Thursday, October 20, 2011

Blood Molecules

Tuesday's SEC roundtable on Dodd-Frank 1502 was a drily legalistic affair, with SEC staff grilling participants about how they should define key terms in the legislation, establish a feasible time-frame for its implementation, and how deeply they should drill into companies' manufacturing processes. The participants, including representatives from a variety of companies and investment firms as well as Global Witness and the Enough Project, provided  responses that generally fell on polar ends of the discussion.

Some specialist electronics companies, soi-disant socially responsible investment firms, and the two activist groups asked that the SEC interpret the legislative terms in the broadest manner, interpret the law in the strictest sense, and implement it immediately. Opposing them were manufacturers such as Boeing and Kraft, which said that their supply chains are so complex and dynamic that they would need time and consideration to properly implement the law. Surely some common sense rules ought to apply, they said--or would they have to account for every stray molecule in their product?[1]

Gold companies also chimed in, arguing that their products should be treated differently from the other metals under consideration, the so-called three Ts: tin, tantalum, and tungsten. (Companies using zinc or lead in their products should be grateful to the alphabet gods that none of these metals' typical mineral compounds begin with the letter "T." Since these minerals are also mined in the Kivus, they're lucky we're not now speaking of the four or five Ts.)

If you enjoy Talmudic discussions about whether muffins baked in tin molds need to be stamped conflict free or not--and whether that depends on how old the tin molds are--then the SEC was the place to be. In a comment I am certain she immediately regretted, the mouthpiece for Kraft told the Commission that the ramifications of DF-1502 made her hyperventilate.

In a highly unusual move, the SEC heard from two legislators, Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill) and by video, Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA). Both spoke forcefully about the suffering in eastern Congo, particularly of women rape victims, and urged companies to conform to the law to help end the suffering there. Neither, however, mentioned recent news accounts indicating that the law has resulted in a de facto embargo of minerals from eastern Congo, causing widespread economic suffering in the region; nor did either provide any clear explanation of how the law might actually help end the conflicts.

The SEC did not invite any knowledgeable Congolese to participate in the roundtable or solicit their views, and both advocacy groups present made sure to omit any mention of them.

As it has in the past, Global Witness continued to frame the issue as a fight between human rights groups and greedy corporate interests. "The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is working at all levels to derail the regulations and continue business as usual," warned GW's Mike Davis.

In a brief nod to the pain their efforts have already caused the Congolese, GW said that the announcement of the new rules was "always likely to cause some short-term uncertainty and disruption to the trade." [2]

I approached Calvert Investment vice president Bennett Freeman after he spoke at the first session and asked if he would talk with Eric Kajemba and me about some of the impacts the law has already had on the region. A plump, manicured fellow in a bespoke suit, a fukushima of unearned self-regard, Freeman gave Eric about ten seconds of his time before turning away. I gather moral complications are not high on the priority list for "socially responsible" investors. Labels are. It's what they sell, like everyone else, and "conflict-free minerals" has a nice ring to it. A clean conscience is a marketable commodity, and good on them for discovering how to make a buck off it. If I ever come into money, remind me to invest in tobacco companies.

I entered generally skeptical of company bellyaching about how difficult the law would be to apply. My limited understanding of the issue is that there are a surprisingly small number of tin or tantalum smelting companies in the world, and that it would not be asking too much to require that suppliers source from those that refuse Congolese minerals. I left with a shade more appreciation for the difficulties: Kraft sources from 40,000 different suppliers, for example; and a jet engine can require as many as six million piece-parts to assemble. For that bit of information, as well as the term piece-parts, I am grateful to Boeing mouthpiece Benedict Cohen. Otherwise the meeting was a bit of a bust.

[1] Yes they would, seemed to be the advocates' response. Unlike carcinogens or toxic chemicals, there are no "safe" levels of conflict minerals, said the advocates, since every last bit contributes to the wars.

[2]  You know you're in trouble when human rights advocacy groups start talking in the periphrasis of corporate shills. For the benefit of my non-English speaking readers, let me provide a plain English translation: "Of course we knew what we were proposing would destroy the local economy, but sometimes it's necessary to destroy an economy in order to save it."

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