ESG Developments This Week
In Washington, D.C.
SEC Chairman Gensler testimony on crypto, disclosure, and more
On September 14, Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) Chairman Gary Gensler testified before the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, covering several topics related to ESG investing.
First, he discussed the SEC’s interest in regulating crypto-currencies and laid out his plans:
“Currently, we just don’t have enough investor protection in crypto finance, issuance, trading, or lending. Frankly, at this time, it’s more like the Wild West or the old world of “buyer beware” that existed before the securities laws were enacted. This asset class is rife with fraud, scams, and abuse in certain applications. We can do better.
I have asked SEC staff, working with our fellow regulators, to work along two tracks:
One, how can we work with other financial regulators under current authorities to best bring investor protection to these markets?
Two, what gaps are there that, with Congress’s assistance, we might fill?
At the SEC, we have a number of projects that cross over both tracks:
The offer and sale of crypto tokens
Crypto trading and lending platforms
Stable value coins
Investment vehicles providing exposure to crypto assets or crypto derivatives
Custody of crypto assets…
Further, I’ve suggested that platforms and projects come in and talk to us. Many platforms have dozens or hundreds of tokens on them. While each token’s legal status depends on its own facts and circumstances, the probability is quite remote that, with 50, 100, or 1,000 tokens, any given platform has zero securities. Make no mistake: To the extent that there are securities on these trading platforms, under our laws they have to register with the Commission unless they qualify for an exemption.
I am technology-neutral. I think that this technology has been and can continue to be a catalyst for change, but technologies don’t last long if they stay outside of the regulatory framework.”
Gensler also addressed proposed disclosure rules that the SEC has pondered for several months; rules that he claimed many ESG investors hope will bring greater uniformity and greater consistency to the ESG marketplace. To that end, Gensler stated the following:
“Since the 1930s, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Congress worked together to reform the securities markets, there’s been a basic bargain in our capital markets: investors get to decide what risks they wish to take. Companies that are raising money from the public have an obligation to share information with investors on a regular basis.
Those disclosures changes over time. Over the years, we’ve added disclosure requirements related to management discussion and analysis, risk factors, executive compensation, and much more.
Today’s investors are looking for consistent, comparable, and decision-useful disclosures around climate risk, human capital, and cybersecurity. I’ve asked staff to develop proposals for the Commission’s consideration on these potential disclosures. These proposals will be informed by economic analysis and will be put out to public comment, so that we can have robust public discussion as to what information matters most to investors in these areas.
Companies and investors alike would benefit from clear rules of the road. I believe the SEC should step in when there’s this level of demand for information relevant to investors’ investment decisions.”
The Chairman also issued another warning to fund managers that he and the Commission are watching closely and intend to ensure that promises and results match up closely:
“[W]e’ve seen a growing number of funds market themselves as “green,” “sustainable,” “low-carbon,” and so on.
I’ve asked staff to consider ways to determine what information stands behind those claims and how we can ensure that the public has the information they need to understand their investment choices among these types of funds.”
Plan advisors have big hopes for Labor Department
Last week, the National Association of Plan Advisors (NAPA) held its annual 401(k) Conference, and among the hot topics was the impending decision by the Department of Labor regarding the suitability of ESG investment funds in retirement plans, under the authority of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA). As has been previously noted in this newsletter, the Trump Labor Department issued a rule late last year that suggested that ESG plans did not meet fiduciary requirements of ERISA and, therefore, should be handled sparingly by retirement plan managers. The Biden Labor Department, however, declined to enforce the rule and has been working on a new rule of its own, which will presumably be more ESG-friendly. According to Roll Call, advisors at the NAPA conference were keenly interested in the timing and content of the new Labor rule:
“As the Labor Department mulls a proposed rulemaking on environmental, social and governance investment options by retirement plans, advisers say the rules are likely to temper a “chilling effect” caused by the prior administration’s guidance.
Advisers say more retirement savers are asking about ESG investing and that the forthcoming rules could place them on equal footing with many retail and institutional investors who examine factors such as environmental sustainability and corporate responsibility on social issues alongside traditional financial metrics.
“I don’t know if DOL is going to go as far as requiring plan sponsors to think about ESG investments as part of a plan menu, but I am pretty confident we’re going to get a level playing field,” National Association of Plan Advisors Executive Director Brian Graff told attendees as he led a panel discussion of experts during the NAPA 401(k) Summit this week.
Retirement plan fiduciaries haven’t had that much leeway in directing investments into ESG options….
“Retirement plan sponsors and participants deserve the freedom to choose the 401(k) investment that best suits their needs,” Graff, who is also CEO of the American Retirement Association, said in a prior statement in support of proposed legislation….
Investors worldwide are seeking more ESG options, according to another panelist, Charles Nelson, vice chairman and chief growth officer of Voya Financial.
“We meet with analysts and investors, and every time there’s a question around ESG,” Nelson said at the event. “I think this is one of the greatest opportunities for advisers in your practices as you go forward, because businesses, whether they’re publicly traded or they’re privately held by private equity or ultimately a hedge fund, they’re getting asked these questions.”
Another panelist noted it gives plan advisers more credibility with clients when they can discuss and offer ESG options.
“You’re now not just the guy or gal that comes in to do the 401(k) review — you become a strategic business partner with them, so it puts you at a much different level,” said Jania Stout, senior vice president at OneDigital Retirement. “I think that’s a huge opportunity for us as advisers.”…
One notion shared by all the panelists: ESG investing is here to stay.
“Look, you can run your practice how you want, and you all should, but there’s a reason investors and shareholders are asking about this around the world and increasingly in the U.S,” said Nelson. “And I really believe it’s going to continue to build here in the U.S., and those advisers that lean into it and can find a way to engage with their customers in a different way on this will find some new growth as well.””
In the spotlight
NYU professor Damodaran posts criticism of ESG
Last week, Aswath Damodaran, a finance professor at the Stern School of Business at New York University, published a post on his personal blog, Musing on Markets, criticizing ESG and its claims of ethical superiority in unflinching terms, calling ESG “The Goodness Gravy Train.” Among other things, Damodaran reiterated his four key conclusions from earlier work on ESG:
“1. Goodness is difficult to measure, and the task will not get easier!
2. Being “good” will add to value some companies, hurt others, and leave the rest unaffected!
3. The ESG sales pitch to investors is internally inconsistent and fundamentally incoherent
4. Outsourcing your conscience is a salve, not a solution!”
Damodaran finished with the following repudiation of what he describes as ESG gravy train-riders:
“The ESG movement’s biggest disservice is the message that it has given those who are torn between morality and money, that they can have it all. Telling companies that being good will always make them more valuable, investors that they can add morality constraints to their investments and earn higher returns at the same time, and young job seekers that they can be paid like bankers, while doing peace corps work, is delusional. In the long term, as the truth emerges, it will breed cynicism in everyone involved, and if you care about the social good, it will do more damage than good. The truth is that, most of the time, being good will cost you and/or inconvenience you (as businesses, investors, or employees), and that you choose to be good, in spite of that concern.”
“I am willing to listen to arguments for why this new model is better, but I am certainly not willing to concede, without challenge, that a corporate CEO knows my value system better than I do, as a shareholder, and is better positioned to make judgments on how much to give back to society, and to whom, than I am.”Aswath Damodaran, “The ESG Movement: The ‘Goodness’ Gravy Train Rolls On!” September 14, 2021