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Jerry Bowyer Christian Blog and Commentary

In his annual letter to corporations in 2018, Larry Fink, CEO of the world’s largest asset management company Blackrock, wrote: "Unnerved by fundamental economic changes and the failure of government to provide lasting solutions, society is increasingly looking to companies, both public and private, to address pressing social and economic issues." What are these pressing social and economic issues? Mr. Fink went on to explain that those issues include protecting the environment, gender and racial inequality, and retirement; otherwise known as ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) investing.

According to the management company Opimas, the ESG investment market is skyrocketing, driven by a growing share of investors and companies implementing strategies that include ESG criteria in their proxy voting and company selection criteria. With $23 trillion in assets under management in 2016, Opimas estimates the ESG investment market grew to more than $30 trillion in 2018, with half of assets located in Europe.

Major traditional institutional investors—pension funds, insurers and asset managers—have already embraced the approach, with Japan’s Government Pension Investment Fund, Europe’s Amundi, and US based asset management firms like State Street, Vanguard and Blackrock, for example, integrating ESG factors across the investment process and proxy-voting practices.  

The ESG movement highlights two major investment trends from shareholders relationship with companies: 

Stewardship - Shareholders are asking companies to focus on people and the planet; not just their profit.

Engagement - Shareholders are actively engaging companies to impact corporate policy. 

As Mr. Fink highlights in his shareholder letter, companies should be held responsible for addressing the major issues facing the world. The cultural impact has begun with HR policies being implemented in many public companies to address corporate diversity programs and significant capital is being deployed by companies to create environmental assessments and programs to not be labeled as irresponsible.

This article proposes a framework for a biblical approach to corporate stewardship and engagement. 

Stewardship

We start with the Creation story. Prior to the fall, Adam and Eve were tasked with the management of the Garden of Eden, the subduing of the earth and the filling of it. They had a responsibility to perform “work,” and their tasks were blessed by God.

After the fall, however, pain and frustration became associated with these same tasks. Eve is told in Genesis 3:16, “With painful labor you will give birth to children.” Adam is told: “Through painful toil you will eat food from [the ground] all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you.. […] By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food” (3:17b–19a).

Finally, God moves Adam and Eve out of the Garden and closes the door on its economic structure, banishing humanity into a new model of sustenance. In the Garden, there had been balance, with God as the ultimate source of provision and the earth the tool through which He provided. Now work is toilsome, painful, and frustrating. Before, God had created all that was needed, and there was wholesome balance. Now, there is the potential for scarcity and lack. To not work meant to not eat. While God remained (and still remains) the ultimate source, after the Fall, Adam’s actions more directly factored into Adam’s supply.

This puts humankind at the center of the stewardship mandate. Our actions have consequences. How we respect life, treat each other, and the creation determines our present and future level of human flourishing. Company’s decisions also have consequences and it is with this Biblical focus on humanity as made in the image of God with inherent dignity that a new system of actively engagement with company decisions be developed.   

The effort’s focus will be on the protecting the sanctity and dignity of life with the belief that people are the solution to our world’s challenges; not the problem. It is a positive message believing in an abundance vs. scarcity mentality. 

The application of this effort is for companies to be evaluated which could help investors vote proxies, help develop pro-dignity policies to solve challenges and help boards and leaders refocus their policies in a pro-human agenda. 

The approach starts with a set of positive affirmations:

  • We believe that people are the source of productivity
  • We believe that leadership and governance that respect human dignity increases productivity
  • We believe that with increased productivity comes increased abundance
  • We believe that abundance creates innovative solutions to enhance everyone’s lives

These affirmations would then be used to address the following problems:

Leadership and Governance

  • For officers and directors to act as stewards of shareholder wealth
  • For independent and engaged boards of directors
  • For officer and director’s diversity of thought and experience
  • For incentive structures to dignify people and create shareholder value

Social Issues

  • For human rights in the employment and supply chain
  • For equal rights of all people
  • For religious liberty to protect people’s right to follow their consciences
  • For protection of the sanctity of life

Environment

  • For good efficient use of natural resources
  • For considering all environmental policies through lens of impact on people first
  • For policies that believe people can solve the environmental issue

To further this approach pointing to an example: North and South Korea. This is the starkest difference on earth of governance styles on how it dignifies vs. uses people. As the picture reveals symbolically light (progress) and darkness (stagnation), the table reveals some key metrics.  

Productivity per capita is dramatically higher in the South. Medically, South Korea is far more advanced with much lower infant mortality rates and longer life expectancies. When it comes to the primary criteria of environmental concerns, CO2 emissions, South Korea produces almost four times the amount of CO2 than North Korea.  

Looking through the human dignity and sanctity evaluation criteria, South Korea receives a strong leadership, governance and social score while the environmental score appears problematic. This is where the human dignity centered view of leadership and governance policies consider the use of energy to create more capital for medical advancements. This doesn’t excuse the leadership and governance from addressing any potential environmental impact, but policy changes should be balanced with the impact to people.    

Engagement

Shareholder engagement historically has been associated with activist investors. Think Michael Douglas in the movie Wall Street where the character Gordan Gekko attempts to get control of a company by convincing the shareholders in the annual shareholder meeting to get new management so they can shut down the business and sell off the assets.

Outside of activist investors, largely shareholders have been silent on corporate issues and mostly vote with corporate management or boycott companies by screening out companies that investors find socially irresponsible.

For too long Christians are known for what we are against vs. what we are for. Engaging companies with a positive message of being for people can help shape company policy. But this influence can only be done if Christians’ voices are heard. Like the civic duty of voting on public policy, we should also vote proxies and influence corporate policy. To do that effectively we need to be shareholders. We should not be fearful isolating ourselves to remain pure but instead boldly engage the world knowing Jesus is the purifier of the world.

Summary

The world of ideas that shape culture will be greatly influenced by companies. Christians can influence these companies and therefore the culture with a positive pro-human message. Christians should start by choosing to engage (in accordance with each Christian’s conscience) rather than boycott companies. Creating an outreach effort to evaluate companies to encourage them to protect and dignify life is a method for corporate cultural impact.

[1] 2015 CIA Factbook

[2] 2017 CIA Factbook

[3] 2016 World Bank

[4] CO2 emissions (metric tons per capita). Carbon dioxide emissions are those stemming from the burning of fossil fuels and the manufacture of cement. They include carbon dioxide produced during consumption of solid, liquid, and gas fuels and gas flaring.  Source:  NationMaster

This article provides a biblically rooted view of wealth creation and investing.  It originates from a document written for Ronald Blue & Co. (now Ronald Blue Trust) in helping create their Principles-Based Investing philosophy.  The original document’s primary contributors were Ken Boa  and Jerry Bowyer.  The original text has been edited for general audience readership. 

The complexities of a worldwide, digitally connected capital market system obviously did not exist in biblical times.

But we can learn how others have historically incorporated (or not incorporated) certain basic biblical truths into current, widely-held economic theory.

To help you navigate today’s economic waters, in this final part, we offer a basic overview and comparison of the main schools of economic thought, along with an examination of them in relation to the biblical worldview.

Two Main Schools: Keynesian & Classical

The two most prevalent schools of economic thought in a free society are classical economics and Keynesian economics. Fundamental presuppositions about the world and humanity (i.e., a worldview) underlie each of these schools. Before delving deeper, here is a brief overview of the ideas of each, framed by three key questions:

Classical vs. Keynesian Economics


 How is wealth created?

  • Classical: Production, savings
  • Keynesian: Demand, spending

What’s government’s role in how wealth is created?

  • Classical: Protect the producer
  • Keynesian: Stimulate demand

What’s the view of money as a measure of exchange and wealth?

  • Classical: Stable currency is the goal
  • Keynesian: Breakdown into randomness; devaluing of currency

Today, Keynesian economics utterly dominates the academic, political, and financial worlds. It’s also the view held by most 21st-century Americans.

Despite its prevalence, Keynesian theory is often invoked with no reference at all to the rather unusual personal views and life choices of its namesake. Yet, the philosophical underpinnings of this theory are important to know, especially given that Keynesian economics has been (and continues to be) used to justify a radical restructuring of the U.S. economy.

Keynesian Economics

British economist John Maynard Keynes (1883–1946) grew up during a time of spiritual and intellectual revolution at the turn of the 20th century. He was educated at Cambridge University, where he was an influential member of the elite club called the Cambridge Apostles. This intellectual society, as the name implies, was initially founded as a Christian organization, but by the time of Keynes, it was intensely hostile to biblical faith. Views of group members were generally atheistic, amoral, antipatriotic, and anti-heterosexual.

Keynes was highly active, even a dominant leader, in this group. That period in the history of the Apostles also included G.E. Moore, who went on to become one of the most influential atheists of the 20th century. Other notable members (who came after Keynes) include Bertrand Russell, whose essay “Why I Am Not a Christian” made him the most influential popularizer of atheism of his time, as well as Ludwig Wittgenstein, who denied the existence not only of God, but of any knowledge beyond the senses.

The views of the Cambridge Apostles went far beyond mere intellectual skepticism about the existence of God, wading into blasphemous statements.

Keynes’s Moral Compass

Keynes’s skepticism about the existence of a supernatural God, did not extend to the realm of ghosts and spirits. He was a regular participant in—and even a promoter of—séances and other occult events. Along with God, the moral law also came under attack. Moore said that there was no God and, as a consequence, that there was no objective, God-given moral law. Keynes, who helped get Moore into the club in the first place saw eye to eye with him on this:

We entirely repudiated a personal liability on us to obey general rules. We claimed the right to judge every individual case on its merits, and the wisdom to do so successfully. This was a very important part of our faith, violently and aggressively held, and for the outer world it was our most obvious and dangerous characteristic. We repudiated entirely customary morals, conventions and traditional wisdom. We were, that is to say, in the strict sense of the term, immoralists. The consequences of being found out had, of course, to be considered for what they were worth. But we recognized no moral obligation on us, no inner sanction, to conform or obey.
 —J.M. Keynes (in his Collected Writings)

The view of Keynes and the rest of the group on morality was especially focused on one area: sexual morality. The Apostles were committed to the idea that homosexual relations were highly superior to heterosexual ones, a view which they referred to as “the higher sodomy.” This is distinct from most LGBT activists in modern society, whose views range from a request for toleration to a demand for equality. The Apostles did not want equality; they believed that their way of life was superior. This view was so prevalent among members of this exclusive club that some socially ambitious members feigned homosexuality in order to be accepted.

Keynes was not only a participant in this ethic, but in some sense the chief proponent of it during his time there. To a large degree this aspect of the group was driven by an intense dislike of women. Later in life, when Keynes became a professor at Cambridge, he opposed having women in his classes.[1]

The Keynesian Model

What does any of this have to do with economics? Quite a lot, actually.

In some ways, Keynesianism can be viewed as an economic theory designed to attack and destroy the Victorian ideal of thrift. The time of Keynes’s childhood was a time of global political and economic dominance of the world by the British empire under the watchful eyes of Queen Victoria. That society admired monogamy, hard work, faith, and savings. Debauchery, laziness, and debt were discouraged. A great nation was one that accumulated capital and left it for the use of the next generation.

Keynes turned that on its head, arguing against what he called the “puritan” view, which discouraged debt and encouraged savings. When someone asked Keynes about the long-run effects of his policies, he quipped, “In the long run we are all dead.”[2]

Most people don’t think this way. Most people think of the long run as the time period when their children and grandchildren will live. Unless, of course, they’ve adapted to a way of living that leaves them without children.

Some, like Mark Skousen in his Making of Modern Economics (London and New York: Routledge, 2002, 2008, 2016) have suggested that the anti-woman views of Keynes and his circle had an effect on his economic model. Keynes, Skousen notes, saw thrift as a feminine virtue, a view which may well be a biblical one (e.g., see Proverbs 31); thus, it’s possible his rejection of women influenced his rejection of thrift.

Intellectualism & Breakdown into Randomness

Behind all of this may lie intellectual pride. When the young Keynes was asked how to pronounce his name, he said, “Keynes, as in brains.” He was given to disdain for those he viewed as less intelligent than himself: women, members of the working class, even his examiners at Cambridge. The Apostles was a highly exclusive club, openly based on intellectual merit—although, strangely enough, the group was made up almost exclusively of philosophers and literary men. No economists except Keynes, and no actual physical scientists, were members during his time there.

This intellectual pride made it easy to reject the accumulated wisdom of past generations. Whatever principles had been gleaned from centuries of trial and error were treated as obsolete. In fact, Keynes denied the existence of economic principles altogether, stating at one point, “All the same I am afraid of ‘principle.’ … Nearly all our difficulties have been traceable to an unaltering service to the principles of ‘sound finance’ which all our neighbors have neglected. . . Wasn’t it Lord Melbourne who said that ‘No statesman ever does anything really foolish except on principle?”

With no principles, we’re left with only an elite class of geniuses to solve our economic and social problems. Keynes’s economic theory emphasized the ignorance of business entrepreneurs and investors, toward whom he had an intense disdain. His theory also emphasized the ability of planning elites to manipulate interest rates, credit, and money value to create a world of zero scarcity. He and many of his circle went beyond economic management to endorse management of the human species itself.

Despite his extremely high level of intellectual confidence, throughout his life Keynes expressed doubt about the ability for humans to know anything about economics, finance, probability, or any of the questions that had plagued his life. He and his followers have had a great deal of trouble forecasting economic and market trends, a fact that they blame on the irrationality of market participants, not on the failings of their model. But as the Keynesian model proved more and more unsuccessful at predicting, or even explaining, the world, Keynes’s followers began to move away from the high levels of mathematical confidence of their teacher and more toward models that treat the economy as random, and the world as unknowable. Among the more prominent American followers of Keynesianism have been U.S. presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. 

Classical Economics

Founded in 1776 with the publication of Adam Smith’s book The Wealth of Nations, classical economics is believed to have influenced the thoughts and practices of the founders of the United States. Among the developers of classical economics were Adam Smith, John Locke, and J.B. Say.

In the 20th century, classical economics was modernized by American economists (most prominently, Milton Friedman). As it has been updated, it may also be referred to as the Chicago School of Economics or monetarism. Terms typically linked with classical economics include free-market economics and supply-side economics.

The primary tenets of classical economics include (but are not limited to) the following:

  • Say’s law: It is the productivity of people which is the basis of consumption. When we are productive, we exchange our production with others. We earn first, and that earning is the basis of consumption.
  • Individuals, as they are free to pursue their economic interests, will create the most balanced and highly functional society.
  • Government should have a limited role in managing a nation’s economy.
  • Earning and saving should be encouraged over spending.

Comparing the Two Schools 

It’s not hard to see how classical economics incorporates biblical principles in multiple ways, while Keynesian economics strays from it. Let’s take a look at how the two compare.

The Ideal Economy

Classical: Government’s role is important but limited; a self-regulating market is best in the long run, leading to the greatest prosperity for its people.

Explanation: The ideal economy is primarily a self-regulating market system that fulfills the needs of its people. Government has an important role, but is limited to certain sectors (e.g., defense, roads, etc.). Government should emphasize personal responsibility (and reward) as preferable to government responsibility or manipulation. Letting capitalism or the free markets take their course leads to the greatest prosperity for the greatest number over the long term.

Keynesian: Economies are so complex that they require management by a central organization, which is typically a central government.

Explanation: Private sector decisions sometimes result in inefficient economic outcomes (e.g., high unemployment, low capacity utilization, etc.). The required or preferred prevention (or correction) according to Keynesians is government intervention, including central bank monetary policies designed to stimulate the economy and other government actions to stabilize output over the business cycle. The objective is to increase economic activity and aggregate demand while decreasing unemployment, and deflation or lack of inflation. Keynesian economics advocates government intervention in the setting of interest rates and government investment in the general economy (primarily to elevate employment levels).

Human Nature & Work

  

Classical: Thriftiness is good; planning financially for the future and giving to philanthropic causes are good values and should be encouraged. Demand needs no stimulation; government should reward (rather than deter) hard work, investment, and savings.

Explanation: The worker/saver/investor is a hero: an individual’s thrift is a virtue, and the individual’s capital investment in businesses is socially beneficial. Delay of gratification to provide for future needs (e.g., through family savings and giving to philanthropic causes) is a praiseworthy value. The decision to invest is good for all of society, as jobs are created and profits are reinvested and multiplied. Through work and investment, the individual creates wealth.

Because of human nature (cf. Ecclesiastes 5:10), demand needs no encouragement; people’s desire for more and improved goods and services is infinite. Government efforts to stimulate economic demand should not be encouraged; public policies should promote reward for work, investment, and savings, rather than deterring these virtues. When the rich get richer, all classes of society benefit (the tide raises all boats) as the overall standard of living rises due to a nation’s prosperity.

Keynesian: Public policy should be used to increase demand either via government spending or by encouraging private spending. Thrift comes with a paradox: if everyone saves during times of recession, the economy as a whole suffers.

Explanation: Non-classical economists (Keynesians and other demand-side economists) generally default to blaming economic downturns to individuals’ underspending. These lags in society’s economic growth need to be stimulated by central intervention or stimulus, whether fiscal or monetary. Keynes called this “the paradox of thrift.” The paradox states that if everyone saves more money during times of recession, then aggregate demand will continue to fall and a normal recession’s decrease in consumption and economic growth will further increase savings rates. By government reducing interest rates to very low levels, the theory states that savings will eventually be less attractive, and people will choose to spend more, resulting in a healthier economy. In this case, Keynes says public policy must be used to increase demand either by government spending or by encouraging private spending.

A case in point is the period after 9/11. Following that date as well as the earlier bursting of the tech bubble, the Federal Reserve reduced interest rates to historically low levels and maintained low rates for several years in an effort to stimulate the economy.

The Nature of Money

Classical: Money is a medium of exchange and should not be used as a tool to manipulate an economy.  

Explanation: Money is simply the alternative to the awkward and expensive system of barter and exists to promote capital accumulation and trade. To do its job most effectively, money must remain stable in its value. If money falls in value (cheaper dollars), inflation results. Inflation punishes savers because it erodes the value of their holdings. Thus, inflation promotes current spending, decreases long-term investment, and ultimately diminishes productivity. For these reasons, classical economics places great emphasis on the soundness of currency. While there are differences within the classical school about the means of maintaining a stable currency—some favoring a gold or other commodity-based standard, and others targeting the general price level—classical economists agree about the end goal: stable money. They believe that interest rates are best determined by the market supply and demand, rather than being manipulated for a political or social agenda.

Capital flows where it is welcome, and capital stays where it is well-treated. Societies that follow the classical model, such as the United States during most of its history, are magnets for capital, attracting investment by its citizens and from around the world. Societies that follow other, more state-controlled economic theories, generally do not attract capital. The best example is the contrast between the economies of the former Soviet-bloc countries and those of the West. Over the second half of the 20th century, the standard of living rose for individuals living in the West, as capital investment produced wealth and increased standards of living for all workers. In the centrally-controlled economies of communist regimes, citizens had standards of living that were represented by empty store shelves and lack of productivity. Capital is the principal means by which labor is made more productive, earnings are increased, and wealth is created.

Nations primarily determine their economic environment. Classical models place wealth creation at the center of the economy and encourage and reward wise investment. While it is true that many short-term factors such as the political, cultural, and spiritual climate of the age, affect money flows into and out of various investment vehicles, and that many of these factors are emotional, it also true that long-term investment returns in a classical model will revert to a mean and are somewhat predictable. Healthy political, cultural, and spiritual climates all combine to affect the general favorability of wealth creation and resulting investment returns.  

Other factors that inhibit the creation of wealth include government policies that impede the free functioning of commerce and that dissipate capital through higher taxes to fund increasing numbers of government-sponsored programs. Unstable and changing tax requirements and business law preclude effective planning, operations, and expansion. Governmental policies that do not offer stability do not enhance the production of wealth.  

Keynesian: Money is a means to manipulate demand levels, rather than a fixed medium of exchange. Government stimuli are encouraged and represent one example of a way it can manage demand.

Explanation: Believing that capital accumulation (savings) can have harmful side effects, such as reduced consumer demand, proponents of demand-side economics recommend “expansive: monetary policy (characterized by low short-term interest rates) as a means of economic recovery. Give people cheap money and they are happy to spend it. Keynesians’ objective is to make currency less valuable (e.g., inflated), since an increased money supply causes a scarcity of goods and prices to rise—discouraging savings, because goods will cost more tomorrow than today.

This cheap monetary stimulus is often used with other stimuli such as tax and government policy to manage consumer demand and the general economy. Any stimulus is seen as a tool of demand management. When warned that such policies increase the risk of inflation, demand-side economists typically reply that stimulating demand is the point, and that the long-term consequences can be dealt with later, or not at all.  

The Problems in the Foundation

Intellectual Breakdown & Elitism  

The financial philosophy of “randomness”—of which Keynesianism is the most prominent example—naturally emerges after intellectualism breaks down. No wonder this theory has become so popular in today’s postmodern, post-reason world.

Think of it this way: Thinkers who reject the existence of any design in the world also reject the existence of any fundamental principles with which to understand the world. Needing, nevertheless, to try to make sense of the current or future economy, they rely on what they believe to be their own superior intellects. But even the greatest of minds cannot make sense of the world, without some set of guiding principles that provide context and conform (in some way) with the world’s design.

Instead of acknowledging the failure of their models, intellectual elites take the random fallback position and blame the world for not making any sense. Breakdown from intellectualism to elitism occurred in America about the time that Keynesian economics was beginning to be applied as a new foundation for financial theory. Various thinkers in academia succeeded in transforming the proven financial principles through academic journals, then business schools, and finally government and Wall Street. 

Risk as Volatility

One of the changes that occurred was the redefinition of risk. This term is now equated with variance or volatility, rather than some violation of foundational principles in economic policies. This redefinition has implications for how you invest, and whether, in the process, you ignore risk factors such as current inflation, high debt levels, and lapses in the rule of law. The result?

A sort of “financial engineering” that caused key players in finance and government to grossly underestimate the riskiness of various real estate–backed bond portfolios.[3]

Worldview-Level Mistakes

These mistakes are not errors due to the lack of intelligence. Many of the greatest minds in the world enter careers in finance and economics. These mistakes are due to faulty ideas at the foundational worldview level, notably that humans are not designed, but randomly mutated; that our minds are driven by animalistic instincts; and that no objective standards of morality or knowledge are available from which to discern patterns of cause and effect. Once one makes such assumptions, it is natural that one would either look for a brilliant intellect to lead us through the darkness, or give up and believe that the darkness is impenetrable.

But neither is true. We have been given principles from which to reason, and though we may misunderstand them and therefore only “see through a glass darkly,” we still to some degree see dangers and hide ourselves from them.

Randomness may seem like humility, but at heart it is arrogance, because it refuses to acknowledge basic facts of life obvious to genuinely humble people of ordinary intelligence. As the great Christian journalist G.K. Chesterton said:

But what we suffer from today is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert—himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt—the Divine Reason…

At any street corner we may meet a man who utters the frantic and blasphemous statement that he may be wrong. Every day one comes across somebody who says that of course his view may not be the right one. … We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table.[4]

Series Conclusion

God has positioned us as stewards of the resources he has entrusted to us. God provides the root of creation and the starting point for all healthy and sustainable economic models. Humans reflect God’s creative nature, and, as a result, are creative by nature. The creation of wealth is a natural expression of this nature.

We have seen distinct pre- and post-fall economies represented in the Bible, and, as those who live in the post-fall economy, we recognize that our decisions affect our current economic realities. An unhealthy focus on consumption and individual perceived needs tends to lead to the downfall of economic systems, while a focus on investment and the needs of others creates healthier economic and social structures.

Investing with the expectation of a return commensurate with the associated risk is a biblical premise. However, we must carefully assess the potential risk factors involved in a particular investment strategy. The complex, sinful nature of humanity, for example, is a central component of risk in our current fallen world. Furthermore, the value a society and/or individual places on covenant keeping and humility are other factors of risk. Governmental manipulation can be either positive or negative with respect to creating a sense of prosperity during times of scarcity.

As believers, what we do with our money and resources is intricately connected to our beliefs. We’d do well to attune ourselves to God’s Word, His Spirit, and the collective wisdom of His people; from there, our charge is to faithfully steward what God has given us—giving, saving, investing, and spending with the next generations and, ultimately, eternity in mind.

[1] For more detail on Keynes’s life, see D.E. Moggridge’s Maynard Keynes: An Economist’s Biography (London and New York: Routledge, 1992).

[2] This quote can be found in Keynes’s Tract on Monetary Reform (p. 80).

[3] Residential real estate and bonds are historically relatively low in volatility (i.e., low-risk investments) compared to stocks, commodities of currencies.

[4] Chesterton, Orthodoxy, in Heretics/Orthodoxy (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2000), 192–193.

Photo Credit: ©Unsplash/Jace Afsoon

This article provides a biblically rooted view of wealth creation and investing.  It originates from a document written for Ronald Blue & Co. (now Ronald Blue Trust) in helping create their Principles-Based Investing philosophy.  The original document’s primary contributors were Ken Boa and Jerry Bowyer.  The original text has been edited for general audience readership.

It is impossible to invest without some measure of risk being involved.

If choosing not to consume all of the seed allows a man to plant a new crop for the following year, any return on that investment involves the risk of the crop failing and there being nothing to show for one’s labor. For faith-based investors, any attempt to wisely steward resources must involve a choice about how much risk, and what type of risk, is appropriate and acceptable.

Risk Factors in Investing

#1 The Risk Within Us (Human Sinfulness)

To begin with, we must acknowledge that the complex and sinful nature of humans introduced—and continues to create—the possibility of risk. Adam and Eve’s terrible choice in the garden introduced new societal factors. For the first time in history, a man failed to take responsibility for his own actions (Genesis 3:12). Furthermore, the ground itself came under a curse and began to produce thorns and thistles. The reliability of the earth’s fruitfulness was disrupted, creating an environment where one never knew, from season to season, whether one’s investment would pay off. Even if the environmental conditions were right, the person given responsibility for tending the crops might fail to complete his or her duties, or act lazily and blame his or her laziness on someone else.

Adam and Eve’s son, Cain, introduced a new level of risk to the environment, choosing to exercise outright contempt for the welfare of his own brother, and exhibiting jealousy and greed for the sake of personal gain and recognition. Thus, sinful impulses became a risk factor in our world. The sin nature of humanity now factors into every investment decision we make.

Our own sinfulness, as well as the sinfulness of others, cannot be overlooked as a potential risk factor. Jeremiah 17:9 states, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?”

We must not only carefully examine our own intentions, but also the intentions of the individuals and companies behind the investments we make. For this reason, every faith-based investor must join the psalmist in praying:

Turn my heart toward your statutes and not toward selfish gain. Turn my eyes away from worthless things; preserve my life according to your word. (Psalm 119:36–37 NIV).

#2 The Value Placed on Covenant Keeping

Besides personal sinfulness of ourselves and others, another prominent risk factor is the amount of value a society or an individual places on covenant keeping. A covenant is a biblical practice of pledging to obligate oneself, one’s household, or one’s offspring to another person.

“Cutting covenant” was the foundation for much of present-day contract law. It signified a promise and ceremonially sealed it with the intermixing of blood. It bound one person to the other, or even one tribe to another, often for generations.

Definition: Covenant

A biblical practice of pledging to obligate oneself, one’s household, or one’s offspring to another person.

Historically, covenants contained several components. There was an agreement (terms). There was some form of sacrifice (consideration). There was an oath required, and there were witnesses. We can see parallels to an investment agreement today. There is an understanding of terms and an offering to sacrifice personal funds to enter into an agreement with another, based on the other party’s oath to repay the invested funds.

It is the recipient’s capacity, history, and dispositions toward keeping this covenant that factors into how risky a particular investment is. First, we must ask if we are investing in a known commodity that has shown a history of successful repayments and consistent production. If so, there is likely a lower risk involved in this investment. If, however, the investment is in either an unknown area of development or is with an unknown party, this lack of credible history creates a higher level of risk. Further, if a party’s disposition toward covenant keeping has been shown to be inconsistent, based on prior defaults, investment failures, or erratic behavior, the associated risk will reflect such instability.

The Bible tells us that “a double-minded man” is “unstable in all his ways” (James 1:8). We may also add that an unstable man should be considered a high-risk investment!

Throughout the Bible, God is clearly shown to be a covenant-keeping God, and He requires His people to be a covenant-keeping people. Today, the government’s manipulation of an economy can affect how a covenant is kept. Bankruptcy laws may make a person less likely to repay their debts. Inflation allows a borrower to repay a lender with less valuable currency.

#3 Government Manipulation

Beyond human sinfulness and disposition towards covenant keeping, we must also remember that governmental manipulation can create the impression of prosperity during a time of scarcity. This may not seem like a potential risk factor at first, but the consequences of overlooking it may be significant, either positively and negatively.

The Good Kind of Manipulation: Joseph’s Example

In Genesis 41:29–36, Joseph laid out for Pharaoh a plan for a governmental intervention that would save Egypt from a seven-year famine. He began by establishing what the real economy would be: “Seven years of great abundance are coming throughout the land of Egypt, but seven years of famine will follow them. Then all the abundance of Egypt will be forgotten, and the famine will ravage the land” (verses 29–30).

Joseph then shared how the government could manipulate this economy (notably for the good of the people) by withholding a portion of the production in the good years (savings) and reintroducing that production in the years of famine.

Joseph’s approach to using government for the people, as a protector of them, is consistent with God’s purpose for establishing governmental authority—to protect the people (see part 5). Not all government interventions in economic affairs (e.g., attempts to artificially stimulate or otherwise manipulate a market) will be well motivated. So it must be discerned if the government is working as a protector of the interests of the people, or as that of a self-serving individual, seeking its own personal gain. This differentiation is a key factor in assessing the inherent risk of investing in a particular market, just as determining the motives of an investor is.

The Bad Kind of Manipulation

Throughout history, when governments wished to create a storehouse from which to infuse funds, goods, or commodities, that storehouse had to be planned for and gleaned from during periods of prosperity. That is no longer the case. Today, governments often use a system of “fiat” money.

Derived from the Latin word meaning “let there be made,” fiatmoney is created when a government reserves the right to create a storehouse of currency from nothing and with no inherent financial backing or reserve beyond that government’s promise that it will one day have value. The government can then infuse the fiat money into, or withdraw it from, the economic system at any time.

This infusion and/or withdrawal of funds is what causes the phenomenon of inflation, or the change in the spending and purchasing power of money. When a government has the ability to create and withdraw capital from the system, it has the ability to either increase or decrease interest rates and yields, misrepresenting the true measure of risk inherent in a market system.

This should be considered a misuse of a government’s ordained role and should be carefully guarded against.

Defining Risk

In a sense, risk is the intersection of God’s creative nature expressed through humanity and humanity’s humility or lack thereof. In other words, risk expresses the creative nature inherent within those who have been created in God’s image but must be mitigated by our awareness that we are not, in fact, God.

What Is Risk?

Risk is the intersection of God’s creative nature expressed through humanity and humanity’s humility or lack thereof.
 

Humans have manifested this creativity many times throughout history, from the creation of the light bulb to the steam engine to the airplane. All of these innovations were considered risky endeavors in their time.

Assessing Risk

The Need for Humility

Some risk resides within any venture involving a new idea, and, as such, not all risk is bad risk. When considering investments, however, we must keep a proper humility in mind.

Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails. (Proverbs 19:21 NIV)

In short, not every seemingly good idea is God’s idea, and God’s ultimate purpose for society, and for the world, will prevail. One’s good idea does not guarantee success. A proper approach to innovation should include every attempt, in humility, to mitigate risk through proper planning and realistic assessments and projections.

Jesus Himself spoke about this approach when He said, “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it?” (Luke 14:28).

God is not risk averse. Consider:

  • He chose Abraham and his barren wife to begin a nation.
  • He allowed Moses’s mother to place him in a basket in the river.
  • He gave His one and only Son to a young, unwedded girl who could have been stoned by her community as a result. That baby was born in unsanitary conditions in the company of farm animals.

God has taken more than a few risks in the last few thousand years. What God despises is those too proud to submit their creativity in humility to their Creator. “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble” (James 4:6).

Considerations

As we assess risk in pursuing investment, we must ask what our investment goals are, and what we consider a reasonable time frame within which to achieve those goals. Multiple factors should be considered as we answer these questions, including:

  • Our individual/family situation
  • Our emotional state
  • The context of our society
  • Our desired outcome (and time frame)

In all our investment decisions, time is especially important to consider. Humans have a natural tendency toward impatience. Yet, Galatians 5:22 tells us that one of the marks of a Spirit-directed life is patience. Likewise, Proverbs 14:29 says, “A patient man has great understanding, but a quick-tempered man displays folly.” Applying this to our investment approach helps level out the effects of human emotion and our unrealistic expectation of immediate results.

In terms of emotions, Proverbs 12:25 says, “An anxious heart weighs a man down.” The nature of our emotions, and our ability to make careful, wise decisions as opposed to emotional, hasty decisions, will affect our stamina to weather short-term market fluctuations for the benefit of long-term gain.

In all of this, we would be wise to consider the following advice from Proverbs:

“The plans of the diligent lead to profit as surely as haste leads to poverty.” (Proverbs 21:5)

“Honor the Lord with your wealth, with the first fruits of all your crops; then your barns will be filled to overflowing, and your vats will brim over with new wine.” (Proverbs 3:9–10)

Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/Mike Watson

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