An Awakening

An Awakening

by Ben Bingham

It is not news that we live in crisis times. Financial

markets seem to be crumbling, governments cannot

sell bonds to secure funds for basic operations,

not to mention infrastructure, 10% and more of the

able workers in well to do nations are unable to earn a

living. On a seemingly separate level, the environment

is under stress; whatever your position or persuasion, it

is undeniable that global ‘wierding’ if not warming is

happening, with droughts in one hemisphere, floods in

another, cold where it is usually hot, and hot where it is

usually cold. What is often ignored is the unprecedented

response by non-governmental organizations (NGO’s)

around the world that have taken responsibility to

resolve social and environmental problems and develop

a world design that is sustainable. There is also a

burgeoning response to the parallel financial crisis that

wants to approach money and investing in a new way.

This movement needs strengthening. Paul Hawken, the

author of Blessed Unrest, reckons there are somewhere

between 1 and 2 million relatively new organizations

that have self selected to make a positive difference.

The Pachamamma Alliance (www.pachamamma.

org) is one such new organization that blends indigenous

wisdom with modern scientific theory to examine the

unintended consequences of humanity’s assumptions

and to develop new ways of seeing humanity’s role on

the planet. Their ‘Awakening the Dreamer, Changing the

Dream symposium’ (ATD)(www.awakeningthedreamer.

org) is being offered at venues all over the globe,

with thousands of trainers volunteering to present

this approach. Their goal is very close to Steiner’s

1919 vision of a threefold society: Steiner envisioned

a healthy social organism where the practical ideal of

brotherhood (i.e. caring for one another’s needs) would

be the guiding principle in local business and in the

world economy; where the practical ideal of equality (or

justice) would work throughout our political systems;

and where the practical ideal of spiritual freedom would

guide the world’s cultures. In the ATD symposium

the language is only slightly different and the intent

is virtually the same but seems to give less of a role

in the current solution to business and money than I

would hope. The underlying purpose is “to bring forth

an environmentally sustainable, spiritually fulfilling

and socially just human presence on the planet as the

guiding principle of our time.”

In the Seminar, each participant is guided through an

experience of what is, i.e. what are the crisis points of

our time; then what might we have to face in the future

depending upon our responses. Each one is encouraged

to name the greatest challenge we see from our unique

perspective and then to find ways to impact upon these

challenges as an individual and with others.

The following is my response to this question: I

believe the greatest challenge of our time is that the small

percentage of humans who are educated and relatively

well-off in terms of material possessions, controlling

most of the realm of commerce, have invested primarily

in a world that is not ecologically sustainable, politically

just or spiritually free. This includes investors in

retirement funds or pension plans all the way up to

wealthy families, foundations and sovereign wealth

plans. It includes people who see themselves as socially

responsible but naïve in the realm of money. Trillions of

dollars/Euros/yen are invested in a world that few with

vision would choose as their home! This is not unlike

the farmer who decides to bulldoze all his land for one

cash crop forgetting to leave the topsoil for growing it;

Or the Native American parable of the frog who drinks

up his own pond. Convinced by expert salesmen in

the guise of financial planners/advisors/brokers that

they cannot afford to invest outside the very liquid

Wall Street market, investors set aside the concern for

long term sustainability to stick with the illusion of

security in the status quo. Many do not know what they

are invested in, like homeowners who sprinkle Agent

Orange (the chemical formulation used to deforest

Viet Nam that made so many war veterans ill) on their

lawns to kill dandelions only to have their children play

on toxic turf. More and more the lessons I learned in

farming seem to be relevant to resolving this disconnect

between individuals with healthy dreams and values and

the manner in which they have invested their resources

for an illusionary future happiness. In fact, it seems

to me that everything I needed to know to be a good

steward of money I learned in my years as a farmer in

my twenties and early thirties. I want to pass on some

peasant wisdom in the following piece. I think the future

depends on us reconnecting to the wisdom inherent in

sustainable agriculture. This may lead to a new view in

investing, a view that considers all stakeholders and the

long term horizon. Each section begins with a virtue I

learned:

Frugality:

My first years of farming, in the early ‘70’s, my wife and

I and our one-year old son never much went anywhere

to spend money. Our income was $3000 for the year,

boarding some horses, and this paid the rent. Everything

we ate, on the whole, we grew, even grain for our cows,

sheep, a horse, two mules and enough chickens to keep

us in eggs. We tried eating wild food but our optimism

got the better of us. On one occasion, we almost all died

after a long night of vomiting because we ate something

that didn’t really look like the drawing in the book after

all. Yet we never even thought of going to the hospital.

We hated to spend money and thought it was the root

of all evil, I guess. We realized later that it is the ‘love

of money’ in isolation that is the cause of so much

unhappiness. And over the years it became obvious that

poverty is no cure for the ‘love of money.’ In fact, with

five children to feed and clothe, the lack of it became a

fixation. Late in life I realized that some ‘ship coming

in’ was not the answer either and could not compare

with an income. And so, almost ten years ago, I trained

as a financial advisor and loved it, much to everyone’s

surprise, though it made total sense to me, perhaps

because taking hold of the financial aspect of life helped

me to feel my connection to the earth in a continuum.

Now with my own firm and 70 clients, we invest in

sustainable initiatives only – and only when there is real

value, i.e. when the price is substantially lower than

the actual value. Likewise we will sell things that are

overvalued rather than dreaming of continued growth

beyond reason. We are, in a word, frugal. In the fall of

2007, this attitude did our clients a great favor when we

persuaded them that the market was overvalued, banks

were going to go down and real estate would plummet.

Not only that, but anyway, capital gains tax burdens were

bound to increase since the government was way behind

in their bills (not practicing frugality themselves). So we

sold everything that was overvalued and started 2008

60% in cash and ready to invest gradually throughout

the year when there was real value. Frugality trumped

the rigid rules of asset allocation.

Prudent Hedging: ‘Puts’ and ‘Calls’.

When I left Yale in 1970 the campus had run amok with

National guardsmen shooting rubber bullets at students

who had left their prep school tweeds in the closet and

were playing at violent anarchy. Unconvinced that

student violence would lead to a better world, I took a

leave of absence of the Ivy walled campus and ended up

studying Anthroposophy and Biodynamic Agriculture

in the quiet of Sussex, England surrounded by hedges.

There I learned that a field surrounded with hedges is a

magical space that is safe from sweeping winds stealing

the topsoil and slowing the rain clouds to bless the soil

with increased rain. It is freer of animal pests like deer

and enjoys a warmer microclimate. More birds come to

eat the goodies in the hedgerow and from there patrol

the field for insect pests. The field is safer, healthier and

more abundant for it. Little did I ever suspect I would

use this knowledge in managing money, but there it is.

To hedge in financial terms originally meant to own

something that will increase in value if something

else loses value. The phrase “a hedge against losses”

became associated with financial hedging because it

was a strategy designed to reduce the winds of volatility

blowing over the markets. Today the term ‘hedging’

seems to have been stretched to mean doing whatever

it takes regardless of risk in order to make someone

richer without anyone knowing what is being done. The

new regulatory climate will modify that and perhaps the

original meaning will come back into favor, something

more like the agricultural hedge: a proper hedge that

defines a happy limit to the field (portfolio) where

violent changes in climate (the market) will have little

effect.

In our firm we mostly hedge below the market

to reduce losses in a down market. Remember that

“markets” are still places where buyers and sellers are

working out the value of things. No longer done on the

village green under a tree, the supply of things (corn,

iron, recycled glass etc.) and the demand for them are

still factors in pricing, along with new complicating

factors like the relative value of the world’s currencies

which is often effected by politics. When I say we hedge

below the market I simply mean we buy a contract that

will increase in value if the market goes down. We are

willing to pay for the contract because the cost of it is

all we lose if the market, within the agreed upon time

frame of the contract, does not after all go down. We

might give up 1% in the performance of our portfolios

because of the cost of these contracts, but it is worth it to

protect against 20% losses. In the USA these are called

‘puts’. The word ‘put’ refers to the fact that someone

has decided to sell us a contract that gives us the right

to force them to buy securities from us (in which case

we might ‘put’ that demand to them) if it should go

down in value to a particular price, or lower, within a

particular time frame. It costs us, the buyer of the put,

money for this safeguard and the one who sells the put

makes money simply by selling the put. This works for

the seller if, and only if, the securities in question do not

go down below the agreed upon price. If the securities

don’t go down in value they (the seller of the original put

to us) will have profited from the agreement and have

to produce nothing and we have only lost the cost of the

contract. But if the securities go down in value below the

contracted price the seller will have to buy the securities

at the agreed upon price when, in fact, they might have

become worthless. That is the seller’s risk. For us, since

we do not want to ever own the underlying securities

(since we only do ‘sustainable’ investments), when the

contract increases in value, others in the market will

want to buy it from us to protect their portfolios; so we

can then sell it for a profit and with part of the money

gained we buy another put further below the market.

Thus we are able to gain value from this downward

movement in the market when other investors (without

‘puts’), sadly, are losing.

But we can also hedge above the market, with ‘calls’,

by purchasing investments that go up in value when

markets go up. These ‘calls’ increase in value as the

market goes up because the seller of the call agrees to be

‘called’ if the securities in question go up to an agreed

upon price, or higher. Should that happen within the

contracted time frame they have to sell the underlying

securities to us at the agreed upon price, even if the

market has gone much higher. We buy these contracts

mainly if we feel that we do not own enough securities

to benefit from an up market. The seller sells them

thinking the market won’t go up and so they expect to

profit simply from the sale of the contract. They are at

great risk because in theory the price of the underlying

security could go up infinitely and they would have to

buy it at this higher price in order to deliver it to the buyer

of the call at the lower price. Again, if the securities do

go up in value the contract becomes valuable and we

sell it for a profit to other investors who want to secure

the contracted price within that particular time frame.

With such protection against extremes the portfolio will

feel safer and will gain value (abundant harvests) in any

kind of season if hedged wisely.

In 2008, because we bought puts that would

specifically increase in value if the market went down,

our clients benefitted significantly as the market plunged.

What is actually affecting the value of the contracts we

buy is the price of the ‘underlying security’ whether the

contract is a ‘put’ or a ‘call.’ Though this underlying

security can be an individual stock, we prefer to use

an index, and lately it has been the S&P 500 (see the

footnote). This US index is very liquid, with an easy

market for buyers and sellers. We simply bought these

puts on the S&P 500 inexpensively and then sold them

when their selling price rose in value because the

market in these large US companies was dropping and

people wanted the put to protect them from losses. Then

with these profits, as I mentioned above, we would buy

another put further below the market, always limiting

our losses at a reasonable cost. Similarly in 2009 as the

US market was rising and we were rebuilding portfolios,

we bought calls to gain from the rising market and sold

them for profit when the investors gradually gained

confidence and these calls became desirable.

Limiting losses and securing gains that otherwise

might be missed using wise ‘hedging’ in this way is

like planting two hedgerows that slow down the wind,

capture the rain and warm the garden or field.

Light reins:

After my initial agricultural training I wanted to learn

how to farm with horses. My father was a great horseman

who had taught me to ride and I loved to gallop over the

fields even before I was nine years old by myself with

Ginger, an Arabian that had been left on our farm. She

was smooth on all gaits and needed very little guidance

beyond a lean of my young body. There was no need

to “rein her in”, just a quiet “whoa” with a slight tug

would do.

This was not the case with Thunder and Lightning,

the old team of mules I bought, unwisely, in 1972 and

then sold for less because they were tired and did little

more than Hee-haw. Heavy reins did little good either.

They were as bad an investment as the no interest

checking account I kept during the Jimmy Carter Years

when interest rates were allowed to soar and a simple

Savings Account yielded double digit returns in the

US. Later, when we joined a Camphill community so

that I could apprentice with an experienced farmer and

also learn how an ‘intentional community’ successfully

managed money, I worked with a beautiful team of

horses, Morgan/Percheron crosses, Bootch and Nellie.

We cultivated 3-5 acres of vegetables and I was loving

it because it was fast and silent; and our footprint (at

the time I had not yet heard of carbon footprint) on the

topsoil was so light with little or no compaction of the

subsoil – as is the tendency with tractors, making it

harder for plant roots to penetrate deeper.

But I had to be awake on the reins. Bootch might try

to grab a mouthful of something off to the side or Nelly

might pull toward the barn, but with a light hand on the

reins they tended to stay on course and keep up their

wonderful gliding momentum. This image has served

me well in managing money. The momentum can be

side tracked by fear (heading for the comfort and safety

of the barn or bank account: i.e. ‘going to cash’) and

getting out of the market just when it is about to improve;

or by greedily grabbing for one-off risky ventures or

veering off the cliff of an overvalued market. “Staying

the course” got a bad name in 2008, because it was a

case of holding the reins too tight with inflexibility.

Allowing a little natural desire for self development

in looking for investments of real value and yet, at the

same time, a natural desire to protect oneself and loved

ones in avoiding undue risks requires a light hand on

the reins so that the ‘investment horses’ can find their

own rhythm, but not too light when some direction is

needed. Otherwise investments, like an undisciplined

team of horses, may weave violently from side to side

as they go along.

Ecosystems and synergy, the whole thing.

The fi rst thing I recognized with experienced farmers

was that they knew their farms intimately and at the same

time could see the whole place as a living organism. They

had a real love for the whole thing. A craggy old farmer

woman from Switzerland with whom I apprenticed

sensed things about the land and the environment each

day and, some days, she sensed things about me too and

once, for example, wouldn’t let me drive the tractor on

the road with a wagon stacked high with straw. She was

right. That day I might well have tipped it over – as I did

one time. She was suspicious of metrics and forbade me

from counting the cattle when we went to check them

high above the barns. She reasoned that if you have to

count you are not using your sense of the whole. You

should be able to immediately sense if something is

wrong. If there is trouble, unrest, in a corner of the field,

then the fence is likely broken and one or two cattle may

have bolted through.

Experienced gardeners certainly sense what goes

together well and will surround carrots with onions;

tomatoes with marigolds and so on. There are logical

reasons for these things that may be measurable like

less insect pests in the case of marigolds and increased

flavor in the carrots, but such gardeners don’t need the

measurables. They can see and taste the difference.

As a portfolio manager I like to see the investments

as a manifold variety of plantings at different stages

of maturity, synergistically supporting one another.

As crops rotate to benefit the various soils on the farm

or garden, so some investments are harvested and

others planted in a kind of ecological procession. The

proportions change like recipes for varying menus in

varying seasons. It is a whole living system.

Double digging:

The biodynamic/French Intensive concept of ‘double

digging’ taught me in a deep way the importance of

preparing the ground before planting. The basic process

in making a raised bed (more air, more light, better

water retention, deeper roots) is to start by digging out

a trench, a spade’s width and place all the soil dug out

into a wheel barrow, or at the end of a plot of ground

you are double-digging. After loosening the soil at the

bottom of the trench you chunk out the soil next to that

first trench, spadeful by spadeful, and place each chunk

of soil into the first trench, being careful to keep the best

soil on top (hence the name “double digging”). When

you have finished the old trench is full again and you

have a newly formed trench from where you just took

the soil. And so you continue, standing on a wide piece

of plywood or such, to avoid compacting the bed as you

dig it row by row, digging until you have worked the

whole bed. The final empty trench you fill in with the soil

(from the wheelbarrow or where ever you put it) that you

took from the very first trench. The chunks of soil have

moved forwards by rows and the first row becomes the

last. Before each row moves forward the idea is to dig

down into the subsoil, rocking the spade back and forth

to loosen and lift it a bit for aeration and to invite the

entry of deep roots. All this work need not be repeated

often if done well and provided you never tread on the

bed of soil you have turned over in the digging. Just add

compost on top and watch the results!

So it is with investing, there is much deep digging,

turning over of the ‘investment-soil’, to do before

acting. This includes knowing the investor on an

emotional/spiritual level as much as possible to be

New View 62

able to understand what their true goals may be; so

that their money may become an expression of their

highest intentions. It also includes deep research into

the investments themselves… not just cultivating with

a shallow rake and hoping there is good soil below. Is

the product or service beneficial and relevant? Are the

business models progressive in terms of fair wages and

benefits and ergonomic systems of production? Do the

communities where the businesses exist directly benefit

or pay an unreasonable price for hosting them? Are

the managers far sighted and concerned to benefit all

stakeholders, not just themselves and other insiders?

Is it on all counts a promising business relevant to the

future?

Investors need to understand that it is not prudent

to invest in a world that is profitable in the short term

but unsustainable long term; like the ‘green revolution’

of the 1950’s and its heavy use of petrochemicals

ultimately killing the soil. This shift in awareness may

keep our planet from a premature death. Mother Earth,

or Pachamamma, is described by the Quechua people

in South America as “all space/all time”; others now

speak of the Earth as Gaia, the source of wisdom, or

Sophia. As human beings we have the unique capacity

and responsibility to love her. Like the rhythms of

day and night, the moon, the planets and the seasons,

there are rhythms in all aspects of life that need to be

observed. This time of greed and fear may bring us so

far off course. Nothing is for certain but change, and yet

a little wisdom from the land, may serve us well and

return us to health.

To close I would like to reiterate that the greatest

challenge of our time may be that investors are funding

a world that in the end will not support us. One set of

guidelines that supports Steiner’s earlier vision and

the more recent Awakening the Dreamer vision was

developed in Sweden in the 1980’s and 90’s. It was

the result of years of intense debate among scientists

to bring into focus a set of criteria that would make

all decisions support a world that would continue to

support humankind. Simple to convey and flexible to

implement, these, in my words, are the four components

of the criteria that underpin what is called “The Natural

Step”, a framework developed by Swedish scientists

who were aware that most cancers were due to exposure

to toxins in our environment (www.naturalstep.org):

• Avoid extraction of substance that will be deposited

in the biosphere (if such substance is needed then reuse,

recycle it!)

• Avoid creating synthetics that may end up as deposits

in the biosphere (use natural solutions)

• Avoid pollution of the biosphere in general (clean up

and enhance life, water, air, soil)

• Take care of human needs (we are each other’s

“keepers”)

This simple set of standards if applied in all financial

transactions would go a long way toward healing a

planet that may not be destined to live forever in its

present form.

G. Benjamin Bingham is the managing Director of

Benchmark Asset Managers (www.benchmarkam.com)

in Philadelphia, USA.

[All illustrations in this article are by the author.]

Endnotes

The S&P 500 is an index published since 1957 of the

prices of 500 large-cap common stocks actively traded

in the United States. The stocks included in the S&P

500 are those of large publicly held companies that

trade on either of the two largest American stock market

exchanges. After the Dow Jones Industrial Average, the

S&P 500 is the most widely followed index of large cap

American stocks. It is considered a bellwether for

the American economy. Some investment funds, are

designed to track the performance of the S&P 500 index.

Hundreds of billions of US dollars have been invested

in this fashion.

This is reprinted from the Spring edition of New View, a UK publication. It may become an excerpt in a forthcoming book with a working title: Valuing Values in Financial Markets by G. Benjamin Bingham.  Ben has been developing and managing portfolios for socially responsible investors successfully for a decade.  He is a co-founder of a new woman owned firm called 3 Sisters Sustainable Investments LLC. And can be reached at [email protected].