Why The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge Made Economic Sense

This week it seemed that much of the media hype around the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge died down as it gradually became eclipsed with other news. In case you somehow missed what this viral sensation was, it went something like this. What started as a youtube video of someone giving $100 to an ALS charity instead of having a bucket of cold water dumped on your head, spread quickly into having a bucket of cold water dumped on your head and also giving money to an ALS charity, followed by the donator/victim challenging several other people. These were filmed and placed on Facebook and youtube and people have been following it.

For the several charities that raise money for ALS research, the challenge has proved to be an enormous windfall, netting more than $100 million in donations in excess of their normal annual fund raising. But all of the cheering and success  brought in the professional cynical class of journalists. There must be a downside, and by god they would report it.

I’m not going to go into the details of the criticisms here, but here are some articles you can read if you are so inclined. Instead I want to show why the economics of which charities we give to makes more sense than critics often believe.

The standard argument goes something like this: We contribute far more money to diseases that won’t likely kill us than the ones that do. Humans are clearly illogical and if they had any sense we would direct all our money into charities that dealt with the things most likely to wipe us off the planet. This misalignment of money versus danger is similar to why we are so scared of terrorists than swimming pools, even though you are far more likely to drown in a swimming pool than be killed by terrorists.


Except that it’s all wrong! People give money to the charities that matter most to them because they understand something about diseases that kill you better than people who just look at statistics.

For instance, Heart Disease is the number one killer in almost every western country, with (I believe) the exception of Portugal. So why aren’t we more scared of heart disease? Because it typically doesn’t kill you until you are already old. While your odds of getting and dying from heart disease start to rise significantly when you reach 60, since 1952 the cardiovascular death rate in Canada has dropped by 75% and nearly 40% in the last decade due to improvements in medicines, surgical procedures and prevention efforts according to Statistics Canada. In other words we’ve already made great strides in reducing unnecessary death from heart disease, and reducing the likelihood that heart disease will strike early is as easy as simply eating a healthier more balanced diet.

Cancer on the other hand isn’t fully understood. We don’t know why some people get it, and why some do not. We don’t know why some people have cancer go into remission and why some do not. If you have survived cancer you have likely been through a hell of an ordeal, as almost every known treatment is as bad as the disease you are fighting. If you’ve watched a loved one pass away from the disease you know how difficult it was and had to watch someone slip away, often in pain and great discomfort, losing control of their bodies and losing even their sense of self.

The mistake that the statistics cover up is this. You must die of something. People do not simply get old and die. They get old, weaker with time, and finally susceptible to something far more likely to kill them. Increasingly heart disease is something that you die of when you are old. Cancer by comparison can strike you down in the prime of your life. You can get cancer in your 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, or 70s. Its a difficult disease to overcome, survivors are acutely aware that they have a high chance of reoccurrence and people who have lost a loved one feel the pain of a prolonged illness. In that context we give money to charities that fight diseases that leave a strong emotional scar, like cancer or in this case ALS, and that does make economic sense.

We took a little time off this week following labour day. We’ll be back next week with regular postings!

Why Apple is a Good Lesson on Investing

Over the last few years some elements of the stock market have seemed fairly crazy. Tech stocks, often belonging to social networking sites like Twitter, have had an unbelievable run. Meanwhile Apple Computers (a favourite of mine) have frequently been heavily criticized for declining revenue growth and slowing sales numbers. Business commentators like to point to the growth in Google’s Android phone platform and its large share of the mobile phone market as proof that Apple’s days as a global leader are past.

However with Apple’s most recent earnings report out there are some important things to take note of. The chief reason that we invest in companies is because they make money, and Apple is currently one of the most profitable companies around. How profitable? Take these statistics published today in Slate.com.

If Apple’s iPhone was it’s own company it would be larger than 474 companies on the S&P 500 index and would have revenues in excess of Amazon, Coca-Cola, McDonalds, Google and E-bay. iphone.png.CROP.promovar-mediumlargeThat’s just its phone division. The iPad, whose sales numbers are definitely plateauing if not declining is still a valuable business netting $5.9 billion in revenues, greater than Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo, Groupon, and Tesla combined. ipad_1.png.CROP.promovar-mediumlargeMac Computers, which earned less than the iPad division, still garnered an impressive $5.5 billion. Even the iPod, now almost totally forgotten in the midst of smartphones and iPads still earned an impressive $442 million, 77% than Twitter’s $250 million in quarterly revenues.

Apple’s stock has periodically taken a licking, but has been beating its way back to its previous high (partly due to a recent stock split and dividends periodically being paid), but its story is an important cautionary tale.

Apple Stock Price
Apple Share Price History

Good investing comes from choosing companies that produce revenue and retain growth potential, in other words focusing on the fundamentals of investing. Despite naysayers, that’s exactly the kind of company Apple has been. So why does Apple get so much negative attention? Because predicting the fall of a Goliath is exactly the kind of thing that makes news. Whether it’s true or not is irrelevant in the news cycle, but it is a source of bad investor advice, and should serve as a cautionary tale to investors considering taking financial advice from business news.

Jack Sparrow and the Pirate Stock Exchange

In case you missed it 2013 seemed to mark the end of Somali piracy. If you can cast your mind back to 2011, piracy off the coast of Africa seemed to be the next big problem. In fact 2011 marked the peak of Somali piracy with 237 separate attacks. In contrast 2013 saw only 15 Somali pirate attacks, an incredible reduction. Piracy is still out there, around countries like Indonesia and off the coast of some West African nations, but the threat of Somali piracy has largely disappeared.

That’s good for those on the high seas, but it means that we miss an opportunity to see how natural and beneficial capital markets are in distributing wealth and helping economies. And yes you read that sentence right.

In this photo taken Sunday, Sept. 23, 2012, masked Somali pirate Hassan stands near a Taiwanese fishing vessel that washed up on shore after the pirates were paid a ransom and released the crew, in the once-bustling pirate den of Hobyo, Somalia. The empty whisky bottles and overturned, sand-filled skiffs that litter this shoreline are signs that the heyday of Somali piracy may be over - most of the prostitutes are gone, the luxury cars repossessed, and pirates talk more about catching lobsters than seizing cargo ships. (AP Photo/Farah Abdi Warsameh)
In this photo taken Sunday, Sept. 23, 2012, masked Somali pirate Hassan stands near a Taiwanese fishing vessel that washed up on shore after the pirates were paid a ransom and released the crew, in the once-bustling pirate den of Hobyo, Somalia. The empty whisky bottles and overturned, sand-filled skiffs that litter this shoreline are signs that the heyday of Somali piracy may be over – most of the prostitutes are gone, the luxury cars repossessed, and pirates talk more about catching lobsters than seizing cargo ships. (AP Photo/Farah Abdi Warsameh)

The core problem for Somalians is that amongst their many, many problems, there is not enough money in the country. This makes sense for a number of reasons. It is a dangerous place, and people who do have money and live there are unlikely to put money into local businesses or trust a bank. Corruption is rampant and the best way to describe Somalia currently is as a failed state. All this makes it very difficult for the citizens of Somalia to attract foreign investors. As an alternative to traditional business practices, many Somalians took up the cause of high seas piracy and ransomed boats and ships back to their host countries in exchange for money. Whether you realize it or not, in this way Somalia was actually improving their economy (albeit illegally) by providing fresh inflows of foreign capital. But how did the money find its way into the local economy? Through the pirate stock market of course!

That’s right, in 2009 a stock market was set up in the small fishing community of Harardheere with about 70 different…pirate entities(?) that locals could invest in. Giving money to one of these entities helped fund piracy on the high seas and successful raids would be paid out to the investors. There is more information about it in this 2011 article in the Wall Street Journal and I encourage you to have a read of this fascinating account of a naturally occurring stock market, but I think this quote from the article sums up the rather banal and natural benefits that markets provide to economies:

As local security officer Mohamed Adam put it to Reuters, “Piracy-related business has become the main profitable economic activity in our area and as locals we depend on their output.” Mr. Adam claims that the district government gets a cut of every dollar collected by pirates and uses it—naturally—for schools, hospitals and other public infrastructure.


Since then however the international response to Somalian piracy has been swift and decisive. And while the horn of Africa might be safer for international shipping the reasons behind Somalian piracy remain unresolved. But it is insightful to see that this brief chapter of piracy (outside of the Johnny Depp variety) was actually more nuanced and lends an odd credibility to the needs and benefits of markets for investors and companies, regardless of who they are or what business they are in.

Be the Most Interesting Person at Christmas Dinner

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays! We’ve been busy over here for the last couple of weeks and unfortunately I haven’t been able to update our blog as often as I would like. However lots of interesting and important things have been happening over the past two weeks and they are worth mentioning. Check them out below!

Bitcoin is maybe not going to survive. Maybe: There is an ongoing fight about whether Bitcoin, the digital currency, is in fact a real currency. Bitcoin has been criticized for being a tool of the criminal underworld, and praised for its inventiveness. But like all fiat currencies there is a lot of speculation about whether it is worth anything. After all, who is backing Bitcoin? There is no government that will guarantee it and not every government is happy with it, and its value fluctuates wildly. And yet Bitcoin persists, at least until today. China has just banned Bitcoin and its largest exchange will not accept any more deposits, sending the value of Bitcoin tumbling.

What’s good for the investor maybe bad for the economy: There is a demographic shift going on in the Western Developed nations. People are getting older. Not just older, but retirement older, and as a result the economy is feeling pressured to respond to needs arising out of this aging baby boomer trend. One of those shifts is towards dividends. Dividends are traditionally issued by companies to their shareholders when the companies have extra money lying around and can’t use it productively. However many companies, especially large ones that generate more cash flow than they can reasonably use issue regular dividends, such as banks and many utilities. This is useful to investors that are looking to retire or are retired already. Regular dividends help provide retirees with regular and predictable income. However dividends may be bad for the economy. CEOs are often rewarded for market performance, and markets tend to like companies that increase their dividends (Microsoft increased its dividend in September). But companies can be far more useful to the economy generally when they invest in growth rather than give money back to shareholders. That would mean hiring new people, building new factories and generally moving money through the economy. But as much of the population ages and looks for dividends this might undermine the both growth in economic terms and affect choices that CEOs make about the future of their companies.

Canadians are at record debt levels, again: This may not come as much of a surprise, but Canadians have record debt levels and nothing seems to be correcting it! This story began regularly occurring in 20102011, 2012, and of course 2013. What is more important about how high the debt of Canadians continues to rise, but what’s driving it. Not surprisingly it’s mortgages. The high cost of Canadian housing has worried the federal government, and many global organizations. But far worse would be a deflationary cycle on Canadian homes, driving down the price while saddling home owners with debts far in excess the value of their houses. Despite a number of efforts to limit the amounts that Canadians are borrowing, the very low interest rate set by the Bank of Canada is keeping Canadian’s interested in buying ever more expensive homes. The reality is that no one is really sure what is to be done, or what the potential fallout might be. What is clear is that this can’t continue forever.

We’re going to be taking next week off, but will be back in January!