I have a PhD in finance and am the strategist at Affinity Impact, the impact initiative of a Taiwanese family that makes both grants and impact investments.
I agree with Michael that concrete examples would be very helpful, even for researchers. A post should be informative and persuasive, and examples almost always help with that. In this case, examples can also make clear the underlying logic, and where the explanation can be confusing.
For example, let's think about investing in alternative protein companies as a way to tackle animal welfare. Assume that in a future state where lots more people eat real meat (bad world state), the returns for alt-proteins in that state are low but cost-effectiveness is high. This could be because alt proteins have faced lower rates of adoption (low returns) but it's now easier to persuade meat eaters to switch (search costs are now low since more willing-switchers can be efficiently targetted). The opposite situation is true too. In a good future state with few meat-eaters, alt protein returns are high but cost-effectiveness is low. So this scenario should put us in your table's upper left quadrant (negative correlation btw/ World State and Cost-Effectiveness + negative correlation btw/ Return and Cost-Effectiveness).
This example illustrates how some of your quadrant descriptions may be confusing or even inappropriate:
So as you can see, an example makes clear where table descriptions may be inappropriate and where a clearer description can be helpful. It also makes more concrete what various correlation signs mean and how to think about them.
This post (and the series it summarizes) draws on the scientific literature to assess different ways of considering and classifying animal sentience. It persuasively takes the conversation beyond an all-or-nothing view and is a significant advancement for thinking about wild animal suffering as well farm animal welfare beyond just cows, pigs, and chickens.
Thanks for the clarification, Owen! I had mis-understood 'investment-like' as simply having return compounding characteristics. To truly preserve optionality though, these grants would need to remain flexible (can change cause areas if necessary; so grants to a specific cause area like AI safety wouldn’t necessarily count) and liquid (can be immediately called upon; so Founder's Pledge future pledges wouldn't necessarily count). So yes, your example of grants that result "in more (expected) dollars held in a future year (say a decade from now) by careful thinking people who will be roughly aligned with our values" certainly qualifies, but I suspect that's about it. Still, as long as such grants exist today, I now understand why you say that the optimal giving rate is implausibly (exactly) 0%.
Hi Owen, even if you're confident today about identifying investment-like giving opportunities with returns that beat financial markets, investing-to-give can still be desirable. That's because investing-to-give preserves optionality. Giving today locks in the expected impact of your grant, but waiting allows for funding of potentially higher impact opportunities in the future.
The secretary problem comes to mind (not a perfect analogy but I think the insight applies). The optimal solution is to reject the initial ~37% of all applicants and then accept the next applicant that's better than all the ones we've seen. Given that EA has only been around for about a decade, you would have to think that extinction is imminent for a decade to count for ~37% of our total future. Otherwise, we should continue rejecting opportunities. This allows us to better understand the extent of impact that's actually possible, including opportunities like movement building and global priorities research. Future ones could be even better!
I highly recommend the Founder's Pledge report on Investing to Give. It goes through and models the various factors in the giving-now vs giving-later decision, including the ones you describe. Interestingly, the case for giving-later is strongest for longtermist priorities, driven largely by the possibility that significantly more cost-effective grants may be available in the future. This suggests that the optimal giving rate today could very well be 0%.
Have you compared your analysis to this previous EA Forum post? Are there different takeaways? Have you done anything differently and if so, why?
Here’s the math on moral/financial fungibility:...You’re probably better off eating cow beef and donating the $6.03/kg to the Good Food Institute
Here’s the math on moral/financial fungibility:
You’re probably better off eating cow beef and donating the $6.03/kg to the Good Food Institute
Is refraining from killing really morally fungible to killing + offsetting? Would it be morally permissible for someone to engage in murder if they agreed to offset that life by donating $5,000 to Malaria Consortium? I don't mean to be offensive with this analogy, but if we are to take seriously the pain/suffering that factory farming inflicts on animals, we should morally regard it in a similar lens to inflicting pain/suffering on humans.
So, no, moral acts are not necessarily fungible. It is better to not eat meat in the first place than to eat meat and donate the savings to farm animal charities (even if you could save more animals). This is obvious from a rights moral framework but even consequentialists would consider financial offsetting dangerous and unpalatable. The consequences of allowing people to engage in immoral acts + offsetting would be a treacherous and ultimately inferior world.
So your calculations are not the cost of eating meat but rather, the cost of saving animals. You have not estimated the cost of chicken/cow suffering (which would require estimating utility functions and animal preferences), but rather, the cost of alleviating suffering. Your low-cost numbers don't imply that eating meat is inconsequential, but rather, that it's very cost-effective to help chickens and cows. GiveWell's $5,000 per human life doesn't make human life cheap or murder trivial, it means we have an extraordinary opportunity to help others at a very low cost to ourselves.
Thanks, Sanjay, I’m sharing a basic model I’ve written that highlights the trade-off for impact investments that seek both social impact and financial returns. This isn’t specifically about ESG but the key ideas still apply. The upshot: the investment must produce annually one percent of a same-sized grant’s social benefit for every one percent concession on its financial return. I construct impact investing’s version of the Security Market Line and quantitatively define what ‘impact alpha’ means.
This model was written a couple of years ago but since then, I actually haven’t applied it much. That’s because it’s hard to quantify impact, which is a key input that the model requires (and an input that any model will obviously require). There’s no established and easy way to monetize impact, especially given impact's tremendous heterogeneity. Comparing the value of a year's education versus a year's health is hard enough. What about quantifying the counterfactual impact that a business has? Or that of the investor investing into the business? So modeling is helpful but at this stage, I think data is what we actually need most.
I agree with Michael that a 70% allocation to US stocks is way too high. US stocks' outperformance against international developed stocks can almost entirely be explained by the increase in the US market's valuation (which shouldn't be assumed to continue and indeed, is more likely to reverse). See AQR's analysis on pg 6 here. Also, what about Emerging Market stocks? This should certainly get some allocation as well, especially if you're focused on the next 100 years. China and India will increasingly be key economic players and have capital markets that will outgrow the US in importance. In fact, 6 of the 7 largest economies in the world in 2050 are likely to be emerging economies. When it comes to investing, beware of simply extrapolating the past into the future! The US markets have done well because the US has been the dominant country in the 20th century. This is unlikely to continue during this century.
A 10% global bonds/90% global stocks portfolio is likely to be more robust and not suffer from a USD/US historical bias. Keep it simple and avoid picking bond/stock market winners.
This paper is relevant to your question.
Abstract: This article asks how sustainable investing (SI) contributes to societal goals, conducting a literature review on investor impact—that is, the change investors trigger in companies’ environmental and social impact. We distinguish three impact mechanisms: shareholder engagement, capital allocation, and indirect impacts, concluding that the impact of shareholder engagement is well supported in the literature, the impact of capital allocation only partially, and indirect impacts lack empirical support. Our results suggest that investors who seek impact should pursue shareholder engagement throughout their portfolio, allocate capital to sustainable companies whose growth is limited by external financing conditions, and screen out companies based on the absence of specific ESG practices that can be adopted at reasonable costs. For rating agencies, we outline steps to develop investor impact metrics. For policymakers, we highlight that SI helps to diffuse good business practices, but is unlikely to drive a deeper transformation without additional policy measures.