Economy and Society: Labor Department ordered to revise rules limiting ESG

ESG developments this week

In Washington, D.C.

Biden Executive Order prompts Labor Department to revise rules limiting ESG

This past week, President Biden issued an Executive Order asking the Labor Department to begin the process of undoing a Trump administration rule warning asset managers about their fiduciary responsibilities under ERISA:

“President Joe Biden has issued an executive order that among other things directs the secretary of labor “to consider publishing by Sept. 2021” proposed rules to suspend, revise or rescind agency rules that limited investments focused on environmental, social or governance (ESG) factors in retirement plan accounts and limited plan fiduciaries from voting in favor of climate-related shareholder proposals.

Those rules were approved under the Trump administration last October after an unusually short comment period that attracted opposition from many financial firms, including BlackRock, Fidelity Investments, State Street Global Advisors and Vanguard, as well as sustainability advocates like the Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment and the US SIF: Forum for Responsible and Sustainable Investment….

The executive order requests that the labor secretary submit within 180 days a report to the director of the National Economic Council and the White House national climate advisor that identifies actions taken by the agency to protect life savings and pensions of U.S. workers and families from climate-related financial risk. It asks the same of the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board, which administers a 401(k)-like savings plan for federal employees.”

Also this past week, Senator Tina Smith (D), introduced a bill that would make a new Labor Department rule unnecessary, permitting “environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria to be considered in ERISA-governed retirement plans”:

“The bill, the Financial Factors in Selecting Retirement Plan Investments Act, is co-sponsored by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chairwoman of the Senate Health Education Labor & Pensions Committee.

The bill would allow a plan fiduciary to consider ESG or similar factors, in connection with carrying out an investment decision, strategy or objective, or other fiduciary act; and consider collateral ESG or similar factors as tie-breakers when competing investments can reasonably be expected to serve the plan’s economic interests equally well with respect to expected return and risk over the appropriate time horizon.

Lisa Woll, CEO of the Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment, said Thursday in a statement that “investors consider ESG criteria because they are material to financial performance.”…

The bill also “clarifies that ESG criteria may be considered in qualified default investment alternatives,” Woll said.”

In the States

Stanford joins the ESG-debt trend

Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, has become the first American university to issue construction and renovation bonds that are designated as sustainable. According to the Stanford News:

“On April 7, 2021, Stanford went to market selling $375 million in public market debt securities to help finance or refinance various projects included in the university’s capital plan.

The securities are in the emerging ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) investment category. Two ESG designations have been externally verified: the International Capital Markets Association’s Sustainability Bond designation and the even more rigorous Climate Bond Certification, reflecting alignment with the Paris climate accord. Both are based on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development goals….

The Stanford bonds also received sustainability and climate certifications – a step that State Treasurer Fiona Ma said marks a new era in higher education bond funding.

“ESG financing provides the multi-pronged benefits of greenhouse emission reductions, health equity research, affordable housing, and systemic and academic equity,” Treasurer Ma said. “I hope more California colleges will follow Stanford’s lead.”…

University Treasurer Karen Kearney, whose office initiated and led the financing, said obtaining the designations added complexity to the process, since Stanford elected to, for example, obtain external ESG certification of its offering by an approved verifier. Bank of America led the team of underwriters handling the sale. It included Wells Fargo, Morgan Stanley and Siebert, Williams, Shank & Co, an Oakland-based woman- and minority-owned firm.

“This market evolution, together with a review of the annual Sustainability at Stanford report was a lightbulb moment for me,” Kearney said. “We had been contemplating green bonds for some time, and now we could identify a discernable pricing advantage by associating a bond issue with Stanford’s longstanding emphasis on the environment, access to education and social responsibility. Seeking ESG designations promised both financial advantages and the opportunity to extend Stanford’s environmental and social stewardship into the financing domain.””

On Wall Street and in the private sector

Tech-related stocks most widely held among largest ESG funds

According to the index-provider MSCI, the single stock most widely held by the 20 largest ESG funds last year was Alphabet, the parent company of Google. In its analysis of the fundswhich included both actively managed and passive (i.e. index or exchange-traded) fundsMSCI determined that:

“The information technology sector of the S&P 500 accounted for the largest allocation in most funds, according to MSCI’s analysis. Funds’ holdings in these stocks ranged from 3.5% of their assets to more than 37%.

Most of the ESG funds in the study had well over 20% of their assets in IT.

Meanwhile, energy stocks accounted for a minimal portion of the funds’ holdings. This helped the ESG funds outperform last year, as tech rallied while energy declined.

Indeed, Google’s parent company was held in 12 of the funds — making it the most widely held stock among the participants — with an average weight of 1.9% at year end, according to the study….

Google’s parent was present in more of the ESG funds, but Apple was the stock that accounted for the highest concentration within these portfolios.

The funds held Apple at an average weight of 5.6%, followed by Microsoft at 5%. 

Other top stocks held by ESG funds include Applied Materials, Cadence Design, Adobe and Texas Instruments, according to MSCI’s analysis.””

MSCI’s analysis also found that ESG-sustainability investing does not necessarily mean divesting from fossil fuel companies:

“An MSCI study of the 20 largest ESG funds by assets under management found that 25% held shares of energy companies. The study further found that some funds without oil companies in them actually have a larger carbon intensity due to other industrial names in them. So far this year, oil and energy plays have been performing well as the U.S. economic reopening continues.”

Fidelity International adds to its ESG team

Fidelity Internationala private company spun-off from Fidelity Investments that handles investments for clients in Asia Pacific, Europe, the Middle East, South America and Canadarecently announced the addition of a new director for sustainable investing, to be based in Hong Kong. According to the firm, Gabriel Wilson-Otto, formerly at BNP Paribas, will now be in charge of “integrating sustainability-related considerations into the investment process, working on Fidelity’s proprietary sustainability ratings and support[ing] the execution of its related regulatory program.”

SASB moves forward

The Sustainability Accounting Standards Boardan organization that aims to serve as a quasi-official standards board for ESG reportingcontinues its process of updating and issuing global ESG reporting standards and prepares to take on a much larger global role as it moves toward a merger with the London-based International Integrated Reporting Council:

“SASB held a board meeting Wednesday [May 5] to discuss some of its upcoming standards on tailings management, human capital, supply chain management in the tobacco industry, and alternative meat and dairy products. The board members also heard updates on SASB’s progress on its merger later this year with the International Integrated Reporting Council to create a Value Reporting Foundation, and the International Financial Reporting Standards Foundation’s proposal to establish an international sustainability standards board that it would oversee alongside the International Accounting Standards Board.

The meeting came at a time when the Securities and Exchange Commission and international financial regulators are pushing for more consistent disclosures of ESG reporting. The growth in popularity in ESG funds among investors has attracted greater scrutiny from regulators, who are pushing standard-setters like SASB and the IIRC, along with the Global Reporting Initiative, the Climate Disclosure Standards Board, and the Carbon Disclosure Project to harmonize their standards to keep companies from taking a lowest common denominator approach to touting their environmental bona fides….

SASB has been working with the Global Reporting Initiative and the other standard-setters on harmonizing their standards and frameworks. “SASB and GRI have been part of this group of five and have also been working directly together to show how our frameworks can be mutually compatible and try to help companies meet their reporting needs to varying stakeholders,” said Hales. “SASB is very focused on investor needs and GRI is broadly focused on stakeholder needs, including investors as well as some others. Just last month, we put out a guide on sustainability reporting using both sets of standards and how companies can use that.””

Notable quotes

“There are thousands of papers on ESG, several meta-studies and even studies of the meta-studies trying to determine whether there may be some added financial benefit to ESG investing, At the same time, we’ve seen several studies into the non-ESG stocks, the so-called sin stocks, that show they tend to outperform. So the idea that there’s a true alpha thesis for ESG is still in doubt, though there is some encouraging research emerging….

Because the client is being driven by these concerns, we’re moving past the point where client interest is the only reason that the advisor has to engage, but the danger is that there are a lot of stories out there that say aligning portfolios with values won’t cost you money or can lead to better returns, and that’s not exactly the case. ESG conversations with clients have to be nuanced enough to capture that, and we have to be realistic depending on the products….

The future of investment reports is going to look much closer to what is currently called an ESG impact performance. Advisors will be expected to tell clients not just about their return and standard deviation, but also what impacts were made on their ESG interests versus a benchmark – how many fewer barrels of oil did they use, for example.”

Dana D’Auria, co-CIO Envestment, from “ESG Investing’s Return Premium Still Unproven, Envestnet Exec Says,” Financial Advisor Magazine, April 7, 2021.