Finally, the estimable Less Antman (see the invaluable ‘Ask Less’ feature to my left) has a question for me. He writes:

‘First you tell people you’re shorting Yahoo! while I have clients with unvested options working for Yahoo!, and now all the clients I invested in Exxon/Mobil in buy-and-hold portfolios want an explanation. Fortunately, I switched to Chevron/Texaco for more recent clients. But seriously, are you now an advocate of socially responsible investing, or only socially responsible consuming? I remember you expressing skepticism about the concept of socially responsible investing in the past. Have your views changed?’

☞ No. Selling your XOM shares for moral reasons will do absolutely nothing to capture Exxon’s attention or change its behavior. So if you think it’s a good value, hold on to it and use the dividends to fill your tank – at a competitor. Same with your Philip Morris stock. Hold onto it, and contribute the dividends to SmokeFree Educational Services. (Well, SmokeFree would actually prefer you just take action than send it money. But you doubtless have no shortage of good causes.) It would be different if Exxon or Philip Morris actually needed new capital. They are rolling in capital. And it might be different if you owned 20 million shares. (In that case, I’d say, don’t sell – at least not until you had called management and reasoned with them.)

But a boycott is different. If 15% of drivers are either gay or lesbian or enthusiastically supportive of their equal rights (a majority of Americans are generally supportive, but I am talking about folks for whom this is high on the radar screen, like gays and lesbians themselves and their families) – it’s not inconceivable that Exxon/Mobil stations could see a 3% or 4% decline from a boycott. (It would never be close to 15% both because of the special effort Jerry Falwell, et al, would make to switch to Exxon, and because, let’s face it, boycotts are hard to pull off.) And it’s also not inconceivable that some gas station owners could be persuaded that it’s bad business to discriminate against any class of citizens. On the margin, a 3% or 4% drop in US sales is hardly going to bankrupt Exxon. But it could get noticed.

Sooner or later, as I suggested yesterday, I’m quite sure the good people of Exxon (and I have no doubt they are almost all good people) will adopt the policies Mobil already had in place before the merger. If it happened tomorrow, that would bring up from 299 to 300 the number of Fortune 500 companies that include sexual orientation in their nondiscrimination policies. A boycott – which in this case requires so little behavior modification, when there is almost always a competitive gas station across the street – could just possibly make that day sooner rather than later.

 

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