Busy Summer 2020 for the World of ESG Players – Rating Agencies, Information Providers, UNGC & the SDGs…and More

August 27 2020

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

It’s been a very busy summer for organizations managing corporate reporting frameworks and standards, for ESG rating agencies, and for multilateral agencies focused on corporate sustainability and responsibility.

If you are a corporate manager — or a sustainable investment professional — do tune in to some of the changes that will affect your work in some ways. Here’s a quick summary:

ISS/Institutional Shareholder Services
For four decades, ISS has been the go-to source on governance issues for proxy voting and corporate engagement guidance for major fiduciaries (pension funds are an example).

Two years ago, “E” and “S” ratings were added for investor-clients.

Now, ISS ESG (ISS’s responsible investing unit) is providing “best-in-class fund ratings” that assess the ESG performance of 20,000 firms. Funds will be rated 1-to-5 (bottom is 1) – this to be a broad utility resource for investment professionals. And for corporate managers – ISS ESG scores along with those of other ESG ratings agencies are a factor in whether your company is included in indexes, benchmarks, maybe ETFs and mutual funds that are being rated.

Bloomberg LP
It’s launching E, S & G scores for thousands of firms (highlighting environmental and societal risks that are material to a sector).

First sector up is Oil & Gas, with 252 firms rated. Also, there are new Board Composition scores, with Bloomberg assessing how well a board is positioned to respond to certain G issues. (Note that 4,300 companies are being rated – probably including yours if you are a publicly-traded entity.)

And in other news:

UN Global Compact and the SDGs
The UNGC observes its 20th anniversary and in its latest survey of companies, the organization asked about the SDGs and corporate perspectives of the 17 goals and 169 targets. The findings are in the blog post for you.

MSCI
This major ESG ratings agency expanded its model for evaluating company-level alignment to the Sustainable Development Goals. New tools will help capital markets players to enhance or develop ESG-themed investment services and products.

Global Reporting Initiative
The GRI continues to align its Universal Standards with other reporting frameworks or standards so that a GRI report becomes a more meaningful and holistic presentation of a company’s ESG profile.

GRI Standards were updated and planned revisions include moving Human Rights reporting closer to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and other inter-governmental instruments.

Climate Disclosure Standards Board
The CDSB Framework for climate-related disclosure is now available for corporate reporters to build “material, climate-related information” in mainstream documents (like the 10-k). This is similar to what the TCFD is recommending for corporate disclosure.

This is a small part of what has been going on this summer. We have the two top stories about ISS and Bloomberg and a whole lot more for you in the G&A Sustainability Update blog.

For your end-of-summer/get-ready-for-a-busy-fall schedule!

Top Stories

The G&A Blog with many more organizations and their actions here.

Corporate Sustainability Reporting – Frameworks, Standards, Guidance – Summer 2020 Update

Have You Heard? Despite the Global Crises, Corporate ESG/Sustainability Reporting Momentum Continues to Build – Here, Some Updates For You on Focused on Corporate ESG Reporting Frameworks and Standards

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

This has been a challenging year. In January when I do my usual “crystal-balling” for the new year, the coronavirus was fast-spreading in Wuhan, China, and the world outside had not yet awakened to the serious threat the early infections posed to we humans.

The U.S. equities market looked very promising – but the markets would tank in March and then slowly recover. (As we write this the Nasdaq numbers and S&P 500 Index® levels have investors cheering – look at Nasdaq and the S&P 500!)

Despite the upheavals in 2020, Reporting Standards and Frameworks are continuing to evolve and especially to become more investor-focused

Investors, public companies’ executives, and sustainability reporting Standards and Frameworks organizations are not slowing the pace on advancing ESG / Sustainability / Corporate Purpose / Sustainable Investing et al, and advancing the cause by various means in this Summer 2020.

In the event that you have been busy this spring and summer (haven’t we all!) and perhaps missing something here and there, here are news items & developments for you to illustrate the forward momentum and increasing importance of ESG “etc” matters.

This update is focused on ESG reporting frameworks, standards and ESG disclosure guidance – this is the daily work of the team at G&A Institute.

UN Global Compact Celebrates 20 Years – And Builds on the Progress

It is 20 years now since the founding of the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC) and the organization released its look back/look ahead report, “Uniting Business in the Decade of Action”. Each year the Compact surveys its participants to gauge the progress being made (or not).

This year the survey included a review of progress in complying with the Ten Principles of the Global Compact – and – corporate contributions to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

2020 Survey Findings:

  • 30% of companies responding believe they have targets sufficiently ambitious to meet the 2030 goals of the SDGs.
  • Fewer than a third of respondents consider their industry moving fast enough to deliver on prioritized goals.
  • Good news: 84% of UNGC corporate participants are taking some kind of action on SDGs.
  • Not-so-good: only 46% are embedding the goals into their core business.
  • Only 37% are designing business models to “contribute” to the 17 goals.
  • 61% say that their company provides some kind of product/service that contribute(s) to the progress of the SDGs (that level was 48% in 2019).
  • 57% measure their own operations’ impact on the SDGs.
  • 13% extend this to their supply base; and only 10% extend this to raw materials and product use.
  • 29% of companies advocate publicly to encourage action on the SDGs (this is a slide down from over half of companies in 2019).

Many companies focus on Goal 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth; and Goal 9: Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure; less traction was noted for “socially-focused” goals (reducing inequality, gender equality, peace & justice).

The General Secretary of the United Nations has called on corporations to align their operations and strategies with the Ten Universal Principles of the Global Compact.

We are half-a-decade in now since goals adoption – with only one decade to go (years 2020 to 2030) to achieve the objectives.

More than 10,000 companies and 3,000 non-business entities (“signatories”) are participating in achieving the goals in some way, operating in 160 countries — and so, the UNGC has become the world’s largest corporate sustainability initiative.

Has your company signed on to the UNGC? Selected SDGs to build into your core business strategy and models? There is guidance for you in the UNGC report. https://unglobalcompact.org/take-action/20th-anniversary-campaign

About the SDGs – MSCI’s New “SDG Net Alignment Factors”

MCSI, one of the major ESG rating firms providing significant research and analysis results to its global investor clients, expanded the model for evaluating company-level alignment to the UN SDGs.

The new tools will help capital market players to enhance or develop ESG-themed investment services and products. 

Subscribers to the firm’s Sustainable Impact Metrics now have access to the SDG Net Alignment Factors, which measures revenue exposure to “sustainable impact solutions and support actionable thematic allocations in line with impact frameworks like the UN SDGs.”

This approach will help investors to better understand what a company is doing with respect to the SDGs, what progress the company is making (or not), and related metrics that are being disclosed.

Institutional investor clients can use the information provided in developing sustainable investing products and services.

Corporate managers should be aware that the SDGs are getting more attention now as the last decade is upon us for achieving progress on the 17 goals/169 underlying targets.

MSCI’s Approach

The MSCI approach was developed in collaboration with the OECD and takes a “net impact” perspective to evaluate alignments of companies based on product and operations for each of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (and there are 169 underlying targets for these).

The approach to “help institutional investors:

  • Measure and report on the degree of SDG alignment.
  • Develop SDG-themed investment products.
  • Meet rising demand to channel capital toward addressing the objectives of the Goals.
  • Identify companies better aligned with the SDGs based on a well-rounded framework that looks beyond [corporate] disclosure and considers positive and negative alignment.

Corporate board members and C-suite leaders note: In evaluating your company, MSCI’s approach will include qualitative categories indicating the degree of alignment and scores that assess:

  • Each public company’s overall Net Alignment for each of the 17 SDGs.
  • Product alignment – focusing on products and services with positive and negative impacts.
  • Operational alignment – internal policies of the company, operating practices to address SDGs targets, involvement in controversial activities.

The new SDG Net Alignment Framework is built on the MSCI Sustainable Impact Metrics; these include:

  • New Sustainable Agriculture and Connectivity categories to provide additional areas where products and services align with the SDGs.
  • Expanded Fixed-Income coverage to align the MSCI ESG Ratings corporate coverage universe, bringing impact coverage to 10,000+ equity and fixed-income issuers.
  • Introduction of more granular “E” impact revenue sub-categories to enable a flexible application of MSCI Sustainable Impact Metrics to a broad range of impact and sustainability frameworks.

The new service for MSCI clients began in August.

Note the OECD is the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development, and part of its mission is to establish evidence-based international standards and finding solutions to social, economic, and environmental challenges.

GRI – The Choice of Many Corporate Reporters for Guidance

The Global Reporting Initiative has its roots in the United States, with foundational elements put in place by (in that day) socially responsible investors, a few companies, and some NGOs.

In 1989 in Prince William Sound, Alaska, the tanker Exxon Valdez spilled crude oil in the waters over several days. In response, in Boston, Trillium Asset Management under the direction of Joan Bavaria worked to create a new organization — the “Coalition for Environmentally Responsible EconomieS” (now, known simply as Ceres) and created the Valdez Principles for companies to sign (to pledge to be more environmentally-responsible).

These became the Ceres Principles and over time contributed to the creation of the GRI and its first framework (“G1”).

The framework was continually evolving, becoming G3 and G4 and what would be G5 (Generation 5) are now the GRI Standards, a powerful guide for public companies to use to examine and decide on “what” to disclose against the Standards.

Companies can choose to report against “Core” or “Comprehensive” levels.

GRI has also aligned the Standards with other reporting frameworks or standards so that publishing a “GRI Report” becomes a more meaningful and holistic presentation of a company’s ESG profile.

Note: G&A Institute is the designated Data Partner for the GRI in the United States of America, the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. In this role, we gather and analyze every report published in these countries and provide the analysis to GRI for inclusion in its comprehensive, global report database.

This is the largest collection of corporate sustainability reports going back to the first issued using “G1” in 1999-2000.

What’s happening now:

In June GRI announced an update to the “Universal Standards”. These are planned revisions such as address concerns in Human Rights reporting to move GRI Standards “closer” to inter-governmental instruments such as the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

“Materiality” will be “re-focused” so that companies will report the importance of issues to stakeholders – rather than the customary approach of disclosing the results of a materiality assessment with focus on the company’s view of issues (regarding the economy, environmental matters, and people or human assets).

This will mean much more engagement with stakeholders to determine their perspectives to guide disclosures using the Universal Standards.

In the past, part of the guidance from the GRI was focused on “sectors”. Now, the organization is reviving Sector Guidance, which will support the Universal Standards. The sector guidance will link where possible with other frameworks and initiatives.

These steps are in the “disclosure draft” stage, with GRI gathering input to move to final adoption in 2021. GRI is inviting organizations – including companies – to be part of a “Global Standards Fund” to “safeguard and increase GRI’s to deliver the leading sustainability standards that encourage organizations to embrace responsible business practices.” It hopes to raise 8 million euros by 2022.

Climate Disclosure Standards Board – Guidance Issued

The CDSB Framework for climate-related disclosure is available for corporate reporters to build “material, climate-related information” in their “mainstream” reports. (That is, “the annual reporting packages required to audited financial results under the corporate compliance or securities laws of the country in which they operate.”)

Think of the 10-k in the United States or annual report in the United Kingdom, and similarly required filings.

The guidance is similar to that of the TCFD  recommendations – the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosure (organized by the Financial Stability Board, an arm of the G-20 nations, with the Task Force headed by Michael Bloomberg).

Important note: CDP advises that connecting CDP data with the CDSB Framework will help companies to successfully fulfill the TCFD recommendations.

The CDSB has been working on the Standards since 2007, and over time reflected on such developments as the 2015 Paris Agreement (or Accord) on climate risk.

In discussions with company managers and in our monitoring of corporate disclosure as the GRI data partner in the U.S.A., we see a wide range of opinions on just what “integrated reporting” should look like.

For some companies (not to be cute here) it boils down to have a 10-k and ESG report at the same time, often combined. Side-by-side, stapled in effect for a printed report.

Other firms may put financial/economic information up top and then build out a sustainability report with volumes of ESG data. We don’t see a lot of tieing the implications of that data to financial results, with top and bottom line impacts clearly spelled out.

Bloomberg – Launching E, S & G Scores – Oil & Gas Sector First Up, Along With Board Composition Scores for Thousands of Firms

This month Bloomberg announced it was launching new, proprietary ESG scores for 252 companies in the Oil & Gas Sector – and Board Composition scores for more than 4,300 companies. The scores are available in the professional services terminals service.

For the “E” and “S” scores of the companies in the Oil & Gas Sector, Bloomberg is highlighting environmental and societal risks that are material to the sector.

For the Board Composition scoring, Bloomberg says it is assisting investors with information to assess how well a board is positioned to provide diverse perspectives, supervision of management, and assess potential risks in the current board structure.

ISS/Institutional Shareholder Services – New Data Points For Investors

The long-time governance ratings and proxy guidance organizations were originally focused on “G” – governance practices – and expanded its work into “E” and “S” scoring and evaluations two years ago. (The “G” work goes back four decades.)

Now, “ISS ESG” (the responsible investment arm) is providing “best in class” fund ratings that assess the ESG performance of 20,000-plus firms around the world.

The new ratings will draw on ISS’s ESG ratings, governance data, norm-based research, energy and extractives’ screens, SDG impact ratings, carbon emissions analysis, shareholder voting outcomes, and more…resulting in a composite, holistic picture of a fund’s ESG performance.

Funds will be rated on a relative scale of “1” (bottom” to “5”, based on the fund’s standing within the Lipper Global Benchmark class.

The service is intended to have broad utility for investment professionals, such as fund managers and investment advisors.

This is still one more layer to add to the complexity of the capital markets competition for public companies.

G&A Institute Perspectives:
Inside the publicly-traded company, there may be a lively discussion going on among participants as the sustainability disclosures are prepared – for example, legal teams may frown certain ESG data revelations at times.

“Who is asking for this” may be a determinant in “what” gets disclosed. Lots of negotiations go on, we can tell you. 

But every year, more and more ESG data sets and narratives are published and corporate leaders in sustainability reporting set the pace for industry and sector.

The various reporting frameworks, guidance, standards that are available to corporate managers are a positive – here, including the framework (guidance) presented by the Standards of the Carbon Disclosure Standards Board. Information: https://www.cdsb.net/

G&A Institute closely monitors the corporate sustainability reporting arena and will share with you more updates as we see the need.  

Lots going on in Summer 2020 — be in touch with us if you have questions about any of this!  We’d like to be your sherpas and guides and navigators on the corporate sustainability journey!

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…

Titles Matter to Provide Context and Direction – For Corporate Leaders and the Providers of Capital

May 14 2020

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

Shorthand terms in business and finance do matter – the “titling” of  certain developments can sum up trends we should be tuning in to.  Some examples for today: Sustainable Capitalism  – Stakeholder Primacy – Sustainable Investing – Corporate Sustainability – Corporate ESG Performance Factors – Environmental Sustainability – Corporate Citizenship…and more.

These are very relevant and important terms for our times as world leaders grapple with the impacts of the coronavirus, address climate change challenges, as well as addressing conditions of inequality, have/have not issues, questions about the directions of the capital markets, ensure issuer access to long-term capital…and more.  And, as influential leaders in the private, public and social sectors consider the way forward when the coronavirus crisis begins to wind down.

For investors and corporate sector leaders, the concept of shareholder primacy was more or less unchallenged for decades after World War II with the rise of large publicly-traded corporations – General Electric! — that dominated the business sector in the USA and set the pace other companies in the capital markets.

But as one crisis followed another – the names are familiar — Keating Five S&L scandal, Drexel Burnham Lambert and junk bonds, Tyco, Enron, WorldCom, Adelphia Cable, Arthur Andersen, the Wall Street research analysts’ debacle (Merrill Lynch et al), Lehman Bros and Bear Stearns, Turing Pharmaceutics, on to Wells Fargo, Purdue Pharma and its role in the Opiod crisis – over time, increasing numbers of investors began to seriously adjust they ways that they evaluate public companies they will provide vital capital to in both equities and fixed-income markets.

Investors today in this time of great uncertainty are focused on: which equity issue to put in portfolio that will stand the test of time; whose bonds will be “safe”, especially during times of crisis; which corporate issuer’s reputation and long-term viability is not at risk; where alpha may be presented as portfolio management practices are challenged by macro-events.

This is about where the money will be “safer” overall, and provide future value and opportunity for the providers of capital – because there is great leadership in the board room and executive offices and resilience in crisis is being demonstrated.

As we think about this, the questions posed in context (virus crisis all around) are:  Why has sustainable investing gone mainstream?  What can savvy boards and C-Suite leaders do to exert leadership in corporate sustainability?  Where is sustainable capitalism headed?  How do we identify great leadership in the corporate sector in times of crisis?

Our choice of featured stories up top for you this week provide some interesting perspectives on these questions.

And, we’ve tried to illustrate the embrace of sustainability as a fundamental organizing principle today of great corporate leaders.  As well as explaining the continuing embrace of sustainable investing approaches of key providers of capital as a strategic risk management discipline — and proof of concept of acceptance of stakeholder primacy / sustainable capitalism in the 21st Century.

The other stories we’ve curated for you this issue of our newsletter help to broaden these perspectives that are offered up in these challenging times from thought leaders.

As the ancient blessing/curse goes:  May we live in interesting times.

Featured Stories – The Two Critical Halves of Sustainable Capitalism, Issuers and Providers of Capital…

Concept: A well-structured sustainability committee not only serves a critical coordinating function, but also steers sustainability right to the heart of the company and the company’s strategy. Let’s take a look at how boards at some of the world’s leading companies have tackled this…

How Can Boards Successfully Guide a Transition to Sustainable Business?
Source: Sustainable Brands – The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals are set to unlock $12 trillion in new business opportunities by 2030. Yet many companies are still stuck in the past. Over the next decade, businesses can either adapt and thrive or deny and, says the organization…

The evidence suggesting that boardrooms should prioritize sustainability is growing rapidly. On the one hand, there are increased risks associated with not prioritizing sustainability. On the other hand, the figures show the huge opportunities sustainability offers businesses. As a result, more and more, sustainability is positioned at the top of boards’ agendas.

Boards must put sustainability at the top of their agenda to thrive
Source: GreenBiz – Amidst the global COVID-19 crisis, there have also been glimmers of hope. A significant one is its impact on climate change. It’s estimated that global carbon emissions from the fossil fuel industry could fall by 2.5 billion…

During a recent CECP CEO Roundtable, current and former CEOs gathered virtually and shared insights from their perspectives on the business landscape. In these informative discussions, one executive noted that leadership, more so than having the right systems in place, is and will be integral as we navigate uncharted territory:

Pivoting with Moral Leadership
Source: CECP – During a recent CECP CEO Roundtable, current and former CEOs gathered virtually and shared insights from their perspectives on the business landscape. In these informative discussions, one executive noted that leadership, more so…

Bears watching:  On 8 April 2020 the European Commission published a consultation paper on its renewed sustainable finance strategy (the “Sustainability Strategy”). The Sustainability Strategy is a policy framework forming a key part of the European Green Deal, the EU’s roadmap to making the EU’s economy sustainable, including reducing net greenhouse gas emission to zero by 2050. Despite the inevitable recent shift of focus to measures dealing with the COVID-19 crisis, this remains a top EU priority and the outcome of this consultation may significantly affect :

European Commission Consultation on the Renewed Sustainable Finance Strategy
Source: National Law Review – The Sustainability Strategy is a policy framework forming a key part of the European Green Deal, the EU’s roadmap to making the EU’s economy sustainable, including reducing net greenhouse gas emission to zero by 2050. Despite the…

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 

 

Watching the Watchers – What Investors & ESG Raters Are Doing in the Virus Crisis

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

As we have numerous times in this space commented about the dramatic shift from a shareholder primacy focus (for public companies and investors) to today’s stakeholder primacy operating environment, the views of key stakeholders – investors, and their service providers – are critical during the virus crisis.

Today we’re sharing the actions and perspectives of the investor-stakeholders…as the investor coalition in our first item notes…

“…the long-term viability of the companies in which we invest is inextricably tied to the welfare of their stakeholders, including employees, suppliers, customers and communities…”


Investor Coalition Focuses on Corporate Response to the Crisis

The Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, a coalition of 300 institutional investors long focused on corporate responsibility and sustainability, joined forces with the Office of New York City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer and Domini Impact Investments LLC to develop an “Investment Statement on Coronavirus Response” — to urge the business community to take what steps they can and offered five (5) steps for corporate managements to consider.

These include:

  • Providing paid leave – emergency leave for all employees, including temps, part-timers, and subcontracted workers.
  • Prioritizing health and safety – limiting exposure to COVID-19, rotating shifts, enhancing protective measures, closing locations, setting up remote work, additional training where appropriate.
  • Maintaining employment – retain workers as much as possible; a well-trained and committed workforce will help companies resume operations quickly; also, companies should watch for potential discriminatory impact during and after the crisis.
  • Maintaining supplier/customer relationships – As much as is possible, companies should maintain timely or prompt payments to suppliers and work with customers facing financial challenges to help stabilize the economy, protect communities and small businesses, and ensure a stable supply chain will be in place when operations return to normal.
  • Practice financial prudence – the investors state they expect the highest level of ethical financial management and responsibility in the period of (acknowledged) financial stress. As “responsible investors” (the signatories) the expectation is that companies will suspend share buybacks, and limit executive and senior management compensation for the duration of the crisis.

Beyond these, the investors urged companies to consider such measures as childcare assistance, hazard pay, assistance in obtaining government aid for suppliers, paying employee health insurance for laid off/furloughed workers, and deploying resources to meet societal needs related to the pandemic.

Over the past few years, the investor coalition points out, corporations have shown leadership by using their power as a force for tremendous good. This kind of leadership if critically needed now. And, business reputation and social license to operate is at stake.

As we prepare this about 200 long-term institutional investors with AUM of US$5 trillion had signed on to the effort, including: the AFL-CIO funds, American Federation of Teachers, Aviva Investors, Boston Common Asset Management, the Chicago City Treasurer, Communications Workers of America, Connecticut State Treasurer Shawn T. Wooden, Delaware State Treasurer, Illinois State Treasurer Michael Frerichs, International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Investor Environmental Health Network, Office of Rhode Island General Treasurer Seth Magaziner, Oregon State Treasurer, Robeco, SEIU, UAW Retiree Medical Benefits Trust, Treasurer of the State of Maryland, Vermont State Treasurer, and a large roster of faith-based institutions and religious denomination funds.

#  #  #

Walking-the-Talk of Corporate Responsibility

Refinitiv provides investors with ESG ratings and perspectives on corporate ESG performance and builds ESG / sustainability considerations into products and services for investor clients. The company announced what it is doing to maintain its forward ESG momentum during the crisis.   And the changes will over time affect the public companies that are rated and ESG news distributed worldwide by Refinitiv. 

On Earth Day 2020, the folks at Refinitiv – this is one of the world’s largest providers of financial information – announced the beefing up of their own operations…walking the talk of what they provide to investor clients in terms of ESG Data and solutions for evaluating public companies’ ESG performance.

Refinitiv is putting in place for itself more stringent, science-based emissions targets, climate change reporting standards to meet the TCFD’s recommendations, and is joining the RE100 initiative to source 100% of its electricity from renewables.

Refinitiv had made three core pledges on the environment, social impact and sustainable solutions to support the UN SDGs. Part of this was a goal of achieving carbon neutrality before the end of 2020. The company is joining the Business Ambition For 1.5C commitment; aligning its own corporate reporting with the Task Force for Climate-Related Disclosures (the TCFD); and by this coming summer should be 100% in terms of how they source energy from renewables.

Refinitiv recently launched “The Future of Sustainable Data Alliance” to accelerate the mobilization of capital into sustainable finance, and will work to sustainability “at the core of product offerings”. Refinitiv serves more than 40,000 institutions in 190 countries, providing ESG data for 15+ years.

We can expect that these moves will result in the intensifying of the evaluation of corporate sustainability efforts by this major financial information provider. As the Refinitiv CEO David Craig comments:

The pandemic is clearly providing humanity with a re-set moment: a stark reminder about our fragility as a species and a sharp lesson about what happens when we mess with nature. It is also a moment when the old rules about the role of the state no longer apply. We can therefore attack the twin challenges of COVID-19 and climate change simultaneously, not sequentially. After all, when again will we be at a moment when governments are injecting such unprecedented sums into the economy just as the world needs up to $7 trillion a year of renewable investments to hit 2030 development and climate targets.”

Luke Manning, Global Head of Sustainability and Risk Enterprise at Refinitiv, adds:

Our commitment is going further than before and aiming for more ambitious emissions reductions that – if repeated by businesses across the world – should limit atmospheric warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. If we want to truly progress the climate agenda we need to help everyone understand that tackling it is in all our personal and financial self-interest. It’s not just about the impact we are having on the environment, but the impact the environment is having on us.

# # #

Morningstar Acquires Full Ownership in Sustainalytics

Morningstar, a leading firm in providing investment research to individual and institutional investors in North America, Europe, Asia and Australia-Pacific region, began measuring the performance of ESG-focused mutual funds and ETFs three years ago. As part of the initiative, Morningstar acquired a 40% interest in the ESG ratings organization, Sustainalytics.

Now, that interest will be 100% as Morningstar solidifies its competitive advantage in measuring the performance of ESG investable products. Says CEO Kamal Kapoor:

“Modern investors in public and private markets are demanding ESG data, research, ratings, and solutions in order to make informed, meaningful investing decisions. From climate change to supply-chain practices, the nature of the investment process is evolving and shining a spotlight on demand for stakeholder capitalism. Whether assessing the durability of a company’s economic moat or the stability of its credit rating, this is the future of long-term investing.

“By coming together, Morningstar and Sustainalytics will fast track our ability to put independent, sustainable investing analytics at every level – from a single security through to a portfolio view – in the hands of all investors. Morningstar helped democratize investing, and we will do even more to extend Sustainalytics’ mission of contributing to a more just and sustainable global economy.”

#  #  #

As companies large and small, public and private, step up to help society during the virus crisis, they burnish their reputation and social license to operate.And help society cope with the impact of the crisis on individuals, families, communities and institutions. 

We’re bringing you the news of those corporate actions.  And, we’re watching the investment community for their reactions, and their intention to encourage public companies to stay the course of their sustainability journey during the virus crisis.  Stay Tuned to this blog. 

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… 

The Year 2020: Off To Great Start For News About Sustainable Investing

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

January 2020 — Here we are now in a new year, and new decade (already, the third decade of the 21st Century) and much of the buzz is all about (1) climate change and the dramatic impacts on business, finance, government and we humans around the globe; and (2) many investors are moving their money to more sustainable investments.

Oh, of course, there are other important conversations going on, such as about corporate purpose, corporate stewardship, human rights, the circular economy, worker rights, supply chain responsibility, reducing GHG emission, conserving natural resources, moving to a greener and lower carbon economy, workplace diversity, what happens to workers when automation replaces them…and more. 

But much of this is really part of sustainable investing, no?  And corporate purpose, we’d say, is at the center of much of this discussion!

The bold names of institutional investors/asset management are in the game and influencing peers in the capital markets – think about the influence of Goldman Sachs, BlackRock (world’s largest asset manager), State Street/SSgA, The Vanguard Group, and Citigroup on other institutions, to name here but a handful of major asset managers adopting sustainable investing strategies and approaches.

This week’s Top Story is about Goldman Sachs Group Inc’s pivot to “green is good”, moved by Reuters news service and authored by Chris Taylor.  The GS website welcome is Our Commitment to Sustainable Finance

The company announced a US$750 billion, 10-year initiative focused on financing of clean energy, affordable education and accessible healthcare, and reduction of or exclusion of financing for Arctic oil-gas drilling.

Head of GS Sustainable Finance Group John Goldstein explains the company’s approach to sustainable financing and investment in the Reuters story. 

Our other Top Story is from Morningstar; this is an update on the investors’ flows into sustainable funds in 2019…what could be the leading edge of a huge wave coming as new records are set. 

For 2019, net flows into open-end and ETF sustainable funds were $20.6 billion for the year just ended – that’s four times the 2018 volume (which was also a record year). There’s always information of value for you on the Morningstar website; registration is required for free access to content.

And the commentary on the January 2020 letter from BlackRock CEO Larry Fink to the CEOs of companies the firm invests in – we’ve included a few perspectives. 

We’d say that 2020 is off to an exciting start for sustainability professionals, in the capital markets, and in the corporate sector! Buckle your seat belts!

Top Stories for This Week

Green is good. Is Wall Street’s new motto sustainable?   
Source: Reuters – If you have gone to Goldman Sachs Group Inc’s (GS.N) internet home page since mid-December, it would be reasonable to wonder if you had stumbled into some kind of parallel universe. 

Sustainable Fund Flows in 2019 Smash Previous Records   
Source: MorningStar – Sustainable funds in the United States attracted new assets at a record pace in 2019. Estimated net flows into open-end and exchange-traded sustainable funds that are available to U.S. investors totaled $20.6 billion for the…