The Financial Sector and Corporate Universe – the “ESG Factors” Are Now Everywhere When Companies Seek Capital

September 8 2020

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

The roots of today’s “sustainable investing” approaches go back decades; the organizing principle often was often around  what investors viewed as “socially responsible”, “ethical”, “faith-based” and “values” investing, and by other similar titles.

“SRI” over time evolved into the more dominant sustainable or ESG investing in the 21st Century — with many more mainstream investors today embracing the approach.

And busily shaping trends, there is a universe of ESG ratings agencies and information distributors providing volumes of ESG ratings, scores, rankings and opinions to institutional investor clients and a broad base of asset managers, index creators and more.

Recently, the three major credit risk agencies increased their focus on ESG factors for their investor and lending clients.

Access to and cost of capital for companies is a more complicated situation today for financial executives  — and the steady flow of “sustainable investing” products to asset owners and asset managers increases the importance of a publicly-traded firm “being in” the sustainable product for institutional and retail investors.

Such as having the company being present in an ever-wider range of ESG indexes, benchmarks, mutual funds, exchange-traded funds, and now even options and futures.

All of this can and does increase pressures on the publicly-traded corporation’s management to develop, or enhance, and more widely promote the company’s “public ESG profile” that financial sector players will consider when investing, lending, insuring, and more.

The latest expansion / adoption of ESG approaches for investable products are from Cboe Global Markets.

The new “Cboe S&P 500 ESG Index”(r) options (trading starts September 21) will align with investor ESG preferences, says the exchange.

The traditional S&P 500 index is a broad-based equity benchmark used by thousands of investment managers and is the leading equities benchmark representing about 85% of total USA publicly-traded equities (all large-cap companies).  Availability to investment managers of the S&P 500 ESG Index is a more recent development.

The S&P 500® Index (equities) measures the stock performance of 500 large-cap companies whose issues are traded on US stock exchanges.  It was created in 1957.

The newer S&P 500 ESG Index targets the top 75% of companies in the 500 universe within their GICS® industry group.(Exclusions include tobacco, controversial weapons and UNGC non-compliance.) Asset managers link sustainability-focused products for investors to this index, including Invesco and State Street (SPDRs) for their ETFs.

Note that the S&P 500 ESG Index uses S&P DJSI ESG scores and other data to select companies for inclusion —  increasing the importance of the Corporate Sustainability Assessment (CSA) that for two decades has been used to create the Dow Jones Sustainability Indexes (“DJSI”). (The CSA is managed by SAM, now a unit of S&P Global.)

About Futures:  In November 2019 CME Group launched its CME E-mini S&P 500 ESG Index futures as a risk management tools — aligning, it pointed out, with ESG values.

About the CME Group: You probably know the Chicago-based firm by its units, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, New York Mercantile Exchange, Chicago Board of Trade, Kansas City Board of Trade, and others.  The organization’s roots go back to 1848 as the Chicago Board of Trade was created. This is the world’s largest financial derivatives exchange trading such things as futures for energy, agriculture commodities, metals, interest rates, and stock indexes.

Investors have access to fixed-income instruments and foreign exchange trading (such as Eurodollars).  The “trading pit” with shouted orders and complicated hand signals are features many are familiar with. Of course CME has electronic platforms.

About Cboe Global Markets:  This is one of the world’s largest exchange holding companies (also based in Chicago) and offers options on more than 2,000 companies, almost two dozen exchanges and almost 150 ETFs.  You probably have known it over the years as the Chicago Board Options Exchange, established by the Chicago Board of Trade back in April 1973.  (The exchange is regulated by the SEC.)

The Cboe offers options in US and European debt and equity issues, index options, futures, and more.  The organization itself issued its own first-time ESG report for 2019 performance, “referencing” GRI, SASB, TCFD, SDGs, and the World Federation of Exchanges (WFE), Sustainable Stock Exchanges (SSE) initiatives. Now ESG is part of the mix.

Considering equities, fixed-income, stock indexes, futures, options, mutual funds, exchange-traded funds, financial sector lending, “green bonds” and “green financing” – for both publicly-traded and privately-owned companies the ESG trends are today are very much an more important part of the equation when companies are seeking capital, and for the cost of capital raisedl.

And here clearly-demonstrated and communicated corporate ESG leadership is critical to be considered for becoming a preferred ESG issuer for many more investors and lenders.

Top Stories

Barron’s Magazine Heralds the Arrival of Sustainable Investing to the Mainstream In Special Issue This Week – Sustainable Investing Version 2.0 Is Here!

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

The influential Barron’s magazine is published on Mondays by Dow Jones & Company with distribution to almost a half-million retail and institutional investors (300,000+ for print version, the rest digital or combination).

Barron’s says it has been “delivering market-beating stock picks and investment advice to wealthy readers since 1921…”

In Fall 2017, the Barron’s editors picked up the pace on coverage of sustainable investing, adoption of ESG approaches and related topics and positioned its expanding coverage with the statement: “Sustainable Investing is a Powerful Force in Today’s Capital Markets.” T

he October 7, 2017 issue was devoted to sustainable investing and the cover story was “The Top Sustainable Funds” for investors.

Editor Beverly Goodman explained: “As a team of seven writers and I began work on Barron’s first special edition devoted entirely to sustainable investing, we realized something – we could not get people to stop talking about it! CEO’s wanted to tout the strides they are making in labor practices and protecting the environment. Fund managers wanted to talk about how adding ESG criteria to stock picking isn’t that much of a stretch from the multitude of decisions they routinely use.”

And so: Barron’s would now cover this burgeoning style of investing on a regular basis. “We are only in Version 1.0 of sustainable investing – 2.0 is where ESG is not a separate category but a natural part of active management.”

The October 2017 issue’s cover story was about sustainable mutual funds based on data provided by Morningstar using Sustainalytics data – 37% of the 203 funds achieved a “high” or “above average rating” and beat the S&P 500® Index returns. (Only 28% of all large-cap mutual funds managed to do that.)

The Editors Began Steady Coverage of Sustainable Investing

Each of the issues that followed there would be some kind of coverage of sustainable investing. Barron’s followed up with another significant issue in February 2018 naming the sharing the magazine’s first ranking of sustainable companies for investor-readers.

Calvert Research and Management helped with the choices (using data from Sustainalytics, ISS and Thomson Reuters ASSET4) for the “Top 100 Sustainable Companies” rankings.

The top five positions were held by Cisco (#1), salesforce.com, Best Buy, Intuit, and HP (at #5). Said Calvert CEO John Streur: “This list gives people insight into companies addressing future risks and into the quality of management.”

Now – The Mainstream Impact of This Week’s Issue

The editors continued to ramp up coverage in each issue since late-2017. And this week’s issue (dated June 25) positioned Sustainable Investing Version 2.0 for its audience. This week’s content included:

The cover story is about “The New Conscience of Wall Street” – focused on BlackRock CEO Larry Fink and his “Investing With Purpose Theme.” (Subtitle: Larry Fink’s Mission: How the BlackRock CEO is leading a sustainable revolution on Wall Street.”)

One of the articles is a debate between George Serafeim (Harvard B School professor and stalwart advocate for sustainable investment) and Adam Sessel (CEO of Gravity Capital Management): “Does Sustainable Investing Lead to Lower Returns?”

The traditional Barron’s approach to a panel of expert to explore an investing topic is this week’s “ESG Roundtable: Great For the World, Good For Investors” – featuring Erika Karp of Cornerstone Capital; Todd Ahisten, Parnassus Investments; Jon Hale, Morningstar; and Roelfien Kuijpers of DWS Group (the asset management spin off of Deutsche Bank).

There is a “Getting Started in Sustainable Investing” guide for readers, including a Glossary and suggestions for mutual funds “with a purpose”.

The feature about Larry Fink is entitled, “In Defense of Social Purpose” – and his argument for sustainable investing that editors say has “ignited a burning debate about his concept…and him.”

Fink’s words in his CEO letter, says writer Leslie Norton, “…amounted to a Rorschach test for a polarized nation. As the debate rages on over immigration, climate change, guns, income inequality, and other issues, even considering their economic impact on a company looks like a political statement. Yet Corporate America and Wall Street are increasingly doing that…”

To hear CEO Fink tell it, writes Norton, “…short termism is a scourge of corporate thinking and is encouraged by the financial media…” And…ignoring ESG can take a toll…

With this feature there is a neat “Road to Sustainability” chart showing the evolution of SRI from the 1960s to today with many societal issues described along the way to 2018.

Other features include “The Trump Bump: A Silver Lining for ESG Investors” – telling readers that in the month after the November 2016 election results were in, investors’ money flowed into ESG mutual funds and ETFs; the flow into the 275 mutual funds and ETF’s focused on ESG was 10-fold over the prior month!

And, the backlash continues; since November 2016, inflows to ESG-focused mutual funds and ETFs is averaging $700 million per month, which is three times the pace of the prior 12 months. This lifted ESG focused funds to $118 billion to date. 

Looking at fiduciaries, the editors say that $23 trillion is not invested in pension, separately managed accounts and other funds using ESG approaches.

Barron’s editors have selected “The 20 Most Influential People in Sustainable Investing” – the Who’s Who in ESG – you will want to see that list.We are cheered to see our US SIF colleagues Lisa Woll, Tim Smith, Amy Domini, Matt Pasky, and John Streuer in the Top 20!

There is also an interview in the special issue with Jeremy Grantham and how the respected value investor (he’s on the list) is a force in increasing awareness of climate change.

Finally, the Barron’s conference unit scheduled its first “Impact Investing Summit” in San Francisco (last week) and Crystal Kim reports on that event, with focus on the Millennials and their generation’s increasing impact on investing trends.

We at G&A Institute think this is a tipping point moment for investors, as the Barron’s editors position sustainable investing as now a mainstream

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Footnotes:  We prepared a brief about Barron’s coverage in October 2018 on our “G&A Institute’s To the Point!” web platform, and a follow up brief in February 2018.  You can find the in-depth briefs at:

https://ga-institute.com/to-the-point/the-authoritative-barrons-magazine-now-sets-the-pace-sustainable-investing-is-a-powerful-force-in-todays-capital-markets-so-say-the-editors/

https://ga-institute.com/to-the-point/proof-of-concept-for-sustainable-investing-barrons-weighs-in-with-inaugural-list-of-top-100-sustainable-companies/

There is information about Morningstar’s focus on sustainable investing mutual funds and ETFs at:  https://www.morningstar.com/articles/745467/morningstar-sustainability-rating.htm

Be sure to check out the special issue of Barron’s at:https://www.barrons.com/this_week