Questions We Are Thinking About in the Midst of Major Disruption on Sustainable Investing Trends & Corporate Sustainability Journeys

by Hank Boerner – Chair & Chief Strategist – G&A Institute

As the global coronavirus pandemic continues to uproot our normal business, financial, economic and personal pursuits, questions that we could logically ask are…

(1) what impact does the virus crisis have on the ongoing corporate sustainability / ESG / citizenship efforts; and

(2) what is the investor reaction – does the move into more sustainable / ESG investment vehicles continue?

Some answers come from Sanghamitra Saha, of Zack’s, writing in Yahoo Finance – “Here’s Why ESG ETFs Are Hot Amid Pandemic”.

He begins by explaining that ESG investing has remained “hot” since the pre-outbreak period, and as Wall Street recorded its worst quarter overall since Q 2008, ESG ETFs appeared [somewhat] resilient to acute selloffs in Q1 2020. (Read, he says: “ESG ETFs Appear Unscathed by the Coronavirus Carnage”.)

These investment vehicles had US$8 billion-plus inflow in 2019, four times their total 2018 inflow. In the first three months of 2020 the flow into ESG Exchange Traded Funds was $6.7 billion — pushing total assets in such funds to $19 billion (only a bit less than the total in February 2018).

Several of these ETFs outperformed the S&P 500® and came close to the Nasdaq performance (which has been the hot place for returns in 2020, bouncing close to the 9000 mark as we write this).

What are some of the reasons for such outperformance even during the virus crisis?

The author shares perspectives from Morningstar and Bloomberg, and presents data on performance on some of the ETFs offered by Nuveen, State Street SPDRs, Vanguard, and iShares MSCI.

We’ve been seeing news and commentary about this trend since the start of the virus crisis as investors seek out what they consider to be more resilient, “safer” companies as packaged in the respective ESG ETFs.  What are public company managements doing to be part of this trend?

Mary Mazzoni, Senior Editor of Triple Pundit and Managing Editor of CR Magazine, shares news from the corporate sector in “Sustainability Isn’t Stopping:  Just Ask These Companies.”

The firms and the stories of their continuing sustainability journeys that she profiles include Bayer and Microsoft.

She begins by addressing the comments of business columnist John D. Stoll in The Wall Street Journal…that “several top companies are starting to put the brakes on their ESG programs due to economic strain…”

Pushing back in TriplePundit:  “Right now we’re all understandably consumed with the human suffering and economic strain posed by the pandemic…but we’re not convinced we’ll see a sunsetting of sustainability – and the eight corporate examples are just some of the reasons why…”

The two Top Stories present the two answers to the questions posed up top.  And throughout the collection in this week’s newsletter you’ll see other answers presented in slightly different form.

The good news from the G&A Institute offices is that our corporate clients continue with vigor and strong commitment on their respective sustainability journeys, even as operations are disrupted by the virus crisis.

Managers tell us that questions from their investors about sustainability, ESG and related issues continue to increase, and major customers continue to ask questions related to their own supply chain management.

2020 is a challenging year – and sustainable, resilient companies are stepping up to meet the challenges, setting a welcome pace.

Top Stories

Here’s Why ESG ETFs Are Hot Amid Pandemic
Source: Yahoo Finance – Environmental, social and governance (“ESG”) investing has remained a hot favorite among investors since the pre-outbreak period. Wall Street recorded the worst quarter to start 2020 since the fourth quarter of 2008. But ESG ETFs appeared somewhat resilient to acute selloffs in Q1 (read: ESG ETFs Appear Unscathed by the Coronavirus Carnage).

Sustainability Isn’t Stopping: Just Ask These Companies
Source: Triple Pundit – Over the weekend, a sustainability-focused Wall Street Journal article started making the rounds on social media. In it, business columnist John D. Stoll notes that several top companies are starting to pump the brakes on their…

And here’s some additional perspectives on the two questions to mull over:

Seven Ways To Make Business Truly Sustainable Post-COVID
Source: Forbes – We humans are a spectacularly resilient species. Wars, famines, plagues, economic crashes – we dust ourselves off and press on. So we will get beyond COVID-19. But is it too much to hope that, devastating as the virus’s effects…

Can companies still afford to care about sustainability?
Source: FT – Note — Please use the sharing tools found via the share button at the top or side of articles. Copying articles to share with others is a breach of FT.com T&Cs and Copyright Policy….

The S&P 500® Universe — Setting the Pace for Corporate Sustainability Reporting: 90% Mark Reached!

by Hank Boerner – Chair & Chief Strategist – G&A Institute

The popular corporate equity “baskets” including the Dow Jones Industrial Index, Nasdaq 100, S&P 500, the Russell 1,000 – 2,000 – and 3,000– in essence consist of the underlying value of the corporate shares in each basket (or benchmark for investors).

Today, there is an ocean of stock indexes for asset managers to license from the creators and then apply process and approaches for keeping track of the companies in the fiduciary portfolio, or to analyze and pick from the underlying issues for their portfolio.

Alternative benchmarks and indexes may be dependent on market cap size and have variations in the index family to fine tune the analysis (think of the varieties of Wilshire, Russell, S&P Dow Jones, etc.).

There has been a steady move by many asset managers from “active management” to passive investment instruments, with this transition key benchmarks become an important tool for the analyst and portfolio manager.

One large-cap index really dominates the capital markets:  The S&P 500.

G&A Institute’s Annual S&P 500® Research
Almost a decade ago, the team at G&A Institute began gathering corporate reports to build our models and methodology for guiding client’s corporate disclosure and reporting — and focusing especially on the structured reports of U.S. publicly-traded companies, we selected the universe of companies that the index creators include in the S&P 500 Index®.

Here’s why:  The S&P 500 Index is the most-widely-quoted index measuring the stock performance of the 500 largest investable companies listed on American stock exchanges.  Asset managers licensees like State Street, MCSI, Invesco Capital and London Stock Exchange Group use this index for their constructing ETFs and other investable products.

This universe of public companies provided for our team a solid foundation for tracking and analyzing the activities of these 500 companies as they began or expanded their sustainability reporting. In 2011, that first year. we found just about 20% of the 500 were publishing sustainability reports.

And here’s the dramatic news:
G&A’s just-completed report shows 90% of the S&P 500 companies produced a sustainability report in year 2019!

Tracking the Trends
Over the decade of close tracking and analysis of the 500 companies in the index, the good news is we saw the number of reports steadily grow.

We charted the broad impact of these market-leading enterprises on such reporting frameworks and standards as the GRI and SASB as those standards evolved and matured and were adopted by the companies in the 500.  We saw…

CDP disclosure steadily expanded in structured reports and (stand alone) corporate responses to CDP on carbon emissions, water, supply chain, forestry products.

The adoption of UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by companies as they were in some way conceptually a part of a company’s sustainability strategy (and subsequent reporting).

And more recently, there was the adoption of TCFD recommendations by corporate issuers in the U.S. – that began to show up in reports recently.

Starting with 2010 reporting, the first G&A analysis, we’ve shared the highlights of the research efforts.

Teams of talented, passionate and bright analyst-interns developed each year’s report (you can see who they are/were in G&A’s Honor Roll on our web site).  Most of the team members have moved on to career positions in the corporate, investment, public sector and NGO communities.

Download this year’s report, examining 2019 corporate sustainability reporting by the S&P 500 companies.

We’ve organized the deliverable for both quick scanning and concentrated reviewing.  Let us know if you have questions about the research results.

Stay tuned to G&A’s upcoming Russell 1000 Index® analysis of 2019 reporting.

This second important index/benchmark was created several decades ago by the Frank Russell Company and is now maintained by FTSE Russell (subsidiary of the London Stock Exchange Group)

The largest companies by market cap companies are available as benchmarks for investors in the S&P 500 (largest cap) and for the next 500 in the Russell 1000.

The ripple effects of the S&P 500 companies and more recently some of the Russell 1000 companies on corporate sustainability disclosure and reporting is fascinating for us to track.

Many mid-cap and small-cap companies are now adopting similar reporting policies and practices.  Privately-owned companies are publishing similar reports.  All of this means volumes of ESG data and narrative flowing out to investors – and fueling the growth of sustainable investing.  We find this all very encouraging in our tracking of corporate reporting.

Here are the details for you:

Top Stories

90% of S&P 500 Index Companies
Publish Sustainability Reports in 2019,
G&A Announces in its Latest Annual
2020 Flash Report

Source: Governance & Accountability Institute, Inc. – G&A Institute announces the results of its annual S&P 500 sustainability reporting analysis. 90% of the S&P 500 published corporate sustainability reports, an all-time high!


Adding Important Perspectives to G&A’s S&P 500 Research Results

What is Greenwashing? The Importance of Maintaining Perspective in ESG Communications
Source: AlphaSense, Pamela Styles principal of Next Level Investor Relations LLC – “Greenwashing” can generally be described as ‘the practice of only paying lip service to environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors with token gestures.’ In practice, greenwashing occurs when an organization presents…

New report measures boardroom diversity at top S&P 500 companies
Source: CNBC – There’s a renewed focus on diversity in the boardroom, but a new report shows not much is changing. CNBC’s Seema Mody reports.

The U.S. Department of Labor – Proposed Rule Addressing ESG Investment Selections by Fiduciaries – the Drama Continues As Agency Downplays Importance of ESG

By Hank Boerner – Chair & Chief Strategist – G&A Institute

August 9 2020

In the early 1970s, Congressional hearings featured allegations of abuses by managers of corporate pension funds taking actions to systemically deny men and women approaching retirement age their promised benefits.  A law was passed to protect plan beneficiariesThe Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974.

This was intended by the Congress of that day to create standards for private-sector plans to protect the financial and health of beneficiaries of corporate plans.

The U.S. Department of Labor was designated is the primary designated arm enforcing “ERISA”,  charged with “protecting the interests of employee benefit plans participants (workers) and their beneficiaries”.

Other agencies have plan oversight responsibilities as well – the U.S. Treasury Department (the IRS) and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC).

PBGC is like the FDIC protection for bank customers’ money; when a corporate pension plan fails, the PBGC assumes responsibility for providing retirement benefits to retirees. When a company with a retirement plan goes belly up, filing bankruptcy, or giving up responsibility for the plan, the PBGC takes over to help the plan’s beneficiaries (they don’t get all that was promised by the plan when it was managed by the company they worked for).

Among other elements of the ERISA law and operating rules, there are standards set for fiduciaries and managers of worker retirement plans and welfare benefit plans.

ERISA has been updated since passage 40+ years back and the DOL rules have changed over time.  So have related Internal Revenue Service rules.  In 1978 the Internal Revenue Code was amended to allow taxpayers to have a tax-deferred, defined, voluntary retirement plan of their own – the familiar 401 (k) plan that millions participate in.

In the latest summary from the DOL’s Employee Benefits Security Administration of DOL (“EBSA“) for FY 2013(!) — ERISA rules [then] applied to 684,000 retirement plans, 2.4 million health plans and 2.4 million additional welfare benefits.

These plans covered 140 million workers and beneficiaries – at the time, that was about half of the American workforce – and assets under management of the plans exceeded US$7 trillion.

To simplify what follows here, the rules adopted by federal regulators are intended to explain and enforce the statute passed by Congress – in this case, protection of worker rights and oversight of fiduciaries managing workers’ assets in plans.

There is a structured process for creating the enforcing agency rules-of-the-road for those organizations being overseen (for ERISA, fiduciaries, plan managers) and these rules could be changed from time-to-time and also be “interpreted” by regulators through communications intended to clarify the rules.

ESG Investment and the Department of Labor Perspectives

As “sustainable” or “ESG” investing became a preferred approach for individuals in plans and managers of plans, many more institutions and individuals preferred those investments, alongside or instead of more traditional investments.

Investors want to be able to invest in an ESG-themed mutual fund or ETF along with or instead of a traditional version that may track a benchmark of the same type.

Example:  There are many investment managers whose fund track the widely-used S&P 500 benchmark (from S&P Global) and investable products with an S&P 500 ESG benchmark.

State Street a few days ago launched an S&P 500 ESG Exchange Traded Fund (ETF) “to provide investors an opportunity to tap into ESG investing at the core of their portfolio” (with a very low expense ratio). This “EFIV” tracks the new S&P 500 ESG Index.

SSgA explains: “ESG investing is approaching a critical inflection point…the collective call for change is growing louder and investor increasingly taking a stand through their investment choices.”

How do the regulators of ERISA react to such progress?  To the call for change?  To respond to investors’ call for action?

By moving backward in rule-making with changes in rules to make it more difficult for plan managers and beneficiaries to invest in ESG vehicles.

To be sure, rules are subject to change. The DOL’s first guidance on ESG investment issues as issued back in 1994.

More recently, in 2008 (during the Administration of President George W. Bush) guidance appeared to be designed to restrict ESG investments by plan fiduciaries.

In 2015 (during the Administration of President Barack Obama) DOL guidance gave the green light to ESG investments…if the investment is appropriate based on economic considerations including those that may derive from ESG factors. (See our perspectives here from November 2015: http://ga-institute.com/Sustainability-Update/big-news-out-of-the-u-s-department-of-labor-for-fiduciaries-opportunity-to-utilize-esg-factors-in-investment-analysis-and-portfolio-management/)

And now in 2020, in June DOL’s EBSA proposed a “new investment duties rule” with “core additions” to the regulations.  (“Financial Factors in Selecting Plan Investments” — this to address “recent trends involving ESG investing”).

Among the comments of DOL that really wrankled the ESG investor universe:

  • New text was added to codify DOL’s “longstanding position” that plan fiduciaries must select investments based on financial considerations relevant to the risk-adjusted economic value of an investment (or “course of action”).
  • The reminder that “Loyalty” duty prohibits fiduciaries from subordinating interests of plan participants and beneficiaries to “non-pecuniary goals”.   ESG factors could be “pecuniary” factors — but only if they present economic risk/opportunity under generally-accepted investment theories.
  • New text was added on required investment analysis and documentation for the “rare circumstance” when fiduciaries are choosing among “truly economically-indistinguishable” investments.  (Huh?)
  • A provision that fiduciaries must consider “other” available investments to meet prudence and loyalty duties.
  • A new provision for selection of investment alternatives for 401-K plans describes what is required for “pursuing” one or more ESG-oriented objectives in the investment mandate (or include ESG “parameters” in the fund name).

DOL Comments On These:

“ERISA plan fiduciaries may not invest in ESG vehicles when they understand an underlying investment strategy…is to subordinate return or increase risk for the purpose of non-financial objectives.”  And

“Private [Sector] employer-sponsored retirement plans are not vehicles for furthering social goals or policy objectives…not in the interest of the plan…ERISA plans should be managed with unwavering focus on a single, very important social goal: providing for the retirement security of American workers.”

After the rule changes were published, numerous investors pushed back – some summaries for you that were published on the 401K Specialist web platform of the responses of some fiduciaries who object to the proposed rule (“Commenters Hammer DOL of Proposed  ESG Rule”).

More than 1,500 comments have been submitted so far to DOL, calling for changes in the proposed rule, withdrawal, and the very short comment period (just 30 days, ended August 3, vs. the usual 90 days).

Investor/Fiduciary Pushback:

T. Rowe Price:   The proposed rule is attempting to solve a problem that does not exist. Worse, the proposed rule discourages fiduciaries from taking into account ESG factors that should be considered.

ICCR/Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility:  The rule would impose significant analytical and documentation burdens on fiduciaries of benefit plans governed by ERISA wishing to select (or allow individual account holders to select) investments that use ESG factors in investment analysis, or that provide ESG benefits (signed by 138 member institutions).

ESG Global Advisors: The Proposal has misunderstood and/or mischaracterized the nature and purpose of ESG integration…this is likely to lead to confusion for ERISA fiduciaries and additional costs to plan savers. Plan fiduciaries will struggle to fulfill their obligation to integrate all financially-material ESG risk factors into their investment process.

Morningstar: The Department’s rule is out of step with the best practices asset managers and financial advisors use to integrate ESG considerations into their investment processes and selections. The proposed rule would…erect barriers to considering ESG factors that many financial professionals consider as a routine part of investment management…

Voya Financial Inc.: The Proposal is fundamentally flawed for two reasons…among the many qualitative factors an ERISA fiduciary may appropriately consider…the Proposal singles out ESG factors and subjects them to special tests…second, the Proposal fails to account for the positive effect on investment behavior that the availability of ESG-focused investment options can have…

American Retirement Association: …appropriate investments that include ESG factors should not be prohibited from qualifying as Qualified Default Investment Alternatives (“QDIAs”)…

The Wagner Law Group:  The proposed amendment is inconsistent with existing law and guidance…it would require fiduciaries to only consider pecuniary factors instead of using their judgment and discretion to evaluate investments under the totality of circumstances…a narrow list of permissible factors is inconsistent with the notion that prudence is not determined by a checklist and is a fact-specific determination…

BlackRock:  …the Proposal creates an overly prescriptive and burdensome standard that would interfere with plan fiduciaries’ ability and willingness to consider financially-material ESG factors…we urge DOL to engage with the industry to understand how investment options incorporating ESG factors are used in ERISA plans…

Members of Congress – the body that passed ERISA during its 93rd session in 1974 – reacted along partisan lines.

Republican members of the House Committee on Education and Labor submitted a letter of support of the DOL action.

Democrat Party members (41 of them) of the House and 20 members of the House Education and Labor Committee expressed opposition to the rule changes.

The Securities & Exchange Commission is looking at ESG investments as well – soliciting public comment “for the appropriate treatment for funds that use terms such as ESG in their name and whether the terms are likely to mislead investors” (also in the Federal Register post).

In May 2020 the SEC Investor Advisory Committee / Investor-as-Owner Subcommittee issued their perspectives on ESG disclosure:  https://www.sec.gov/spotlight/investor-advisory-committee-2012/recommendation-of-the-investor-as-owner-subcommittee-on-esg-disclosure.pdf

There are more details for you here (the investor response summaries): https://401kspecialistmag.com/commenters-hammer-dol-on-proposed-esg-rule/

The Department of Labor’s EBSA proposal highlights are here as published in the Federal Register, June 30, 2020: http://ga-institute.com/Sustainability-Update/big-news-out-of-the-u-s-department-of-labor-for-fiduciaries-opportunity-to-utilize-esg-factors-in-investment-analysis-and-portfolio-management/

Notes:  The Secretary of Labor is Eugene Scalia, a nominee of President Donald Trump.

Acting Assistant Secretary for EBSA is Jeanne Klinefelter Wilson (appointed in June 2020).

There is an ERISA Advisory Council with six members.  Effective July 14, 2020:

  • Glenn Butash is chair; he is managing counsel at Nokia Corp.
  • David Kritz is vice-chair; he is deputy counsel at Norfolk Southern Corp.
  • John Harney is partner at law firm O’Donoghue and O’Donoghue.
  • Peter Wiedenbeck is Washington University School of Law professor.
  • James Haubrock is CPA and shareholder, Clark Schaefer Hackett.
  • Lisa Allen is compliance consultant, Altera Group.

Stay Tuned:  We will update you when decisions are announced by the Department of Labor.