That’s one hundred-millionth. Or 1/100,000,000. Or 1 E −8 (one times ten to the negative eight power). I’m thinking about this little tiny bit—a millionth percent—because of the stock market. I own some stocks and it’s a different kind of thing than owning a car or a house. I have twenty shares of Chevron Corporation, for example. Well, it’s a little more than that because I have a DRIP (dividend reinvestment plan) and the money I make goes back into buying shares. I have acquired 1.867 new shares since the first twenty. I guess that means I buy them in lots of 0.001 share or something, I don’t know! Anyway, I was curious: how many shares of Chevron are there in the world?
According to this NASDAQ site there are 1,910,520,000 outstanding shares of common stock. That’s a messy number and I’m rounding it off to two billion. I don’t know if Chevron has preferred stocks or not, and I assume they have bondholders who must “own” a part of the corporation, so rounding up seems reasonable. I don’t know a thing about corporate finance but I’m guessing there’s more to wealth than just the shares of common stock. But I digress. I wanted to know how much of the Chevron Corporation I “owned” with my 21.867 shares. If I make that 20 the calculation is easy. Twenty divided by two billion is 0.00000001 (0.000001%), or one hundred-millionth part (one-millionth percent).
That’s a pretty small piece of a rather big pie. The company lists $250 billion in assets. That sits in between the GDPs of Ireland ($300B) and New Zealand ($185B). A new aircraft carrier costs $13B or so, so $250B could get you about twenty of them! But I’m not here to pick on Chevron, just trying to get a handle on these numbers. After all, I’m a hundred-millionth part of them so I should have my say on things. And I suppose I do via proxies, but it’s rather remote. And I imagine those folks with much bigger pieces of the pie are perhaps more able to influence the company.
My vanishingly small fraction won’t make me rich. It’s so small of a piece that it matters not who actually owns it. Some day I’ll sell the shares (at a profit, I hope) and someone else can own them. Chevron will go on without me. My vanishingly small fraction protects me from the company as well. If they get sued for being assholes somewhere it won’t touch me. The stocks might go down in value but I’ll be insulated from any consequences because I’m just a hair on a gnat on the back of a huge beast. This, I suppose, is how it is supposed to work. By spreading out the ownership you spread out the liability, and thus the company can take risks in their quest to make money.
I suppose if Chevron is fouling the Amazon or the Ecuadorian rain forest or something I’m only 1/100,000,000th responsible so you can’t blame me. I just tagged along for the ride, it’s not my fault. They promised me some money on this deal, man. I mean, I’m lucky if I hit 75 kilos dripping wet. One hundred-millionth of me is a snowflake. A few grains of sand. If you want your pound of flesh from me come and get it, I won’t notice.
I started out trying to think about owning something. Owning part of Chevron is not like owning a bicycle. Chevron is kind of like a bicycle, though. A bicycle needs to be rolling to stay upright, it will fall over if it isn’t moving at a sufficient speed. The rider needs to keep the energy stream flowing. Chevron has debtors and shareholders to pay and they have to have sufficient revenue to do that. They have to keep the income stream flowing or the whole thing falls apart. They certainly don’t want that to happen. So they keep drilling for oil and refining it and selling gasoline (which I buy) and whatever else they do. Because they, in essence, have promised their “owners” that they would.
The modest few shekels I’ve invested in Chevron won’t bankrupt me if I lose them. But I’d prefer to see them grow. If I prosper then I can spend money and other people can prosper, too. I won’t be entirely responsible for their prosperity of course, just a vanishingly small fraction of it. And it’s not entirely true that what’s good for Chevron is good for me. In fact, they often are at cross-purposes to what is good for me (and potentially many others). It seems to me it would be good business for Chevron to invest in cleaner technologies and other energy sources besides oil. It seems like it would be good business to extract resources and manufacture products safely and sustainably.
And it is. Over the long term. In the short term it’s often easier just to make a profit and worry about pollution, for example, down the road. With seven billion of us now I think we are already down that road a long way. Our corporations have inordinate political power and they can set the agenda to suit a narrow, entirely economic outlook. Nothing like high quarterly earnings to make people happy. I want our energy and transportation infrastructure to thrive and evolve. I want to see innovation and increased efficiency. I want to see new solutions developed and dispersed. That takes capital and expertise, two things outfits like Chevron have a lot of. We need our corporations to widen their outlooks to include things like quality of life and the conservation and wise use of resources. Money is good, but it is not everything. Note the root eco- in both “economy” and “ecology.” It’s Greek for “house” (oikos), and we are always being told to get our houses in order, am I right?
So, I’m casting my millionth-percent ballot for a more ecologically-minded future from our corporate overlords.
I’ll just have to write really small.
3 thoughts on “0.00000001”
Mark — Yet another cogent (and entertaining) comment to brighten these confusing times — thanks! You have managed to make Chevron seem almost warm and fuzzy and convivial, which I think is fairly interesting, as opposed to simply terrifying — if rather essential? (rats) I’m trying to decide if, just as an
interested friend, I should try to follow Chevron stock — then I thought realistically, naw, probably not. For
one thing, I can’t write that small and, even more importantly, you are taking care of that, so all is well.
Your email has reinforced my sincere admiration for small, yet entertaining and wise (if teeny), investors.
Especially ones who can approach the stock market in such a jovial manner. Bravo!
FYI, bondholders (Chevron has over 28 billion dollars in bonded debt outstanding, spread over 31 issues) are not company owners. They do not get to vote on company business. Bondholders, do, however have seniority rights over preferred and common stock holders for payment should the company go belly up. Once bondholders are paid, then preferred stock holders, common stock holders get the remaining.
You’ve put your finger on an intriguing social concern of our time. Many people think that, as a socially responsible action, that they, and institutions that serve them, like CalSTRS, should divest from oil companies and others that are responsible for environmental degradation, or who’s businesses result in other social ills. Others think that owning such companies gives one a say in the direction the company takes. Companies are kind of like a democracy, except instead of one person, one vote it’s one dollar one vote. Warren Buffet, for one, has expressed his support for the second kind of activism (although, of course, his ownership percentages tend to be more than negligible).
I do not think that oil companies are unaware of or uninterested in alternative forms of energy, I think that this has been true for a good 30 years or more. Remember when BP adopted the green flower logo? That was a sign. That is why you see oil companies today talk about energy. As the Saudi oil minister once said, “the stone age didn’t end because they ran out of stones.” Oil companies want to be in the energy supply business. For example: https://www.shell.com/energy-and-innovation/the-energy-future/shell-energy-transition-report.html. But right now, petroleum products like gasoline are the most advanced, highly engineered portable energy sources out there to enable people to move about in cars, which is what people want to do. Yes, there is harm associated with production and use, but the amazing thing, if you think about it is not how much pollution gasoline refining and use produces, but how much it doesn’t produce. That’s not an attempt to excuse or greenwash Big Oil, but like any well-run company, an oil company wants to plan for their viability in the future.
Yeah I know that Chevron and all those guys call themselves “energy” companies and I assume they are preparing for a time when oil isn’t king. But right now oil is still king and they are still oil companies! We’ll see how the transition goes. The transportation sector is the big one for me–how are we going to move people and goods via roads, seas, and skies without oil? I suppose we could ask the US Navy for help on nuclear propulsion but I have a feeling they won’t be forthcoming.