The index fund, along with its cousin the exchange-traded fund, or ETF, is among the very few unambiguously positive financial innovations of recent decades. Because of them, it’s now incredibly easy and incredibly cheap for anybody to invest in the stock market by buying a broad, diversified basket of stocks—something that used to be extremely difficult to do.
More recently, though, the world of ETFs has become a maze of hundreds of weird funds serving ultra-specialized purposes for ultra-sophisticated investors. Dozens of ETFs have been launched this year alone, and there’s no good reason for any normal person to buy any of them. Buying the Amplify Advanced Battery Metals and Materials ETF, or the Salt truBeta High Exposure ETF, or the Global X Future Analytics Tech ETF, all of which have launched in the past few weeks, is just as silly as buying an obscure, illiquid stock. The great genius of index funds is that they remove from the individual investor the need to research individual stocks and to make bets on this one rather than that one. The plethora of tiny new ETFs only serves to recreate that problem. If you don’t trust yourself to pick outperforming stocks (and you shouldn’t), then you shouldn’t trust yourself to pick outperforming ETFs.
Today, however, after years of increasingly pointless ETFs being created to almost no acclaim, a new and attractive ETF has launched, one that well-advised normal people might soon be putting a lot of money into. The product in question is called the JUST U.S. Large Cap Equity ETF, it trades under the ticker symbol JUST, and it’s being brought to you by Goldman Sachs in association with Just Capital, a nonprofit organization founded by billionaire hedge fund manager Paul Tudor Jones. Just Capital’s raison d’être is to rank America’s companies, and then to make those rankings public so that everybody has the ability to act on them, in terms of who they buy from, who they work for, and—yes—who they invest in.
The names here—not only Goldman and Tudor Jones, but also Just Capital’s board members, who include Deepak Chopra and Arianna Huffington—seem almost designed to elicit eye-rolling and snark. But after you take a look at the Just website and its detailed methodology, it turns out that the JUST ETF and the Just 500, as the underlying index is known, are smart, well-constructed products that give the investing public something important and valuable.
The idea behind the Just 500 is that it’s an alternative to the S&P 500: It’s a diversified list of 500 of the biggest companies in America, but it’s better. The ETF, which is the fund comprising all the companies on the list, is not better than S&P 500 ETFs because it’s cheaper than them (although, with a fee of 0.2 percent per year, it’s not very expensive), and it’s not better because it’s going to outperform the S&P 500 funds (it might, it might not, no one knows). Instead, it’s better because the stocks in it are chosen according to what you might call a crowdsourced dynamic values-based algorithm. If you care about which companies you’re investing in, and you want to invest in good companies while boycotting bad ones, then this is a very easy and well-constructed way of doing that.
Don’t worry: Paul Tudor Jones and Deepak Chopra and Arianna Huffington are not applying their own personal values to decide what makes a company good or bad. Instead, the values underlying the fund are constructed, as rigorously as possible, from extensive surveys of tens of thousands of Americans. It turns out that as divided as we are on political matters, we’re pretty much aligned when it comes to the question of what a company’s values should be. And so the factors determining the Just 500 are simply the factors Americans care most about.
Top of the list, with a weighting of 23 percent, is how companies treat their workers. Then comes the way they treat their customers, which includes privacy issues; the way they build their products to benefit society rather than harm it; the way they treat the broader environment; the way they support their local communities; whether they’re creating good jobs; and, finally, whether they’re managed well, and pay their fair share of taxes. These weightings are not set in stone: Americans’ values and opinions do change over time, slowly, and as they do, the weightings will follow them.
Just Capital has broken each of these factors down into component parts, which are detailed on its incredibly detailed and admirably transparent website, and has tried very hard to find quantitative measures by which it can judge companies on each of the factors. Some measures are naturally better than others. A company’s effective U.S. tax rate is easy to calculate, for instance, while the question of whether it discriminates against certain customers can only really be gauged by the imperfect measure of how many customer-discrimination controversies it has suffered over the past three years. Still, by the time all of the different measures have been aggregated, it starts to become very clear which companies are at the top of their respective industries, when it comes to corporate values, and which are at the bottom. The best big companies in America, according to Just Capital, are chipmakers Intel, Texas Instruments, and Nvidia; they’re followed by Microsoft, IBM, Accenture, Cisco, Alphabet, Salesforce, and Symantec. Other companies in the top 20 include Nike, Procter & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive, and PepsiCo. Meanwhile, at the very bottom of the list one finds Yum Brands (the owners of KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell); Williams-Sonoma; Urban Outfitters; Skechers; and News Corp.
Investing in the Just 500 by no means guarantees that you will avoid investments in controversial companies. Google is in the top 10, and Facebook is in 71st place, despite its dismal ranking (872nd overall) when it comes to how it treats customers. That’s in large part because tech companies in general, and Facebook in particular, tend to treat their own employees very well. If you buy the Just 500, you will be buying shares in Facebook, and Amazon, but not Tesla. Tudor Jones says that the rankings will evolve, and as they do, perhaps Facebook will fall off the list. But for the time being, the tech giants are in the index—just as they pass most other ethical-investment screens.
Once the list has been drawn up, all that’s left for Just Capital to do is to take the better half of the biggest 1,000 companies and put them in the Just 500, while leaving out the bottom half entirely.
If you believe Tudor Jones, there’s a very good chance that this fund will end up doing better than the broader market: He told the New York Times’ Andrew Ross Sorkin that “I think it outperforms” similar indices. He’s a billionaire investor, and I’m not, so, he might have a point. But ultimately that’s not the reason to invest in this fund. This isn’t an “impact investment,” either: Buying the Just ETF is not, in and of itself, going to make the world a better place. It’s not going to measurably increase the stock price or decrease the cost of capital for the companies that make the cut, and insofar as those companies do improve the world, that’s a credit to their management and their employees, not their shareholders. Similarly, while it would be great for companies to start competing with each other on corporate values in an attempt to make it into the index, I doubt that’s going to happen.
The Just ETF is still a good investment, however, because it is an easy and cheap way to get broad stock-market exposure while aligning your investment with generally positive values. Tudor Jones has done the hard work to determine that, on a corporate-values level, Procter & Gamble is much more admirable than Williams-Sonoma, which owns Pottery Barn and West Elm, and which got a rare negative score in the “makes quality products” ranking. If you want to invest in admirable companies, then the Just 500 makes doing that effortless.
All indices reflect underlying judgments: In order to become part of the S&P 500, for instance, you need to show profitability, which is why Tesla has never been admitted. The Just 500 is the first easily investable stock index that puts ethical and moral concerns front and center, while still retaining broad exposure to the market as a whole. (It invests in all stock-market sectors, except for tobacco.) It is a very welcome innovation.
If you’re currently invested in S&P 500 index funds, you should certainly consider moving all or some of that money into the Just 500 instead. It might be a little bit less liquid, especially in its early days, and, yes, you might miss out on substantial stock gains from the excluded big evil companies. Then again, you might miss out on substantial stock declines from those big evil companies, too. If you think that bad companies are more likely than good companies to suffer scandal-related losses, then putting money into the Just 500 makes eminent financial sense. And if you wish that your investments could be values-driven rather than purely financial, then the Just ETF is pretty much a no-brainer.