Return on Investment

November 29, 2015 No Comments »
Return on Investment

By Christine Venzon

When it comes to financial planning, I would love to see my assets in the toilet. The composting toilet, to be specific. Maybe I should explain.

Like most people, I try to squirrel away something for my future. Even now my savings are quietly earning interest in a brokerage account and similar investment “vehicles.” For example, the IRA that’s going to finance my 17th-century villa in Tuscany is a mutual fund, a package of stocks in profitable sectors like pharmaceuticals, information technology, and something called consumer discretionary (which I think means caramel lattes).

What’s more, this fund is a sustainable, responsible investment. It’s assembled with an eye to social and environmental impacts as well as profit. Companies that pay workers a living wage and help improve their local communities get preference. Employers who dump sewage in waterways and use child labor don’t stand a chance.

Yet a company may be too idealist to qualify as well. Even managers of socially responsible funds have to pay attention to the bottom line, to balance doing good with making money. Unlike high-profile philanthropists like Bill Gates or Bono, I expect some return on my investment. And so my annual report features graphs to show that my fund performs competitively with others in the vaunted Lipper Indexes (a sampling of representative “products” chosen through a formula only slightly less complicated than the U.S. tax code). 

Market Forces

Which brings me back to composting toilets. Composting toilets score high on the human welfare index. They use little or no water and covert human waste to fertilizer for farming. They are appropriate technology for developing countries, where roads, sewers, and other infrastructure needed for clean water are nonexistent; and gutters, waterways, and roadside ditches serve for washing, drinking, and toileting combined; and where, according to the World Health Organization, malnutrition and bacterial, viral, and parasite infections contracted through contaminated water claim some 2.4 million lives annually.

They pay off too, in improved, more productive lives. By reducing illness, access to clean water could mean 270 million more school days for children and 20 billion working days for adults each year worldwide. It would boost economies by the equivalent of $63 billion, while saving aid agencies $7 billion and individuals $340 million in health care costs.

But for the investor, there’s no profit in composting toilets. Relatively few people in wealthier countries want them. The people who desperately need them can’t pay a lot for them. Including a composting toilet maker in a portfolio would drag down its value. And so, my fund’s assets are not in composting toilets. 

It’s a Catch-22 that makes me want to occupy something: if you overload the lifeboat, everyone will drown; you have to take care of yourself now in order to take care of others later. If my IRA keeps perking along, I can write a check to CARE or Save the Children, in anticipation of my big payout when I hit age 70.5. Meanwhile, a lot of people are dying for lack of composting toilets.

Raising a Prophet or Profit?

The first-century Jews faced the same dilemma. Work was a necessity from the start; even the Garden of Eden needed hoeing (Genesis 2:15). And every gift, every offering, from the grains burnt on the altar of sacrifice, to the gold and silver used to build the temple, had to be acquired through work or trade before it could be given. 

At the same time, social justice was ensconced in their law as a very attribute of God, whom they were commanded to imitate: “Be holy, because I am holy” (Leviticus 11:44). So like today’s would-be angel investor, they struck reasonable compromises with the realities of life: gleanings of the harvest were to be left for the poor (19:10) and servants freed after six years of service (Exodus 21:2).

Given this mindset, what Jesus proposed sounded like a Ponzi scheme, both financially and spiritually: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth” (Matthew 6:19). “Sell your possessions and give to the poor” (Luke 12:33). “Everyone who has left houses or . . . fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life” (Matthew 19:29). Like Abraham being told to sacrifice Isaac, Jesus was asking the Jews to give up one fulfillment of the promise in exchange for an even greater one. 

Few in his audience bought in. Easy for him to say, they would have argued, a single man supported by a network of disciples. (Perhaps the first recorded case of crowdfunding.) They were the tithe-and-temple-tax-paying chosen people, justified by observing the law, which already made them more virtuous than the human-sacrificing, idolatrous nations God had driven out in their favor. 

Speaking for myself, that sounds uncomfortably familiar.

Long-Term Investment

If there were a spiritual Lipper Index, Jesus’ investment plan would outperform the competition—not over five or ten years, but over two thousand. Yet buying in still takes a leap of faith. It requires that we look at our resources though gospel-colored glasses, that we invest them wisely in God’s eyes. 

Think of the dishonest manager in Jesus’ parable, who was about to be cashiered for creative bookkeeping (Luke 16:1-9). He used his power and position to get in good with the folks who could keep him in the lifestyle he was accustomed to. In the same way, we need to use our resources to please the one who will keep us in the eternal lifestyle we desire.

Trusting the wisdom of my portfolio managers, I probably won’t lobby them to invest in composting toilets. But the dollar responsibly invested on the local scene can make a difference too. I know of three fair trade shops in my area; I can buy my coffee from them and whip up my own caramel lattes. I can ask for a llama for a Heifer International family as a Christmas gift. I can patronize small businesses, and large ones too, that source materials ethically and sustainably. And if that leaves me with less cash to squirrel away in my IRA, I can risk a retirement nibbling cheddar cheese straws in Tuscaloosa instead of pecorino cheese in Tuscany.

Equally important, a Christian view on investment unites me spiritually as well as financially to those in need. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). How I use my money tells others, and reminds me, where my heart lies. Am I invested in building up the kingdom of God on earth or only my own little kingdom? 

The personal investment may get me my villa in Tuscany, but the eternal investment promises off-the-chart returns: security that goes beyond a guaranteed quarterly distribution check and dividends that last more than a few measly decades. That portfolio manager has never been wrong. But then, he wrote the rules of the market. 

Christine Venzon is a freelance writer residing in Peoria, Illinois, where she invests her disposable income in fair trade chocolates and honey produced by local bees.

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