result in “bubbles” that eventually burst, with tragic results. But the evidence is unclear. In particular cases, it can be very difficult to tell whether a) speculation caused the inflationary bubble, or whether b) some underlying inflationary trend spurred speculation, or whether c) it was a bit of both. And even if it’s clear that some forms of speculation sometimes have such effects, it’s not clear a) that speculation has negative effects often enough to warrant intrusive regulations, or b) that regulators will be able to single out and regulate the most worrisome forms of speculation without stomping out the useful forms.

And defenders of speculation do point out that at least some forms of speculation have beneficial effects. Speculators of the sort described in my first example above take on risk that others are unable to bear, and hence allow productive activity to take place that otherwise might not. They also add “liquidity” to markets by increasing the number of willing buyers and sellers. Speculators, through their investments, can also bring information into the market and thus render it more efficient. When one or more speculators takes a special interest in a given commodity, it is likely to be on account of some special insight or analysis that suggests that there will be an increased need for that commodity in the future. In other words, in the best cases at least, expert financial speculation isn’t idle speculation — it is well-informed, and informative.

Of course, it’s also worth pointing out that pretty much any technology or technique can be used for good or for evil. The techniques of financial speculation can be used to attempt to manipulate markets or to defraud consumers. Whether the dangers of such uses outweigh other considerations is up for debate.

But from the point of view of ethics, it’s worth at least considering exercising caution in some areas. Perhaps speculators with a conscience, for example, should be particularly risk-averse when it comes to commodities that have a very direct impact on people’s wellbeing, such as food. Recently Andrew Oxlade, writing for the financial website “ThisIsMoney”, asked Is it ethical to invest in food prices? As Oxlade notes, at least some critics believe that recent surges in food commodity prices have at least something to do with the activities of traders engaging in speculative trades.

Oxlade offers this advice to investors:

To sleep easier at night and still get exposure to this area, you may want to consider investing in farming rather than in food prices via derivatives. In fact, your money may even do some good.

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p.s. thanks once again to the organizers of the workshop mentioned above, namely professors Peter Dietsch and Stéphane Rousseau.
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Note also: If you’re interested in this topic from a professional or academic point of view, then this book should be on your bookshelf: Finance Ethics: Critical Issues in Theory and Practice, edited by John Boatright.

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