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Wall Street eyes big profits from Israel-Hamas war

Wall Street eyes big profits from Israel-Hamas war

Analysts' comments raise questions about whether major banks are abiding by their own human rights policies.

Reporting | Military Industrial Complex

This article was co-published with The Guardian.

The United Nations warned that there was “clear evidence” that war crimes may have been committed in “the explosion of violence in Israel and Gaza.” Meanwhile, Wall Street is hoping for an explosion in profits.

During third-quarter earnings calls this month, analysts from Morgan Stanley and TD Bank took note of this potential profit-making escalation in conflict and asked unusually blunt questions about the financial benefit of the war between Israel and Hamas.

The death toll — which so far includes over 7,000 Palestinians and over 1,400 Israelis — wasn’t top of mind for TD Cowen’s Cai von Rumohr, managing director and senior research analyst specializing in the aerospace industry. His question was about the upside for General Dynamics, an aerospace and weapons company in which TD Asset Management holds over $16 million in stock.

Joe Biden has asked Congress for $106 billion in military and humanitarian aid for Israel and Ukraine and humanitarian assistance for Gaza. The money could be a boon to the aerospace and weapons sector which enjoyed a 7-percentage point jump in value in the immediate aftermath of Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel and the beginning of Israel’s bombardment of Gaza in response.

“Hamas has created additional demand, we have this $106 billion request from the president,” said von Rumohr, during General Dynamics’ earnings call on October 25. “Can you give us some general color in terms of areas where you think you could see incremental acceleration in demand?”

“You know, the Israel situation obviously is a terrible one, frankly, and one that’s just evolving as we speak,” responded Jason Aiken, the company’s executive vice president of technologies and chief financial officer. “But I think if you look at the incremental demand potential coming out of that, the biggest one to highlight and that really sticks out is probably on the artillery side.”

That next day, von Rumohr assigned a “buy” rating to General Dynamics’ stock.

Morgan Stanley’s head of aerospace and defense equity research, Kristine Liwag, took a similar approach to the conflict during Raytheon’s October 24 earnings call.

“Looking at [the White House’s $106 billion supplemental funding request], you’ve got equipment for Ukraine, air and missile defense for Israel, and replenishment of stockpiles for both. And this seems to fit quite nicely with the Raytheon Defense portfolio,” said Liwag, whose employer holds over $3 billion in Raytheon stock, a 2.1% ownership share of the weapons company.

“So how much of this opportunity is addressable to the company and if the dollars are appropriated, when would be the earliest you could see this convert to revenue?”

Greg Hayes, Raytheon’s chairman and executive director, responded: “I think really across the entire Raytheon portfolio, you’re going to see a benefit of this restocking … on top of what we think is going to be an increase in the [Department of Defense] top line [budget].”

The comments are seemingly in contradiction of each company’s “statement on human rights” and explicit endorsements of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

Aside from the callousness of casually discussing the financial benefits of far-off armed conflict, the comments raise questions about whether these major institutional shareholders of weapons stocks are abiding by their own human rights policies.

“We exercise our influence by conducting our business operations in ways that seek to respect, protect and promote the full range of human rights such as those described in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” says Morgan Stanley’s “Statement on Human Rights.” “Although we believe that governments around the world bear primary responsibility for safeguarding human rights, we acknowledge the corporate responsibility to respect human rights articulated in the United Nations’ Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.”

“TD’s commitment to respect human rights is made in accordance with the corporate responsibility to respect human rights as set out in the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGP),” says TD’s “Statement on Human Rights.” “Since 2018, we have been undertaking a review of current practices and procedures and continue working towards integrating the UNGP across the Bank.”

But just three days into the Israel-Hamas war, the United Nations’ Human Rights Council issued a warning that “there is already clear evidence that war crimes may have been committed in the latest explosion of violence in Israel and Gaza, and all those who have violated international law and targeted civilians must be held accountable for their crimes, the UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem and Israel, said today.”

“The Commission has been collecting and preserving evidence of war crimes committed by all sides since 7 October 2023, when Hamas launched a complex attack on Israel and Israeli forces responded with airstrikes in Gaza,” said the Human Rights Council, assessments shared by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

“[The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human rights] are clear in their expectation of companies to respect human rights throughout their value chain,” said Cor Oudes, programme leader of humanitarian disarmament, business conflict and human rights at PAX for Peace, a Netherland based non-governmental organization advocating for the protection of civilians against acts of war.

“For banks, this includes ensuring that their clients or companies they otherwise invest in do not cause or contribute to violations of human rights or international humanitarian law,” said Oudes. “If a bank invests in an arms producer that supplies weapons to states which use these in serious violations of human rights or IHL, according to the UNGPs, the bank has a responsibility to act to prevent more violations as well as to mitigate the existing impact on human rights.”

But the UN won’t be the legal arbiter of whether US companies have participated in human rights violations, a key loophole for institutional investors and the weapons firms.

“The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is only as good as how it’s interpreted by the host government, which in this case would be the US,” Shana Marshall, an expert on finance and arms trade and associate director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University explained.

“These analysts can feel safe in the knowledge that the US government is never going to interpret that law in such a way that they will be prevented from exporting weapons to a country that the US doesn’t have an outright embargo on, which probably won’t have anything to do with human rights law anyways.”

Morgan Stanley and TD Bank did not respond to requests for comment.

Andrew Angelov via shutterstock.com

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