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Thursday, September 10, 2009

General Commentary : Crime and Collectibles Investing, or All You Need to Know about Legally Profiting from Criminality, but were Afraid to Ask

Each year, organized crime nets hundreds of billions of dollars in profits through various illegal enterprises, including narcotics and arms sales, human trafficking, extortion, bribery of government officials, prostitution, illegal gambling, fraud, and other assorted scams and rip-offs. Certainly, such enterprises should be combatted because they tend to be violent, parasitic, and impose a high cost upon the human community as a whole.

Nevertheless, it is possible that criminality and "vice" are inevitable elements of an incipient phase of capitalism, especially in many developing countries. American History provides a precedent: in the United States, much of the original wealth was founded upon land stolen from the Native Americans, slavery, and in the "Wild West," prostitution, liquor, and gambling. The early "robber barons" were not above having their minions commit expedient murders every now and then, yet now, their names are associated with the charitable foundations established by their dynastic families. The harlots of yesteryear have become the respected society matrons of today.

Many of the organizations currenly engaged in criminal activities are family or gang-based and identify with a particular ethnic group or nationality. All share a similar problem: how to launder their ill-gotten gains. The purpose of money-laundering, an industry unto itself, is to avoid exposure, taxation, or other governmental confiscation of revenues obtained through illegal activity. A large proportion of this money is invested in legitimate, or semi-legitimate, businesses, equities, and real estate, but as diversification is key to minimizing risk, a portion is also invested in tangibles- precious metals, art, and other collectibles, including stamps.

The recent increases in the value of many better stamps of Russia, Colombia, and Mexico raise the question of whether part of those increases result from the investment of dirty money into the better stamps of these countries, thereby bidding them up and depleting their supply on the market. I believe that there is such an effect, but that, for obvious reasons, it cannot be measured. It is an interesting factor to consider, however, because it raises the possibility of legally profiting from illegality. A philatelic investor who wanted to profit from such a "criminality trend" might attempt to project which countries are associated with extensive and profitable "up and coming" criminal operations and then buy the better stamps of those countries.

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