This article was originally published in Forbes.
In 1978 when the first Superman movie was released, there was an early scene where our as yet unknown superhero saves the American President by serving as a replacement jet engine under the wing of Airforce One. These days, given the crisis facing capitalism, some might long for real superheroes. In fact, the other day while I was sitting on a 14 hour Boeing 777-200 flight from Shanghai to New York, I looked out the window and noticed the GE engine immediately to my left. Being a stockbroker by nature, my first thought was “What a great company GE is…a company I can own for the long-term.” Also by nature, I was looking for some entertainment to pass the time. Of course I turned to a movie from the Marvel entertainment library of Disney.
In tough economic times, I admit that I too occasionally wish there were real superheroes. I had already seen “Captain America,” “Thor,” “Iron Man” and “Green Lantern” so I decided on “X-Men: Origins.” Again I battled my nature to think about stocks, but I couldn’t help wondering about the economic value of a company like Disney’s incredible franchises. My mind turned to both the good and evil forces of capitalism until I started the movie.
In this pre-quel to the “X-Men” saga, while Professor Xavier is training the young “mutants” to fulfill their potential, he references Robert Lewis Stephenson’s “Jekyll and Hyde.” He makes the point that it’s not about good and evil. Rather, it’s about a struggle within us to come to terms with our true nature. Dr. Jekyll was afraid of what he could be capable of if he succumbed to his other, more primitive self. He could wreak havoc. In “X-Men: Origins,” the good Professor himself represents the pinnacle of the ability to harness the power of mental discipline, collaboration, optimism, and long term thinking. But for his partner “Magneto,” despite all his training, he ultimately succumbs and turns into Xavier’s arch nemesis (which of course allows for many sequels to come). “Magneto” could not overcome his own instincts and life experiences. He simply could not pursue the long-term vision of peace in the context of the struggles of human nature.
After the movie, I again become vulnerable to thinking about the stock market. I am convinced that Professor Charles Xavier would embrace “Sustainable Investing” and buy shares of companies which have great strategy combined with with a culture embracing the needs of the broader society. In fact, he would look for companies which work hard to turn environmental, social and governance (ESG) performance excellence into a strategic competitive advantage. These companies would learn to drive innovative new revenue streams. They would strive for resource efficiency and cost savings helping both the planet and their own profit margins. They would seek to add even more value to their brands while avoiding potentially devastating business risks. Ultimately, Professor Xavier would find companies which would also serve their shareholders well. Magneto might not have the capacity to search for these companies, but the Xavier and the X-Men do.
During the long flight I had obviously consumed my fair share of Superhero philosophy, but other aspects of my nature came to my mind. The nature to consume good things, and the nature to worry. I knew it took 1,800 gallons of water to manufacture the jeans I was wearing; and I felt guilty about my 2.5 metric tons of CO2 emissions during the flight trip. But, I do know that companies like Alaska Airlines are starting to use biofuels. So we are making some progress. I was also somewhat comforted knowing that my Nike sneakers are made by a company which cares about ethically managing its supply chain and engaging its employees. I would have loved a glass of Veuve Cliquot champagne (especially given that the company’s executives are incentivized to maximize the water-efficiency of their manufacturing process), but I settled for my Coca-Cola (confident in the company’s ability to innovate in that area too). The sugar content worried me, but at least I know that Pepsi’s Chief Science officer is aggressively seeking healthy alternatives in the product line.
I felt slightly envious of the woman next to me with a gorgeous Bulgari bracelet and a Louis Vuitton bag. But it turns out that she got them at Christies during their “Green Auction” where proceeds go to the Natural Resource Defense Council. I guess after 250 years of serving their clients, they know something about both “doing well and doing good.” The long flight was giving me a headache so I took an aspirin to relieve the suffering. I was thankful that companies like Glaxo understand that building powerful distribution capabilities in the Emerging Markets isn’t just philanthropy; rather it’s a great business strategy.
So, during my long flight I stopped beating myself up about my human nature. I know that I can win the struggle inside myself with some not-so-herculean efforts and greater awareness. I can come to terms with the fact that while there will always be trade-offs, and despite everyone’s values, tastes and judgments being different, making the effort is worth the salvation of capitalism. It’s worth it to me because it’s also in my own nature to be optimistic about the amazing productive potential of the functions of the world’s capital markets. That’s of course if all the players behave with a conscience. It would mean that we just need to be a bit more like Professor Xavier and his X-Men, or like the Green Lantern who has harnessed the “emerald energy of willpower.” We all have vulnerabilities we can overcome — even Superman.