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Ethical investing: Some lines shouldn’t be crossed

This combination photo made from file images provided by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration shows a cigarette warning label from the FDA.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration, File/AP

As much as I enjoyed my colleague David Berman's attempt to pass himself off as a modern-day Gordon Gekko, his recent column dissing ethical investing – "A feel-good way to lose money" – doesn't jibe with the person I sit next to in The Globe and Mail newsroom.

The David I know is a devoted husband and father, a lover of animals and – most relevant to this discussion – a reformed cigarette stock addict. That's right. The same guy who celebrates the joys of investing without a conscience used to own Altria Group and Philip Morris International – but he has since sold them.

He'll tell you it was for "valuation reasons," but I wonder if my haranguing and guilt-tripping may have also played a role. You see, I used to own Altria, too, but I sold my shares the day after I witnessed a smoker in his forties die from cardiac arrest.

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That disturbing event helped to clarify my ethical boundaries as an investor. Now, although I don't deliberately set out to buy companies that "respect the environment, treat employees well and make the world a better place," to use Mr. Berman's words, I do stay away from companies whose products or services I find objectionable .That means no cigarette makers, no weapons manufacturers and no gambling stocks, for example.

Why? Well, there are obvious reasons, and less obvious ones.

When a gambling addict pumps his last dollar into a slot machine before committing suicide, I don't want any of that money to wind up in my pocket, for then I would be complicit in what I consider to be an amoral enterprise. You may think gambling is a wonderful business, in which case you are free to invest in casino operators such as Wynn Resorts, MGM Resorts and Las Vegas Sands. But I've heard so many sad stories about compulsive gamblers – some of whom I have known personally – whose lives and families were destroyed that I'll decline, thanks.

Similarly, I don't want to share in the profits of a missile manufacturer whose products level villages and wipe out innocent civilians. Again, those who feel differently are free to stuff their portfolios with shares of Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and General Dynamics. These stocks have done quite well, by the way, returning an average of 8.6 per cent, including dividends, over the past 10 years, compared with 6.3 per cent for the S&P 500.

Some may argue that, by avoiding these and other companies, I am accomplishing precisely nothing. The CEOs and boards of directors of these companies don't know, and certainly don't care, about what is or isn't in my portfolio.

But here's the thing: I care deeply. I care about being a good example to my kids, who would be disappointed to find out daddy was making money from the very things he tells them are wrong or dangerous. "Kids, it's bad to smoke, but if OTHER people smoke, that's good, because our dividends go up!" What kind of message is that?

As a citizen, I also care about being able to exercise my democratic rights according to my conscience, not my wallet. If I owned a bunch of tobacco stocks and the government was considering measures to curb smoking, for example, I might object because the legislation would cause my shares to fall, even though preventing cancer and saving lives are clearly more important objectives.

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Similarly, if I owned weapons stocks, I might be more inclined to support an aggressive military response to solve a geopolitical conflict, instead of diplomacy.

No company is purely evil or purely virtuous, of course, and stocks that pass my ethical test might fail yours. McDonald's burgers and fries makes some people fat. Enbridge's pipelines occasionally leak. I own both of these companies; you might choose to avoid them.

That's your right as an investor – and, I would argue, your duty as a citizen and a human being.

READERS: Do ethics and morals play a role in your investing decisions? Do you avoid companies you find objectionable? Or do you focus solely on the bottom line? Fire back in the comments section.

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About the Author
Investment Reporter and Columnist

John Heinzl has been writing about business and investing since 1990. A native of Hamilton, he earned a master's degree from the University of Western Ontario's Graduate School of Journalism and completed the Canadian Securities Course with honours. More

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