ESG developments this week
In Washington, D.C.
Greater fund disclosure on voting behavior
On March 17, then-acting-chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission, Allison Herren Lee, spoke to the Investment Company Institute, a fund trade group, on Commission plans to address the transparency of fund votes taken on shareholder proposals. She said:
“There are two key trends that have brought us to our current posture and which necessitate updates to our rules and guidance to reflect a new reality regarding proxy voting and corporate governance. First, is the growth in households invested in funds. It is estimated that in 2020, nearly 47% of US households owned funds, up from 6% in 1980….
A second key trend is the soaring demand for opportunities to invest in vehicles with ESG strategies. Millennials, in particular, are increasingly attuned to the specific ways in which funds and companies utilize their money, and their influence will only grow….
Retail investors need more meaningful insight into how their money is voted, and that insight is more important than ever with the growth of interest in ESG shareholder proposals. It’s hard to see how retail investors can formulate an accurate and reliable picture of how a fund votes on ESG issues when they are forced to parse voluminous forms that often use bespoke shorthand for shareholder proposals. Importantly, funds also stand to benefit from more effective disclosure as the fund landscape becomes increasingly competitive….
there is a lot of work to do in this area. And it is important work because it gets to the heart of ensuring that our system of shareholder democracy works. As investor preferences continue to transform, proxy voting will become an increasingly important component of that transformation. We must ensure that current incentives and rules for voting and voting disclosure are really serving the needs of investors today.”
In the states
West Virginia Attorney General threatens SEC with lawsuit over ESG disclosures
On March 25, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey (R) sent a letter to Allison Herren Lee, then-acting-chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission, asking her to abandon her plans to make climate change a greater part of the SEC’s mandate and to compel climate disclosures on companies. The plans, according to Morrissey, violate the SEC’s legal mandate and impose undue and unnecessary burdens on corporations. He threatened to sue the Commission, if it proceeds. He wrote:
“Going beyond requiring companies that disclose information that is material to future financial performance will unavoidably politicize the commission, detracting and distracting from other work. Private competition for customers and investors already leads companies to issue statements on a wide variety of matters of public interest without government compulsion….
If the commission proceeds down this pathway, states and other interested stakeholders will not hesitate to go to court to oppose a federal regulation compelling speech in violation of the First Amendment.”
Morrissey’s letter follows one sent previously by Senator Pat Toomey (R), ranking member of the Banking Committee, also opposing what he sees as the SEC’s shift in mission away from financial regulation to a policy-oriented role.
ESG opportunity and risk in state environmental laws
In an article posted on March 9, Bloomberg Law Legal Analyst Dylan Bruce suggested that a recent series of what are described as environmental justice laws passed by states provide both an opportunity and, perhaps, an unforeseen ESG risk to companies doing business in those states. According to Bruce:
“These laws are giving regulators and communities new tools to mitigate negative environmental impacts that have historically and disproportionately affected minority and low-income communities.
Ten states have already codified environmental justice in some form—with Connecticut the latest to do so, in October 2020—while another 13 states have pending legislation.”
While Bruce suggests that companies that abide by ESG demands are well positioned in these 23 states, these laws, in his view, “[A]lso expose companies to new ESG-related risks, including enhanced enforcement, litigation, and possible disclosure requirements. For those reasons, ESG-conscious companies should be paying close attention to this trend.”
Student activism and divestment in Nebraska
On April 4, the Lincoln Journal-Star reported on the efforts of Veronica Miller, the student representative on the Nebraska Board of Regents, to compel her school, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, to divest its remaining funds from fossil fuels. Although the University’s endowment is already invested using ESG methodologies, it still holds a small amount of fossil fuel companies:
“[W]hen she became the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s students’ voice on the Board of Regents, Miller said the groundwork was there to push for a change.
“The ask was already there,” said Miller, who will graduate next month with degrees in Spanish and political science. “There was a conversation about how we get this done and how we work through this.”
At its April 9 meeting, the Board of Regents will consider adding an “environmental, social and governance criteria” policy — commonly referred to as ESG — for investing the roughly $370 million in Fund N, the endowment funds controlled by the university.
Currently, only about 2% of the investments held in Fund N are in fossil fuel companies, down from 6.5% a year ago, the university said.
The rest of the university’s $1.7 billion endowment is managed by the NU Foundation, which also uses an ESG criteria when considering investments, a foundation spokeswoman said.”
On Wall Street and in the private sector
Will the ‘Flight to Value’ hurt ESG long term?
The Wall Street Journal noted on April 2 that ESG funds have taken a hit as a result of a cyclical change several years in the making. Equities markets have, over the last few weeks begun shifting from growth stocks to value stocks:
“Growth stocks propelled the outperformance of many environmental, social and governance (ESG) funds in recent years. But those same types of stocks now are turning into potential headwinds for the funds, as investors pivot more to stocks the market sees as undervalued….
High-growth companies that ESG funds have often skewed toward in recent years include Apple Inc., Google parent Alphabet Inc. and Microsoft Corp. The tech giants and other growth stocks flourished last year despite a challenging economic environment. That performance, in turn, helped ESG funds. A basket of 94 U.S. ESG exchange-traded funds ended last year up more than 20% on average, according to Dow Jones Market Data, beating the bellwether S&P 500’s gain of more than 16%.
More recent months, however, have seen a shift in investor appetites. In expectation of an economic recovery, investors have piled into companies that are seen as undervalued relative to their earnings potential. Meanwhile, there is less appetite for growth companies. For the year, the Russell 1000 Value index is up nearly 12%, versus the Russell 1000 Growth’s rise of 2.4%.
A similar trend can be seen in the performance of ESG funds.”
In a note to clients posted the previous day, however, a Bank of America Quant analyst suggested that ESG’s value-related pullback should be temporary:
“One critique of ESG investing is that it tends to favor growth stocks at the expense of value-oriented sectors,” Savita Subramanian, an equity and quant strategist at Bank of America, said in a research note dated April 1. “But our analysis of US-domiciled ESG fund holdings presents a different picture.”
BofA found that ESG funds are overweight industrials, materials and real estate relative to the S&P 500 index SPX, 1.47%, “with significantly more exposure to these pro-cyclical sectors than mutual funds broadly,” according to the note. ESG funds have meanwhile avoided growth-oriented, communication services stocks, Bank of America found.
Long-only fund investment managers generally have been moving into value-oriented sectors, boosting bets on financial and energy companies in recent months while trimming weightings to growth-oriented, technology and communication services sectors, according to BofA. Value stocks trounced their growth counterpart in the first three months of 2021 after suffering a decade of ineptitude….
ESG funds may be poised to benefit from a further rotation into value, as they remain “significantly underweight” energy and utilities even after increasing their exposure to these areas in recent months, the bank’s research note shows.”
Pershing Square declares ESG a life (and world) saver
Hedge-fund investor and CEO of Pershing Square Capital, Bill Ackman, declared recently that capitalism can save the world, and ESG, in his view, is the manifestation of its world-saving capacity. March 29, Ackman and Pershing published a 115-page letter that expressed his beliefs, summarized as follows by Yahoo Finance:
“Billionaire activist investor Bill Ackman, the CEO of the $13 billion hedge fund Pershing Square Capital, made a case that capitalism is “the most powerful potential source” for solving society’s biggest challenges — and ESG investing is ushering in that change.
“With the benefit of substantial philanthropic and investing experience, I have come to believe that capitalism is likely the most powerful potential force for good in addressing society’s long-term problems. A successful business operating ethically and sustainably can create many thousands of high-paying jobs, deliver high long-term returns for pensioners, long-term savers and other investors, and provide goods and services that materially increase its customers’ quality of life, broadly defined. That said, capitalism is far from perfect,” Ackman wrote in a shareholder letter published on Monday.
Ackman, 54, a high-profile activist investor usually known for picking up large stakes in publicly-traded companies and effectuating corporate change, pointed to the elevated importance of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues boardrooms and managements need to examine and tackle.
“We believe that good ESG practices are fundamentally aligned with running a successful business. As consumers and other corporate customers have become increasingly educated on matters of ESG, they have begun to avoid companies that contribute to climate change or do not treat their employees well, while rewarding companies with their business that have sustainable and responsible policies. Similarly, a growing number of investors have become increasingly concerned about the risks of companies which do not take ESG issues seriously. These investors avoid investing in companies which do not meet high ESG standards, reducing the valuations and investment returns of these businesses, negatively impacting their cost of capital,” Ackman added.”
In the spotlight
Agency theory in the United Kingdom
In the March 23 edition of Economy and Society, we reported that Canadian companies are implementing ESG-performance-based pay for corporate managers. According to S&P Global, the same process is underway in the UK, although perhaps even more rapidly:
“Nearly half of the U.K.’s 100 largest companies now use an environmental, social and governance measure when setting targets for executive pay, a sign of the growing acceptance of sustainability metrics in corporate boardrooms, according to a new report.
Growing pressure from investors and other groups has persuaded more companies to shift their ESG emphasis from more traditional areas such as employee engagement and risk to newer concerns such as climate change, the environment and diversity. The study was authored by London Business School and PricewaterhouseCoopers, based on ESG targets disclosed in the pay plans of FTSE 100 companies’ 2020 annual reports. The FTSE 100 is an index of the U.K.’s 100 largest companies by market capitalization.
According to the analysis, published March 18, 45% of FTSE 100 companies currently have an ESG measure in either their annual bonus targets or their long-term incentive plans, also known as LTIP. Of the 100 companies, 37% include an ESG measure in their bonus plan with an average weighting of 15%, while 19% include them in their LTIP with an average weighting of 16%. The weighting indicates how much of the pay measure is linked to ESG performance. FTSE 100 companies that link ESG performance to pay include Unilever PLC, Standard Chartered PLC, Royal Dutch Shell PLC and BP PLC.”
According to S&P Global, roughly half of all American S&P corporations state executive pay is tied to ESG matters, although it also quotes Willis Towers Watson, the company that conducted the survey, as noting that “few [American companies] give them the importance it deserves.” Additionally, only 2% of American S&P 500 companies tie executive pay to carbon emissions, below the 11% in Europe.