Investing from the doctrine of the Gospel

Guillaume d’Alançon is the Director of Communications for Aliter Invest, an investment fund founded by Archduke Imri of Austria to apply Catholic social justice principles in their investment strategies.  Both Archduke Imri and Mr.  d’Alançon were speakers  at the 5th Faith-based Investment Conference at the World Council of Churches headquarters on January 21 in Geneva, Switzerland.  The conference was organized by AI and Faith’s Research Fellow Nicoleta Acatrinei, in her role as Executive Director of the Geneva Agape Foundation.  Mr.  d’Alançon prepared these remarks as part of a panel on determining and applying specific faith-related values in the investment process.

 

At a time when finance is often pilloried, we can ask ourselves about the paradigm that can make it a structure of sin, a structure of “evil”.

With an eye that is concerned with the common good and seeks the light, let us try to analyse this and envisage how ethical finance, in the strongest sense of the word, can have a lasting impact on the world and thus contribute to the new evangelisation. With state-of-the-art tools and methodology, Aliter Invest wishes to support the growing interest in  a more responsible investment approach in line with the investor’s convictions.

 

I – Jesus, Church and money

Jesus lived in a monetarised society inherited from Mesopotamian, Phoenician, Greek and Roman civilizations. His parables show  he was familiar with  financial transactions like  loans and borrowing, and comfortable with monetary and financial practices.

Wealth for its own sake is an obstacle to communion with God. Thus, Jesus used a modest coin (the drachma) but also quite large sums – expressed in mines or talents (currencies of Greek origin) – to illustrate what is priceless:

– The joy of conversion (Lk 15:8-10)

– The zeal to make the treasures God has entrusted to us bear fruit, treasures which one can easily imagine are not primarily monetary (Mt 25:14-30).

Sacred Scripture readily reminds us that the rich should not increase their wealth at the expense of the poor: “You shall not pawn the mill or the grindstone, for that would be to pawn your very life” (Dt24:6).

Or again: “If you lend money to one of my people, to the poor who live with you, you shall not be to him as a creditor, you shall not charge him interest” (Ex 72:25). Let us note in passing that money is in itself sterile. Goods and services are generated by capital, such as land, facilities, livestock, etc.

The Church for 2000 years has had to face ever greater needs. This is a far cry from the small group of disciples simply having a common purse – held by Judas. Financial techniques must necessarily be more sophisticated.

Take the example of the Abbey of Cluny, the centre of a vast network of monasteries. It actively contributed to the monetarisation of economic activities. Indeed, it would not have been practical to send carts of grain hundreds of kilometres away when a new Cluny monastery had to be founded: transporting money is much simpler! On this subject, the historian Georges Duby devoted his thesis to the monetarisation of the countryside in the influence of Cluny. This is typically the case where money is a good servant.

As we can see, the Church succeeded in using this technique of organising cooperation between men to benefit the development of a Western humanity that the early Middle Ages, bled dry by the barbarian invasions, had left to vegetate in poverty and precariousness. Of course, the economic role of the abbeys was not limited to this, but we have here an example of the good use of metallic currencies and financial relations in the service of what the popes right through Francis called “integral human development”.

We have often spoken of the prohibition of usury, and sometimes of interest-bearing loans. Let us leave it to Saint Thomas Aquinas to conclude this debate: “In his contract with the borrower, the lender can, without any sin, stipulate an indemnity to be paid for the prejudice he suffers by being deprived of what was in his possession; this is not selling the use of the money, but obtaining compensation.

In spite of everything, finance continues to frighten people, and this is understandable, given the many irregularities and even perversities to which it gives rise. And yet, in itself, it is only a tool, and like all tools, it must be used with caution.

 

II – Principles of ethical finance

Pope John Paul the Second wrote in his letter “Solicitudo rei socialis”: Those who have more power, having a greater share of common goods and services, should feel responsible for the weaker ones and be ready to share with them what they have. For their part, the weaker ones, in the same line of solidarity, should not adopt a purely passive or destructive attitude towards the social fabric but, while defending their legitimate rights, should do what they can for the good of all. Intermediary groups, in turn, should not selfishly insist on their particular interests, but respect the interests of others.

The central question underlying any reflection on the moralisation of finance is the status of money. “Money is a good servant and a bad master’, as the saying goes, because it is not an end in itself. When profit is presented as the exclusive end of the financial enterprise, the greediest subjects take strategic control of it, often to the detriment of all ethics, and aim first and foremost at the exclusive interest of the shareholders, forgetting the economic health of the enterprise. Profit cannot be separated from the people who make it up. Otherwise, it is the value of work that is called into question. Conversely, to underestimate the merits of finance would be to show a lack of realism that could have serious consequences. How many beautiful and just initiatives have been created thanks to an ethical approach that is entirely profitable? It is not finance that is the enemy of man, but a mistaken conception of its purpose.

François Michelin, who died in 2015, was the CEO and President of one of the largest companies in France, known for his outspokenness and strong moral convictions. In July of that year, Challenges magazine estimated the Michelin family fortune at 1.3 billion euros, ranking him 50th in France. Not enough to make his head spin. This is what François Michelin had to say: “When I saw how my grandfather lived, I understood that money is very convenient, but that if you are not careful, it is like a drug. My grandfather told me two things that I have kept: truth and reality are bigger than you, and money must be a servant, never a master.”

Thus, income from capital will not risk supplanting income from labour. The question is worth asking, because today there is a high risk of man becoming an accessory, a negligible quantity and even a reject of the economic system. The income of capital needs to be structured in correspondence with that of human labour. Once again, it is at the ethical level that the cursor must be placed: gain is of course not an evil in itself, but it is the way in which inequality is used to generate profits at the expense of others that cannot be condoned.

This is why it is good to validate the principle of a universal authority for financial markets, a kind of UN for finance, independent of the IMF or the World Bank. Politicians have a role to play in this economic rationalisation plan, which requires wise discernment.

The market is truly healthy when the structures and means ensure growth and a fair distribution of wealth. For those who doubt this, it may be worth remembering that cooperation between people through solidarity does not reduce wealth but increases the well-being of all. Thus, placing ethics at the heart of finance means choosing the integral growth of resources and families.

Another way of restoring finance to a sound footing would be for each client to know the products in their complexity. Such an approach is profoundly humanising because it constantly calls for responsibility towards a company’s employees, shareholders and, beyond that, the nation. It has a positive impact on the world’s political and economic balance.

This virtuous vision will necessarily involve a fight against injustice, tax havens for example, thus avoiding the effects of unfair taxation. The world of offshore banking, which cannot escape vigilance because it ends up impoverishing the normal system of production and distribution of goods and services, should also be emphasised, not forgetting the shadow banking system, whose impact on the real economy can have serious consequences.

 

Conclusion: towards another decalogue?

Acting responsibly in a perpetually unstable world would therefore imply relying on sound and valid principles of action, urbi et orbi, if at all possible:

– Any sustainable financial growth is always ethical. There is probably a link between amoral behaviour and bankruptcy.

– Financial organisations cannot escape control of the legitimacy of the operations carried out and an analysis of the bank/customer relationship if they want to be true economic partners.

– What is rigid is bypassed by users: it is therefore better to regulate flexibly but clearly.

To conclude, the renewal of finance, prolife, pro-family, pro-real ecology, this renewal is one of the biggest challenges of the new millennium. The ethical grid, far from locking in profits, is on the contrary a stimulant, a call to freedom, a promise of growth that cannot really be achieved without man, without Christ our Lord.

And it’s what we want to realise with Aliter Invest. And we must be concrete because finance need concrete engagement. For example,  we’re engaged with an association which helps couples and families. The European Institute for Family (LIFE) was created to spread the Gospel message about marriage and family. It’s not a dream, nor a fantasy. It’s the answer to a question that lies deep in the heart of every person. What are the objectives of LIFE ? For this organization, it is mainly to develop the Accueils Louis et Zélie. An Accueil Louis et Zélie is a family-oriented center open to all: young people, couples, single people, elderly people. . . . It’s a place of dialogue and missionary care with one clear objective: spread the Gospel of family and the Gospel of life. It’s about helping anyone, whether they are Christian or not, who is trying to get out of a difficult situation.

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