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.

p.s. thanks once again to the organizers of the workshop mentioned above, namely professors Peter Dietsch and Stéphane Rousseau.
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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