Meet the Shares That Care

The rise of the capital markets over the past two years has brought huge gains to the shareholders of publicly traded companies, and multiplied the revenues and profits of the Tel Aviv financial sector. The generous salaries and benefits that the owners and managers of listed corporations have provided for themselves have grown by leaps and bounds.

But against this background of wealth has grown a public relations movement for the poor, which has only emphasized the enormous social gaps in Israel even more. These factors taken together have created a new situation in the country: it is not only worthwile to be seen as socially conscious, but sometimes there is no choice. The wise men of the business sector have started to actively search for ways to participate in the philanthropic party.

The first lesson of any university introductory economics course - when there is demand, a supply must be created to satisfy it - is well understood on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange on Ahad Ha'am Street.

The market showed an impressive amount of cooperation between regulators and business interests in quickly organizing in February a new stock index named "the Maale index of social responsibility." And the leaders of the stock market - who are usually known by the public for their swinish capitalism - earned a few positive headlines.

The new index includes some 20 firms that the Maale organization feels represent the greatest social contribution among traded companies. Maale is an umbrella organization of businesses, that ranks companies according to their contributions to the community.

The firms are rated by a weighted index of seven parameters. The two most important, representing 30 percent of the ranking, are the amount of money given to the community and the level of contributions as a percentage of the company's profits.

The purpose of the new index, according to the Maale organization, is to create an instrument for ethical investors who are interested in investing their money in companies who contribute to the community.

The financial logic behind investing in socially responsible firms is well known in the global markets. The theory is that companies who have developed social awareness are expected to show better results than the overall market, since these firms who bear the standard of social responsibility of their own free will as well as various quality standards, are expected to be better managed - and therefore show improved financial results. Nevertheless, in the two months that have passed since the index was started in Israel, it has not proved itself in terms of performance. It has risen 2 percent, exactly the same as the Maof and Tel Aviv 100 indices.

The problem may be in the fact that the new Maale index is almost no different than other stock market indices. It includes the same well-known firms form the banking industry (Leumi, Hapoalim, Israel Discount), insurance (Migdal), food (Osem and Strauss-Elite), chemicals (Israel Chemicals, Makhteshim Agan), and even defense industries (Elbit Systems).

Investors can relieve their consciences by investing in the Maale index, or other financial instruments based on it - such as index or mutual funds - but should not expect much in the way of profits compared to the regular indices. Nonetheless, it may be that the desire to entire the Maale index will cause some companies to increase their willingness to contribute to the community.

The index also does not take into account negative factors, for example, how the firm treats its employees or pollution, or the friendliness of the products it sells.

The index also does not weigh the social damage caused by the enormous salaries, such as that of the CEO of Bank Hapoalim, Zvi Ziv - NIS 15 million a year, or 380 times the minimum wage.