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Economy and Society: SEC commissioner addresses costs of new ESG disclosure rules

ESG Developments This Week

In Washington, D.C.

SEC commissioner on costs of new ESG disclosure rules 

On June 3, Elad Roisman, one of two Republicans commissioners on the SEC, gave a speech in which he appeared consigned to what he calls the inevitability of new mandatory environmental and workforce disclosure rules:

“There have been several calls for the SEC to require public issuers to include granular disclosure on ESG topics in their SEC filings. As you have probably heard me say before, I have reservations about the SEC issuing prescriptive, line-item disclosure requirements in this space, particularly in the areas typically designated as environmental (“E”) or social (“S”) disclosure, although I know people’s categorization of ESG information can vary….

I feel like a broken record, but our disclosure framework already requires public issuers to provide information that is material to investors, including information one might categorize as “E,” “S,” or “G.” The Commission has explicitly interpreted our rules to require disclosure of the material effects of climate change on a business. We also amended Regulation S-K last year to require disclosures regarding human capital. To the extent that other material risks to a company can be categorized as “E,” “S,” or “G,” I do not see a legal justification for failing to disclose that information under our existing rules.

But, the SEC Chair has made clear that further ESG disclosure is an area that the agency will pursue….

Today, I want to talk about potential costs of any new ESG disclosure regime and ways to mitigate them because I realize that the agency has such rules in process, and I believe this discussion is relevant, regardless of how the Commission approaches the other questions I have asked.

So, let me now proceed to put the electric cart before the horse and talk about the various costs and difficulties that would inevitably come from new line-item disclosure requirements in the areas of ESG and how the SEC might address them to make the regime workable for companies and to benefit investors.”

Roisman proceeded to make the case that, in his view, costs to companies must be minimized on a variety of fronts, before concluding that:

“In summary, any new ESG disclosure rules will inevitably come with costs…. I hope the Commission can predict these costs clearly enough to mitigate them in our rulemaking process. From my perspective, this can only help meet the stated objectives of any potential ESG disclosure proposal—that is getting this new information to investors.”

In response, Commissioner Allison Herren Lee, an advocate for new disclosures, appeared to acknowledge Roisman’s concerns about costs to companies and agreed that the new rules should be as inexpensive to implement and as flexibly implemented as possible. At a June 7 event for the Wall Street Journal’s CFO Network, Commissioner Lee said that she would like any new disclosure requirements to be applied carefully and judiciously. According to Bloomberg Law, Lee said that she wanted to ensure that the new rules were not implemented as “some kind of gotcha where we come up with a rule, and two months later, we’re knocking on your door.” She also said she wanted companies to “be given time to learn from their peers and get their ESG reporting right,” and for the SEC to phase in compliance slowly and/or “deploy a safe harbor to help companies with compliance.”

ESG and litigation risks

ESG has set off a boom in litigation, according to a story in the National Law Review, and the fear is that, without a safe harbor to help companies with compliance, the boom will grow much louder and more powerful:

“More than 95% of the Fortune 50 now include some ESG disclosures in their SEC filings. The topics on the rise in 2020 included Human Capital Management, Environmental, Corporate Culture, Ethical Business Practices, Board Oversight of E&S Issues, Social Impact and Shareholder Engagement.

While the increased attention on ESG presents an opportunity for companies to showcase their good work, it also creates increased litigation risk. These new challenges primarily fall into three areas: misrepresentations, unfair and deceptive trade practices, and securities fraud.”

Of particular concern, according to the story, is the fact that, after years with no perceived consistency of standards and several different bodies providing several different reporting guidelines, that many companies may find themselves with gaps in past reporting or inconsistencies with new mandates.

SEC disclosure push prompting rise in corporate lobbying

According to Bloomberg Law, the SEC has been meeting with lobbyists and other corporate representatives at an increasing pace so far this year:

“More than 20 companies, business groups, and other organizations have met with the SEC this year as the agency considers mandatory disclosures on climate risks and other environmental, social, and governance matters.

Uber Technologies Inc., Walmart Inc., and the World Economic Forum support corporate ESG disclosures and are among those that have spoken directly with the Securities and Exchange Commission in recent months, according to a Bloomberg Law review of agency records. Walmart and Uber are already releasing information about their greenhouse gas emissions and sustainability goals.

Skeptics are lining up, too. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has publicly warned against expansive ESG disclosure requirements, also met with SEC officials recently, records show.

The stakes are high…. A mandatory reporting system from the SEC could be a “seismic shift” in corporate disclosure, said Keir Gumbs, Uber’s deputy general counsel and deputy corporate secretary, who met with commission officials on climate disclosures….

“A lot of people see how important this topic of discussion is and want to be part of the process,” said Gumbs, a former SEC counsel….

Most, if not all, of the SEC’s meetings so far with private-sector interests have included Kristina Wyatt, the agency’s new senior counsel for climate and ESG in its Division of Corporation Finance, which will take a leading role in any disclosure rulemaking. She’s often joined by John Coates, the division’s acting director. Sometimes, Satyam Khanna, the SEC’s senior policy adviser for climate and ESG, is there, too.

Public records from the meetings don’t provide detailed descriptions about what was discussed. But they show SEC officials spoke with a variety of company executives, lawyers, and other advocates, sometimes communicating with several representatives at multiple organizations in a single day.”

On Wall Street and in the private sector

Citi calls ESG unstoppable

On June 9, various members of Citi’s investment businesses held a virtual media briefing in which they argued that the forces driving ESG investment are, in their words, unstoppable and will, thus, propel global investments for some time to come. CNBC reported on the briefing and the Citi commentary as follows:

“Alternative and green energy are “very productive right now” where global trends are concerned, said Ken Peng, head of investment strategy for Asia-Pacific at Citi Private Bank, during a virtual media briefing on Wednesday.

“Governments from around the world from China to Europe to US are focusing on sustainable development and they are putting money where their mouths are,” he said….

David Bailin, chief investment officer at Citi Global Wealth, also said that over the next five to 10 years, investors — especially younger ones — will place an “enormous emphasis” on sustainable and responsible investing, and not just focus on profits.

They will look at how companies treat the environment, employees, and even politics will form part of their investment decision….

He said the most important will be the “unstoppable trends” like climate change and social justice, including providing equal access to education and technology.

“All of those are areas that I think are going to have unusual growth in the next five to 10 years,” said Bailin, who is also the firm’s global head of investments. “So these two things will converge and I think, create an opportunity for investors to make money by doing good.””


ESG ratings confusion

On June 11, The Wall Street Journal published an analysis of positive-ESG stocks, their performance relative to negative-ESG stocks and to the market more broadly, and the perceived discrepancies in ESG ratings between the three largest ESG data and ratings firms. According to the Journal, general ESG stock performance appears highly dependent on the firm doing the ratings, which produces confusion and can affect perceptions of ESG and its overall viability:

“Money is pouring into stocks that get good grades on issues like building a diverse workforce and reducing carbon emissions. But figuring out how high- and low-rated companies perform is nearly impossible because of inconsistencies in the way they are rated.

A close look at the ratings and performance of stocks ranked by the three major providers of data on environmental, social and governance criteria shows that companies can have widely different ratings.

Depending on the time period and the provider, top-ranked ESG stocks either beat the market or lag behind it. Low-ranked stocks, which are generally deemed to pollute more and treat their workers less well, can outperform top-ranked ESG stocks, and the market overall.

Since company rankings vary widely depending on the provider, which groups win and which lose is inconsistent….

The Wall Street Journal analyzed nearly 500 U.S. companies rated by all three providers and examined their 2020 and 2021 stock performance.

The Journal sorted companies into three groups—ESG leaders, average performers and laggards—based on ratings assigned by Refinitiv, a data provider owned by the London Stock Exchange Group, index provider MSCI Inc., and Sustainalytics, a unit of Morningstar Inc. The Journal analyzed their performance by calculating an equal-weighted index for each category….

Shares of companies considered by Refinitiv to be poor performers on ESG metrics have jumped 26% since the beginning of this year. Companies with top marks rose by 14% during the same period.

At Sustainalytics, the top-ranked companies for ESG rose 26% during the same period, beating those with lower ratings. At MSCI, the average companies based on ESG scores were the winners, beating both the laggards and the leaders….

The reason for the disparity is that each rater creates scores using different data sources and procedures, often emphasizing different aspects of the companies’ behavior. Some methodologies assign scores relative to competitors in the same industry and others assess absolute risk based on a firm’s material exposure to ESG issues….

Monica Billio, a professor at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, Italy, who co-wrote a paper on ESG rankings last year, said “the strong disagreement in the market does not allow the ESG relevance to be understood by the market.”

“Scores can create confusion because a company is rated highly by one agency and given a very low grade by another,” she said.”

In the spotlight

World Economic Forum disclosure standards adopted in Australia

With the SEC poised to approve new ESG disclosure requirements and with various external groups vying for the opportunity to be the provider of those standards, the World Economic Forum’s Stakeholder Capitalism Metrics appear to have taken a foothold as the new benchmark for disclosure. The metrics, developed by the WEF’s International Business Council, were officially released in September 2020 and, since the beginning of this year, have been adopted by at least 19 companies traded on the ASX (the Australian Securities Exchange):

“At the start of 2021, the first six ASX-listed companies began improving their Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) credentials and reporting their progress against the World Economic Forum’s 21 universal ESG metrics, using “ESG on-ramp” technology platform Socialsuite….

An additional thirteen ASX-listed companies recently signed on to ESG on-ramp and are leading the way globally by committing to ESG reporting.

The initial six companies to sign up to Socialsuite’s ESG-on-ramp have now completed their baseline ESG report, first quarterly ESG action plan, and continue to report their progress to stakeholders….”

Economy and Society: Proposed legislation would further integrate ESG into retirement plans

ESG Developments This Week

In Washington, D.C.ESG developments this week

Proposed legislation would further integrate ESG into retirement plans 

On May 27, four House Democrats introduced legislation they argue is aimed at promoting ESG transparency. The bills, Sustainable Investment Policies Act and the Retirees Sustainable Investment Opportunities Act, would continue the House’s efforts to overturn regulations enacted in the waning days of the Trump administration. A press release from Congressman Andy Levin’s office summarizes their perspective on ESG, ERISA, and investing for retirement:

“Congressman Andy Levin (MI-09), member of the House Education & Labor Committee and member of the Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor, and Pensions, along with Congressman Brendan Boyle (PA-02), member of the House Ways and Means Committee, Congresswoman Cindy Axne (IA-03), member of the House Financial Services Committee, and Congressman Jesús “Chuy” García (IL-04), member of the House Financial Services Committee, today introduced two pieces of legislation to protect and increase sustainable investments. The Sustainable Investment Policies Act and the Retirees Sustainable Investment Opportunities Act together would give workers a bigger say in where they invest their retirement savings by requiring large asset managers and plan investors and fiduciaries to take into account and explain to beneficiaries how they consider environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) factors when making investment decisions….

The Sustainable Investment Policies Act amends the Investment Advisers Act to promote transparency and disclosure by having large asset investment advisors file a Sustainable Investment Policy (SIP) with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). The SIP must describe the factors advisors consider when making investment decisions. These factors must align with an ESG framework. The ESG framework that investment advisers must consider includes, but is not limited to, the following investment considerations:

–          Corporate political spending and decision-making;

–          Worker and collective bargaining rights;

–          Climate and other environmental risks;

–          Global human rights and diversity and inclusion practices; and

–          The plan’s engagement with entities into which it invests, including proxy voting practices.

The Retirees Sustainable Investment Opportunities Act empowers ERISA-regulated plans to adopt a Sustainable Investment Policy (SIP) that explains how the plan’s investments will address considerations like job creation, worker pay and benefits, human rights, climate change, and more. The bill also affirms that ERISA plans may invest plan assets in sustainable investments so long as it is in the plan beneficiary’s best financial interest. The investment must also not compromise anticipated risk-adjusted returns.”

On Wall Street and in the private sector

Exxon shaken by ESG activist proxy fight 

On May 26, Exxon held its annual general meeting, at which it announced the results of voting on its proxy statement voting and acknowledged that an activist hedge fund had won at least two board seats. The Wall Street Journal explained the results as follows:

“An activist investor won at least two seats on the board of Exxon Mobil Corp. XOM +1.24% , a historic defeat for the oil giant that will likely force it to alter its fossil-fuel focused strategy and more directly confront growing shareholder concerns about climate change.

Exxon said Wednesday a preliminary vote count showed shareholders backed two nominees of Engine No. 1, an upstart hedge fund owning a tiny fraction of the oil giant’s stock. The final vote was not tallied as of early Wednesday afternoon, and the final composition of the board was unclear. Exxon Chief Executive Darren Woods was also reelected to the board, the company said.

The vote culminated a pitched, monthslong battle to persuade Exxon shareholders that turned into one of the most expensive proxy fights ever….

The hedge fund called for Exxon to gradually diversify its investments to be ready for a world that will need fewer fossil fuels in coming decades. Exxon defended its strategy to expand drilling, saying demand for fuels and plastics will remain strong for years to come, and pointed to a new carbon capture and storage business unit as evidence it is taking climate change seriously….”

Notably, the victory for the activists was enabled by the passive investment giants, Vanguard, BlackRock, and State Street, who constitute Exxon’s three largest shareholders, collectively owning more than 20% of the stock. The Wall Street Journal provides further details:

“Many of the world’s biggest investment firms helped elect directors proposed by an upstart environmental-activist fund to Exxon Mobil Corp.’s XOM -0.32% board. While votes are still being counted, BlackRock Inc., BLK 0.07% State Street Corp. STT -0.01% and Vanguard Group have said publicly they wielded votes for investors in favor of at least two dissident directors….

The investors backing Engine No. 1 turned into a who’s who list of Wall Street.

BlackRock voted for three directors proposed by Engine No. 1 and expressed concerns with Exxon’s strategic direction and the impact on its financial performance in the long term.

Vanguard voted for two directors proposed by the activist.

At least some Fidelity funds voted for Engine No. 1 directors, according to people familiar with the matter. T. Rowe Price Group Inc. TROW 0.60% voted for three of the four dissident directors, the company said Thursday.”

In response, the independent financial research operation Seeking Alpha warned that market participants who favor de-carbonization may feel triumphant but may also wish to hold off on their celebrations. According to Seeking Alpha’s Michael Boyd, the historical patterns show that when investors push ESG on fossil fuel companies from the outside, the companies tend to struggle and to underperform the market. This, he argued in a May 28 piece, is a function of the fact that outside activists tend to be concerned, in his view, with punishing the companies rather than improving their behavior and performance:

“[W]hat I set out to do is track performance of oil and gas firms that have enacted climate change policies, with weighting towards how “extreme” those measures were….

What was the outcome? On a backtested basis to early 2019, there has been no outperformance garnered from oil companies that have implemented varying ESG initiatives compared to those who have. In fact, there is a mild correlation with negative performance since implementation for the vast majority of the dataset….

ESG investors that are pushing for these changes do not seem to be increasing inflows towards oil and gas companies that are implementing the very policies they push for. BP is, without a doubt, one of the leaders on shifting its business model to adapt to the mainstream climate change narrative; the same is true for Royal Dutch Shell even with all the handwringing going on in the Dutch court system. Yet both are dramatically under-owned by pension funds, endowments, and ESG-motivated hedge funds, especially in comparison to North American counterparts that score particularly poorly on the above. Even after ESG policy initiations, those ownership stakes have not improved materially either.

This is an unfortunate habit of the ESG movement….[I]t’s about “dealing a blow” to the industry rather than actually taking carbon out of the environment.”

Mid-cap matters

In an article published May 28, Nasdaq highlighted the mid-cap ESG ETF market, suggesting that investors’ usual focus on large-cap and small-cap businesses made mid-caps a very attractive place for ESG-advocates to put their money:

“While it’s often said that mid cap equities are overlooked relative to their large- and small-cap counterparts, there are dozens of these funds for investors to consider.

The concept that may be going overlooked, at least for now, is mid cap potential in the ESG arena. The American Century Mid Cap Growth Impact ETF (MID) brings both concepts under one roof.

MID, which debuted last July, is part of American Century’s suite of active non-transparent exchange traded funds, or ETFs that do not disclose their holdings on a daily basis. The fund benchmarks to the Russell 1000 Mid-Cap Growth Index.

MID’s management teams looks for “companies that align with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that generate or could generate social and environmental impact alongside a financial return,” according to American Century.…”

The article concludes, noting that “mid caps are often more domestically focused than large caps, levering stocks in the middle to economic recovery.” This suggests that mid-caps might appeal not just to investors seeking continued returns but also to those looking to have an impact on Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance matters in the U.S. primarily.

In the spotlight

Moody’s study: Biodiversity of growing interest among ESG advocates

Last week, Moody’s ESG released the results of a study that attempted to quantify the perceived risks posed to biodiversity by large, publicly traded businesses and to assess companies’ efforts to mitigate the perceived loss of biodiversity. According to the report, biodiversity is a growing concern among ESG practitioners and policy-makers alike. Nevertheless, according to the study, many large businesses struggle to incorporate these concerns into their ESG practices. A summary published by CFODive.com noted the following:

“Thirty-eight percent of 5,300 large, publicly traded companies operate at least one facility causing loss of habitat and a risk to biodiversity, according to a study by Moody’s ESG Solutions of more than 2.1 million facilities worldwide using “high resolution remote sensing data.”

Moody’s ESG Solutions found in its study that efforts by companies to reduce harm to biodiversity often fall short of commitments they make in public disclosures. For example, 61% of heavy construction companies disclose commitments related to biodiversity but less than 10% received a “robust” or “advanced” score from Moody’s for implementation.

Moody’s flagged “urban sprawl” as a major threat to biodiversity in the U.S., singling out big-box retailers such as Dollar General that pursue a “pattern of growth that inspires more sprawl by developing low-density, single-story buildings on the outskirts of town, in vegetated, undeveloped land.”

Moody’s ESG concluded that biodiversity will become one more argument in favor of a dual-materiality standard for businesses.

Notable quotes

“It was precipitated by the ESG [environmental, social and governance] movement and this notion, which was exacerbated by Elon Musk, that there are some real environmental problems with the mining of bitcoin. A lot of institutional buying went on pause….

Elon probably got a few calls from institutions. I noticed that BlackRock is [Tesla]’s number three shareholder and Larry Fink is the CEO. He is focused on ESG and especially on climate change. I’m sure BlackRock registered some complaints and perhaps there are some very large holders in Europe who are extremely sensitive to this.”

Cathie Wood, ARK Investment Management, on the fall of Bitcoin over the last few weeks, in an interview with Nathaniel Whittemore on the CoinDesk Podcast Network, May 28, 2021.

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.

Economy and Society: SEC to begin investigating ESG disclosures

SEC to begin investigating ESG disclosures

ESG developments this week

In Washington, D.C.

Is the SEC making its move? 

On May 14, FoxBusiness’s Charles Gasparino reported that the new SEC chairman, Gary Gensler, has asked his staff to begin investigating whether corporations are making proper ESG disclosures and, if they are not, to charge them with fraud. Gasparino wrote:

“Wall Street’s top cop Gary Gensler wants to charge companies who aren’t woke enough with securities fraud.

FOX Business has learned that the Securities and Exchange Commission is launching a series of inquiries into whether corporations make proper disclosures involving so-called Environment, Social, Governance issues, known by the short-hand ESG. 

The purpose of the crackdown, initiated at the behest of Gensler, who became SEC chairman last month, is to prod corporate America to adopt policies that improve diversity, and other non-financial issues such as environmental concerns, securities lawyers who represent potential targets tell FOX Business.

These lawyers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the SEC will also look at such issues as “conflict minerals,” or whether companies import raw materials from countries that use the money to finance war and adequately disclose the matter in corporate reports. 

Another area of concern includes whether companies disclose if so-called forced labor is used anywhere in their global supply chains, these lawyers add. The SEC will also be monitoring the racial diversity of corporate boards, and whether companies alert investors about fully meeting environmental standards, these lawyers say.”

Gasparino concluded his report, noting that “It’s unclear if any of the inquiries by the SEC will result in enforcement actions involving civil securities fraud, which are usually settled by targets without admitting or denying wrongdoing.”

In the States

State treasurers for ESG

A group of state treasurersincluding those from Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Illinois, and Californiawill soon be sending a statement to a variety of investment-related constituencies, demanding that they treat climate change as a vital consideration in investment decisions. According to a report by Responsible Investor, these state treasurers argue that, in their view, assessment of and accounting for climate risk will be vital to maintaining healthy investment profiles:

“A group 16 of US State Treasurers managing more than $1.2trn of assets combined will be sending a statement on the urgency of dealing with climate risk to major investment firms, companies, investment consultants and fellow US State Treasurers. 

Speaking to RI, Deborah Goldberg, Massachusetts State Treasurer and a signatory to the statement, said: “It is the role of state treasurers to be forward thinking in terms of the long term impact of the health of their pension funds. However it’s not enough. You’re not going to impact climate risk by individual states setting standards. This needs to be universal.”

The statement, signed by the likes of California State Treasurer Fiona Ma and Rhode Island General Treasurer Seth Magaziner, says climate change will impose systemic, undiversifiable, portfolio-wide risks to long-term and institutional investors and calls for financial institutions to measure, disclose and eliminate their Scope 1,2 and 3 by 2050. 

It also calls on federal regulators to identify climate change as a systemic risk and stress test organisations. It urges the US Securities and Exchange Commission to mandate climate and ESG risk disclosure and asks the US Department of Labor (DOL) to reverse proxy voting rules under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) that undermine ESG integration. The DOL will not enforce the latter rules until the publication of further guidance, but they have not been formally dropped.”

On Wall Street and in the private sector

BlackRock makes personnel moves

BlackRockthe world’s largest asset management firmrecently made several significant ESG-related personnel moves. On May 7, Business Insider reported on the moves:

“BlackRock is continuing to double down on sustainability as it expands its environmental, social, and corporate governance-centric (ESG) leadership.

The world’s largest money manager has hired a climate scientist from the World Wildlife Fund into a top sustainability research position and appointed a new COO for its sustainability-focused division, according to a memo sent to all employees Thursday seen by Insider.

BlackRock Vice Chairman Philipp Hildebrand, who also chairs BlackRock’s sustainability initiatives, and Paul Bodnar, the firm’s recently appointed global head of sustainable investing, said in the memo that Chris Weber has been named as head of climate and sustainability research.

Weber was most recently the global climate and energy lead scientist at conservation organization World Wildlife Fund, the firm said in the memo Insider viewed. He will report to Bodnar in his newly created role and will start later this month….

Beatriz Da Cunha, a longtime BlackRock leader, was named BlackRock Sustainable Investing’s (BSI) first chief operating officer. Her mandate will be to scale the sustainable investing platform. She has been with the firm for 15 years, and has worked on BSI’s ESG integration team, according to the memo. 

The firm also created two new roles to boost the BSI unit in Asia.”

Fossil fuel analyst sees ESG bubble burst

On May 7, Oilprice.com published a piece by Alex Kimani, identified as a veteran finance writer, celebrating what he believes is the end of alternative energy stocks’ domination of the market. In a piece, titled “The ESG Bubble has Finally Burst,” Kimani wrote:

“Back in January, we warned that the green energy sector was in danger of overheating after massive runups by clean energy stocks in 2020. The momentum remained strong early in the year after Joe Biden ascended into the Oval Office in hopes that his ambitious clean energy plan would be a tailwind for investors in the so-called sustainable or ESG funds.

It was not long, however, before cracks began to appear in the clean energy bull camp.

After emerging as the hottest corner in the clean energy universe in 2020, solar stocks began to let off steam in January, with leading solar names such as First Solar Inc. (NASDAQ:FSLR), SolarEdge Technologies (NASDAQ:SEDG), Enphase Energy Inc. (NASDAQ:ENPH), SunPower Corp. (NASDAQ:SPWR), and Canadian Solar Inc. (NASDAQ:CSIQ) selling off in double-digits.

And now everything has finally come unstuck.

Clean energy has so far been the worst-performing sector, with investors yanking cash from the sector at the fastest pace in a year….

But the biggest reason why clean energy stocks are selling off is simple: They are too expensive.

“As money rotates away from those emerging growth themes and into the more economically sensitive areas of the market, clean tech has become a source of funds,” Dan Russo, portfolio manager at Potomac Fund Management, has told Bloomberg.

With their heavy-tech exposures, clean-energy funds could come under even more pressure.

Last week, JPMorgan Chase & Co. strategist Marko Kolanovic warned that big allocations into growth and ESG strategies may leave money managers vulnerable to inflation, and many might be forced to shift from low-volatility plays to value stocks….”

In the spotlight

RealClear Foundation releases report critical of ESG

On May 13, RealClear Foundation released a report by Rupert Darwall, a senior fellow at the Foundation, in which he argued that ESG, in his view, is deceptive in its promises, dangerous in its implementation, and distracting in the way in which it removes large, societal problems from governments’ agendas and attempts to solve them with a mechanism poorly suited to the task. In his report, “Capitalism, Socialism and ESG,” Darwall argues the following:

 “– In contrast to the older ethical investment movement, which accepted that morally constrained investment strategies incur costs, ESG proponents claim that investors following ESG precepts earn higher risk-adjusted returns because companies with high ESG scores are lower-risk. Thus, their stock price will outperform, whereas those firms with low ESG scores are higher-risk, leading them to underperform.

— This supposition conflicts with finance theory. Once lower risk is incorporated into a higher stock price, the stock will be more highly valued, but investors will have to be satisfied with lower expected returns. Unsurprisingly, claims of ESG outperformance are contradicted by studies.

— Claims that ESG-favored stocks outperformed during the Covid-19 market meltdown disappear once other determinants of stock performance are controlled for. ESG factors were negatively associated with stock performance during the market recovery phase in the second quarter of 2020.

— The corollary of the ESG thesis—that low-ESG-rated “sin stocks” are condemned to underperform the stock market—is decisively refuted by the data. When institutional investors “went underweight” by selling down their holdings in tobacco stocks, it made them cheaper for other investors to buy and make money, especially when they subsequently outperformed the market.

— The weaponization of finance by billionaire climate activists, foundations, and NGOs threatens to end capitalism as we know it by degrading its ability to function as an economic system that generates higher living standards. This usurpation of the political prerogatives of democratic government invites a populist backlash.”

Notable quotes

“When fund managers like BlackRock say that they “anticipate more engagement and voting” on whether companies are addressing issues such as climate change, keep in mind that the economic burden of that agenda can fall on ordinary folks who want to enjoy a comfortable retirement. If ESG investing truly maximized returns, fund managers wouldn’t fake a commitment to it while quietly doing their job—investing in companies that focus on shareholder returns and profits.”

Andy Puzder and Diane Black, “Who Really Pays for ESG Investing?The Wall Street Journal, May 12, 2021

Economy and Society: Buffett rallies opposition to ESG proposals on company proxy statement

ESG developments this week

On Wall Street and in the private sector

An Oracle’s opposition

The big story in the ESG world last week was the news that the so-called Oracle of Omaha, Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett, opposed ESG proposals on his company’s proxy statement and was able to rally support among members of the board of directors and other shareholders to defeat proposals that would have forced the investment company to disclose various ESG data for all of the companies it owns. Buffett argued, and a majority of shareholders agreed, that the costs associated with such an effort would be damaging to shareholder value and, in his view, provide little by way of useful information. Reuters put it this way:

“Buffett and his board opposed two shareholder resolutions at Berkshire Hathaway’s annual shareholder meeting last week that called for annual reports on how its companies are responding to the challenge of climate change, as well as reports on diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

He prevailed, supported by directors who along with him control a combined 35% of Berkshire Hathaway’s voting power. But some of his top investors, including BlackRock Inc (BLK.N), the world’s biggest asset manager, were part of the roughly 25% of Berkshire Hathaway shareholders who defied him and voted for each resolution. The California Public Employees’ Retirement System, the largest U.S. public pension fund, and Federated Hermes Inc (FHI.N), the $625 billion asset manager based in Pittsburgh, were among sponsors of the climate-change resolution.”

While, according to the report, many shareholders appear to be drawing the line on ESG, even without Buffett and the board’s 35%, the resolution did not muster the support of a majority of outstanding shares, losing 40%-25%. 

ESG pioneer reexamining fiduciary duty

In her BloombergOpinion column last week, Shuli Ren disclosed that the world’s largest pension fundJapan’s $1.6 trillion Government Pension Investment Fundhas begun questioning its involvement in ESG, with some employees reexamining their fiduciary responsibilities as they relate to socially responsible investing. This reexamination, in turn, has led the fund to cool its support for ESG:

“In July 2017, Japan’s $1.6 trillion Government Pension Investment Fund — the world’s largest — blazed a trail by putting 1 trillion yen ($9.1 billion) into three indices that track Japanese stocks that put emphasis on environmental, social and corporate governance issues. GPIF then plowed 1.2 trillion yen into two carbon-efficient indices in 2018, and another 1.3 trillion yen into two ESG foreign equity indices last December.

But top officials of the pension fund have been talking up fiduciary duty lately. GPIF “can’t sacrifice returns for the sake of buying environmental names or ESG names,” a senior director at the fund’s investment strategy department told Bloomberg News in April. 

At issue is poor performance. For instance, one of GPIF’s earliest ESG picks was a thematic social index, which invests in domestic companies that hire and promote women. The MSCI Japan Empowering Women Index, the so-called Win index, has fared poorly against the benchmark Topix Index. Performance is all-important to GPIF: the fund is required to pursue a real investment return of 1.7% to support an aging Japan.

Over the last year, the Japan ESG indices that GPIF tracked could not outperform the benchmark Topix Index. 

Ren concludes, starkly:

No doubt, with the European Union and Biden administration pushing fiscal stimulus money into clean energy and climate technology, ESG investing will remain a hot topic. But if the world’s largest pension fund seems to have become more circumspect, shouldn’t you? From the perspective of pure returns, passive ESG investing can still be fruitful, but one has to be nimble and practical, able to switch quickly from one thematic fund to another — or out of ESG funds altogether. Dogma won’t work.”

BlackRock identifies ESG as the future of global investing

This past weekend, CNBC recapped an interview with Armando Sebra, the head of BlackRock’s iShares Americas, who insisted that ESG is the wave of the future for global investing. “We are just at the beginning” of the ESG era, Sebra said in a brief interview with the network’s Bob Pisani. CNBC continued:

“Environmental, social and governance (ESG) investments could become a $1 trillion category by 2030, BlackRock’s head of iShares Americas, Armando Senra, told CNBC’s “ETF Edge” this week.

With U.S. investment in iShares’ suite of ESG funds starting to pick up in earnest this year, “we’re just at the very beginning” of what could be a decade-long growth story, Senra said.

ESG funds are on track for a record year of inflows, raking in over $21 billion in the first quarter of 2021. That’s an acceleration from 2020, when they earned over $51 billion for the year; 2019, when they accrued $21.4 billion; and 2018, when they saw about $5.4 billion in inflows.

Senra attributed the interest to larger asset managers and model portfolio managers incorporating sustainable investments into their strategies in more impactful ways.”

Study on ESG alpha goes public

In the last issue of this newsletter, we noted a study, conducted by the company Scientific Beta, that purported to show that the alphai.e. the excess return over the market averagegenerated by ESG funds is a myth created by mistaken categorization of risk. The article we cited, published by Institutional Investor magazine, claimed to have seen the study, even though it had not yet been published. This week, the study and its results became public and have circulated among the niche and mainstream financial press. Among others, The Financial Times noted the following:

““There is no ESG alpha,” said Felix Goltz, research director at Scientific Beta and co-author of the as yet unpublished paper, “Honey, I Shrunk the ESG Alpha”.

“The claims of positive alpha in popular industry publications are not valid because the analysis underlying these claims is flawed,” with analytical errors “enabling the documenting of outperformance where in reality there is none”, he added.

Scientific Beta analysed 24 ESG strategies that have been shown to outperform in other academic papers. It did find evidence that ESG funds have tended to outperform, with ESG leaders typically beating ESG laggards by almost 3 percentage points a year.

However, in both the US and other developed markets, it found that three-quarters of the outperformance is due to “quality” metrics, such as high profitability and conservative investment.

Quality has long been recognised as one of the investment “factors” that have traditionally tended to drive above-market returns.

“Despite relying on analysis of non-financial information by hundreds of ESG analysts, ESG strategies perform like simple quality strategies mechanically constructed from accounting ratios,” the paper said.

“Of the 24 strategies, not one has significantly outperformed when you adjust for this factor and that to me is quite striking,” said Goltz. “It’s just the case that over the last decade quality has outperformed and if you use ESG scores that inherently tilts [a portfolio] to quality.

“You can ask the question; what is the value of the ESG analysis?” Goltz added, if ESG portfolios can be constructed simply by analysing high-level balance sheet data.”   

Former Managing Director at AQR Capital argues ESG funds cost more

In his May 7 BloombergOpinion column, Aaron Brown argued that there is very little difference between most ESG ETFs and an S&P 500 fundwith one exception, the ESG fund costs more for investors:

“Want to align the core of your investment strategy with climate-change values? Or build a sustainable equity portfolio for the long-term by focusing on environmental, social and governance goals? A variety of ESG exchange-traded funds have made these and other promises. But as the table below shows, they mostly hold the same large capitalization technology stocks as the S&P 500 Index, represented in the top row by a popular ETF with a miniscule 0.03% expense ratio, in similar weights.

Not only are the portfolios similar, but performance is nearly identical. The Vanguard ESG fund has a 0.9974 correlation to the S&P 500 fund since inception in September 2018, which is higher than most index funds have to their benchmarks. A correlation of 1 would mean the two funds run perfectly in sync.

Instead of putting $10,000 in the Vanguard fund, you could put $9,948 in the S&P 500 fund, and $52 in a long/short fund that bought a bit more of some stocks and shorted small amounts of others so the combination of the two funds had precisely the same holdings as the Vanguard ESG fund. The ESG fund charges $12 per year in expenses, while the index fund charges $3. The extra $9 in fees is really paying for the $52 “active share” fund, an annual expense ratio of over 17%!

The other ESG funds charge similar outrageous fees for tiny adjustments to the S&P 500. FlexShares charges 0.32%, which works out to 16% on the active portion of its portfolio. Conscious Companies charges 0.43%, but has a lower S&P 500 correlation, so is a relative bargain at only 11% for its active portion. SPDR charges 0.20%, or 18% on the active portion. ESG Aware is the second cheapest on raw fees at 0.15%, but its sky-high correlation of performance with the S&P 500 means you’re paying more than 20% on the active share.”

In the spotlight

Business schools jump on the bandwagon

According to The Financial Times, large businesses and some business schools have begun working hand-in-hand to educate corporate employees about sustainability efforts and their importance and to turn ESG into a much more mainstream business practice and investment strategy. Focusing on Nespresso and NYU’s Stern School of Business, the paper reports the following:

“By taking a commodity and turning it into a luxury product, Nespresso has generated billions in sales from its coffee pods. Boosted by the endorsement in its adverts of actor George Clooney, the company, owned by Swiss multinational Nestlé, has an annual turnover of SFr5.9bn ($6.3bn).

However, Nespresso has come under heavy criticism over the environmental impact of the aluminium pods that end up in landfill, because the metal is not biodegradable. It can be recycled, though.

Nespresso turned to NYU Stern School of Business in New York to create a custom executive course, run most years since 2016, to help employees understand coffee sustainability. There have been 118 participants, from different levels of the company, and what they have learnt has already helped it improve recycling rates.

Attendees visit a coffee farm in Costa Rica to understand the company’s sustainable sourcing programme, set up in 2003 with the Rainforest Alliance, an environmental organisation. They also take business classes, learning about brand storytelling to court consumers, and are encouraged to develop proposals for projects on the course — for example, ways to reduce waste in Nespresso’s offices….

In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, some critics labelled business schools “academies of the apocalypse”, arguing that they were partly culpable. Many institutions, however, are moving beyond the shareholder-primacy model and emphasising the longer-term interests of employees and broader society in their executive education programmes, encouraging organisations to become better corporate citizens.

This month, the University of California Berkeley’s Haas School of Business launches a new course on how to integrate sustainability into a business strategy. Robert Strand, executive director of Haas’s Center for Responsible Business, says the pandemic has put “stakeholder capitalism on steroids”. It has “exposed and worsened inequalities, but it’s also an opportunity to change the narrative of capitalism, and redefine the purpose of a corporation”, he adds.

Academics disagree over whether coronavirus will really reset capitalism, but the appetite is strong for executive courses that go beyond the bottom line. Nicholas Pearce, professor of management and organisations at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management in Illinois, says many executives are interested in using business as a platform for social change. “The pandemic forced people to reflect on their responsibility to use positions of privilege and power to do good,” he says.

Pearce says Kellogg’s corporate clients are increasingly requesting bespoke programmes on social purpose, employee wellbeing, and diversity and inclusion. Likewise, Ioannis Ioannou, associate professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at London Business School, agrees that demand for such training outstrips supply. “Coronavirus has awakened the ‘S’ in ‘ESG’,” he says, reflecting a rethink by companies particularly on social issues alongside environmental and governance factors.”

Notable quotes

On the perceived potential for an ESG/Bitcoin collision

“To the extent that financial firms need to improve on the sustainability of cryptocurrency products, this can be achieved for example by purchasing carbon credits at the custodial level to offset the current carbon impact of mining per coin held in custody per unit time.

So far, we have seen limited specific demand for such offsets and to my knowledge no large custodians currently offer them but it may well become a common product component.” 

Chris Bendiksen, head of research at CoinShares, “Bitcoin Under ESG Scrutiny,” etf.com, May 5, 2021.

Economy and Society: ESG references in federal lobbying reports on the rise

ESG developments this week

In Washington, D.C.

ESG references in federal lobbying reports on the rise

On April 29, Roll Call reported that references to ESG in federal quarterly lobbying reports have grown over the last few monthscoinciding with the start of the Biden administration. According to the paper, lobbying mentions of ESG had risen slowly during the Trump presidency:

“More lobbyists reported raising environmental, social and governance issues with U.S. officials and lawmakers this year, with Democrats now controlling Washington, than ever before….

Lobbyists mentioned the acronym ESG in first-quarter 2021 lobbying reports for 37 unique clients. The reports, which were due April 20, cover activity from Jan. 1 through March 31, including the beginning of the Biden administration and Democrats’ control of both chambers of Congress.

The figure is up from 21 distinct reports that mentioned ESG for the final quarter of 2020, 24 from last year’s third quarter, 18 from the second quarter and 14 from the first quarter. The final quarter of 2019 saw 15 reports mentioning ESG, which was the first time the term appeared widely in lobbying reports. It was mentioned once before in a report from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce covering 2018’s second quarter….

Groups that disclosed such lobbying included large trade associations, asset managers, financial services firms, insurers, pension-focused groups and at least two left-leaning organizations advocating ESG disclosure rules, the United Nations-supported Principles for Responsible Investment and Public Citizen.

Among all filings mentioning ESG, about 29 percent specifically reported lobbying on the ESG Disclosure Simplification Act, a bill from Rep. Juan C. Vargas that would require public company disclosure of ESG information. The California Democrat initially proposed the measure in September 2019. More than a dozen listed a Labor Department rule related to ESG, which was finalized under the Trump administration and changed requirements for employer-sponsored retirement plans when selecting investments.

Of the 37 reports that mentioned lobbying on ESG during the first three months of 2021, most mentioned ESG issues, disclosure, investing or ratings generally. Five groups reported lobbying on Vargas’ legislation, and three on the Labor Department rule that Democrats may soon roll back. One group detailed involvement in an ESG workgroup meeting at the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The world’s largest asset management firm, BlackRock Inc., mentioned ESG specifically in a lobbying report for the first time in 2021, reporting that it addressed the “ESG Rule/DOL.” The manager of $9 trillion also disclosed lobbying on “climate risk” for the first time.”

On Wall Street and in the private sector

BlackRock signaling increased support of ESG

On April 30, The Wall Street Journal reported that BlackRock, a leader in Wall Street’s ESG and sustainability efforts, with $9 trillion in assets under management, has used the current annual meeting season to put its proverbial money where its mouth is. According to the paper, BlackRock has increased its support for shareholder proposals focusing on environmental, social, and corporate governance matters:

“BlackRock Inc. BLK -0.97% has so far increased its support for shareholder-led environmental, social and governance proposals, and published a slew of criticisms of public companies that haven’t bent to its overall requests.

The firm votes on behalf of the investors in its many funds. For the roughly 170 ESG shareholder proposals it voted on during the first half of the proxy year, BlackRock backed 91% of environmental proposals, 23% of social proposals and 26% of corporate-governance proposals.

That included voting for a proposal to make it easier for shareholders to push for changes at Tesla Inc. and another to make Spanish airport operator Aena SME SA publish carbon-emission reduction plans. Most of the votes for the proxy year come in the six months ending in June.

For the 1,000-plus proposals for the year ended in June 2020, BlackRock backed 6% of environmental proposals, 7% of social proposals and 17% of governance proposals….

The firm is one of the top three shareholders of more than 80% of the companies in the S&P 500, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence, through its many funds. The money manager casts a long shadow on shareholder meetings where it can vote on behalf of its investors on board directors, executives’ pay packages and other company matters.”

ESG assets under management approaching $2 trillion 

On April 30, CNBC (citing Morningstar) reported that ESG assets under management are now nearly $2 trillion, after massive ongoing inflows throughout the 1st quarter of 2021:

“Sustainability-focused funds attracted record inflows during the first quarter, pushing global assets under management in ESG funds to nearly $2 trillion, according to a report from Morningstar released Friday.

The rise underscores the momentum behind ESG investing, or when environmental, social and governance factors are considered. Assets in these types of funds first topped $1 trillion in the second quarter of 2020.

Global sustainable funds attracted a record $185.3 billion during the first quarter of 2021, up 17% quarter over quarter. Overall, assets in ESG funds jumped 17.8% compared to the fourth quarter of 2020.

“2021 began where 2020 left off with record demand for sustainable investment options across the globe,” noted Hortense Bioy, global director of sustainability research at Morningstar.”

Meanwhile, on April 29, ETFStream.com, citing data from Ultumus, reported that more than half of all inflows into European investment markets in the 1st quarter went to ESG-aligned funds.”

In the spotlight

Are ESG returns a mirage?

On April 26, Institutional Investor magazine reported on the results of a new but yet unpublished study on the returns generated by ESG investments. The results of the study suggested that ESG fund outperformance that supporters claim is generated by ESG factors is, in fact, generated by other, more generic factors:

“Scientific Beta, set up by EDHEC-Risk Institute in 2012 and now majority-owned by Singapore Exchange, has found that 75 percent of the outperformance of ESG strategies cited in popular academic studies on the subject was due to their exposure to the quality factor, which can be cheaply accessed through systematic funds. Quality is a well-known premium, or source of return, that academic research has shown outperforms the market over long-term economic cycles.

In a report not yet published but seen by Institutional Investor, Scientific Beta deconstructed the reported ESG performance gains to account for the potential contribution of sector tilts, factor exposures, and attention shifts, meaning the steadily growing popularity of strategies over the time period that was studied. The research group also evaluated whether incorporating ESG factors protected investors from losses, another popular claim of ESG asset managers.

“We find that over the past decade these strategies did deliver positive returns,” Felix Goltz, Scientific Beta’s research director and one of the authors of the study, said in an interview. “One example is the outperformance of a fund that holds long positions in ESG leaders and short positions in ESG laggards.”

Goltz said he wanted to quantify the specific performance that could be attributed to ESG, once everything was adjusted for generic factors, such as equity styles and industry sectors, a common practice in attribution analysis. “Well, it disappears,” he said….

“We conclude that claims of positive alpha in popular industry publications are not valid because the analysis underlying these claims is flawed,” the authors wrote. “Omitting necessary risk adjustments and selecting a recent period with upward attention shifts enables the documenting of outperformance where in reality there is none.”…

Goltz said he thinks sustainable funds have plenty of value in terms of their potential impact on society, but outperformance isn’t one of them.”

Notable quotes

“Peter McKillop, founder, Climate and Capital Media: When did you first become skeptical about BlackRock’s ESG push?

Tariq Fancy, former chief investment officer for sustainable investing, BlackRock: I had to figure out an investment mechanism for how to create social change because Larry was writing that in letters and I kept getting asked by clients, “How does this actually lower emissions?” So I started writing a long paper to explain how ESG and sustainable investing will, over the long term, actually start to transform capitalism into better outcomes. By the time I had finished, I realized I had just written a somewhat tortured argument that the free market will slowly correct itself. And I said, “Oh my God, we’ve known for decades that climate change is the greatest market failure in history.”

I could clearly see that the markets would not “correct” themselves without government action. At some point we have to accept that burning fossil fuels is dangerous to us unless we do something.”

Peter McKillop, “BlackRock’s former head of sustainable investing says ESG and sustainability investing are distractions,” Greenbiz.com, April 28, 2021.

SEC Commissioner argues against integrating ESG concerns into its mission

ESG developments this week

In Washington, D.C.

New SEC Chair sworn in

On April 14, Gary Gensler was confirmed by the U.S. Senate (in a mostly party-line 53-45 vote) as the new chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). He was sworn in April 17 by Maryland Senator Ben Cardin (D) in a small ceremony in Baltimore.

According to a press release issued by the SEC, Gensler said:

“I feel incredibly privileged to join the SEC’s team of remarkable public servants. As Chair, every day I will be animated by our mission: protecting investors, facilitating capital formation, and promoting fair, orderly, and efficient markets. It is that mission that has helped make American capital markets the most robust in the world…

I’m honored that President Biden nominated me, and I’m grateful to Vice President Harris and the Senate for their support. I’d like to thank Acting Chair Allison Herren Lee for her leadership the last few months and all of my fellow Commissioners for being so generous with their time and advice.”

Among the key issues that Gensler will deal with as the new chair are reporting standards for ESG metrics and definition of materiality as it relates to ESG matters.

Commissioner argues against integrating ESG concerns into SEC mission 

On April 14, the same day as now-Chairman Gensler was confirmed by the Senate, Commissioner Hester Peirce, one of two Republicans on the SEC, released a statement (also published in the April 2021 edition of Views – the Eurofi Magazine) in which she argued against the Commission’s plans to integrate ESG concerns into its mission. “The challenge we face in addressing the ever-increasing number of issues underlying E, S, and G is daunting,” Commissioner Peirce conceded, but “The task before us is to find a way to bring about lasting, positive change to our countries on a range of issues without sacrificing in the process the very means by which so many lives have been enriched and bettered.” She continued:

“At first glance, everything sounds good—common metrics demonstrating a joint commitment to a better, cleaner, well governed society. Common disclosure metrics, however, will drive and homogenize capital allocation decisions. A single set of metrics will constrain decision making and impede creative thinking. Unlike financial accounting, which lends itself to a common set of comparable metrics, ESG factors, which continue to evolve, are complex and not readily comparable across issuers and industries. The result of global reliance on a centrally determined set of metrics could undermine the very people-centered objectives of the ESG movement by displacing the insights of the people making and consuming products and services.

Hampering the ability of the markets to collect, process, disseminate, and respond to price signals by boxing them in with preset, government-articulated metrics will stifle the people’s innovation that otherwise would address the many challenges of our age. Moreover, converging standards would be antithetical to our existing disclosure framework, which is rooted in investor-oriented financial materiality and principles-based requirements to accommodate the wide variety of issuers.

The European concept of “double materiality” has no analogue in our regulatory scheme and the addition of specific ESG metrics, responsive to the wide-ranging interests of a broad set of “stakeholders,” would mark a departure from these fundamental aspects of our disclosure framework. The strength of our capital markets can be traced in part to our investor-focused disclosure rules and I worry about the implications a stakeholder-focused disclosure regime would have. Such a regime would likely expand the jurisdictional reach of the Commission, impose new costs on public companies, decrease the attractiveness of our capital markets, distort the allocation of capital, and undermine the role of shareholders in corporate governance.

Let us rethink the path we are taking before it is too late.”

On Wall Street and in the private sector

Top holdings in BlackRock’s new ESG Fund are tech-focused

In the previous edition of this newsletter, we noted BlackRock’s launch, two weeks ago, of its U.S. Carbon Transition Readiness ETF (ticker LCTU), which attracted $1.25 billion in its first day of trading, a record in the history of exchange-traded funds. While investors flocked to the new offering from the largest asset management firm in the world, Bloomberg Green’s Claire Ballentine noted on April 14 that the ETF suffers, in her view, from the same perceived problem that plagues many other funds in the ESG arena, namely, it is less E, S, or G-focused than it is tech-focused. She wrote:

“As the biggest launch in the history of ETFs, it’s a ringing endorsement of all things ESG. But beyond its billion-dollar debut, BlackRock Inc.’s new fund might feel awfully familiar to most investors.

The top holdings in the U.S. Carbon Transition Readiness ETF (ticker LCTU) — which lured about $1.25 billion in its first day on Thursday — turn out to be Apple Inc., Microsoft Corp., Amazon.com Inc., Alphabet Inc. and Facebook Inc.

The same five companies, in the same order, are the top stakes in the largest environmental, social and governance ETF on the market, the $16.5 billion iShares ESG Aware MSCI USA ETF (ESGU). That’s also from BlackRock with a fee of 0.15%, half the price of LCTU.

In fact, those tech megacaps form the bedrock of many exchange-traded funds, both in the ESG space and beyond. For example, four of them also are among the five largest holdings of the $167 billion Invesco QQQ Trust Series 1 ETF (QQQ), which is simply tracking the Nasdaq 100….

The record launch comes while many questions linger in the still-maturing ESG sector. A report released Friday by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission cautioned that some firms are mis-characterizing their products as ESG, possibly even violating securities laws in the process. The agency didn’t name any companies.”

JPMorgan Chase to invest in ESG

JPMorgan Chase & Co., the biggest bank in the United States and the second biggest in the world, announced last Thursday that the bank will invest significant amounts in ESG efforts over the next decadea potential blow to fossil fuel energy companies. Reuters reported the story as follows:

“JPMorgan Chase & Co (JPM.N) aims to lend, invest and provide other financial services for up to $2.5 trillion of banking business to be done for companies and projects tackling climate change and social inequality over the next decade.

In a statement on Thursday, JPMorgan said green initiatives will account for $1 trillion of that total – the largest environmental, sustainable and governance (ESG) financing target announced by a U.S. bank to date.

That could mean lending or investing in companies that develop clean-energy technology for the trucking, aviation or industrial manufacturing sectors, the bank’s head of sustainability, Marisa Buchanan, told Reuters in an interview….

JPMorgan is among the leading U.S. lenders to fossil fuel companies, having provided $317 billion of lending and underwriting since 2016, according to a recent study by environmental activist group Rainforest Action network….

JPMorgan pledged to share more details about its ESG initiatives, including its work establishing emission targets for companies in its financing portfolio, in its next climate report, due out this spring.”

In the spotlight

Report: Are ESG ETF’s sustainable?

Impact Cubed, a sustainability analytics and research company based in London and partnered with some of the oldest activist asset management firms, released a report late last month, examining the impact of some of the biggest passively managed ESG funds in the world. According to Impact Cubed many such funds are, in its view, falling short of the impact achieved by actively managed funds. And some, it claims, are making sustainability matters worse:

“Passive ESG funds are designed to avoid ESG risk, but do they have positive impact? 

Impact Cubed turned its model onto some popular passive ESG funds to peel back the marketing and look under the hood. Top findings include:

·         Some passive ESG funds actually have an overall negative impact. 

·         ESG performance varies four-fold between the ‘best’ and ‘worst’.  

·         Smart investors who know what to look for can find a passive ESG fund with positive impact and lower tracking error. 

Many passive funds still have ESG growing pains and will need to measure impact if they are to improve and attract investor interest. 

Larry Abele, CIO of Impact Cubed and report co-author, advises “As ESG investing becomes more mainstream, passive ESG fund managers who want to secure a proper perch in the pecking order for capital allocation will need to be more transparent about the impact provided by their approach.””

Notable quotes

“Proponents have filed at least 435 shareholder resolutions on environmental, social and sustainability issues for the 2021 proxy season, with 313 pending as of February 19. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) staff have allowed the omission of 24 proposals so far in the face of company challenges; companies have lodged objections to at least 74 more that have yet to be decided—12 more than at this time last year. Proponents have already withdrawn about 90 proposals, however, up from 78 at this time last year and 71 in mid-February 2019.

Annual totals are down from a bit from the all-time high of just under 500 in 2017. About 40 percent of filed resolutions have gone to votes each year since 2018, around 45 percent have been withdrawn and between 13 and 16 percent omitted.

The tumultuous events of 2020 prompted a slew of new shareholder proposals investors will consider in 2021. New angles are most apparent in the big increase in resolutions about racial justice and equal opportunity, but proponents also are raising fresh ideas about worker safety, climate transition planning and lobbying.”

Economy and Society: SEC review finds potentially misleading ESG fund practices

ESG developments this week

In Washington, D.C.

SEC investment fund review reveals potentially misleading ESG practices

On April 9, the Securities and Exchange Commission announced that its recently enhanced examinations of the investment community’s use of and adherence to ESG investment principles has yielded results. The Commission set out to find whether investment companies were keeping the promises they were making to investors. And it learned that, in some cases, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal, they aren’t:

“The Securities and Exchange Commission said Friday it has found some investment firms that tout socially responsible investing were potentially misleading investors, part of the agency’s enhanced review of funds that claim to support environmentally friendly policies but don’t adhere to them.

These funds broadly market themselves as trying to invest in companies that pursue strategies addressing environmental, social or governance issues from climate change to corporate diversity.

The SEC didn’t disclose the names of firms or how many were involved in the review.

The regulator found instances in which investment firms were making potentially misleading statements about their ESG investment processes as well as their adherence to global ESG frameworks. It has also seen cases where portfolio managers weren’t consistently disclosing their ESG strategies and where their proxy voting on shareholder proposals didn’t align with advisers’ stated stance on socially responsible issues.

Several firms didn’t have proper policies and procedures in place to address ESG or reasonably prevent violations on such matters, the SEC said, finding controls inadequate to ensure clients’ ESG-related investing preferences were reflected. Some firms also lacked compliance programs that could reasonably guard against inaccurate ESG-related disclosures and marketing materials, the agency said.”

On Wall Street and in the private sector

BlackRock ESG ETF launch biggest ever

On April 8, BlackRock launched a new ESG ETF (exchange-traded fund) that became the biggest fund launch in the 30-year history of the ETF business, securing more than $1 billion in its first day of trading: 

“Investors poured about $1.25 billion into the BlackRock U.S. Carbon Transition Readiness ETF (ticker LCTU) on Thursday, making it the biggest launch in the ETF industry’s three-decade history, according to data compiled by Bloomberg….

LCTU’s eye-catching debut comes amid a broad boom for ETFs focused on investments that meet environmental, social and governance standards. They attracted a record $31 billion in 2020, almost four times the prior year. About $6.3 billion was added in January, also the most ever, as investors bet the Democrats clean sweep of the U.S. government would usher in a swath of green policies.

That’s all taken ESG ETF assets to a record $74.8 billion, up from less than $10 billion two years ago. The largest ETF in the space is also from BlackRock. The iShares ESG Aware MSCI USA ETF, with $16.3 billion of assets, is trading at an all-time high after returning more than 50% in the past 12 months.”

BlackRock joins ESG credit-line trend

Last week, BlackRock also became the latest large, high-profile corporation to sign on to an ESG-directed credit facility. According to the Wall Street Journal, the new credit deal was disclosed in a regulatory filing made public last week and was signed on March 31:

“The firm struck a financing deal with a group of banks that links its lending costs for a $4.4 billion credit facility to its ability to achieve certain goals, like meeting targets for women in senior leadership and Black and Latino employees in its workforce.

The firm plans to boost the share of Black and Latino people in its U.S. workforce 30% by 2024, a spokesman said. It aims to increase the share of women in its senior leadership ranks by 3% each year.

BlackRock’s progress on growing assets in funds focused on companies with high environmental, social and governance ratings will also impact its lending costs. The firm aims to grow the roughly $200 billion it manages in so-called sustainable strategies to $1 trillion by 2030….

BlackRock is best known for its sprawling lineup of funds that trade rapidly and track indexes. The firm and its CEO, Larry Fink, have pushed companies its funds invest in to be more attentive to environmental and social risks—and to increase workforce diversity….

Going forward, the new lending facility will impose a cost on the asset manager for missing its workplace-improvement and other goals.”

Europe’s biggest oil producer goes green

In an interview conducted by Bloomberg on April 9, Norwegian Finance Minister Jan Tore Sanner described his country’sand, by extension, its massive sovereign wealth fund’s intention to invest heavily in sustainability-related investment vehicles. “We must have the highest possible return on our money,” Sanner told the financial news organization, “but we also want to know that it is invested in a responsible way.” Bloomberg continued:

“The goal is “to increase the competence related to climate risk, investment opportunities, the consequences associated with the transition to the low-emission society,” Sanner said. “This is because this will be perhaps the most important framework condition for large investors in the next 10-20 years.”

Western Europe’s biggest oil nation is now trying to use its giant wealth fund to steer the planet toward a greener future. Its chief executive, Nicolai Tangen, has said he will use his clout to try to force companies to act more responsibly.

Under Sanner’s proposal, which still needs parliamentary approval, about 25-30% of portfolio companies will be cut. Though that sounds like a lot, it only represents about 2% of the fund’s total market value. Sanner says he wants to avoid investments in new emerging markets because they tend to have “weaker institutions, weaker protection of minority shareholders, less openness.”

The changes will make it easier to manage the vast portfolio, and reduce complexity and risk, Sanner said.

The fund, which returned 10.9%, or $123 billion, on its total investments last year, has followed strict ethical guidelines, including bans on certain weapons, tobacco and most exposure to coal, since 2004.”

Oil and gas stocks continue to heat up

In a April 9 piece, Oilprice.com noted the perceived incongruence of the ESG push in the markets and the concomitant fossil fuel-stock rebound:

“In the year to date, the energy sector on the S&P 500 has gained 29.4 percent, Palash Ghosh reported for Forbes. This makes energy the best-performing sector on the S&P 500, followed by finance as a distant second, with a gain of 17.6 percent.

The rally in oil stocks came on the back of improving oil prices, and oil prices improved on the back of, mostly, hopes that economies will soon begin returning to normal. Mass vaccinations in key oil markets did a lot to fuel this post-pandemic optimism about oil, pushing benchmarks above $60 a barrel and drawing investors to oil stocks.

Vaccines were, of course, not the only factor. OPEC+ also kept its production limited for longer than it had initially planned. The cartel decided at its last meeting to raise production gradually and the fact that this decision did not send prices plunging shows that expectations of a demand rebound are really strong right now….

All this is happening as pressure continues to mount on oil and gas companies to basically stop being oil and gas companies. What the surge in oil stocks is demonstrating, however, is that a lot of investors still prefer returns to clean energy promises. One early proof of this was BP’s share price drop after CEO Bernard Looney last year announced perhaps the most ambitious energy transition plan among Big Oil majors….

ESG investing may be all the rage these days, and solar stocks may be favorites among the ESG crowd, but oil hasn’t fallen out of grace yet.”

In the spotlight

Is ESG necessary? Research examines how climate risks are priced into markets 

In an article published April 9, Institutional Investor magazine reported on a new study conducted by Dimensional Fund Advisors that purports to show that the “E” portion of ESG is unnecessary and that marketsbeing in their view efficienthave already priced climate and transition risks into asset prices, across various investment-vehicle types:

“Although evidence is accumulating about the effect of climate change on everything from weather patterns to human health, scientists can still only paint a partial picture of the future. Nonetheless, stock, corporate and municipal bond, futures, and options markets are doing a good job of incorporating climate risks into asset prices, despite the complexity and uncertainty.

In recent research, which includes a review of outside academic studies, Dimensional Fund Advisors sought to address the question of whether and how well climate risks are priced into different markets. Dimensional looked at how the markets priced both physical risks and transitional risk, which arises as economies move away from fossil fuels and to a low carbon economy….

“Many of the effects are hard to predict, hard to quantify, hard to bring to the present in terms of value or cost,” Savina Rizova, the firm’s global head of research, told Institutional Investor. “First, financial markets do pay attention to these risks, despite the complexity and even the longer run effects of climate change. Second, companies have incentives provided by competitive financial markets to better manage their exposure to climate risks if they want to have a lower cost of capital.”…

Investors interested in owning securities that don’t contribute to climate risk may not need to own funds with an ESG label.”

Notable quotes

“Based on the Fama and French analysis this implies that if investors have a preference for highly rated ESG stocks then those stocks will offer lower average excess returns. Note that this conclusion is contrary to the views of many ESG advocates in the investment profession. For instance, Blackrock CEO Larry Fink (2020) states that, “Our investment conviction is that sustainability and climate integrated portfolios can provide better risk-adjusted returns to investors.” We find little support for this conviction in either the theory or empirical evidence. On the other hand, there is some good news for high ESG companies in that those lower expected returns mean lower discount rates and lower discount rate produce greater valuations.”

Bradford Cornell and Aswath Damodaran, “Valuing ESG: Doing Good or Sounding Good?” March 20, 2020.

Economy and Society: Greater fund disclosure on voting behavior

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. 

SEC announces all-agency approach to ESG

Environment, Social, and Corporate Governance by Ballotpedia

ESG developments this week

In Washington, D.C.

SEC announces all-agency approach to ESG

Last week, the Securities and Exchange Commission launched a new page on its website, a page dedicated to ESG and to tracking the Commission’s action on the subject. According to the site: “As investor demand for climate and other environmental, social and governance (ESG) information soars, the SEC is responding with an all-agency approach.”

The announcementand the page launchcame roughly a week after the SEC announced that it was requesting public input on ESG matters from “investors, registrants, and other market participants on climate change disclosure,” and three weeks after the announcement of the launch of a new task force on ESG matters, to be located in the Commission’s Enforcement Division. 

Republican Senator presses SEC on ESG goals

On March 25, the office of Senator Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), the Ranking Member on the Senate Banking Committee, and opponent of what he sees as the SEC’s shift in mission away from financial regulation to a policy-oriented role, released the contents of a letter sent to acting-Chair Allison Herren Lee, asking her to brief him on her and the Commission’s climate-change-related plans. The Hill reported the story as follows:

“The top Republican on the Senate Banking Committee is pressing the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) for more information about the agency’s climate change agenda.

In a letter to the SEC released Thursday, Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) asked the agency’s acting chief for a briefing on its plans for a new task force and enforcement priorities regarding climate-related financial risks.

“These announcements appear to presage major changes in longstanding practices on disclosure and enforcement matters at the SEC. Such changes would be premature,” Toomey wrote in a letter dated March 24 to acting SEC Chairwoman Allison Herren Lee, a Democrat.

“In order to better understand the scope and intention of this new task force and the SEC’s ‘enhanced focus’ on climate and ESG-related priorities, I am requesting a staff briefing on this subject by no later than the week of April 5, 2021,” he continued.”

In the states   

ESG pushback in energy-producing states

Pew Trusts reported on an effort among legislators in several states to highlight what they see as ESG’s role in the increasing cost of business insurance in their states. The legislators mostly Republicanspropose legislation that would cut ties with businesses that shift to ESG-heavy energy plans, asset managers that demand sustainability planning from the companies they hold, and banks that, in their view, punish energy companies with punitive rates or that are declining their business altogether. Pew Trusts reported as follows:

“In Alaska, North Dakota, Texas and other energy-producing states where fossil fuel taxes support state budgets, some lawmakers are introducing legislation that would force states to stop investing in companies that use sustainable strategies to make financial decisions and to cut ties with asset managers, banks and insurers that are doing the same.

The mostly GOP lawmakers argue that investment decisions should be made solely based on the likely financial returns, not so-called ESG—the environmental, social and governance criteria that socially conscious investors use. Instead of embracing ESG, several states want to double down on investments in oil, gas and coal. Otherwise, they say, the very industries they depend on face collapse.

It’s already difficult for fossil fuel projects to find insurance, financing and other backing if they don’t meet some of the sustainability standards, said state Sen. Jessica Bell, a Republican in North Dakota who has sponsored one of the bills that would keep her state from making ESG-driven investments.

“They’re denied access to capital. They are denied access to loans. They are refusing to do business with them. Our insurance rates have gone up,” Bell said. “I mean, you name it, ESG has already negatively affected us.”…

James Leiman, the new commissioner of the North Dakota Department of Commerce, said his department is neutral on the legislation. But he did tell North Dakota’s Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that the ESG movement represents “the greatest challenge to the North Dakota economy since the Great Depression.”

North Dakota’s energy and agricultural sectors can’t grow if they can’t borrow money or access insurance because they don’t meet ESG standards, Leiman said. Coal plants in North Dakota are closing because of market shifts as well as regulatory changes driven by other states that have established goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. North Dakota also faces a new federal regulatory environment, as the Biden administration is much less friendly to the fossil fuel industry than the Trump administration was.”

On Wall Street and in the private sector

Vanguard further ramps up ESG efforts

Vanguard, the largest passive asset manager in the world and the second-largest asset manager overall, has been slower than its passive-investment competitorsnamely BlackRock and State Street—to embrace ESG and to make it a focus of its investment operations. But that appears to be changing.

Earlier this month, Barron’s reported that Vanguard has been increasing up its ESG-related hiring, in an attempt to catch up to its competitors:

“Kaitlyn Caughlin, who oversees the firm’s portfolio review, wouldn’t say whether or when to expect new products, but noted the firm is doing “a lot of additional research right now.”

The firm recently created an ESG product category team in the U.S. with two dedicated ESG product managers and three support staff. In Europe there is a head of ESG strategy who leads a group of product specialists who are largely, though not solely, dedicated to ESG. Those teams will collaborate with others in Vanguard, both related to ESG product and ESG integration in conventional products.”

Last week, ETF Strategies reported that Vanguard has now also launched its first ESG ETF in Europe:

“The Vanguard ESG Global All Cap UCITS ETF is designed to serve as a core building block for ESG-aware portfolios, providing broad diversification while screening out undesirable issuers based on FTSE Russell’s ‘Choice’ framework.

An ESG guide for Annual Meeting Season

Over the weekend, The Financial Times identified the ESG shareholder-proposals to watch during the upcoming Annual General Meeting season. The paper identified one activist shareholder group that is focusing its energy this year on a strategy targeting large asset management firms for past voting records and encouraging them to be more ESG-friendly:

“PepsiCo, Amazon and Citigroup have been named alongside a small group of global companies to watch during this year’s annual meeting season, as investors demand businesses step up on issues from climate change to employing diverse workforces.

ShareAction, the responsible-investment charity, said the “13 most important ESG resolutions” of 2021 included a proposal calling on General Motors to disclose its lobbying around climate change, a resolution calling on the board of Walt Disney to strengthen oversight of workforce equality issues including racial and gender pay equity, and a vote on biodiversity at Amazon.

The list comes at a time of intense scrutiny over how asset managers vote at annual meetings, with widespread concern that big investors often proclaim their ESG credentials but fail to back resolutions on issues such as climate change.

“Shareholder voting works. Resolutions can deliver everything from decarbonisation targets to healthy eating strategies,” said Guy Opperman, minister for pensions and financial inclusion in the UK.

[T]the group argued the resolutions on its list for 2021 were “high quality, high-impact proposals” and called on asset owners and asset managers to back the proposals. The list also includes resolutions on climate change at Barclays, the UK bank, healthy eating at supermarket group Tesco and on human rights at Wendy’s International, the fast-food chain.

Citi said it was “acutely focused on addressing racial inequity, especially in terms of the wealth gap it creates”….

General Motors said it “believes climate change is real and we are advocates for climate action”.”

In the spotlight

ESG and Bitcoin on a collision course?

Over the weekend, HedgeWeek reported on comments made recently by Robert Furdak, the chief investment officer for ESG at Man Group about what he sees as the inevitable conflict between Bitcoin and ESG. The two, Furdak argues, are not merely the two hottest investment trends but also, in his view, all but guaranteed to crash into one another at some point in the not-too-distant future:

“The two major investment trends looming large over the hedge fund and asset management world – bitcoin’s stratospheric surge and investors’ rush towards responsible investing across all mandates – are now set for a “head-on clash”, Furdak said.

Hedge funds are continuing to profit from the ongoing surge in the cryptocurrency sector, as more managers pour money into digital assets’ record rise this year. At the same time, though, an increasingly large number of investors are calling for hedge funds to take a sustainability-based stance and implement ESG-compliant factors in their portfolios.

In an in-depth market commentary this week, Furdak – ESG CIO at London-listed global hedge fund and alternative investments giant Man – explored how bitcoin is already bumping against the range of environmental, social and governance factors that investors increasingly look for in their allocations.

On the environmental theme, Furdak noted how bitcoin mining will continue to require substantial energy consumption for as long as the digital currency’s price remains high, both in absolute and relative terms. He added that the majority of bitcoin mining takes place in south-east Asia, where coal-fired power stations remain dominant.

“Currently, one bitcoin transaction requires the same energy as processing 500,000 Visa transactions,” Furdak observed, highlighting a study by the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Alternative Finance which estimated that bitcoin mining energy now exceeds the annual consumption of countries such as the Netherlands and the United Arab Emirates, and is approaching that of Norway and Pakistan.”