Web Site Shifts Social Investing to Individuals
July 2, 2001
In the burgeoning business of socially responsible investing, companies sometimes employ the help of a board of advisors in choosing stocks. The boards are often made up of experts with commanding resumes. They include professors, politicians and philanthropists.
But Nashville-based MoneyAndValues.com founder Stephen Bolt is not impressed with these credentials, nor is he enticed by the assembly of brain power.
He calls the practice "the height of arrogance" and argues that investors, not think tanks, should choose the values they back with their money.
In January, Bolt launched MoneyAndValues.com. The site, he said, puts the ability to pick stocks in the hands of individual investors and shifts that power away from advisory boards. In addition, Bolt said the site serves as a simple education tool for those who care about social issues, but may not know that their mutual funds are invested in companies that may shun women from their boards of directors or manufacture cigarettes.
"I think we have forced the [socially responsible investment] industry to be much more open and think more broadly than in the past," Bolt says.
Investors and financial advisors can use the site to search out funds that are invested--for better or worse, depending on their perspective --in companies supporting or rebuffing certain political and religious values. MoneyAndValues.com also serves as a wholesaler that can connect financial advisors with funds deemed to serve their clients' social interests.
The site, laden with pristine photographs of happy families, guides users through a simple, five-step process for learning about their investments' social implications. Step one allows users to choose issues that most concern them, such as, pornography, nuclear power, homosexuality or defense contracting. Step two lets users choose the type of investments they own--mutual funds, variable annuities or variable life products--and then prompts them to enter the names of their investments. Step three displays short reports that juxtapose a fund's stake in companies against the issues a user has selected.
For example, during a recent visit to the site, a visitor used a randomly selected fund to screen for companies invested in "same sex lifestyle" issues. The site displayed a report explaining that the fund "invests 15.79% of its assets in companies involved in the same-sex lifestyle issue. This means that for every $100 you have invested in the fund, $15.79 is invested in companies whose involvement with same-sex life style issues might be inconsistent with your personal values."
Step four offers clickable buttons that allow users to select whether they want their investments to support, for example, companies with poor environmental records, or steer clear of them. The site does not, however, provide the names of specific securities.
Finally, step five guides users toward investments that may be more consistent with the values they've selected.
Bolt said one of the site's chief benefits is its blind approach to politics. Users can--and do--use the site to screen against both sides of the political fence, he said. For example, an investor can search out investments in companies that support affirmative action or they can search out companies that have historically opposed it.
"Our position is kind of a First Amendment issue," he says. "We're emphatic that people should be able to invest according to their values."
But, in contrast to Bolt's claim that his Web site is neutral, all but one of the strategic partners listed there are Christian or conservative organizations. There are nearly a dozen of them, including National Religious Broadcasters, Christian Long Distance and Women of Faith.
The company has also aligned itself with the Christian men's organization Promise Keepers and is stationing booths at 16 of the group's nationwide speaking events this year. Bolt says 15% of the thousands of men who pack the arenas where the events are hosted sign up to hear from a MoneyAndValues.com representative about opening socially conscious accounts.
Those numbers aren't surprising, considering the recent growth in this fund industry niche. Morningstar reports that net assets increased from nearly $3.5 billion in so-called socially responsible funds to more than $12 billion during the past five years. In addition, the number of funds represented in the niche market, which Morningstar defines as any fund that picks stocks based on criteria other than financial, increased from 44 to 108 during that same period.
MoneyAndValues.com is not profitable yet. Bolt recently sold the company to Regan Holding, of Petaluma, Calif., which also owns the broker-dealer Legacy Financial Services and Legacy Marketing Group, he said. But marketing efforts have been aggressive. When the site launched, Bolt said he did a rigorous media tour that included appearances on CNNfn and Bloomberg Television.
But those efforts aren't settling well with everyone. Catherine Hickey, a Morningstar analyst who specializes in socially responsible funds, said the site may serve as a good tool for beginning investors, but she is otherwise skeptical. Fund companies screen securities using strikingly different methods, she said. And they have varying definitions of, say, an environmentally unfriendly company or a company that is involved in pornography. Short definitions on a Web site may be oversimplifying the issue, she said.