Increase Impact by Waiting for a Recession to Donate or Invest in a Cause.

by maxwell1 min read20th Jun 20195 comments

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Investors often talk about the opportunity that comes with a recession.  The trick is having the resources in place to capitalize on those opportunities. The same is true for philanthropic investment.  When the economy is booming like it is now, costs generally increase and overall suffering, at least financial suffering, generally decreases.  The construction industry provides a salient example.  Construction is often the hardest and fastest hit of any recession.  Right now, many construction companies are working at capacity and prices (along with profits, employment, worker incomes) have been steadily increasing for ten straight years.  After the last recession construction prices plummeted as contractors were desperate for work.  And at the same time, charitable giving, along with consumer spending, cratered.  When the next recession comes, most charities will be in the same position they were in 2008-2009:  running out of money and having to retract services.  


There was a post few months ago pointing out that charities aren't doing enough to prepare for recession.  This means that charities are squandering their donations by spending them as fast as they get them. When the next recession comes, they'll be unable to alleviate the added suffering and may be forced to retract services when people need them most and when those services are likely getting more affordable.

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Intuitively, I'd expect this to matter somewhat, all else being equal -- but all else is rarely equal.

In the nonprofit world, a promising organization might succeed or fail based on the amount it can raise within a few months. These org-specific timing considerations will, I suspect, usually overwhelm macroeconomic considerations. If you decide to wait until an economic slowdown, and it takes two years, you might see a dozen promising organizations emerge or fade away in the process. Heck, if you had decided in 2009 to wait until the next recession to give, you'd have missed... essentially the entirety of the EA movement.

At this point, with a recession being more likely to happen within a few years than was the case in 2009 (maybe?), it could make sense to save money. But I don't know how much EA giving lines up with economic cycles, for a few reasons:

  • A lot of donated EA money comes from very wealthy donors who have already set aside tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in safe places that a recession won't impact much
  • Another good chunk of EA money comes from people who made a pledge to donate a fixed percentage of their income, rather than seeing charity as one of the first things to cut back on when times are tough (as I'd guess is the case for many donors outside of EA)
  • A lot of people in the EA community have jobs that are fairly "recession-proof". They tend to be highly educated and work in growing sectors (as opposed to, say, construction)

All in all, I'm moderately confident that EA giving during a recession would drop much less than the general public's giving, though we aren't wholly immune to the larger economy.

I'll guess that EA giving is a bit more sensitive to the economy than other giving, because a disproportionate amount of EA giving comes from IPO-related wealth and cryptocurrency bubbles.

But how closely are IPOs and cryptocurrency activity linked to broader macroeconomic trends? It felt like the Bitcoin bubble inflated and popped with little impact on, say, the conventional stock market (but I could be wrong about that).

IPOs are strongly dependent on an expanding economy. Cryptocurrency bubbles are somewhat more likely in an expanding economy.

The impact of IPOs and Bitcoin on other markets is much smaller than the impact of the economy on IPOs and Bitcoin.

I suspect much of the trouble is the same as the trouble investors have trying to take advantage of this strategy: it requires marking a better prediction than the prediction the market is implicitly making with its current prices. Although it seems reasonable to predict that a recession will come "soon" since it's been unusually long since the last one and they appear cyclically (approximately coordinated with the approximately 5-year business cycle?), making that prediction too soon and switching to hoarding assets in anticipation of a drop so you can re-buy assets when they are at the bottom to maximize gains on the way back up will result in unnecessarily giving up potential gains. You might make a lucky guess once, but in the long run you'd need some reason to believe you can predict recessions or else you will perform worse than the market, not better.

So this seems probably only relevant if you are so good at predicting recessions so you can use that to make money and then donate that money, and will probably also require keeping quiet about your prediction and your evidence such that you can maximize the amount of advantage you can take (up to the limit of your funds, including the use of leverage, which might cause you to carefully share your knowledge in an attempt to fill gaps in opportunity you wouldn't be able to take advantage of yourself). If you're a non-profit, regular donor, or anyone else, you're probably best off not trying to beat the market, and only accounting for this in the normal way of holding funds in reserve so you can weather temporarily shocks to the market, i.e. have enough operating capital that you won't have to draw down on your investments before they recover.