I sometimes get asked, how did I invest and why do I enjoy it? My story, which involves my first job, is an unusual one, so I thought I’d give it a go.
My first job as an aspiring (and renegade) Environmental Economist
My story goes back to my first ever job as an Environmental Economist after I graduated from Lincoln Uni back in the late 90s. That still seems like yesterday – where has the time gone?
I had one whopper of a project to work on funded by FRST – now the Ministry of Science and Innovation – to develop an economic framework for appraising species recovery programmes. Sounds nerdy, I know. So why was something like this needed?
DoC cannot protect everything since it has limited resources. What’s needed is a way to measure the costs and benefits of many conservation activities to help set funding priorities.
This was heavy, heavy stuff for a recent graduate.
For a start, there’s no Bloomberg or Yahoo Finance equivalent providing data. There are no market prices. I had to create indices that could be used to measure “health” for the model to work. I also had to contend with environmentalists who had set views about economics. Even so, I was in my element. I was doing stuff that had hardly been tackled before in economics and I got to challenge the status quo. I simply loved that.
Amazingly conservation got me interested in investing
That job gave me a love of investing, which I know sounds strange. Conservation is a non-market good.
But it’s not crazy as it seems. Allow me to explain.
The results clearly showed that the bangs for bucks from the many programmes were dramatically different. The yellow-eyed penguin recovery programme, for example, had a different cost-benefit ratio to the programmes for the black stilt, the takahe, the short-tailed bat or the brown kiwi. That was gold in terms of understanding the economics of conservation. The insights from the model and the sheer scale of New Zealand’s biodiversity challenge made me and others realise that there was another way to approach the problem.
Rather than seeing DoC as like a cash-strapped public health care provider, the alternative is to see conservation the same way as an investment manager would view the financial markets. This is an idea that’s intuitively appealing.
Like the NZ super fund, DoC has a purpose. Like the NZ super fund, DoC has different assets to invest in, which in turn have different returns and risks. The task for a rational investor in our natural capital or the financial markets is the same: to maximise returns subject to a given level of risk.
I found something I was really into. I started to become interested in finance, and not just environmental economics. I ended up with a choice. I could extend my work by doing a PhD on applying modern portfolio theory to conservation, or I could move to Sydney to work in finance.
I ended up choosing the latter. I was a young, big, fat party animal who loved insane nights out. I didn’t really want to become an academic, ending up writing more papers that would appear in some obscure economics or science journal. That just wasn’t me. I do, however, credit my first job for giving me some lateral thinking skills and a love of tackling some hard problems that others don’t.
What I learnt from nature’s finance that’s relevant for investors
One thing really stands out for me.
The emotional reaction to a native species edging closer to extinction because of introduced predators or habitat loss is eerily similar to the response of many investors to a catastrophe or crash. Our sense of loss aversion can create a fight or flight situation – a battle that must be won at all costs. This is understandable but can create problems. There are no free lunches with conservation strategies, just as there are none with extreme market timing tactics, investing everything in bitcoin or short selling a stock.
As far as nature’s finance goes, my view is clear as it was many years ago. If we can treat conservation as an investment business and not as a charity, then a richer, more analytical view of the world will emerge. I think we owe that to future generations. It’s our natural heritage and it’s in decline. We should, therefore, be smart about the investment tools we use to conserve it.
Call me a liberal snowflake.
While I’m into conservation and finance just like another New Zealand investor who shall remain nameless, I do like cats. Peace out!
The above is my opinion. It is not intended to act as personal financial advice. It does not take into you account your financial objectives, situation and needs. It is strongly recommended you seek financial advice from an Authorised Financial Adviser in making a decision to invest.