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.

Proof of Concept: In Time of Crisis, Sustainable Investing Stays Strong and in Favor With Investment Professionals

For almost a decade in this newsletter we’ve brought to you a steady stream of news, research and experts’ perspectives that focus on two related subject areas:  (1) the escalating interest in the investment community in corporate ESG factors and adoption of sustainable investing approaches and (2) the corporate response, clearly in recognition of the intensifying competition for capital and so exerting efforts to excel in ESG strategy-setting, operational performance and disclosure.

It has taken some time for sustainable investing trends to capture wider investor attention and to persuade asset managers of the importance of ESG performance factors in normal times, with skepticism expressed (at first) quite frequently and then over time, less so.

Few mainstream asset managers are expressing doubts these days – and two powerhouse asset management firms (BlackRock and State Street) are very prominent champions of sustainable investing approaches.
We’ve seen the annual survey by the U.S. Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investing (US SIF) survey of professionals managing assets starting out in the first survey with finding just US$639 billion in 1996 — with respondents indicating they were using sustainable investing policies.

That moved to the level of $3 trillion AUM in 2010 and on to $13 trillion in the 2018 survey.  That’s $1-in $4 of professionally-managed AUM for the assets they manage. (The next survey results will be announced later in 2020.)

Investors and corporate managers are usually looking for proof-of-concept for emerging trends and that has been the case for “SRI” / sustainable investing.  The Covid-19 crisis is providing some of that for sustainable investing — and making the case for corporate sustainability and embrace of the concept of ESG’s importance.

For example, the experts at HIS Markit have been offering perspectives on a range of issues and topics and recently shared the results of in-depth conversations with investors and analysts…during this time of market volatility and economic uncertain.  What are the findings in terms of investor embrace of sustainable investing strategies?

Top lines:  ESG criteria have been more important in the investment process in the coronavirus crisis. Issues in focus inside companies and by investors include such things as employee health & safety, corporate governance, and society-at-large.

Note this from the report:  “Some investors and analysts value ESG now more than ever.  They observe that the companies which have historically exhibited strong governance and the commitment to ESG are more effectively managed through this volatile period.” (Guess which companies may be more successful at attracting and retaining capital.)

The chief investment officer of a U.S. asset management firm told interviewers that the virus crisis has impacted how corporate governance is viewed …companies all over the world need to be thinking more broadly about who they want to be in the world aside from being rich.”

In a period characterized by the virus crisis and social unrest, a United Kingdom analyst interviewed said that “ESG was extremely important throughout last year and start of this year…there is a big demand for sustainable investments…and it’s there no matter if the global economy is weak or if there is a global pandemic…”

To be sure, there has been considerable good news for sustainable investment professionals and corporate sustainability managers in recent weeks, as investment professionals describe the resilience of companies with strong sustainability performance.  There is still skepticism expressed (such as in the IHS survey) and convincing needed on the part of holdout asset owners and managers.

We’ll keep sharing the research results as experts look at the capital markets and the impact of the pandemic and widespread social unrest and protest on sustainability – positive and negative.

There is much more for you in the Top Story this week, in the HIS Markit Perspectives about the firm’s survey of investment professionals.

COMING SOON
Our team is putting the finishing touches on the signature research effort of Governance & Accountability Institute – our annual look at the S&P 500® Index companies and their sustainability / responsibility / citizenship reporting.  Watch for this in July, followed after by the team’s look at the second 500 large-caps in the Russell 1000® Index.  We think you’ll find this year’s research effort very informative and useful in your own business – whether that be managing corporate sustainability and sustainable investment.

Top Stories

The Importance Of ESG During A Global Pandemic
(Source: IHS Markit Perspectives V) Some investors and analysts value ESG now more than ever. They observe that the companies which have historically exhibited strong governance and commitment to ESG are more effectively managing through this volatile period.

We’re also sharing ideas for corporate managers on how to make their company more sustainable, with advice from Earth 911. And from the influential World Economic Forum (WEF) – the Davos folks – we have views of the state of sustainability for 180 WEF-ranked countries and the vitality of their ecosystems.  The virus crisis is placing great pressure on retail brands – how are the companies reacting… what is ahead for brand marketers in the “next normal”?  We have the views of Retail Dive for you in the fourth of our Top Stories this week.

There, In The Company’s 401-K Plan – Do You Have the Choice of ESG Investments? Ah, That Would Have Been Good For You to Have in the Recent Market Downturn…

June 2020

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

As many more institutional investors — asset owners, and their internal & outside managers — move into ESG / sustainable investing instruments and asset classes, the question may be asked: What about the individual investor…the family huddling to discuss what to do in the midst of the virus crisis to protect their retirement savings?

Are they offered “resilient choices” to stash their future funds? Bloomberg Green provides some answers in “ESG Funds Are Ready for Your Retirement Plan”.

Emily Chasan, in our view one of the finest of the sustainability editors in the nation today, explores the impact (or lack of) on individual / family investors in mutual funds and ETFs aiming to better protect their nest egg for the future.

For starters, fortunately, while some ESG mutual fund management (advisory) companies may not have set out to protect their investors in an unforeseen global pandemic…but…the ESG funds they manage are proving to be quite resilient during the recent market collapse. These would seem to be good choices for individuals. But the opportunity to partake is missing.

Fund managers, Emily explains, avoided risk (deliberately) by using corporate ESG scores as an important proxy for assembling their roster of well-managed, adaptable, investable companies…such as those companies with far-sighted executives who were planning for an existential climate shock. That planning paid off in the pandemic crisis.

Prioritized by leading asset managers for their [ESG} funds: tech, financial services and healthcare equities, and renewable energy companies. For demonstration of concept, Allianz, BlackRock, Invesco and Morningstar found their ESG investments were performing better than the more traditional investment vehicles in the dark market days of early 2020.

And, a BlackRock study found that more than three-quarters of sustainable indexes outperformed better than the traditional investor benchmarks from 2015 to the market drop in 2020. (How about this for proof of concept: 94% of sustainable indexes outperformed!)

Speaking at a World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) conference, BlackRock’s director of retirement investment strategy, Stacey Tovrov, explained: “Sustainable Investment can provide that resilience amid uncertainty [when we really want to ensure we’re mitigating downside for retirement savers]’”.

So how come, asks Bloomberg Green, why are ESG funds largely missing from a US$9 million “chunk of the market, comprised of corporate retirement plans”?

In the USA, retirement accounts represented one-third of all household wealth going into the market downturn (investment in the family home is larger). But only 3% of 401-k plans offered ESG funds. And less than 1% of these funds are invested in ESG vehicles.

Perhaps the fiduciaries (the employer sponsoring he retirement plan, the outside investment advisors hired on to manage the plan) are just too cautious, too concerned that ESG investing will in some way negatively impact them.

So, we can say, these results should (operative word!) convince corporate retirement managers overseeing 401-k plans that the individual investor is actually being negatively impacted by being absent from the ESG choices, from the opportunities offered by ESG / sustainable investing approaches that many institutions enjoy.

As “Human Capital Management” steadily becomes an important aspect of board and C-suite strategy, oversight, measurement and management (and results), Emily Chasan suggests that the coronavirus crisis will reshape the fundamental relationship between employers and their workforce.

Re-structuring the retirement plan offerings is a good place for C-suite to start re-examining the why, what and how of offerings in their sponsored plans. “One place to start changing attitudes might just be offering workers the chance of a more resilient retirement,” Emily Chasan tells us.

For corporate executives and managers seeking more information about this we recommend our trade association’s web site. Numerous members of the U.S. Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment (US SIF) offer mutual funds, ETFs, separate accounts, and other investment opportunities. There’s information on Climate Change and Retirement on the website. See: https://www.ussif.org/

We also offer a selection of ESG / Sustainable & Responsible Investment items for you this issue.

Top Stories

ESG Funds Are Ready for Your Retirement Plan
(Source: Bloomberg Green / Emily Chasan) Not many ESG fund managers set out to protect investors from a global pandemic. But their funds have nevertheless proven resilient during the subsequent market collapse.

Other Top Stories of Interest

S&P Launches ESG Scores Based on 20 Years of Corporate Sustainability Data (Source: Environmental & Energy Leader) S&P Global has announced the launch of its S&P Global environmental, social, and governance (ESG) Scores with coverage of more than 7,300 companies, representing 95% of global market capitalization.

MSCI Makes Public ESG Metrics for Indexes & Funds to Drive Greater ESG Transparency (Source: MSCI) MSCI today announced that it has made public the MSCI ESG Fund Ratings provided by MSCI ESG Research LLC for 36,000 multi-asset class mutual funds and ETFs, and MSCI Limited has made public ESG metrics for all of its indexes covered by the European Union (EU) Benchmark Regulation (BMR). The ESG ratings and metrics are available as part of two new search tools now available to anyone on the MSCI website.

ESG Funds Outperforming S&P 500 this Year (Source: Pension & Investments) Investment funds set up with ESG criteria remain relative safe havens in the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic, according to an analysis released Wednesday by S&P Global Market Intelligence.

Five Actions Business Leaders Can Take to Create A More Sustainable Future (Source: D Magazine) As a Dallas-based business executive and environmentalist, I believe the marketplace can offer solutions for the environment. These solutions need not be at odds with economic growth and can actually be profitable when consumers…

Message From Africa – Invitation to Collaborate With Village Ventures Intl


May 14 2020

We share this commentary by a professional social sector manager in Kenya, East Africa.  Corporate managers who are interested in supporting and collaborating with a not-for-profit organization in African nations may find this information of interest. In posting the guest author commentary G&A Institute is not endorsing Village Ventures but sharing the information provided with our corporate and investment professionals colleagues who have Africa in focus in their sustainability journey.

Guest Post by Lindy Wafula – CEO/Lead Consultant – Village Ventures International

Greetings and a message of goodwill to you.   Kindly allow me to share information about Village Ventures International.

Ours is a non profit/social enterprise that invests in the startup and growth of village enterprises by:  

  1. Providing basic education and vocational training to women, youth and people with disabilities,
  2. Providing space for work, tools, and equipment for trade.
  3. Provide Seed capital for raw materials and stock for business start-up.
  4. Assist in the Management of village ventures to sustainability and to alleviation of poverty.  

We are currently investing in VillageVentures In East Africa — which include our Women’s Academy, a vocational training centre for women only.

We aim to train 100-to-500 young women/ mothers every year to the tune of USD$250,000 capital.  

Our Trainees also get a chance to learn by doing and earning through our Village enterprises, cottage industries and commercial villages where they also learn and work as apprentice trainees.

We train women mostly in trades that have traditionally been called “male jobs” such as: Agribusiness, Automobile Mechanics, Welding, Plumbing, Building and Construction, Heavy Vehicle driving, mobile phone and computer repairs — but also we incorporate others in catering and hospitality, hairdressing and beauty therapy, and garment making. 

We get training equipment from our partners Project Africa in Sweden, Tools with a Mission in the United Kingdom, and Tools2work from the Netherlands, who donate refurbished equipment from Europe (and we pay for shipment, customs clearance and inland transport as well as maintenance).

Other equipment that may not be provided for by our partners are bought locally through peer-to-peer entrepreneur arrangement or from local suppliers.  

We believe that our approach of vocational skills training and investment in the tools for trade, raw materials and seed capital is a catalyst to self employment and sustainable village enterprise development.  

Many village enterprises fail to take off because either the entrepreneur has no vocational or business skills, or has vocational skills but without the space, tools/equipment and financial capital to start work.

Thus collaboration with us will assist in promoting gender equality, socio-economic empowerment of women, youth employment and rural development.  

Kindly watch here my TEDx Presentation which I made when I visited the Bay Area and on the idea stage of our project when we trained Lady Mechanics in Kenya https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ii7bfPpLVxs  

This initial stage of our apprenticeship training for women was partly-funded by Peery Foundation, Cordes Foundation and Global Philanthropy Alliance.  

We are kindly requesting that those interested in our work may invest in us and/or promote our work in the empowerment of women and youth in rural Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and the wider East Africa.

Also, we invite you to share with members of your network and other grant making organizations about our community work.  

We will be happy to share a comprehensive project proposal upon request. Kindly consider working in partnership with us and feel free to share information about us with your network.  

Lindy Wafula – CEO/Lead Consultant  –  Village Ventures International

P.O Box 35542 00200  City Square Nairobi, Kenya

Email.  villageventures.kenya@gmail.com

Lindy Wafula

 

Boston Common Asset Management – Staying the Course, With Adjustments

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

Boston Common Asset Management with offices in Boston and San Francisco has been a sustainable and responsible investor since its founding in 2003.  The clients served are endowments, foundations, religious/faith-based groups, pension funds, family offices, and mission-driven organizations.

Part of its mission is to strive to improve corporate behaviors and responsibilities through engagement with corporate boards and executives and being active in proxy season with filing of resolutions, supporting other institutions doing the filing (often through collective actions) and voting practices.   Of course, like other asset managers, Boston Common is challenged as well by the changes brought about by the spreading coronavirus.

The Earth Day message from Lauren Compere, Managing Director of Boston Common included these points:

  • The firm’s focus is on both local and global issues – such as the health and safety of our community, planet and Boston Common’s impact as an active, engaged investor. Even as the impacts of COVID-19 are addressed, the work must go on in addressing systemic risk, especially the climate crisis.
  • Engagements (with companies) have not changed, but the tenor and lens through which public companies are evaluated and act will change.
  • Boston Common feels it is important in the crisis for portfolio companies to prioritize stakeholder well-being and the firm commends those companies that step up to show leadership.
  • At the same time, some companies are being called out – those firms that are price gouging, firing employees who are concerned about their health, and limiting access to much-needed products on the front lines.

What Boston Common is doing:

  • Having direct dialogue with company managements.
  • Working with investor networks and partners.
  • Looking at its own “responsible business” practices.
  • Planning and re thinking its future work.

Some specifics:

Company Engagements — Issues include human rights, eco-efficiency, climate risk. The changed tone is having more empathy, with more personal tone in these engagements.  Company responses are applauded and accountability is discussed – balancing interests of shareholders and stakeholders.

Working in Partnerships and Coalitions — The ICCR is a key partner of Boston Common, which is a signatory of the “ICCR Coronavirus Investment Statement” on workplace and supplier practices, and engagement of pharma companies to coordinate & collaborate on urgent medical needs. Link: http://ga-institute.com/Sustainability-Update/watching-the-watchers-what-investors-esg-raters-are-doing-in-the-virus-crisis/

PRI:  The firm joined the Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI), which has awarded Boston Common an A+ rating for our consecutive years.

Boston Common itself, a B-Corporation, is taking these actions:

  • Continuing to pay composting, cleaners, other contract vendors who rely on the income.
  • Supporting local food banks and social agencies addressing urgent community needs in Boston and San Francisco, contributing to date $26,630 in firm and employee-donated funds.
  • Future Focus” includes a “refresh” of engagement priorities and investor and private sector actions.  A range of societal issues that have been in the spotlight during the crisis must be addressed:  how work is valued; the need for a sustainable living wage; public health risks posed by industrial agriculture and food insecurity; unequal healthcare access and outcomes for low-income and communities of color; corporate tax practices, need for investment in healthcare infrastructure, social safety nets…and more.
  • Boston Common is adjusting the lens through which the firm examines its “asks” of companies and actions, and keeping systemic risk in focus (such as for issues like climate change, digital human rights, environmental protections as EPA rolls back the regs, controversial energy projects.)

Much will change with the virus crisis, MD Lauren Compere points out. “We must ensure that as investors we memorialize the lessons learned in this crisis, empowering companies to manage for the long-term, with a focus on joint recovery and prosperity as the world emerges from lockdown.”

Boston Common has long been a proponent for responsible behavior of corporations and investors and regularly joins with other asset managers in initiatives to drive change.

The issues involved include Amazon de-forestation, climate change and the portfolio risk posed by fossil fuel, urging the Detroit Big 3 (GM, Ford, Fiat-Chrysler) to drop opposition to California’s waiver authority on auto emissions standards, encouraging boards to include more diversity in director choices, and bank financing of controversial projects such as the Dakota Access Pipeline.

About the name:  Many people have visited the beautiful Boston Commons in the middle of this New England city.  The firm’s name comes from the concept of standing at the intersection of the economic and social lives of the community; the “universal commons” is the firm’s shared mission and vision.

Information: https://bostoncommonasset.com/Membership/Apps/Boston_HP_Input_App.aspx 

 

G20 & Central Banks Response on COVID-19 — Global Challenge Requires Global Response

By Sofia Yialama – Sustainability Reporting Analyst-Intern, G&A Institute

Exploring how the G20 leaders plan to preserve the global financial safety.

The G20 Group, representing both developed and developing countries and the 80% of the world’s economic output, recently expressed its willingness and responsibility to undertake an immediate, coordinated and bold response on the current global health and economic crisis.

At the latest virtual G20 Leader’s Summit, the leaders of the world’s largest economies committed to amplify their fiscal, credit and monetary support aiming to bolster the resilience and stability of the global economy, provide adequate stimulus packages and safeguard the global market from a global recession.

In a spirit of cooperation and readiness to support the global economy, the G2O nations, among other commitments, pledged to underpin the global economy with over US$5 trillion, as part of targeted fiscal policy, economic measures, and guarantee schemes.

All together, they expressed their support to the central banks and highlighted the urgent need for cooperation between them and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank in order to mobilize emergency funding.

To surmount the socio-economic impact from COVID-19 and ensure market recovery in all countries, they also mandated their respective Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors to develop a G20 joint action plan.

Following the G20 Leader’s Communiqué, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and non-OPEC Ministerial Meeting on 9th April and the G20 Energy Ministers Meeting on 10th April, were both crucial for the global economic stability.

“OPEC+” (“plus”) is joining forces with the G20 to coordinate the supply/demand imbalance in the international oil market and finally work to end the recent oil price war during such exceptionally difficult times. This was characterized as ‘a historic show of cooperation” and “by far the biggest supply deal in history”.

Enough Effort – Is More Action Needed?

Are these actions enough to counteract the detrimental coronavirus impact on the global economy?

Front-line international organizations — such as the United Nations, the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) and the International Association of Ports and Harbours (IAPH) — have called on G20 leaders to provide explicit support to vulnerable countries and sectors in high risk, respectively.

At the same time, a strong international group, including various former presidents and prime ministers, with an open letter to G20 leaders, asked them to set up a G20 Executive Task-force and accelerate the development of an action plan for COVID-19, along with targeted financial packages to support the global health system and provide essential financial aid to the developing countries, especially in Africa.

These facts showcase that the world needs urgent coordinated action.

Which system will last by the end of the virus crisis? The cooperation pact or the self-protectionism?

How the central banks of key G20 members responded on COVID-19

In 2009, after the 2008 global financial crisis, the G20 group urged the establishment of the Financial Stability Board (FSB) to gather treasury ministries and central bank governors together with the aim of coordinating actions and find solutions for the global financial system’s vulnerabilities.

For this reason, it is highly important now to examine how the central banks of the world’s largest economies have responded during the pandemic.

Central banks have taken surprising credit, regulatory and monetary measures to ensure adequate liquidity in the market and uphold the credit safety of businesses and households.

And at this moment, as the rampant spread of the virus continues, every day each of the banks announce additional financial packages to prevent the economic collapse.

So far, the central banks of key G20 member countries — notably the US Federal Reserve (Fed), the European Central Bank (ECB), the People’s Bank of China (PBOC), the Bank of Japan (BOJ), and the Bank of England (BOE) — have moved to:

  • monetary policy easing and unprecedented cut of interest rates,
  • increasing lending,
  • provision of cheaper loans and new funding schemes,
  • emergency free lending to other financial and non-financial institutions,
  • easing bond issuance, and
  • additional incentives for SMEs.

Further, as a joint response, the central banks of the U.S., Canada, Japan, Euro Area, the U.K., and Switzerland, enhanced further the provision of liquidity via the standing US dollar liquidity swap line arrangements.

The extraordinary measure of cutting rates to near zero started from the U.S. Fed and triggered similar measures by other central banks all over the world — such as in New Zealand, Japan and South Korea and Australia.

As a result, this extreme U.S decision spurred the “domino effect” and so, other non-G20 central banks followed on reducing their interest rates.

Are these coordinated measures enough to save the global financial system?

The answer is still vague, as the pandemic is still ongoing in all the affected countries.

As the title of this document says, a global challenge requires a global response.

The world economies now are called to action in order to secure a sustainable and resilient future.

# # #

About the Author

Sofia Yialama is a GRI-certified Senior Sustainability Research Analyst from Greece. She holds a Bachelor and MSc degree in International and European studies and her areas of expertise include international relations, international cooperation and sustainable development.

As a former E.U Projects Consultant and member in regional Task Forces, she has significant experience in project management in sectors such as

Sustainability in the Blue Economy sectors, Green Economy, Sustainable Tourism and Nature-Based solutions.

Her solid career objective and self-motivation is to inspire, influence and develop initiatives and projects coupled with multilateral partnerships towards achieving “Sustainability Transition” in the private sector.

# # #

References 

  1. https://g20.org/en/media/Documents/FMCBG_Extraordinary_Press%20Release.pdf
  2. https://g20.org/en/media/Documents/G20_PR_Second%20Virtual%20FMCBG%20Meeting_30%20March_ENG%20(1).pdf
  3. https://g20.org/en/media/Documents/Virtual_Leaders_Summit_King_Salman_Opening_Remarks_EN.pdf
  4. https://g20.org/en/media/Documents/G20_Extraordinary%20G20%20Leaders%E2%80%99%20Summit_Statement_EN%20(3).pdf
  5. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/07/coronavirus-global-leaders-urge-g20-to-tackle-twin-health-and-economic-crises
  6. https://www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2020/04/08/commentary/world-commentary/now-never-global-leadership-covid-19/#.XpMfFMgzbIU
  7. https://www.ft.com/content/150df67ba-839f-455a-9546-6edf72a08df0
  8. https://www.opec.org/opec_web/en/press_room/5882.htm
  9. https://www.imf.org/en/Topics/imf-and-covid19/Policy-Responses-to-COVID-19#U
  10. https://www.bankofengland.co.uk/coronavirus
  11. https://www.piie.com/blogs/realtime-economic-issues-watch/timeline-central-bank-responses-covid-19-pandemic
  12. https://www.oecd.org/about/secretary-general/Coronavirus-COVID-19-Joint-actions-to-win-the-war.pdf
  13. https://www.federalreserve.gov/newsevents/pressreleases/monetary20200409a.htm
  14. https://www.boc.cn/en/
  15. https://www.boj.or.jp/en/index.htm/
  16. https://www.ecb.europa.eu/home/html/index.en.html
  17. https://www.seatrade-maritime.com/regulation/ics-iaph-joint-call-g20-support-maritime-sector-and-global-supply-chains
  18. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-central-banks-glob/global-central-banks-pull-out-all-stops-as-coronavirus-paralyzes-economies-idUSKBN2130KR
  19. https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/note-correspondents/2020-03-24/note-correspondents-letter-the-secretary-general-g-20-members

Watching For The Signals That Corporate Sustainability & Sustainable Investing Trends Will Continue to Advance in the Time of the Virus Crisis

By Hank Boerner – Chair & Chief Strategist – and the G&A Institute Team

In each issue of our Highlights newsletter and in other of our G&A Institute communications we have been sharing news, opinion & perspectives and research results that we think will be of value to professionals in the corporate sector, in the capital markets, and in the social sector (not-for-profits, NGOs and other institutions). 

Our objective in structuring our communications over the past decade-plus is to help to inform and educate as corporate responsibility, sustainability and citizenship strategies re-shaped the corporate sector and investors adopted ESG / Sustainability approaches.

Driving “sustainable investing” to $1-in-$4 of professionally-managed AUM according to the latest survey of US SIF. In response 86% of S&P 500(r) firms are publishing sustainability et al reports according to the latest survey by our team. (Updates to both surveys are in the works in 2020.)

Over time, our focus and communications helped to tell the story of a revolution taking place in the private, public and social sectors of our society. Companies re-defining “purpose”. Investors adopting new approaches…SRI, impact, green, sustainable, and other identifiers.

Suddenly, we are all in a new and very challenging (and frightening) operating environment (both personally and in our businesses) and the questions that we have and that are on the sustainability professionals’ minds are…

(1) what might be the impact of the global coronavirus crisis on the corporate sector’s forward movement — are / will companies continue on their sustainability journey, embrace and demonstrate corporate purpose and the new era of stakeholder primacy, demonstrate excellence in corporate citizenship, and

(2) what might be the impact of the virus crisis on the capital markets and investors’ perspectives of the value and importance of embracing sustainable investing as the global capital markets continue to be in turmoil …will the crisis be a plus or minus for ESG / sustainable investing? What might the longer-term effects of the crisis be for both issuer and investors in a prolonged crisis? Will the resilience of the more sustainable enterprises be the winners in the competition for capital?

Our team has been closely monitoring (worldwide!) for news and opinions and research findings to help answer these and other questions and we bring you updates today. 

Thanks to G&A’s Editor-in-Chief Ken Cynar and Senior Sustainability Analyst Elizabeth Peterson for their continuous “captures” of many key items for the newsletter and for G&A’s themed web platforms.  We present the news, perspectives and research in the weekly newsletter and on our web platforms.

There are many more timely news and opinion items on our Sustainability HQ(tm) web platform for your reading – news is captured and posted every day in the categories presented in the newsletter as well as in other categories.  We invite your regular reading.

We are presenting the news of the efforts of companies to lend their support to the people in need by leveraging the corporate assets (and know how!). We’re presenting details of these efforts in this series of blog posts with hashtag #WeRise2FightCOVID-19 and grouped as “Corporate Purpose – Virus Crisis”. Thank you to all of the corporate leaders, managers and workforce doing their best in the crisis to help society.

The G&A Institute team members continue to all be “sheltered in place” working remotely and carrying on the work for clients.  It’s challenging but the good news is that the incredible advances made in technology are making a difference. 

Just imagine this virus crisis occurring in the days before email, private web-enabled networks, group teleconferencing tools, virtual meetings, the global internet ,and the “www” digital highway connecting us all around the world. 

A shout out here to the tech industry innovators who’ve made these tools available over the past three decades. 

And our heartfelt thank you to the men and women who today keep our society moving. Those stocking store shelves, keeping the lights on, policing our streets, responding to fire alarms and ambulance calls, keeping public transportation systems going, and many others working in silence or out of our sight.  A good number of companies are identified as essential business — people are working there every day, not at home.

And many thanks (in adequate word) to our brave first responders in the medical universe who put our needs first as they are exposed to danger. We are all in their debt.

We hope that this blog communication finds you well – please stay safe! 

For more content:  https://www.sustainabilityhq.com/

Five Featured Stories That
Provide Some Context in the Crisis

Coronavirus pandemic will drive responsible investing ‘skywards’   
Source: Financial Mirror – The coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout will trigger a ‘skyward surge’ in sustainable, responsible and impactful investing over the next 12 months, according to Nigel Green, the CEO of financial advisory deVere Group,…

Are ESG and sustainability the new alpha mantra?   
Source: FT – When fund managers will start to think again about alpha-seeking strategies, as opposed to simply surviving the coronavirus, my bet is that more than a few will tell investors that sustainability and ESG-based screening will top…

COVID-19: A Rapid Human Rights Due Diligence Tool for Companies   
Source: BSR – The critical role of business during the time of COVID-19 is clear for everyone to see. Whether it is providing access to accurate information, continuing to pay hourly waged staff, or ensuring continuity of emergency supplies,…

12 Amazing Documentaries on Sustainability, Regeneration That You Now Have Time to Watch   
Source: Sustainable Brands – As many of us find ourselves with much more time at home due to the COVID-19 crisis, a lot of us are finding opportunities to do things we couldn’t quite get to in the course of our ‘regular lives’ before the widespread lockdowns.

Reserve management and sustainability: the case for green bonds?
Source: BIS – Central banks are playing an increasingly active role in promoting the move towards a sustainable global economy. One area in which they are thus involved is in guiding attempts to mobilise funds to contribute to the large-scale…

Perspectives – Bloomberg, McKinsey, Leading ESG Investors, Mark Cuban – on Corporate Purpose and the Virus Crisis

Excellence in Corporate Citizenship on Display in the Coronavirus Crisis – Post #8   

“Corporate Purpose – Virus Crisis”   #WeRise2FightCOVID-19

April 1, 2020

By Hank Boerner, Chair & Chief Strategist, and the G&A Institute team members

On Corporate Purpose – Words and Actions – Thoughts From Influentials As The Virus Crisis Deepens Worldwide — the Focus on Purpose Can Help Corporate Generals Lead From the Front

In summer 2019, The Business Roundtable (BRT), the association of the CEOs of 200 firms, revamped the organization’s mission statement to read…

…“as leaders of America’s largest corporations, BRT CEOs believe we have a responsibility to help build a strong and sustainable economic future in the United States.”

This followed the publication of the January 2019 CEO-to-CEO letter of Larry Fink, who heads BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager (and therefore a major fiduciary investing in the BRT companies). He regularly writes to the CEOs of companies that BlackRock invests in to let them know where of the major investors stands.

He wrote at the start of 2019…

…Purpose is not the sole pursuit of profits but the animating force for achieving them. And, profits are in no way inconsistent with purpose; in fact, profits and purpose are inextricably linked.

And again in his January 2020 letter to CEOs, Chair & CEO Larry Fink said:

…“As I have written in past letters [to CEOs in 2019, 2018] a company cannot achieve long-term profits without embracing purpose and considering the needs of considering the needs of a broad range of stakeholders. Ultimately, purpose is the engine of long-term profitability.”

Fast forward to March 2020 and now into April. What is the walk-of-the-talk of the CEOs (181 of them) who were signatories as the coronavirus crisis grips the U.S. and the world — and the actions of the signatories’ firms as stakeholders look for aid, comfort, security, payroll, taxes paid, and more?

And what other companies not necessarily in the Roundtable? What actions are taken leveraging corporate power to help society?

The stakeholders are watching. And a good number of the Business Roundtable companies are responding to address societal needs.

And what are the perspectives shared about all of this? We bring you some of these today. Here are some of the views and advice of experts and  influentials.

McKinsey Speaks – On How to Demonstrate Corporate Purpose

Says the influential management consulting firm, McKinsey & Company: Companies will define what they do in the crucible of COVID-19 response – or be defined by it.

So what could company managements be doing when the primary purpose of their efforts is to help the enterprise survive? McKinsey acknowledges this — and provides some advice. This is from their bulletin today.

Questions are being asked, of course, related to survival. How long will the crisis last? What are peers doing? How do we pay our people?

“WIN” – what is important now? (The G&A team has asked and helped to answer that question many times in our three decades of crisis management support for client companies over the years.)

First up, advises the McKinsey team members — understand your stakeholder needs and then with the understanding gained, prioritize your response. There will be tradeoffs among stakeholders – prepare for that.

Then, bring the greatest strengths of the organization to bear – consider, how can you make a difference?

McKinsey advises “collaborate with suppliers and customers and they may identify strengths you didn’t know you had”.

Examples offered:  Car makers can make ventilators (GM, Ford etc). Perfume companies can rapidly turn to manufacture hand sanitizer (LVMH and Estee Lauder are doing that today as we’ve reported in these briefs).

As you move forward, test the assumption and decisions you are taking against your stated purpose – communicate – explain (how and why).

Banks have a commitment to lend money in their community. If the bank pulls away – why? The action could help to define that institution in and after the crisis.

Give people something to do! (We also shared this advice a number of times early in the crisis.)

Involve employees in solutions. Give them a sense of purpose. Your team is looking for signals of leadership. And how to help.

And McKinsey says, the positive is that you may in the process be identifying the next generation of your company’s leadership!

Try new ways. Try using “cross-cutting” teams to develop new solutions, new ways to do things.

When in 2005 Hurricane Katrina hit, Wal-Mart Stores asked employees to deliver supplies to areas that were hard to reach. And we remember that the company’s store managers on their own ordered extra supplies and kept the stores open – even as their own homes were being destroyed.

That led to the CEO embarking on a strategic sustainability journey that revolutionized the whole company and in the process formed the Sustainability Consortium!

And like the best of the military leaders, you should yourself lead from the front. Communicate – often, early. Don’t sugarcoat the news. Adapt to changing conditions (and then communicate again). Your enterprise looks to its leaders for guidance.

Things that stand out for us that McKinsey explains:

  • Executives are uniquely poised now to bring corporate power, guided by social purpose to aid millions of dislodged and vulnerable lives. Done well, your actions can bridge the divide between shareholders and stakeholders. And leave a lasting, positive legacy.
  • Credibility is both essential and fragile element of executive leadership. Authentic actions demonstrate the company’s genuine commitment to social purpose.

Thanks to McKinsey’s Bill Schaninger, senior partner in Philadelphia, and Bruce Simpson, senior partner in Toronto, and their colleagues Han Zhang and Chris Zhu, for the valuable insights and guidance offered to corporate leaders.

* * * * * * * *

Mark Cuban on COVID-19 – Words & Action

We are often entertained by the antics of Mark Cuban on the courts (he’s owner of the Dallas Mavericks NBA team) and appearances on the hit TV show, “Shark Tank”. He was serious this week in addressing the virus crisis.

On Twitter he advised the federal policymakers: “Dear government, here is why you require companies that receive bailouts to retain 100% of their employees. The cost of the bailout loan – eventual payments will cost taxpayers less than the cost of government assistance programs for fired employees. Case closed.”

And…

“If you run a business, BEFORE YOUR FIRE ANYONE (or any more), you have an obligation to yourself/employees to find every gov loan option available today and those soon to come. Find the time. When the gov loans start you want to be already an expert and in line.”

Mark Cuban then walked-the-talk, setting up a way to pay his team’s venue employees (American Airlines Arena) even though games are cancelled and no one is coming. Then sent $100,000+ to the area’s not-for-profits aiding the Big D residents.

* * * * * * * *

Investor Coalition Speaks Its Mind on Corporate Purpose

Nearly 200 long-term institutional investors (with AUM of US$4.7 trillion) called on company managements to protect their workers – difficult to do, the investors acknowledge. Board directors are accountable for long-term Human Capital Management strategies (they remind board members on both domestic U.S. and global companies).

The steps companies could take, says the investor group:

  • Provide paid leave – including emergency leave) for full-time, part-time and subcontracted workers.
  • Prioritize health and safety – meaning, worker and public health safety, and to protect social license to operate. That may include closing facilities as precautionary step.
  • Maintain employment levels – your workers are well-trained (we hope!) and will enable the company to ramp up quickly once the crisis is resolved.
  • And be on the watch for any moves that may be discriminatory.
  • Maintain customer – and supplier — relationships to ensure that you can help stabilize them if necessary (such as financial challenges to suppliers) and to protect your own and other communities and businesses.
  • Practice financial prudence – demonstrate, the advisors strongly urge, the highest levels of ethical financial management and responsibility. And, limit executive and senior management compensation during the crisis (not repeating the practices of companies in the 2008 financial practices with money provided by the taxpayer).

Corporate leadership is critically-needed, the coalition stresses, to help society get through the crisis.

Among the investors in the coalition issuing the advice to public company managements: the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) coalition (with 300 institutional members); the New York City public employees pension fund, led by Comptroller Scott Stringer; AFL-CIO fund; the state treasurers of Connecticut, Maryland, Rhode Island, Oregon, Vermont; American Federation of Teachers (AFT); the British Columbia Government and Services Employees Union; Aviva Investors; APG; Boston Common Asset Management; Coalition on Corporate Responsibility in Indiana & Michigan; Cornerstone Capital Group; Communications Workers of America (CWA); Robeco Asset Management; numerous foundations and religious orders and denominations.

Information: https://www.iccr.org/program-areas/human-rights/investor-action-coronavirus

All of this is spelled out in the “Investor Statement on Coronavirus Response” being circulated among fiduciaries.

* * * * * * * *

Believe the Investor’s Urging Will Pay Off?

Bloomberg LP provides us with some of the early answers.  Bloomberg Intelligence’s (BI) Shaheen Contractor (ESG Team BI Industry Analyst) in a brief for terminal users noted that an analysis of ESG Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) during the selloff for the week ending February 28 provided a buffer for their investors and outperformed their benchmarks. The data: only 8% of ESG ETFs had outflows while 22% of all U.S. ETFs saw outflows.

This, she writes, suggests ESG is seen by investors as a long-term investment and not a trading strategy.

And the flow to ESG ETF’s suggests that these instruments are “sticky” and less cyclical. Where where the flows to ESG ETFs? BlackRock, JPMorgan, BNP Paribas, Societe Generale, DWS, State Street, and Vanguard all saw inflows during the drawdown.

Good news for investors looking for “proof of concept” of ESG/sustainable investing from Shaheen Contractor – thanks to her and Bloomberg for sharing this good news.

Her email is: scontractor2@bloomberg.net

The brief: “ESG ETFs See Relative Outperformance, Inflows During Drawdown”

For information, it is on the Bloomberg: https://blinks.bloomberg.com/news/stories/Q6RT29T0G1L2

* * * * * * * *

Lead from the front.  The general who led the effort to win WW II for the U.S.A. and the democracies, General Dwight D. Eisenhower (President, 1953-1961) observed:   “Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.  You don’t lead by hitting people over the head–that’s assault, not leadership.”

* * * * * * * *

G&A Institute Team Note
We continue to bring you news of private (corporate and business), public and social sector developments as organizations in the three societal sectors adjust to the emergency.

The new items will be posted at the top of the blog post and the items today will move down the queue.

We created the tag Corporate Purpose – Virus Crisis” for this continuing series – and the hashtag WeRise2FightCOVID-19 for our Twitter posts.  Do join the conversation and contribute your views and news.

Send us news about your organization – info@ga-institute.com so we can share.   Stay safe – be well — keep in touch!

Excellence in Corporate Citizenship on Display in the Coronavirus Crisis – #4

by Hank Boerner – Chair & Chief Strategist – G&A Institute and the G&A team — continuing a new conversation about the corporate and investor response the coronavirus crisis…continuing the second week of the conversation… Post #4 – Late Evening,  March 23 … second of the day

 

 

 

Introduction
These are the times when actions and reactions to crisis helps to define the character of the corporation and shape the public profiles of each of the corporate citizens. For companies, these are not easy times.

Many important decisions are to be made, many priorities set in an environment of unknown unknowns — there are many stakeholders with needs to be taken care of.

The good news: Corporations are not waiting to be part of the solution – decisions are being made quickly and action is being taken to protect the enterprise. This is no easy task while protecting the corporate brand, the reputation for being a good corporate citizen, watching out for the investor base and the employee base — and all stakeholders.

What are companies doing? How will the decisions made at the top in turn affect the company’s employees, customers, hometowns, suppliers, other stakeholders?    Stay tuned.

* * * * * * * *

Getting Pharmaceuticals to Those in Need

The giant global pharma company Novartis commits to donate up to 130 million doses by end of May of generic hydroxychloroquine (a compound) – this and chloroquine are being evaluated to treat COVID-19. In New York State, tomorrow trials will begin for the use of the two drugs.

Novartis Sandoz division is pursuing regulatory approvals and once that is in hand the managers will work with stakeholders to figure out how to get the drugs to patients. (Novartis has registration for hydroxychloroquine in the USA.)

This is part of the Novartis COVID-19 Response Fund (US$20 million) effort for drug discovery, development, collaboration and price stability. Novartis will work with other companies to support global supply.

The Novartis enterprise resulted from the merger of Sandoz and Ciba-Geigy.

* * * * * * * *

Bayer AG (Germany) is partnering with the federal government to get several millions of anti-malaria drugs – millions of tables of chloroquine (on label: Resochin® – made of chloroquine phosphate) to the U.S. – the other half of the experimental treatment. President Donald Trump called on regulatore to agree on an emergency-use authorization.

* * * * * * * *

Funding — Cash Really Helps to Bring Aid to the Nation

Morgan Stanley committing $10 million in cash to support children’s wellbeing and capacity-building for first responders. The first distribution is for Feeding America, the CDC Foundation and the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 Solidarity Health Fund.

The CDC Foundation will use the fund to support local and state health departments, the global response, logistics, communications, data management, PPEs, and supplies. These funds are in addition to $500,000 in employee matching to charities supporting the initial outbreak in Wuhan, China.

* * * * * * * *

Keeping the Power on and Communities’ Needs Met

Alliant Energy, the utility serving Iowa and Wisconsin in the Heartland, donated $100,000 to COVID-19 relief efforts through its foundation arm. CEO John Larsen said the firm worked with non-profit partners to identify local needs – and cash was at the top of the list.

Contributions are headed to non-profits in the two states – to six food banks to be divided between Iowa and Wisconsin (for food boxes, mobile drive-through pantry support, gaps in school lunch programs. And the American Red Cross chapters in each state will receive funds. When the employees and retirees donate to local relief efforts, the Alliant Energy Foundation will match gifts up to $3,500 this year.

The company activated its comprehensive pandemic emergency plan and instituted safety work practices to protect employees. And yes, “Powering What’s Next” is the title of the 2019 Corporate Responsibility Report – you can see it here: https://sustainability.alliantenergy.com/

* * * * * * * *

Driving Folks Around in a Lyft During the Crisis

The drive-sharing service Lyft’s co-founders (John and Logan) sent customers an email. “All of us feel the weight of our responsibility to the community right now.” To drivers (who need the cash) and to customers, to be their critical lifeline, especially those in need.

And so to support drivers and maximize community impact:

  • Supporting delivery of medical supplies and providing access to necessary transport, especially for low-income individuals.
  • Activating LyftUp to donate tens of thousands of dollars to families and children, low-income seniors, doctors and nurses.
  • Teaming with United Way, World Central Kitchen and Team Rubicon.
  • Riders and drivers encouraged to stay home if they are sick – and work with medical professionals to discuss transportation options.

Coming all together to help:

Governments, not-for-profits, healthcare entities are asked to get in touch with Lyft to discuss how the company can help – form to reply is here. 

Foundations and philanthropic organizations looking to help can connect via email: LyftUpCovid19Funding@lyft.com.

* * * * * * * *

The Buzz is All About E-Learning – What Do People Need?

In Houston, Texas, school children are at home (and so are their teachers), and “e-learning” or tele-learning is the alternative method of keeping the school year going. Harris County Sheriff’s Office and CITGO Petroleum Corporation are donating 150 tablets (Kindles) to the Houston and Alief Independent School Districts to support low-income students’ e-learning needs during the crisis.

CITGO has had a six-year partnership with the sheriff’s office in offering the “Kindling Young Minds Program” to provide Kindle Fire tables to Houston-area students with perfect or much-improved attendance records – that program is modified now to meet crisis conditions.

The tablets were in student’s hands by March 19th. (More than 600 tablets are now in use.) As they say, life hands you a lemon – go make buckets of lemonade!)

CITGO operates three refineries in Texas, Louisiana and Illinois; wholly or jointly owns 48 terminals, 9 pipelines and other businesses and is #5 refiner in the U.S. The familiar brand is in 30 states. Old timers remember the original brand – Cities Service.

* * * * * * * *

Along these lines, Discovery Education is helping homebound students (and parents & guardians) by launching “Daily DE” – digital curriculum resources, engaging content and professional learning for K-12 classroom. This is a suite of free activities and resources for students and their families.

There are partners in the offering: Afterschool Alliance, American Heart Association, the NFL, US Shoah Foundation, Tiger Woods Foundation, Siemens, 3M, TCS, and others. You can find out more at: https://www.discoveryeducation.com/

* * * * * * * *

Putting Food on the Table — Addressing the Anxieties of Families

Families and individuals are in need of food during the crisis and Albertsons Companies and Albertsons Foundation pledge funds and launch a major fundraising drive to “fight hunger” during the crisis.

This is a call to action; CEO Vivek Sankaran explains that Albertsons Companies are on the front line of hunger relief and calls on communities to assist. The “Nourishing Neighbors” program (especially focused on breakfast for kids) needs help to feed families now.

Contributions are solicited for food banks, emergency meal distribution at schools, senior center meals, and family access to federal food programs.

There’s information at: AlbertsonsCompaniesFoundation.org.

Hey shoppers – you, too, can chip in at branded retail outlets as they stock up for their own families – look for information at Albertsons, Safeway, Vons, Jewel-Osco, Shaw’s, Star Market, Tom Thumb, Randal’s, ACME, and other of the company’s retail food outlets.

Internally, Albertsons employees are helping each other with donations to the “We Care Fund”, part of the foundation activiti4es.

In 2019, Albertsons Companies and the foundation donated $225 million in food and financial support to communities, for education, hunger relief, cancer research and treatment, veterans outreach, and for people with disabilities. To that list the company and foundation added COVID-19 relief.

* * * * * * * *

Getting Money and Help to the People Who Need it

Fifth Third Bank Bancorp (Cincinnati) and the Fifth Third Foundation and the Fifth Third Chicagoland Foundation will direct $8.75 million in funds to support community members.

“Recovery and Resilience Funds” will direct funds through “Strengthening Our Communities” grants of the foundation to support small businesses, affordable housing and homeownership, and economic development. Relief funds are directed for COVID-19 response in areas served by Fifth Third Bank.

The institution is also offering a vehicle payment waiver program; consumer credit card payment waiver; mortgage and home equity program for late payments (with no late fees); small business payment waiver (up to six months for loans); suspension of vehicle repossession actions; suspension of foreclosures. Many of these are for at least 60 and 90 days duration.

Banking units serve Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Florida, Tennessee, W Virginia, Georgia, and North Carolina. The federal bank had $169 billion in assets and 1149 full service banking centers. Money management: Fifth Third is among the largest institutions in the Midwest with $413 billion in assets under care.

* * * * * * * *

And More Funds for Small Businesses

Facebook launched a $100 million grant program for small businesses that are being impacted by the pandemic – most of the disbursements will be in cash payments, with some credits for business services.

“We’ve listened to small businesses to understand how best we can help them,” explains Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. Being helped: 30,000 small business enterprises in 30+ nations where Facebook employees live and work.

Facebook’s estimate is that as many as 140 million businesses use the apps each month to help in management and market of the firm as some 200 million people visit an Instagram Business Profile every day.

According to Forbes writer Maneet Ahuja, such firms as Unashamed Imaging (principal, Anesha Collins), a Florida-based wedding photographers is using Facebook Live and IGTV to keep in touch clients; Heavenly Soap (principal Patti Gibbons) pushes ahead using Facebook. These are the types of firms considered for the program.

Last week Facebook launched Business Hub, with resources for small businesses. Info: https://www.facebook.com/business/boost/resource?ref=alias

* * * * * * * *

Close to home for some of us on the G&A Institute team who live in suburban Nassau or Suffolk counties, PSEG Long Island and the PSEG Foundation are lending support to the leading food bank in the area – Island Harvest.

The company and its foundation are supporting the Island Harvest Food Bank with a grant of $45,000 to address rising food insecurity – including helping local children without access to school food programs because their schools are closed.

Island Harvest relies on donations of surplus food by commercial establishments, wholesalers, supermarkets, individuals. Each day, surplus bread and other commodities have been donated by local Panera Bread markets, for example.

The electric utility’s regional territory includes the populous Nassau and Suffolk counties (almost 3.5 million population. CEO Daniel Eichorn points out that many of the company’s employees volunteer to help Island Harvest each year and the funds will help as part of the ongoing partnership with the food pantry.

PSEG Long Island is a subsidiary of the New Jersey-based Public Service Enterprise Group Inc, a diversified energy company.

* * * * * * * *

G&A Institute team note: We continue to bring you news of private (corporate and business), public and social sector developments as organizations in the three societal sectors adjust to the emergency.

The new items will be posted at the top of the blog post and the items today will move down the queue.

We created the tag “Corporate Purpose – Virus Crisis” for this continuing series – and the hashtag #WeRise2FightCOVID-19 for our Twitter posts.  Join the conversation and contribute your views and news — email info@ga-institute.com

Getting Serious About SASB: Company Boards, Execs and Their Investors Are Tuning In. What About Accounting Firms?

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

February 26, 2020

The importance of the work over the recent years of the Sustainable Accounting Standards Board in developing industry-specific ESG disclosure recommendations was underscored with the recent letters to company leadership from two of the world’s leading asset management firms.

Corporate boards and/or executive teams received two important letters in January that included strong advice about their (portfolio companies’) SASB disclosures. 

BlackRock CEO Larry Fink explained to corporate CEOs his annual letter:  “We are on the edge of a fundamental reshaping of finance. Important progress in improving disclosure has been made – many companies already do an exemplary job of integrating and reporting on sustainability but we need to achieve more widespread and standardized adoption.” 

While no framework is perfect, BlackRock believes that the SASB provides a clear set of standards for reporting sustainability information across a wide range of issues, from labor practices to data privacy to business ethics. 

In 2020, BlackRock is asking companies that the firm invests in on behalf of clients to publish a disclosure in line with industry-specific SASB guidelines by year end (and disclose a similar set of data in line with the TCFD’s recommendations). 

In a thought paper, BlackRock explained that disclosures intended for investors need to focus on financially material and business relevant metrics and include supporting narratives. The recommendations of the TCFD and the SASB (standards) are the benchmark frameworks for a company to disclose its approach to climate-related risks and the transition to a lower carbon economy.

Absent such robust disclosure, investors could assume that companies are not adequately managing their risk. Not the right message to send to current and prospective investors in the corporation, we would say.

State Street Sends Strong Signals

Separately, State Street Global Advisors (SSgA) CEO Cyrus Taraporevala in his 2020 letter to corporate board members explained:  “We believe that addressing material ESG issues is a good business practice and essential to a company’s long-term financial performance – a matter of value, not values.” 

The asset management firm [one of the world’s largest] uses its “R-Factor” (R=“responsibility”) to score the performance of a company’s business operations and governance as it relates to financially material and sector-specific ESG issues.

The CEO’s letter continued:  The ESG data is drawn from four leading service providers and leverages the SASB materiality framework to generate unique scores for 6,000+ companies’ performance against regional and global industry peers. “We believe that a company’s ESG score will soon effectively be as important as it credit rating.”

The Sustainable Accounting Standards Board

About SASB’s continuing progress:  Recommendations for corporate disclosure centered on materiality of issues & topics were fully developed in a multi-party process (“codified”) concluding in November 2018 for 77 industry categories in 11 sectors by a multi-party process.

The recommendations are now increasingly being used by public companies and investors as important frameworks for enhanced corporate disclosure related to ESG risks and opportunities. 

To keep in mind: A company may be identified in several sectors and each of these should be seriously considered in developing the voluntary disclosures (data sets, accompanying narrative for context).

Bloomberg LP (the company headed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, now a presidential candidate seeking the Democratic nomination) is a private company but publishes a SASB Disclosure report. (Bloomberg is the chair of SASB as well as the leader of his financial information firm.)

The company published “robust” metrics using the SASB on three industry categories for 2018: Internet & Media Services; Media & Entertainment; Professional & Commercial Services.

Bloomberg LP is privately-owned; this was an example for public company managements. The report explained:

“The nature of our business directs us to consult three industries (above). We provide a distinct table for each…containing topics we have identified as material and against which we are able to report as a private company. Quantitative data is followed by narrative information that contextualizes the data table and is responsive to qualitative metrics.”

Solid advice for company boards and executives beginning the expansion of disclosure using the SASB.

SASB Guidance

SASB provides a Materiality Map for each sector (SASB uses its SICS® – The Sustainability Industry Classification System) and provides a Standards Navigator for users. There is also an Engagement Guide for investors to consider when engaging with corporates; and, an Implementation Guide for companies (explaining issues and SASB approaches).

The fundamental tenets of SASB’s approach is set out in its Conceptual Framework: Disclosures should be Evidence-based; Industry-specific; Market-informed.  The recommended metrics for corporate disclosure include fair representation, being useful and applicable (for investors), comparable, complete, verifiable, aligned, neutral, distributive.

Accounting and Audit Professionals Advised: Tune In to SASB

Separate of the BlackRock and SSgA advice to companies and investors, accounting and auditing professionals working with their corporate clients are being urged to “tune in” to SASB.

Former board member of the Financial Accounting Standards Board (“FASB”) Marc Siegel shared his thoughts with the New York State Society of CPAs in presenting: “SASB: Overview, Trends in Adoption, Case Studies & SDG Integration”.  The Compliance Week coverage is our Top Story in the newsletter this week.

Marc Siegel is a Partner in E&Y’s Financial Accounting Advisory Service practice, served a decade on the FASB board (managers and shapers of GAAP) and was appointed to the SASB board in January 2019.

He was in the past a leader at RiskMetrics Group and CFRA, both acquired by MSCI, and is recognized as a thought leader in financial services – his views on SASB will be closely followed.

With the growing recognition of the importance of SASB recommendation for disclosure to companies and the importance of SASB’s work for investors, he encouraged the gathered accountants to get involved and assist in implementing controls over ESG data, suggesting that SASB standards are a cost-effective way for companies to begin responding to investor queries because they are industry-specific. 

Accountants, he advised, can help clients by putting systems in place to collect and control the data and CPA firms can use SASB standards as criteria to help companies that are seeking assurance for their expanding sustainability reporting.

This is an important call to action for accounting professionals, helping to generate broader awareness of the SASB standards for those working with publicly-traded companies and for internal financial executives.

The G&A Institute team has been working with corporate clients in recent years in developing greater understanding of the SASB concepts and approaches for industry-specific sustainability disclosure and helping clients to incorporate SASB standards in their corporate reports. 

We’ve also been closely tracking the inclusion of references to “SASB” and inclusion of SASB metrics by public companies in their reporting as part of our GRI Data Partner work. ‘

The G&A Institute analyst teams examine and assess every sustainability report published in the USA and have tracked trends related to how companies are integrating SASB disclosures into their reporting. 

What began as a trickle of SASB mentions in corporate reports several years ago is now increasing and we are capturing samples of such inclusions in our report monitoring and analysis.

Over the past four+ years we’ve developed comprehensive models and methodologies to assist our corporate client teams incorporating SASB disclosures in their public-facing documents (such as their sustainability / responsibility / citizenship reports, in Proxy Statements, for investor presentations and in other implementations).

Our co-founder and EVP Louis Coppola was among the first in the world (“early birds”) to be certified and obtain the SASB CSA Level I credential in 2015.

If you’d like to discuss SASB reporting for your company and how we can help please contact us at info@ga-institute.com

There’s information for you about our related services on the G&A Institute web site: https://www.ga-institute.com/services/sustainability-esg-consulting/sasb-reporting.html

Top Story

Benefits of sustainability reporting: takeaways for accounting 
Source: Compliance Week – According to former Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) member Marc Siegel, companies are being asked for sustainability information from many sides and are facing a bumpy road because they are under pressure due to pervasive…