Investment analyst downgrades stocks over moral, ethical concerns
Catholic News Service photo
Oblate Father Seamus Finn, a member of the board of the New York-based Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility in his Washington office.
Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON — It's not exactly the man-bites-dog story, but rather a man-bites-hand-that-feeds-him story.
An investment analyst has downgraded the stocks of three of America's highest-profile companies -- Apple, Amazon.com and Philip Morris -- to "sell" status over the moral and ethical issues of their business practices.
While nonprofit groups have urged divestment of certain companies' stocks for decades because of their corporate conduct, a Catholic priest who tracks company behavior said he could not recall a for-profit analyst ever doing the same before.
"It's the first time that I have seen it, yeah. I don't recall it being put out there this clearly in this fashion previously, as far as I know," said Father Seamus Finn, a member of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate and director of his order's justice, peace and integrity of creation initiative.
Father Finn also is vice chair of the board of directors of the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility, which analyzes corporate behavior, engages companies on potential chances in their business practices and advises religious bodies on their investment protocols.
The analyst is Ronnie Moas, the founder and director of research for Standpoint Research.
He issued an email Jan. 5 to his clients advising them to sell their Apple, Amazon and Philip Morris stock. In the email, reported Jan. 6 by CNBC, Moas acknowledged it was controversial and upset many.
In the email, Moas said he had held in his feelings for "too long" and took to his computer after being unable to sleep despite having taken a sleeping pill.
He blasted the conduct of each of the companies whose stock he recommended selling.
"Philip Morris has the black lungs and blood of 500,000,000 people on their hands," Moas charged. Philip Morris USA, a wholly owned subsidiary of Altria Group, is best known for its tobacco brands Marlboro, Chesterfield, L&M, Players, Benson & Hedges, Merit, Skoal, Copenhagen and Players.
It was 50 years ago, on Jan. 11, 1964, that the surgeon general's report was issued linking smoking to lung cancer, chronic bronchitis, emphysema, heart disease, early mortality and low birth-weight children of smoking pregnant women.
"You would find very few people who hold Philip Morris" stock, Father Finn told Catholic News Service. "We have a 'screen' on tobacco," meaning that religious groups don't want to be associated with companies that sell tobacco.
Moas castigated Apple in his email. "For Apple Computers to pay their workers $2 an hour while they have $150 billion in the bank is nothing short of obscene. I heard all of the arguments in their defense and they make no sense to me," he said. Apple has come under criticism in recent years for the low wages and poor living conditions given by Apple's contractors to the Chinese workers assembling Apple devices.
"We're engaging Apple on a couple of different things," Father Finn said. "We're not demonstrating or showing much progress. We'll reconsider" if talks with Apple break down, he noted, "but we're nowhere near that kind of judgment."
Moas took Amazon founder Jeff Bezos to task personally in his criticism of the company. "I recently read something about Amazon and how much pressure is on their employees ... and at the same time Jeff Bezos with his obscene net worth of $27 billion was on his yacht in the Galapagos Islands. $27 billion and this man is not treating his workers fairly? It boggles the mind."
Amazon had come under fire for speeding up the delivery process, putting more pressure on employees working without air conditioning in the Amazon warehouses. Some of Amazon's German workforce went on strike just before Christmas over wages and working conditions.
"My take on this is that it's very welcome from my perspective," Father Finn told CNS about Moas' analysis. "It's what we've been doing for a long time," said the priest, but Moas' action "elevates it to the point where it deserves some attention."
The argument becomes "how much do we attach to" Moas' analysis, Father Finn said. "Pension funds may not be interested in the moral and ethical criteria.
"Maybe this is some of the Pope Francis effect as well," Father Finn added. "From his capitalism quotes out there, (the pope says) there's an ethical way to do this, an ethical and moral way to help folks."
The larger question becomes whether Moas becomes a pariah for his comments, or whether those commends represent a crack in the dam.
"I like to think there's been some growing sensitivity in this area across these groups," Father Finn said. "Clearly what Pope Francis said on investments and inequality has been resonating in the larger community."