With our pensions invested in stocks, the trick is to know just what stocks we all own

April 29, 1996|By MIKE LITTWIN

BEING A GOOD citizen is much harder than it used to be. In the old days, you had to vote and, I think, keep your lawn cut. And that was about it.

For instance, you weren't faced with the plastic-or-paper question (plastic fouls the environment, paper wipes out forests; either way, you're practically a criminal). And the only working definition of recycling was getting back on the bike after you fell off.

Also, most of us didn't have to worry about what stocks we owned -- or what foul things the companies might be up to -- since we didn't own any stock. Rich people owned stock, like J.P. Morgan and maybe your cheap dentist grandfather who gave you a whole nickel when a tooth fell out.

Back in the '60s, that made it easy to condemn Dow Chemical for manufacturing Napalm or Agent Orange or whatever it was they made. I didn't own any Dow Chemical stock. My only possessions were a way-cool, two-toned '57 Chevy that got 8 miles to the gallon, three pairs of ripped jeans, a Che Guevara poster and stacks of records. (Generation check: For you kids out there, records are to CDs what typewriters are to computers. Whaddya mean, you never heard of typewriters?)

In the '70s and early '80s, when they said to divest of companies who operated in South Africa, I was first on the bandwagon. This was what you might call a free ride, since I still didn't own any stock. I didn't know much about the market, but I was pretty sure you had to own a suit before they let you buy anything, meaning I didn't qualify.

But now in 1996, when the boys at the American Medical Association are calling for people to get rid of tobacco stock for the simple reason that tobacco is killing millions of folks, maybe including your kids, they mean me. And probably you, too.

This is not a tough moral issue. Although tobacco is legal, it's no more ethical to profit from it than it is to profit from selling crack on the corner.

Do you own tobacco stock?

If you're like me, you have no idea.

This is my financial situation: I have no actual money. The process of putting a child through a fancy-schmancy private college ensures that I have no money whatsoever.

But I have stocks, lots o' stocks. In my 40s, I have turned into a poster boy for Dow Jones. If you look closely at a Merrill Lynch commercial, that's me riding the bull.

There are three reasons people are investing in the stock market (at a rate of approximately $6 trillion a day):

Your typical passbook savings account pays less interest than your mattress does.

The stock market, that anti-gravity phenomenon, always goes up. By the way, if this is not true, please don't tell my wife.

The decline of pension funds, which have been replaced almost entirely by self-regulated retirement plans.

All of my money is in retirement funds. Between my wife and me, we have a 401(k), a 403(b), two IRAs, a TIAA-CREF and a very expensive life insurance policy that also plays the market.

The money comes out of my paycheck and into various mutual funds. Every three months or so, I get a statement that you need an MBA to understand, except for the part that it's up about 30 percent.

It never says what you own. And, even if it did, the mutual funds you're invested in change stocks every day. That's what they do.

Technically, it's possible to find out whether your mutual fund is investing in Philip Morris. Technically, it's also possible to date Uma Thurman.

Your broker's not going to help you. Here's the typical broker's take on the issue: "The only moral dilemma I've ever faced is whether to sell at 42 or 43."

My 401(k) gives me investment choices, but what kind of choices? My wife's 403(b) does have a socially responsible mutual fund, which, I understand, invests only in companies that don't pollute, or ruin the rain forest or produce weapons. In other words, Ben & Jerry's.

It's more complicated than that, too. Divest your stock and you're still probably supporting the death merchants.

First of all, the tobacco companies are not exactly up front about who they are. One major tobacco company is RJR Nabisco, and yet you won't see a skull and crossbones on packages of Oreos or Fig Newtons. Philip Morris owns Kraft. Bite into some delicious Kraft Macaroni and Cheese (or an Oscar Meyer wiener) and you're part of the problem. Then there's Sara Lee. Sara Lee sells killer weed? Maybe it's time somebody doesn't like Sara Lee.

It is difficult. And that's what they're counting on -- that we're not really committed enough to make a difference.

Pub Date: 4/29/96

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.