Tragedy tends to draw forth an ugly side of capitalism. Witness this week's clamoring to profit from others' plight.
Soon after the markets opened on Monday, investors were looking for the "play" on the Asian tsunamis that killed more than 120,000.
What has emerged during the past few days is a basket of "tsunami stocks," thinly traded companies that, at least in the wild-eyed fantasies of some penny-stock investors, might see a surge in business as a result of the disaster.
Benthos of North Falmouth, Mass., makes oceanographic equipment, including devices used in detecting tidal waves. By midday Tuesday, its shares had surged 69 percent. More than 1-million shares traded, 26 times the daily average of the past three months. Trading exceeded the stock's float, an indication that investors were buying and selling the same shares multiple times a day.
The company isn't promoting this idea. Any benefit could take years, and any revenue increase would be incremental, said a spokesman.
And Benthos is just one example.
Consider Analytical Surveys of San Antonio, whose shares tripled on volume more than 43 times the daily average amid speculation that its data management services for water treatment facilities will be in demand.
A better play might be Strategic Diagnostics, a Delaware company that sells kits for testing food and water quality and has distributors in many of the countries hit by Sunday's tsunamis. Its shares rose 38 percent on Tuesday, among the more muted market reactions for the tsunami plays.
Shares of Taylor Devices rose almost fourfold because investors were hoping the North Tonawanda, N.Y., company would benefit from new orders for its earthquake protection technology.
Likewise, speculators pushed up shares of Sutron Corp. by 75 percent because the Sterling, Va., company makes systems for detecting tidal surges.
In most of these stock picks, investors have no evidence the companies will profit from the tragedy. There are no contracts or even the promise of contracts. No government has committed to building a tsunami warning system. Any discussions are still preliminary at best.