Superstorms, Aliens, and Other Financial Horrors


Those of us who have electricity and access to news have heard that Frankenstorm Sandy has been a devastating, disruptive, and even deadly event. Furthermore, last week's forecasts for the costs of this storm pale in comparison to today's reasoning; the financial impact is now estimated to be somewhere between $10 billion and $45 billion, not to mention lost productivity costs.

However, some analysts are already searching for the financial silver lining as the megastorm clouds recede, pointing to the money to be allocated to rebuilding and replenishing, ostensibly boosting the sluggish economy.

This is reminiscent of economist Paul Krugman's ongoing alien joke. That is, the threat of an alien invasion would force the government to ignore "those budget things" and spend money to combat such a potential disaster, thus stimulating the economy.

Such rationales have serious flaws. "Budgeting" is simply common sense, and busting budgets in response to near-term disasters isn't a productive long-term use of capital for governments, businesses, or anybody else.

Costs and benefits
We already know some obvious companies that will bear a great deal of the financial brunt of East Coast devastation, and my Foolish colleagues have covered a great many of these developments.

For example, insurers Allstate (NYS: ALL) , Travelers (NYS: TRV) , and Chubb (NYS: CB) have exposure to the Northeast. Granted, some of the expenses of a coastal storm event will actually trickle over to the National Flood Insurance plan, sheltering such companies from the full damages.

Big banks love how fees boost their profits, but many have actually channeled a bit of humanity in the wake of the storm; that may hurt some revenue but build some goodwill. Mega-financiers like Citigroup (NYS: C) , JPMorgan Chase (NYS: JPM) , and Wells Fargo (NYS: WFC) are taking unusually humane steps like waiving out-of-network ATM fees for customers affected by the storm, and waiving late-payment and overdraft fees.

On the other hand, some companies may profit. Home improvement retailers like Home Depot (NYS: HD) tend to come quickly to mind as beneficiaries in times like these. So does Generac (NYS: GNRC) , which makes generators.

Clean Harbors (NYS: CLH) is another example of a company that could experience a boost in the aftermath of this megastorm. One of its specialties is helping clean up after disasters, and it's known for having helped fix flooded refineries after high-profile storms like Hurricane Katrina.

When dollar signs point to trouble ahead
Still, capitalizing off short-term events, particularly disastrous ones, is problematic -- and not just because it speaks of Wall Street traders' tendencies to see dollar signs in everything, even disasters, and sadly ignore the future.

The "silver lining" argument doesn't hold up to a sustainable economic boost. In a world in which capital isn't infinite, busting budgets means money will run out later, or at the very least, it won't be spent in other channels.

In down-to-earth terms, a consumer who's forced to rebuild or remediate a home may use savings or credit they could ill afford to give up, and will have to put off other discretionary purchases later. They may even have to dip into funds they'd saved for educating their kids or for their retirement.

Or what about companies that put off upgrading their infrastructure to boost their profits, only to be ill prepared for a disaster like this one, then forced to spend money on upgrades or even destroyed facilities that couldn't hold up to extreme circumstances?

Over the long haul, it seems to me it's smarter and less costly to fortify against disaster in the first place, but our short-term marketplace has made responsible actions that could disappoint Wall Street analysts and short-term traders with lower near-term profits seem "unpleasant."

Last but not least, while disasters like this one arguably create, say, construction jobs to rebuild devastated areas, what the American economy really needs is capital deployed for innovation, responsible and sustainable growth and building, and creating permanent jobs, not waiting for superstorms, aliens, or Godzilla to come and bust everything to pieces and "stimulate" the economy.

Just in time for Halloween: The "new normal" could be terrifying
Last week, I pointed out that the scariest thing about this Frankenstorm is the fact that extreme weather events -- which, like Sandy, may cause meteorologists like The Weather Channel's Brian Norcross to admit that "What the hell is going on?" is a reasonable question -- may become the "new normal," as sustainability advocacy group Ceres puts it, as climate change does its number on the world. If corporations get ahead of such brewing problems and try to formulate solutions -- in other words, become proactive instead of reactive -- that would be a true economic bolster for investors and everyone else.

In the case of Clean Harbors, for example, I'd say the most interesting factor going for that stock today is not its possible role in Hurricane Sandy cleanup, but rather its proposed acquisition of Safety-Kleen, which specializes in treating waste oil for recycling and reuse.

Neither money nor resources are infinite. Superstorm Sandy has many more implications than who loses or benefits right now. We don't need Frankenstorms, aliens, or other horrifying events to get our economy running. We need rational thinking, long-term vision, common-sense growth, and true innovation. Otherwise the future is truly frightening.

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Check back atFool.comfor more of Alyce Lomax's columns on environmental, social, and governance issues.

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Alyce Lomax has no positions in the stocks mentioned above. The Motley Fool owns shares of Citigroup, Clean Harbors, JPMorgan Chase, and Wells Fargo. Motley Fool newsletter services recommend The Home Depot and Wells Fargo. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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