Money Matters - Simplified

Is There Room for Morality in Capitalism?

Princeton's WordNet defines "moral" as "concerned with principles of right and wrong or conforming to standards of behavior and character based on those principles." In other words, we're talking about good and bad, righteous and evil, Rebel and Imperial. The age-old showdown.

But how do morals fit into the world of business and commerce? It's at the heart of a fiery debate I ignited a couple of weeks ago with an article titled "Why Are Homeowners Idiots?" and stoked last week with a follow-up piece.

While the debate began about whether homeowners should be able to voluntarily walk away from their mortgages, the larger theme that has developed is whether there is a code of conduct over and above rules, regulations, and laws that all economic participants should adhere to.

Sure doesn't look like it
You don't have to venture far in the business world to find companies that could be put in the hot seat when it comes to questions of following a higher moral code.

An easy one to start with is tobacco merchant Altria (NYSE: MO), the company behind brands like Marlboro, Parliament, Virginia Slims, Skoal, and Copenhagen. While the company isn't doing anything legally wrong, its sole business is selling products that are known to be addictive and and known to cause cancer.

From there we could move on to some of the major U.S. oil companies for more easy pickings. Chevron, for example, has found itself in the sights of Amnesty International for shady practices and trashing the environment in areas like Nigeria and Ecuador. Fellow big-oil player ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM) fought tooth-and-nail for nearly 20 years to try and avoid punitive damages to Alaska fishermen after the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Meanwhile, Wal-Mart Stores (NYSE: WMT) is under constant scrutiny over its employment practices, while major insurers' denying coverage for pre-existing conditions is a big part of why many lawmakers are pushing so hard for health-care reform. And of course we can't leave out financial firms like Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS), JPMorgan Chase, and Morgan Stanley, who are right back to risky trading and awarding massive bonuses shortly after being bailed out of a near-death state by American taxpayers.

Heck, even the revered Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-A) has come under fire for things like its investment in PetroChina and subsidiary PacifiCorp's dams on the Klamath River.

In most cases, these companies aren't doing anything illegal -- they're simply operating within the rules of our system. However, it would stand to reason that if there was a "higher order" of rules that should be followed in the economy, they may be sorely underperforming.

Just because everyone else is doing it ...
But there are some great counterexamples to the bleak list above. The Motley Fool, for example, organizes an annual Foolanthropy campaign to raise money for charitable organizations. The company also goes over-and-above when it comes to its employees. Which is probably why it shows up in "Best Places to Work" lists in local publications.

Privately held burger chain In-N-Out, meanwhile, voluntarily pays its employees well above minimum wage. Whole Foods (Nasdaq: WFMI) and its outspoken CEO, John Mackey, are known for employee-friendly practices which include limiting executive compensation to 19 times the average hourly wage of $16.98. Not that this impacts Mackey -- he makes only $1 per year.

Google (Nasdaq: GOOG), the "don't be evil" company, wanted to do its part to combat global warming and installed 9,212 solar panels at its corporate headquarters. Other companies, including Comcast, Eli Lilly, and Oracle, donate hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars to charitable causes.

Certainly, many companies take actions specifically to polish up their corporate image, but it would probably be considered a bit cynical to suggest that every supposedly good and moral action taken by a company is for public relations.

But who cares?
No, really, who cares? Do you? Does any of this good and bad matter at all to you as an investor? Or do you simply look for companies that seek to make the most money possible while operating within the rules of the legal system?

© 2010 UCLICK L.L.C.