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Sometimes, things collide.
For me, it’s often a set of news stories that overlap and magnify each other in the process — in this case, it was three vastly different stories, all of which involve setting a price on misery.
The first dealt with pigs.
China is being hit hard by the arrival of the African swine fever, as are Vietnam and South Africa. In China, millions of hogs have died.
But U.S. giant Tyson Foods CEO Noel White says the disaster means his company is “uniquely positioned” to turn plague into profit: “This is an unusual, perhaps unprecedented time for the protein industry,” White told investors. “In my 39 years in the business, I’ve never seen an event that has the potential to change global protein production and consumption patterns as African swine fever does.” (African swine fever also has the potential to decimate North American production, should the infection spread here.)
Poor farmers may be bankrupted, much-needed food sources may disappear, but hey, everything’s an opportunity for profit, right? No matter how black the cloud, there’s always a silver lining to be profitably mined.
Then, still with the captains of industry, came the discouraging first quarter report for Dignity PLC, Britain’s only publicly listed funeral provider: “Operating performance in the first quarter was below the board’s expectations as a result of the significantly lower than expected number of deaths.”
No matter how black the cloud, there’s always a silver lining to be profitably mined.
What a shame — not enough people in Britain died to successfully keep the company’s profits up. There was a 12 per cent decrease in deaths in the first quarter — falling from 181,000 to 159,000.
Not to worry, though; government forecasts deaths to rebound as the year goes on.
“Achievement of full year expectations will rely heavily on the number of deaths in the remainder of the year compared to 2018,” the company says. “Historical data over the last 20 years indicates that the final volume is likely to be within three per cent of the previous year.”
And the future remains bright, at least for profits: “Longer term expectations, based on the Office for National Statistics (ONS) forecasts, remain unchanged. The ONS expects long-term increases in the number of deaths, reaching approximately 700,000 per year by 2040.”
Thank goodness. Because hitting the mark this year is at risk: “Clearly, this would require a significant increase in the number of deaths.”
Finally, as we keep monetary track of the misery index, there’s the ongoing legal action over the crash of two Boeing Max 8 aircraft.
As the company and competing lawyers talk litigation, settlements and damages for the victims, along with future stock and other financial impacts on the aircraft manufacturer, one of the issues being looked at is the amount of time that passengers would have known that they likely were going to die. Apparently, the longer they spent in terror, the larger the settlement is likely to be — and given that both planes pitched up and down violently for a period of time, the passengers were likely to have known plenty.
Everything becomes a metric. You can put a price tag on fear, a price tag on famine and a price tag on death.
I covered business news for a number of years — I understand that converting lives to dollars and cents is often more about basic business pragmatism than it is about a complete lack of empathy.
But I’d have a hard time telling investors that the good news is we fully expect an upturn in the number of deaths as the year goes on.
I turned over a vegetable garden this weekend. I also found an old, rusted horseshoe about six inches underground. I didn’t really do much else. But both those things were more humane than profit from pain.
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Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 36 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at email@example.com — Twitter: @wangersky.