A generalized strategy of ‘mission hedging’: investing in 'evil' to do more good
Hauke Hillebrandt 
Version from: 18/02/2018
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Thanks to Ben Todd, Kit Harris, Alexander Gordon Brown, and James Snowden for helpful discussion on this manuscript. Any mistakes are my own.
Table of contents
Vix [an indicator of expectations of market volatility] as a generalized indictor of instability
How should a foundation whose only mission is to prevent dangerous climate change invest their endowment? Surprisingly, in order to maximize expected utility, it might use ‘mission hedging’ investment principles and invest in fossil fuel stocks. This way it has more money to give to organisations that combat climate change when more fossil fuels are burned, fossil fuel stocks go up and climate change will get particularly bad. When fewer fossil fuels are burnt and fossil fuels stocks go down - the foundation will have less money, but it does not need the money as much. Under certain conditions the mission hedging investment strategy maximizes expected utility.
So generally, if you want to do more good, should you invest in ‘evil’ corporations with negative externalities? Corporations that cause harm such as those that sell arms, tobacco, factory farmed meat, fossil fuels, or advance potentially dangerous new technology? Here I argue that, though perhaps counterintuitively, that this might be the optimal investment strategy.
In this note, I extend the special case of an investment strategy for foundation endowments called 'Mission hedging', originally introduced by Brigitte Roth Tran. The generalized strategy proposed here suggests that, under certain conditions, agents should invest resources in entities that cause activity they want to prevent. I will focus only on the conceptual extension of mission hedging here, but more technical details, caveating and mathematical formalism can be found in Roth Trans original paper, all of which are also relevant to the more generalized theory.
Roth Tran  summarizes the basic mechanics of mission hedging for foundations as follows:
“”[M]ission hedging," [is] a new strategy in which the endowment “doubles down," skewing investments toward firms it opposes. If increased objectionable activities coincide with both higher firm returns and greater foundation revenue needs (with which to counteract the objectionable activities), then the foundation can align funding availability with need by increasing exposure to objectionable firms beyond that of a typical portfolio. Increasing investment in objectionable firms creates a hedge around the foundation's mission, maximizing expected utility.”
In other words, the basic idea is that, surprisingly, it might be optimal for an altruist whose mission is to combat global poverty, factory farming, mass unemployment, or existential risks from artificial intelligence, to invest in stocks of corporations that might make the problem worse and then give the profits to organisations that will counteract the problem.
For example, it might be a good strategy for donors or even other entities such as governmental organisations that are concerned with global health to invest in tobacco corporations and then give the profits to tobacco control lobbying efforts. Another example might be that animal welfare advocates should invest in companies engaged in factory farming such as those in meat packing industry, and then use the profits to invest in organisations that work to create lab grown meat. A final example: it might be optimal for donors who think that emerging risks from artificial intelligence is a pressing cause to invest in the technology companies that might speed up such dangerous technologies, and then donate the profits to organisations that work on guarding against such risks.
The basic mechanics of the mission hedging investment strategy are the following: when a bad industry does well, you as an investor can use your increased profits or dividends to counteract this trend. In other words, the more harm the industry does, e.g. increases CO2 emissions, sells more meat, or is on more on track to create technology that destroys jobs or is otherwise dangerous, the more you will profit and you can then use these profits to prevent the industry from doing bad things (potentially through donations or grants). If the bad industry is not doing well, then you will not profit as much, but you don't need to donate as much anyway because there is less bad activity. So either way, you will always donate a more optimal amount of money in proportion to the bad activity level.
Here is a simple toy model that illustrates the climate change case. First consider, the following figure (taken from) that shows that there is uncertainty about the world’s emission pathway and how how high warming will be above pre industrial levels:
Now consider how the oil price will develop correspondingly:
Now consider the following toy model (The spreadsheet can be found here):
As you can see a $1 million endowment will reap different profits if mission hedging investment principles are used under two different warming scenarios. If warming is relatively mild, at e.g. 1 degrees celsius above preindustrial levels, that means that fewer fossil fuels were burned, and fossil fuel stock didn’t do as well: the resulting profits are below market rate returns at a meager $10,000. However, in the second scenario with 4 degrees of warming above preindustrial levels, it’s likely that more fossil fuel were burned than expected and fossil fuel stocks did very well. The dividends in this case might be above market rate returns at $60,000. Note that the average return with mission hedging ($35,000) of these equally probable scenarios (p=0.5), is lower than the average financial returns if no mission hedging is used ($50,000) because the portfolio is optimally diversified (historically average rate of return is about 5% ).
Now note how the cost-effectiveness of climate change interventions (e.g. saving the rainforest, geoengineering,lobbying for more renewable energy R&D is different in the two warming scenarios): if warming is relatively mild then the cost-effectiveness of the average climate change intervention won’t be as high (here I assign 10 QALYs per $1000 spent). However, if warming gets really severe as in the 4 degrees warming scenario, then the cost-effectiveness of climate change interventions might be much higher at 100 QALYs per $1000 spent. In this case the average number of QALYs gained under mission hedging is higher (3,050 QALYs gained) than the number of QALYs gained without mission hedging (2,750).
However, mission hedging is not necessarily limited to investing endowments on the stock market. Someone interested in career choice, political campaign contributions, or budget allocation amongst different parts of government might also be advised to use mission hedging. For instance, someone worried about the risks associated with a, say, authoritarian leaning political party coming into power or a corporation having large negative externalities and outsized regulatory capture, might invest career capital into that said political party or company and later use it prevent the bad activity.
I list more examples in the table 1 below.
Table 1: Examples of mission hedging investments for different cause areas or missions an altruistic agent might pursue
Mission hedging and related concepts might also be a useful tool to provide partial answers to the following questions:
There are some obvious objections to this strategy. Intuitively, you might think it's better to divest from companies that do things that you think are making the problem worse, because you increase the capital supply to a company that will then create more supply of the socially harmful good. In contradistinction to divestment, the 'mission hedging' strategy explicitly asks you to actually double down on investments in companies you believe to be harmful. However, divestment is unlikely to affect the stock price or the cash flow of the targeted companies at all.
This argument has been made elsewhere in much detail 2,. In brief, if you divest from say, fossil fuel for ethical reasons, then an investor who doesn't care about climate change will happily buy the now undervalued fossil fuel stocks. She might do so by selling her stocks of socially neutral companies (e.g. medical technology corporations) that you now need to buy because you don't want to invest in fossil fuels. The end result is no difference in the allocation in capital or stock price.
Thus, in efficient markets, such as the stock market, no matter how you invest, the companies and their share prices will likely not be affected substantially. Interestingly, the divestment strategy, which has become popular in the context climate change advocacy, is now also adopted in other areas such as open science, where socially responsible investment managers divest from pharma corporations which do not publish all their findings . Thus, it might be increasingly important to prevent attention and resources to be diverted to ineffective divestment strategies.
In any case, the first condition that is crucially important for any area where mission hedging is successfully applied: the market, construed in the broadest sense, that you are investing in must be efficient or else a mission hedging investor risks doing harm instead of good.
So crucially, mission hedging will backfire if markets are inefficient and resources such as time, money and effort would counterfactually enable bad activity. For example, outside of the stock market where markets are less efficient it is easier to cause actually cause bad activity, by, for instance, providing seed funding for a startup to create a new harmful tobacco product . Unlike on the stock market, in this example, the seed investment might not have occurred otherwise and harm is caused by the investor through the invention of technology that might otherwise not have been invented.
The second condition is that, ideally, your investment should not just covary with the bad activity but actually be causing the bad activity. General reasons for why selecting proxy can have undesired consequences have been outlined elsewhere. For example, one might have the intuition that an organisation tasked with ensuring global health such as the WHO, should invest their endowment in the medical device industry: as global health gets worse, more medical devices will be sold and so the WHO will profit, which gives them more resources to improve global health. As global health gets better, fewer medical devices are sold and so the WHO does not need as many resources to fulfill its mission of ensuring good global health. However, medical devices do not cause global ill-health. Even though medical device sales and the stock prices of corporations selling these devices should often covary, they are merely correlated. One can imagine cases where medical devices sell poorly, and yet global health is poor, or cases where medical devices sell very well, but global health is good. This is why it’s better to invest in corporations that directly cause the bad activity, in this case tobacco. However, a portfolio that strongly covaries with the bad activity level might still be good and have fewer reputational risks.
Corporations often hedge against their own mission risks by investing in things that could hurt their profits and they need to report the use of derivatives in their financial statements, including their purpose and its hedging effectiveness . For instance, PHW — a billion-dollar German poultry company — recently invested in a lab grown meat startup and Tyson, a big meat packing corporation invests in plant-based burgers. Similarly, oil companies often invest in solar. If these companies hedge to the extent that an investment in them just represents investing in a diversified portfolio of the whole industry (e.g. the food industry or the energy industry), then mission hedging will not work. However, it seems that in the cases above, the utility maximizing effect will simply be diluted.
The mission hedging investment principle might also work for risks from emerging technology such artificial intelligence, especially in a slow takeoff scenario . However, note that the case has been made that hedging against extreme risks might be difficult (“You cannot short the apocalypse”).
Also, the relationship between the stock price of the objectionable asset class and the cost-effectiveness of the intervention might be nonlinear. For instance, it might have an inverted U shape, in climate change scenario where at first mission hedging applies, the stock price of fossil fuel goes up, and the cost-effectiveness of interventions goes up, but then the stock price might go up even further, yet the cost-effectiveness of doing something against climate change might decrease, because it is too late to do something against climate change.
More complicated financial products might be used to hedge against a risk such as strangles, which are option derivatives that allows the holder to profit based on how much the price of the underlying security moves, with relatively minimal exposure to the direction of price movement.
It might be difficult to find the right corporations to invest in practise. Hedging is a research field within finance that is extensively studied: for instance, there is still active research around what the best hedge against inflation is . It might be non-trivial to figure out how to properly hedge against mission risks.
Interestingly, unlike with divestment strategies where potentially a large majority of total global capital would be needed to divest from companies, collective action of a much smaller percentage of the market using the mission hedging strategy could in some cases actually hurt harmful industries in terms of their stock price.
A big investor or a like-minded, value aligned investor collective could use mission hedging instead of divestment to damage industries that cause bad activity. Recall that if a harmful industry does well the investor collective (or large foundation endowment) will profit relatively more and can ramp up their anti-industry activities (such as lobbying against it). If an investor collective and their activity became widely known, such that the market would anticipate its actions, stock prices would go down inevitably. Stock prices would not even go up in the face of ‘positive shocks’ in that industry. Why is that? Imagine a new oil reservoir being discovered. Normally, the market would respond by buying more shares in the company that has discovered this reservoir and the price of shares would go up. However, if the market knows that there's an investor collective that will profit from this and actually use these profits to fight the industry from making further profits of fossil fuels, they might not invest despite the positive shock. There would be nowhere for the stock price to go but down. The rest of the market might divest from industries that are known to be under 'attack' of such a collective.
However, it is important to carefully consider whether the combined capital of such a collective is really large enough to affect the industry and are not dwarfed by counter lobbying activities of the harmful corporations that are trying to maximize shareholder value of socially neutral investors.
By definition, ‘big X- industries’, i.e. Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Tobacco etc., that have negative externalities make billions in profits. However, one can use a bit of game theory in order to not need to take on the entire industry: a mission hedging investor (collective) could publically commit to always take on the current market leader with investment and lobbying and thus threaten a larger share of the market at once. This is similar to the strategies employed by some animal advocacy groups, which declare that they will not stop putting public pressure on a fast food chain until they only use cage free eggs in their products.
In any case, the size of the mission hedging collective would have to be much smaller to drive down stock prices than the size of a divestment collective. This is because a small percentage of socially neutral investors with access to capital could always buy up sin stocks by using leverage, even if trillions of dollars of assets under management have already been divested from fossil fuel stocks. They can do so with because they have the prospect of slightly higher than market rate returns due the exploitation of investors who use the divestment strategy and they can borrow for less than the market rate returns, thus clearing the market.
Another example: governments could use a fixed percentage of their tobacco tax revenue to counteract smoking (e.g. by running public health campaigns). This would make the industry less lucrative for investors, because the industry is working against itself - the better the companies do in terms of selling tobacco, the higher the tax receipts the government can use to educate smokers to quit.
One last example, one could buy life insurance for political dissidents in authoritarian regimes that receive death threats and announce that one would donate the proceeds to efforts to fight the regime.
One way to implement this mechanism would be using self-executing smart contracts on the blockchain, that would pay out in these cases.
When investing in a company that causes bad activity one can also use shareholder activism and try to reduce bad activity from within the industry. This is another advantage as compared to divestment.
Some foundations have trying to reduce some uncertainty on how to allocate resources amongst different causes to different buckets . Investment using mission hedging might also be a way to optimize resource allocation between different missions or causes that an altruist thinks are likely to be important.
Imagine you want to make your donations or decide on your foundations strategy on how much you're going to spend on different causes. Let’s say you decide based on moral and cost-effectiveness grounds that you will allocate 60% of your resources to animal welfare causes, 30% to try to prevent risks from advanced technology and 10% to global health at the end of the year.
You might not want to simply allocate the profits of your endowment by allocating, 60% to animal welfare causes, 30% to technological risks and 10% global health, based on how pressing and important each of the causes you think are. Rather, you could use the wisdom of the crowds (here the crowd is the market) to finesse those estimates and decide at the beginning of the year to invest 60% in meat industry stocks, 30% in technology stock, and 10% in tobacco stock. At the end of the year you allocate the profits or dividends to organisations in the respective cause areas. Then, relative to how well the different industries do that year, you will assign relatively more or less money to each cause (e.g. because tobacco stocks did very well and you have relatively more money in the global health portfolio, you end up with 15% of your overall donations going to tobacco control and because technology profits were poor this year, you only donate 20% of your overall donation to nonprofits working on technological risk prevention).
Why is this be a more optimal strategy? There are two major reasons:
This strategy can be added on top off other prioritization considerations (e.g. scenario analyses as described in).
Mission hedging might not only work for endowments of foundations, but also for budgets of big international organisations or government departments with multiple mandates, or even with government budgets. As a foundation one could also offer this as a ‘banking service’ where one pays the grant into an account that is invested according to mission hedging principles and the charity can spend based on this.
It might be good to convince not only foundation to skew their endowments, but also convince international institutions or governments to use mission hedging for their ‘endowments’ or accounts.
Consider for instance the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The IMFs stated mission is “to foster global monetary cooperation, secure financial stability, facilitate international trade, promote high employment and sustainable economic growth, and reduce poverty around the world." .
The IMF has billions in assets. However, even though the IMF diversifies its assets by geography and asset classes against market risks, and hedges against foreign exchange volatility etc., it seems to to not hedge against mission risks.
The IMF could consider skewing their portfolio towards technology companies which have been suggested to create technological unemployment, in order to have more money so that it has more resources to ensure its mission of promoting high employment in case technology companies do well.
There appear to be many such international funds which might want to invest their endowments using mission hedging principles (e.g. another is the Strategic Climate Fund ).
Mission hedging might also be a strategy for career choice, where time is invested to hedge against risks that threaten one's mission or cause. For instance, one might believe that tobacco companies are particularly harmful, but choose to work at a tobacco corporation. After investing career capital one can use this to work against the harmful corporation in case it becomes particularly harmful. This might occur in the form lobbying for more socially responsible behaviour within the company, whistleblowing, industrial sabotage or earning to give with higher wages or equity in a harmful industry.
Note that 80,000 Hours has written a whole article on “Is it ever okay to take a harmful job in order to do more good? An in-depth analysis.”. They usually recommends against doing this:
“We believe that in the vast majority of cases, it’s a mistake to pursue a career in which the direct effects of the work are seriously harmful, even if the overall benefits of that work seem greater than the harms.”
However, potentially this behaviour might be particularly effective if the company is on the verge of performing a particularly harmful action that other competitors would likely not perform. Note that this is a related, but slightly different and extended argument from the classical ‘earning to give in socially harmful industries’ and not simply an argument for high replaceability.
As mentioned above, whether mission hedging will work when it comes to careers will crucially depend on whether the job market is efficient in the sector. Big publicly traded company or big bank has many job applicants and when one takes a job with them, one only replaces a competitor who is only marginally less capable worker from working at the company by taking a job in a harmful industry (this is of course not say that all work at big corporations or in finance is socially harmful). However, joining a smaller, socially harmful business that has a harder time finding competent workers and less efficient hiring, might actively cause harm because there is a better chance that contributing to the success of the business will cause counterfactual harm over and above what the next candidate in line would have caused.
Finally, this strategy might be particularly effective when dealing with extreme, high stakes, low probability risks. For instance, someone might have the highest impact in terms of expected value by having a career in the military or the secret service. Even though the modal outcome of this career might not be very impactful, in the unlikely event of a war, military government etc., one’s impact might be very high. Thus joining the military might have the highest counterfactual impact in terms of expected value. Historical analysis suggests that soldiers have sometimes single handedly prevented nuclear war. Another example would be working at a leading artificial intelligence company that could create dangerous technology and using whistleblowing when they are on the verge of a breakthrough.
One could argue that political donations occur in ‘efficient markets’ as well. In the past US elections, there have been cases in which billionaires donated a few millions, i.e. a tiny fraction of their networth (0.1% percent) to other billionaires campaigns (for instance, Peter Thiel donated to Donald Trump). These billionaires might have funded their campaigns themselves if it had not been for the donation. In exchange these billionaires might have gained political influence due to their contribution, which can be used to further their mission and to counteract bad activity from a bad politician, even though counterfactually the donation didn’t have any influence as the politician would have been funded anyway.
Someone who does ‘earning to give' might want to skew their personal retirement fund towards technology companies, if they feel their job is at risk due to technological unemployment. They might also want to invest outside of the economy they work in , in case it does poorly and the person doing earning to give is unable to relocate. They might also want to buy disability insurance.
It would be interesting to know whether big sovereign wealth fund / pension funds such as the Norwegian pension fund already do this (hedge against risks to their economy, technological unemployment, shifting demographics to a population with fewer people in working age). Much thought goes into how to invest $25 trillion in private pensions funds in OECD countries in a way that is best for their investors. The answer to this question might elucidate whether this mission hedging strategy has flaws, is difficult to implement in practise, etc.
Interestingly, mission hedging decidedly skews the portfolio away from diversification and thus does not maximize risk-adjusted financial returns. Most endowments are trying to maximize financial returns, but with mission hedging one moves away from an optimally diversified, (passively invested) global market portfolio. Thus, one will likely sacrifice financial returns. For a ‘cause neutral’ agent, who doesn’t have a mission, favourite cause, or mandate, it might be best to not sacrifice the flexibility of switching causes and rather invest purely as to maximize financial returns. This is similar to the strategy of building up career capital in the face of uncertainty about what the most important cause is.
Also, because mission hedging is somewhat counterintuitive and people might be repulsed by being associated as profiting from e.g. evil corporations, there might be reputational risks associated with it that need to be factored in. If this is a decisive factor, then it might be better to buy stocks that are merely correlate with bad activity - such as buying stock in the pharmaceutical industry rather than the tobacco industry. One could also buy derivatives that merely track the stock price, and which would be de facto stocks for all intents and purposes, but an investor would not ‘own’ part the company.
However, there might be a way of using some upsides of mission hedging without investing in what might be seen as morally reprehensible companies. Say your foundation focuses on two rather than one focus areas (which in itself might be suboptimal). Say area 1 is animal welfare and area 2 is global poverty. Your prior intuition is that these areas are equally important and you assign a 50-50 split of your annual disbursements to these two cause areas. Now, you could invest your entire endowment in stock in the developing world countries where your foundation supports say cash-transfer program. We will assume that corporations in those country doing well causes poverty reduction and they are not seen as morally reprehensible. Now, relative to how the developing world stock portfolio does you decide to invest excess profits (over the standard stock market return) to the other area (here animal welfare). If the developing world stock does well, you might not need to invest as much in poverty reduction, and have more funds for the more neglected animal welfare area. If the stock doesn’t do as well, and there are no excess profits, it is better to stick closer to the original 50-50 split.
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