Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The incredible shrinking fund

Say ten Hail Marys

Jesus is quoted in Matthew 19:24 as saying, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God,” but Thomas S. Monaghan is thinking positive thoughts. The multimillionaire founder of the Domino's Pizza chain is liberally using the largess from the sale of his fast-food franchise to do good works. He must be in possession of a ruling from the Vatican that his sorry excuse for a pizza was merely a venial sin rather than mortal. That's a lucky break for him!

Monaghan is apparently obsessed with the Virgin Mary. He is one of the big backers of Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, Florida. He lives on One Ave Maria Drive in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He is on the board of advisors of Ave Maria Mutual Funds.

The funds offered by the Ave Maria Mutual Funds organization are designed to provide Catholics with investments opportunities consistent with Church teachings, such as shares of stock in corporations that are found to be in compliance with certain moral guidelines. The level of compliance is determined by an advisory board that focuses on two criteria:
... first, those involved in the practice of abortion, and second, companies whose policies are judged to be anti-family, such as companies that distribute pornographic material or whose policies undermine the Sacrament of Marriage.
The first requirement effectively bars the Ave Maria Mutual Funds from holding any stock in pharmaceutical companies because most such companies offer birth control drugs or drugs that Ave Maria would consider an abortifacient. The second rule is interpreted by Ave Maria as barring stock in any company that offers health benefits or any other services to the unmarried partners of its employees. For example, Ave Maria dumped its shares in Eli Lilly when Lilly added nonspousal partner benefits to its employment package.

The Ave Maria prospectus notes that the funds seek to maximize the return on investment by buying low and selling high. When a formerly under-valued stock improves, Ave Maria unloads it: “When a stock appreciates substantially and is no longer undervalued, according to the Adviser’s valuation criteria, it is sold.” The stock may also be sold if the company departs from conformance to Catholic moral standards, although the prospectus language in this case is surprisingly hard-nosed; apparently the stock might continue to be held if the advisory board decides there's money to be made. “Additionally, a stock may be sold (but is not required to be sold) if the Catholic Advisory Board determines that the company operates in a way that is inconsistent with core values and teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.” Sounds a little situational to me.

The Ave Maria Mutual Funds have been doing well in providing its clients with good returns on their investment dollars. There are, however, signs of future difficulty. In addition to dumping Eli Lilly, Ave Maria divested itself of both Sear and PepsiCo. In each case, the company was deemed to be “anti-family.” In each case, “anti-family” meant benefits for employees' nonspousal partners. The Catholic Church stands strong against anything that endangers traditional heterosexual marriage. (The celibate priesthood is one obvious exception to the strenuous promotion of man-woman marriage, although a significant number of priests do not appear to be tempted by the purported joys of heterosexual marriage.)

Corporate America is not known for its special devotion to the teachings of the Vatican. While the business world may be stuffy and conservative, its dedication to the dollar greatly exceeds its tendency to bow to clerical influence. Last year, for the first time, a majority of the Fortune 500 companies offered domestic partner benefits. The trend is steady, as shown in this chart compiled by the Human Rights Campaign.

The end result is obvious: Ave Maria is going to run out of Fortune 500 companies to invest in. By degrees, it will be more and more difficult to produce the earnings expected by its clients. Will the discrete escape clause kick in at that point, or will the funds be true to their claim to be completely faithful to Catholic moral standards? They're probably busy praying already.

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