About “Stakeholder Capitalism”: The Public Debate

Here is the Transition — From the Long-Dominant Worldview of “Stockholder Capitalism” in a Changed World to…Stakeholder Capitalism!

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

October 2020

As readers of of G&A Institute’s weekly Sustainability Highlights newsletter know, the shift from “stockholder” to “stakeholder” capitalism has been underway in earnest for a good while now — and the public dialogue about this “21st Century Sign of Progress” has been quite lively.

What helped to really frame the issue in 2019 were two developments:

  • First, CEO Larry Fink, who heads the world’s largest asset management firm (BlackRock) sent a letter in January 2019 to the CEOs of companies in portfolio to focus on societal purpose (of course, in addition to or alongside of corporate mission, and the reasons for being in business).
  • Then in August, the CEOs of almost 200 of the largest companies in the U.S.A. responded; these were members of influential Business Roundtable (BRT), issuing an update to the organization’s mission statement to embrace the concepts of “purpose” and further cement the foundations of stakeholder capitalism.

These moves helped to accelerate a robust conversation already well underway, then further advanced by the subset discussion of Corporate America’s “walking-the-talk” of purpose et al during the Coronavirus pandemic.

Now we are seeing powerful interests weighing in to further accelerate the move away from stockholder primacy (Professor Milton Friedman’s dominant view for decades) to now a more inclusive stakeholder capitalism.  We bring you a selection of perspectives on the transition.

The annual gathering of elites in Davos, Switzerland this year — labeled the “Sustainable Development Impact Summit” — featured a gaggle of 120 of the world’s largest companies collaborating to develop a core set of common metrics / disclosures on “non-financials” for both investors and stakeholders. (Of course, investors and other providers of capital ARE stakeholders — sometimes still the inhabiting the primacy space on the stakeholder wheel!)

What are the challenges business organizations face in “making business more sustainable”?

That is being further explored months later by the World Economic Forum (WEF-the Davos organizers) — including the demonstration (or not) of excellence in corporate citizenship during the Covid-19 era. The folks at Davos released a “Davos Manifesto” at the January 2020 meetings (well before the worst impacts of the virus pandemic became highly visible around the world).

Now in early autumn 2020 as the effects of the virus, the resulting economic downturn, the rise of civil protests, and other challenges become very clear to C-suite, there is a “Great Reset” underway (says the WEC).

The pandemic represents a rare but narrow window opportunity to “reflect, reimagine, and reset our world to create a healthier, more equitable, and more prosperous future.”

New ESG reporting metrics released in September by the World Economic Forum are designed to help companies report non-financial disclosures as part of the important shift to Stakeholder Capitalism.

There are four pillars to this approach:  People (Human Assets); Planet (the impact on natural environment); Prosperity (employment, wealth generation, community); and Principles of Governance (strategy, measuring risk, accounting and of course, purpose).

The WEF will work with the five global ESG framework and standard-setting organizations as we reported to you recently — CDSB, IIRC, CDP, GRI, SASB plus the IFAC looking at a new standards board (under IFRS).

Keep in mind The Climate Disclosure Standards Board was birthed at Davos back in 2007 to create a new generally-accepted framework for climate risk reporting by companies. The latest CDSB report has 21 core and 34 expanded metrics for sustainability reporting. With the other four collaborating organizations, these “are natural building blocks of a single, coherent, global ESG reporting system.”

The International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC, another of the collaborators) weighed in to welcome the WEF initiative (that is in collaboration with Deloitte, EY, KPMG and PWC) to move toward common ESG metrics. And all of this is moving toward “COP 26” (the global climate talks) which has the stated goal of putting in place reporting frameworks so that every finance decision considers climate change.

“This starts”, says Mark Carney, Governor, Bank of England, and Chair of the Financial Stability Board, “with reporting…this should be integrated reporting”.

Remember, the FSB is the sponsor of the TCFD for climate-related financial disclosure.  FSB is a collaboration of the central banks and treasury ministries of the G-20 nations.

“COP 26 was scheduled for November in Glasgow, Scotland, and was postponed due to the pandemic. We are now looking at plans for a combined 26 and 27 meeting in November 2021.”  Click here for more information.

There is a lot of public dialogue centered on these important moves by influential players shaping and advancing ESG reporting — and we bring you a selection of those shared perspectives in our Top Stories in the Sustainability Highlights newsletter this week.

Top Stories On Davos & More

And then there is this, in the public dialogue on Stakeholder Capitalism, adding a dash of “reality” from The New York Times:

US Banks and Climate Change – What’s the Exposure to Climate Risk?

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

October 27 2020

Banks have long been at the center of the U.S. economy, and federal policies (federal legislation, rules) for the last century have been designed to support, encourage and protect banking institutions, and the customers the banks serve.

The Federal Reserve System – America’s vital central bankers – was one of the last central banks of the industrial nations to be organized (through the 1913 Federal Reserve Act). The Fed plays a critical role in U.S. bank oversight and support.

There is also a robust state-level banking oversight and protection system. Take New York State  — for many years, the state’s bank licensure activities were second only to the Federal governments. Many foreign banks “land” in NY and obtain a state license to begin to operate.

In all this oversight and protection [of the banking system], in all the laws, rules and regulations for the U.S. banking sector, risk is regularly addressed. It is central to bank regulation and the foundation of rules etc.

The questions centered on risk become more critical in this, an era of fast-rising climate change challenges.

What is the broad scope the financial services sectors’ (and the banking industry’s) responsibilities and accountabilities as seas rise, super storms roar ashore, flood waters rise, enormous wildfires occur, and more?

The Ceres organization’s “Ceres Accelerator for Sustainable Capital Markets” looked at the U.S. banking sector’s exposure to climate risk – to ask and try to answer: what are the systemic and financial risks of climate change for stakeholders, for the banking industry, and the broader economy?  That’s our Top Story pick for you this week.

The researchers looked at the risk associated with the syndicated lending of major U.S. banks in climate-relevant sectors of the economy. Key quote: “Our future depends on banks’ understanding of, and disclosure of, their exposure to major risks like climate change” (Steven Rothstein, MD of the accelerator).

The good news is that a growing number of the major U.S. banks have announced moves to look more closely at climate change impacts. Bank of America, for example, joined other big banks in disclosing the “E” effect of its lending practices. The big banks (like Citi Group) have joined forces in the Partnership for Carbon Accounting Financials Initiative.

Some 70 banks and investors from five continents are involved (with US$9 trillion in AUM). Lots going on in banking circles related to climate change challenges these days!

TOP STORIES

The Ceres Accelerator for Sustainable Capital Markets report on banking:

Something we were pleased to be a part of — WSJ Feature Section on “Leadership and Sustainability”. Journalists Dieter Holger and Fabiana Negrin Ocha interviewed the G&A leadership team in the “Show Us The Numbers” feature:

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