3rd in Series: The Electric Utilities & Power Generators Industry – GRI & SASB Standards In Focus – Perspectives on Alignments & Differences

By Jess Peete – G&A Institute Sustainability Report Analyst Intern

It is often the case that many us may not give our monthly energy utility company a second thought — unless there is an issue with the power going out or the bill is too high.

However, for those of us working in the sustainability field, the Energy Utilities Industry is one of the most important industries to consider, regardless of where we live or do business.

This industry’s companies power our homes, power our businesses, and in so many ways power our modern lives.

Traditionally, the energy utilities & power generators industry relied on oil and coal to generate supply for the power grid. This historic reliance on fossil fuels has more recently become a major issue in focus for investors, and society, as the effects of climate change continue to grow and the impact of burning fossil fuels for energy become more apparent.

Because of these effects on the environment and atmosphere, the Energy Utilities and Power Generators sector is today considered “high impact”.

Key sustainability reporting frameworks – including the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) and the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) — have sector-specific reporting standards (GRI has supplemental guidance that goes beyond their regular reporting requirements in order to more accurately measure the societal impact of the industry.)

Similarities and Differences in Standards

I’ve found that there is a great deal of similarity in the GRI Sector Supplements and SASB Industry standards for the Energy Utilities and Power Generation industry — but there are distinct differences as well.

The sector supplements only exist for GRI-G4, however, it is still advised for reporting organizations to now use the GRI Standards and incorporate the sector-specific disclosures from the GRI-G4 energy sector supplement to establish a more thorough industry-specific review of the total impact of the energy utilities sector.

The SASB Standards

SASB defines the materiality for the Energy Utilities sector reporting to include the following topics:

ENVIRONMENT

  • Greenhouse Gas Emissions & Energy Resource Planning
  • Air Quality
  • Water Management
  • Coal Ash Management

SOCIAL CAPITAL

  • Community Impacts of Project Siting

HUMAN CAPITAL

  • Workforce Health & Safety

BUSINESS MODEL AND INNOVATION

  • End-Use Efficiency & Demand

LEADERSHIP AND GOVERNANCE

  • Nuclear Safety & Emergency Management
  • Grid Resiliency
  • Management of the Legal & Regulatory Environment

Overall, the SASB standards appear to me to be quite comprehensive for a company to follow for their reporting — and would require reporting for many aspects of the electric power grid, including overall energy supply chain impacts.

For instance, SASB requires a calculation of Greenhouse Gases (GHG) emitted related to operations — but also requires a qualitative reporting of management-level planning to reduce the GHG emissions (emitted both from the company and its customers).

SASB addresses this in terms of recommending corporate reporting on negative environmental impacts — such things as coal ash and potential hazards such as posed by nuclear plants.

The GRI Standards

There appears to be little to no mention of coal ash storage in the GRI Standards — unless a company chooses to include coal ash as effluence.

This type of reporting could also be included in a company’s disclosure of their management approach (DMA) in the GRI Standards Report.

One area where the GRI standards seems to have a stronger “urging” for corporate reporting is the Sector impact on water, which is incredibly important because the energy utilities sector is one of the biggest users of water (usually required for cooling).

GRI Standards, in this case, appear to take a more holistic approach to water consumption (measuring total stress) while SASB only requires reporting the water impact from high stress areas.

Conclusion:

Because of the high impact that energy production and distribution have on climate, local communities, and the economy, companies in the Sector using both the GRI Standards and GRI G4 Energy Supplement alongside the SASB Energy Utilities Sector Supplement will be able to create a sustainability report that measures the true impact and costs of operations.

Measuring and managing these material E&S issues can help to provide both companies and investors in the sector a better understanding of their businesses, and a clear pathway to keeping consumer costs low while shifting to an energy portfolio that is one more based on sustainable energy.

Note:  This commentary is part of a series sharing the perspectives of G&A Institute’s Analyst-Interns as they examine literally thousands of corporate sustainability / responsibility reports.  Click the links below to read the first post in the series which includes explanations and the series introduction as well as the other posts in the series:

1st in Series: The Software / IT Services Industry – GRI & SASB Standards In Focus – Perspectives on Alignments & Differences

2nd in Series: The Agriculture Products Industry — GRI & SASB Standards In Focus – Perspectives on Alignments & Differences

4th in Series: The Food Industry – GRI & SASB Standards In Focus – Perspectives on Alignments & Differences

California – America’s Sovereign State of Sustainability Superlatives!

While the Federal Government Leaders Poo-Pooh Climate Change, the Sovereign State of California Continues to Set the Pace for America and the World!

Focus on The State of California – the America’s Sovereign State of Superlatives Including in the Realm of Societal Sustainability…

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

We are focusing today on the “Golden State” – California – America’s sovereign state of sustainability superlatives!

The U.S.A.’s most populous state is forceful and rigorous in addressing the numerous challenges of climate change, ESG issues, sustainable investing and other more aspects of life in this 21st Century.

Think about this: California is by itself now the fifth largest economy in the world. The total state GDP (the value of goods & services produced within the borders) is approaching US$ 3 trillion. The total U.S.A. GDP is of course the largest in the world (it includes California GDP) and then comes China, Japan, Germany… and the state of California!

The California population is about 40 million people – that means that roughly one-in-eight people in the U.S.A. live in the Golden State.

Stretching for 800+ miles along the coastline of the Pacific Ocean, California is third largest in size behind Alaska (#1)  and Texas and takes the honor of setting the example for the rest of the U.S.A. in societal focus on sustainability.

Most investors and public company boards and managements know that the large California pension fund fiduciaries (institutional investors) often set the pace for U.S. fiduciary responsibility and stewardship in their policies and activities designed to address the challenges of climate change, of global warming effects.

The state’s two large public employee pension funds —  CalPERS (the California Public Employees’ Retirement System) and CalSTRS (the California State Teachers’ Retirement System) have been advocates for corporate governance reforms for public companies whose shares are in their portfolios.

CalPERS manages more than US$350 billion in AUM; CalSTRS, $220 billion.

A new law in California this year requires the two funds to identify climate risk in their portfolios and to disclose the risks to the public and legislature (at least every three years)

CalSTRS and CalPRS will have to report on their “carbon footprints” and progress made toward achieving the 2-Degrees Centigrade goals of the Paris Accord.

Looking ahead to the future investment environment — in the  emerging “low carbon economy” — CalPERS is pointing more of its investments toward renewable energy infrastructure projects (through a direct investment program). The fund has invested in two solar generation facilities and acquired a majority interest in a firm that owns two wind farms.

Walking the Talk with proxy voting: long an advocate for “good governance,” CalPERS voted against 438 board of director nominees at 141 companies this year in proxy voting. CalPERS said this was based on the [companies’] failures to respond to it effort to engage with corporate boards and managements to increase board room diversity.

CalPERS’ votes including “no” cast on the candidacy of numerous board chairs, long-term directors and nominating & governance committee chairs. This campaign was intended to “create heat” in the board room to increase diversity. CalPERS had solicited engagements with 504 companies — and more than 150 responded and added at least one “diverse” director.  CalSTRS joins its sister fund in these campaigns.

During the year 2018 proxy voting season, to date, CalPERS has voted against executive compensation proposals and lack of diversity in board room 43% of the time for the more than 2,000 public companies in the portfolio.

Other fiduciaries in the state follow the lead of the big funds.

The San Francisco City/County Employee Retirement Fund

The San Francisco Employees’ Retirement System (SFERS) with US$24 billion in AUM recently hired a Director of ESG Investment as part of a six-point strategy to address climate risk.  Andrew Collins comes from State Street Global Advisors (SSgA) and the Sustainable Accounting Standards Board (SASB – based in SFO) where he helped to develop the ESG accounting standards for corporations in 80 industries.

The approach Collins has recommended to the SFERS Investment Committee:

  • Engagement through proxy voting and support for the Investor Network on Climate Risk (INCR) proxy resolutions.
  • Partnerships with Climate Action 100+, Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI), Ceres, Council of Institutional Investors, and other institutional investor carbon-reducing initiatives.
  • Active ESG consideration for current and future portfolio holdings.
  • Use of up-to-date ESG analytics to measure the aggregate carbon footprint of SFERS assets; active monitoring of ESG risks and opportunities; continued tracking of prudent divestment of risky fossil fuel assets.

The staff recommendations for the six point approach (which was adopted) included:

  • Adopt a carbon-constrained strategy for $1 billion of passive public market portfolio holdings to reduce carbon emissions by 50% vs. the S&P 500 Index.
  • Hire a director of SRI to coordinate activities – that’s been done now.

As first step in “de-carbonization” the SFERS board approved divestment of ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell and Chevron (September 2018) and will look at other companies in the “Underground 200 Index”.  The pension fund held $523 million in equities in the CU200 companies and a smaller amount of fixed-income securities ($36MM).

Important background is here:  https://mysfers.org/wp-content/uploads/012418-special-board-meeting-Attachment-E-CIO-Report.pdf

There are 70,000 San Francisco City and County beneficiaries covered by SFERS.

At the May 2017 SFERS board meeting, a motion was made to divest all fossil fuel holdings.  An alternative was to adopt a strategy of positive investment actions to reduce climate risk. The board approved divestment of all coal companies back in 2015.

California Ignores the National Leadership on Climate Change

In 2015, the nations of the world gathered in Paris for the 21st meeting of the “Conference of Parties,” to address climate change challenges. The Obama Administration signed on to the Paris Accord (or Agreement); Donald Trump upon taking office in January 2017 made one of his first moves the start of withdrawal from the agreement (about a three year process).

American states and cities decided otherwise, pledging to continue to meet the terms previously agreed to by the national government and almost 200 other nations – this is the “We are still in movement.”

The State of California makes sure that it is in the vanguard of the movement.

This Year in California

The “Global Climate Action Summit” was held in San Francisco in September; outgoing Governor Jerry Brown presided. The meeting attracted leaders from around the world with the theme, “Take Ambition to the Next Level,” designed to encourage collaboration among states, regions, cities, companies, investors, civic leaders, NGOs, and citizens to take action on climate change issues.

Summit accomplishments:  there were commitments and actions by participants to address: (1) Healthy Energy Systems; (2) Inclusive Economic Growth; (3) Sustainable Communities; (4) Land and Ocean Stewardship; and (5) Transformative Climate Investments.  Close to 400 companies, cities, states and others set “100 percent” renewable energy targets as part of the proceedings.

New “Sustainability” Laws

The California State Legislature passed the “100 Percent Clean Energy Act of 2018” to accelerate the state’s “Renewable Portfolio Standard” to 60% by year 2030 — and for California to be fossil free by year 2045 (with “clean, zero carbon sourcing” assured). Supporters included Adobe and Salesforce, both headquartered in the Golden State; this is now state law.

Governor Jerry Brown issued an Executive Order directing California to achieve “carbon neutrality” by the year 2045 — and to be “net zero emissions” after that.

Building “De-Carbonization”

The state legislature this year passed a “Investor Network on Climate Risk (INCR) ” measure that is now law, directing the California Energy Commission to create incentives for the private sector to create new or improved building and water heating technologies that would help reduce Greenhouse Gas emissions.

Water Use Guidelines

Water efficiency laws were adopted requiring the powerful State Water Resources Control Board to develop water use guidelines to discourage waste and require utilities to be more water-efficient.

About Renewables and Sustainable Power Sources

Walking the Talk: Renewables provided 30% of California power in 2017; natural gas provided 34% of the state’s electricity; hydropower was at 15% of supply; 9% of power is from nuclear. The state’s goal is to have power from renewables double by 2030.

California utilities use lithium-ion batteries to supplement the grid system of the state. PG&E is building a 300-megawatt battery facility as its gas-generating plants go off-line.

Insurance, Insurers and Climate Change Challenges

There are now two states — California and Washington — that participate in the global Sustainable Insurance Forum (SIF); the organization released a report that outlines climate change risks faced by the insurance sector and aims to raise awareness for insurers and regulators of the challenges presented by climate change. And how insurers could respond.

The Insurance Commissioner of California oversees the largest insurance market in the U.S.A. and sixth largest in the world — with almost $300 billion in annual premiums.  Commissioner Dave Jones endorsed the 2017 recommendations of the Financial Stability Board’s Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (the “TCFD”) and would like to see the now-voluntary disclosures be made mandatory by the G-20 nations. (The G-20 created the Financial Stability Board after the 2018 financial crisis to address risk in the financial sector).

In 2016 the Insurance Commissioner created the requirement that California-licensed insurance companies report publicly on the amount of thermal coal enterprise holdings in portfolio — and asked that the companies voluntarily divest from these enterprises.  Also asked: that insurers of investments in fossil fuel companies (such as thermal coal, oil, gas, utilities) survey or “data call” on these companies for greater public financial disclosure.

What About a Carbon Tax for California?

The carbon tax – already in place. California has a “cap and trade” carbon tax adopted in 2013; revenues raised go into a special fund that finances parks and helps to make homes more energy efficient. The per ton tax rate in 2018 was $15.00.  The program sets maximum statewide GhG emissions for covered entities in power and industrial sectors and enables them to sell allowances (the “trade” part of cap & trade). By 2020, the Cap and Trade Program is expected to drive more than 20% of targeted GhG emissions still needed to be reduced.

As we said up top, the “Golden State” – California – is America’s sovereign state of sustainability superlatives!

There is more information for you at G&A Institute’s “To the Point!” management briefing platform:

Brief:  California Leads the Way (Again) – State’s Giant Pension Funds Must Now Consider Portfolio Climate Risks & Report on Results – It’s the Law

 

 

A Big Year, 2018 – Tipping Points For Developments in Corporate Sustainability & Sustainable Investing…

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

Volume & Velocity!
Those may be well the key characteristics of developments in corporate sustainability and in sustainable in the year 2018.

Linda-Eling Lee, Global Head of Research for MSCI’s ESG Research Group and her colleague Matt Moscardi (Head of Research Financial Sector, ESG) this week described what they are projecting in the traditional early-in-the-year setting out of key ESG trends to watch by the influential MSCI ESG team:

Bigger, faster, more – that’s how Linda describes the “onslaught of challenges happening soon and more dramatically that many could have imagined” in the corporate sector” (including public policy, technology, and climate change as key factors).

Investors (in turn) are looking for ways to better position their portfolios to navigate the uncertainty of the 2018 operating environment in the corporate sector.

As the “heads up” for investors and companies– the five key 2018 trends projected by MSCI’s ESG researchers/analysts:

  • Investors will be using ESG “signals” to navigate the size/shape of the Emerging Markets investment universe to pick the winners for portfolios.
  • The first steps are coming in “scenario testing” for climate change (this is systematically looking at risks emanating from company carbon footprints across asset classes, with short- and long-term transition scenarios).
  • The fixed-income universe will see acceleration (velocity) with the alignment of ESG frameworks by investors across all asset classes.
  • And this is very important for the corporate sector:

Investors are looking beyond the growing volume of corporate disclosure and reporting for data.
Keep In Mind: 65% of a company’s rating by MSCI is based on data sources beyond the corporate reporting!

 

  • MSCI sees 2018 as the Year of the Human – it’s about human talent, talent, talent!  That is, what companies do to help in the transitioning to new working environments (with the changes brought about by automation, artificial intelligence, robotics) that will be factored into the analysis of public companies by the MSCI ESG team, and measured over time (for outcomes over a 3-year horizon).

Linda Eling-Lee observed:  These are the major trends that we think will shape how investors approach the risks and opportunities in 2018.

Already, at the Davos meetings this week, major global firms in IT are creating an initiative to “tech-reskill” one million people to meet the global skills gap challenge inherent in the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” (firms are Cisco, Accenture, CA Technologies, HP, Infosys, Salesforce, SAP, Tata Consultancy, others).

What we think company managements / boards should expect in the “volume and velocity” context:  many more investors (the volume / especially large fiduciaries) are embracing comprehensive ESG factors in their analysis and portfolio management approaches with a faster uptake of this trend among the mainstream elements of the capital markets players (the velocity).

Voluntary reporting by companies has its limits in providing a full picture of the companies’ ESG risks,” the MSCI ESG researchers note. “In 2018 we anticipate that the disclosure movement reaches a tipping point, as investors seek broader data sources that balance the corporate narrative and yield better signals for understanding the ESG risk landscape actually faced by portfolio companies”

# # #

Buzzing:  The Larry Fink CEO-to-CEO Message for 2018

Speaking of significant influence, the head of the world’s largest asset management firm sent an important CEO-to-CEO letter to stress the importance of companies having “a social purpose”

Background:  BlackRock engages with about 1,500 companies a year on a range of ESG issues, meeting with boards of directors and CEOs, and other shareholders when that is needed.

Each year, CEO Fink reaches out to the CEOs of companies in portfolio to alert them to the key issues in focus for BlackRock (as fiduciary).

For 2017-2018, the key Investment Stewardship priorities are:

  • Corporate Governance / Accountability
  • Corporate Strategy
  • Executive Compensation Policies
  • Human Capital (again — there’s the focus on talent management)
  • Climate Risk Disclosure

Larry Fink is the Founder, Chair, and CEO of BlackRock and heads the firm’s “Global Executive Committee.” BlackRock is about to celebrate its 30th anniversary in 2018.  It now manages more than US$6 trillion (Assets Under Management-AUM).

Of this, $1.7 trillion is in active funds managed by the company.  As one of the world’s most important and influential (and trend-setting) fiduciaries BlackRock engages with company management to drive the sustainable, long-term growth clients need to meet their goals.

“Indeed,” CEO Fink said in his letter to CEOs, ”the public expectations of your company has never been higher.”

“Society is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose…to prosper over time, every company must show it makes a positive contribution to society.”

“Without a sense of purpose, no company…can achieve its full potential…it will ultimately lose the license to operate from key stakeholders…”

# # #

The Key Word on Responsible Investing Growth is Global, RBC Reported

In October 2017, RBC Global Asset Management (RBC GAM) conducted its second annual global survey of asset managers.  Two-out-of-three respondents said they used ESG considerations, and 25% will increase their allocations to managers with ESG investment strategies to offer in 2018.

Does ESG mitigate risk…or drive alpha?  Answers were mixed.  Some asset managers are increasing their allocation and others are skeptical, especially about the accuracy and value of the available data on corporate ESG performance.

For 2018:  RBC sees responsible investing as a global trend, with many managers incorporating ESG in analysis and portfolio management due to client (asset owner) demand.

# # #

Tracking Company Behaviors – The RepRisk ESG Risk Platform

One of the leading producers of research and business intelligence for the banking and investment communities is RepRisk, based in Zurich, Switzerland. The firm started in 2006 to serve bank clients wanting to be alerted to real or possible risk issues in the corporate sector.

RepRisk developed artificial intelligence and data mining tools, that along with human analysis, “reduces blind spots and sheds light on risks that can have reputational, compliance and financial impacts on a company…”

Today, there are 100,000-plus companies in the RepRisk database (both listed and non-listed, from all countries and sectors). The firm started out monitoring 100 companies for clients.  The daily screening is delivered in 16 languages and about 50 companies a day are added for screening.  Is your company one of those tracked?  What are the risks tracked?

# # #

Does Adoption of ESG Approaches Sacrifice Corporate Performance?

Robeco, one of the world’s leading financial services firms (based on The Netherlands), and a sister company of RobecoSAM, managers of the Dow Jones Sustainability Indexes, looked at the question of whether or not the adoption of ESG / sustainability approaches “cost” the company performance.

Adopting sustainability approaches does require investment, but companies with poor ESG performance also have greater risks and “seriously under-perform” their peers.  And investors “win” by investing in the better performers (that reduce risk, strategize around climate change, reduce bad behaviors).

Says Robeco:  “…a growing body of evidence concludes that companies which are progressively more sustainable today will reap the rewards of the future…and it may save their businesses…”

The Company’s positioning:  “Robeco is an international asset manager offering an extensive range of active investments, from equities to bonds. Research lies at the heart of everything we do, with a ‘pioneering but cautious’ approach that has been in our DNA since our foundation in Rotterdam in 1929. We believe strongly in sustainability investing, quantitative techniques and constant innovation.”

# # #

CalPERS, America’s Leading Public Employee System – Corporate Engagement on Diversity Issues

“CalPERS: is the California Public Employee’s Retirement System, the largest state investment fund in the United States with about $350 billion in total fund market AUM.

CalPERS sent letters to 504 companies in the Russell 3000 Index to engage on the issue of diversity on the companies’ boards of directors.

CalPERS request:  the company should develop and then disclose their corporate board diversity policy, and the details of the plan’s implementation (to address what CalPERS sees as lack of diversity in the companies).

“Simply put, board diversity is good for business,” said Anne Simpson, CalPERS’ investment director for sustainability.

Starting in Fall 2017 and into 2018, CalPERS is monitoring companies’ progress on the matter and making it a topic for engagement discussions.  If a company lags in progress, CalPERS will consider withholding votes from director-candidates at annual voting time (at annual meetings).

# # #

The Climate Action 100+ Investor Initiative

 Sign of the times: More than 200 investors supporting action on climate change by the corporate sector are focusing on the board room of such companies as ExxonMobil, Boeing, GE, P&G, Ford, Volvo, PepsiCo, BP, Shell, Nestle, Airbus, and  other  enterprises (the “100” plus companies in focus) to dialogue on their GhG emissions as contributions to global warming.

The 100 corporates are said to account for 85% of the total GhG emissions worldwide – they need to step up, says the Coalition, and develop strategies and take action (and disclose!) to address the issue.  The investors manage more than $26 trillion in AUM, and are coordinating their efforts through five partnerships…

# # #

McKinsey Weighs In – ESG No Longer “Niche” – Assets Are Soaring

The McKinsey & Co. experts studied ESG investing and reported to corporate clients that of the $88 trillion in AUM in the world’s capital markets (in late-October), more than $1-in-$4 (25%-plus) are invested according to ESG principles.  That’s a growth of 17% a year, and ESG has become “a large and fast-growing market segment.”

# # #

Investors Are Not Forgetting – Rana Plaza Still in Focus

One of the characteristics of the sustainable investing market players is having-the-memory-of-the-elephant.  Do you remember the Rana Plaza apparel factory tragedy of five years ago?  Most media reporters and commentators have moved on to other crisis events.

Investors are signing on to a statement – “Investors Call on Global Brands to Re-commit to the Bangladesh Accord for Fire and Building Safety” – with focus on the upcoming fifth anniversary of the statement signed (in May 2013) after the accident that killed more than 1,000 workers in Bangladesh.

Reforms were promised in the Accord by industry participants and trade unions.

# # #

Another Example of Investor Action – McDonald’s

“In a win for the health of the world’s oceans,” began the As You Sow shareholder advocacy group announcement, “McDonald’s Corp. agreed to end the use of polystyrene foam packaging – worldwide! – – by the end of 2018.

The advocacy group had campaigned to have the fast food retailer stop using foam cups and takeout containers.

A shareholder proposal filed by As You Sow in May 2017 requested the company stop using polystyrene and 32% of shares voted (worth $26 billion at the time) voted to support.

# # #

Finally – What a Low-Carbon Economy Looks Like – California Dreamin’

The State of California is the world’s sixth largest economy all by itself!

While President Donald Trump upon taking office fulfilled one of his signature campaign promises – beginning the process of withdrawal from the historic COP 21 Paris Accord on climate change – California Governor Edmund (Jerry) G. Brown, Jr is moving ahead with his state’s plans to move to a low-carbon economy.

The Global Climate Change Action Summit is scheduled for September 2018 in San Francisco, California.

The theme, as described by the governor:  “Sub-national governments” (cities & states), business sector leaders, investors and civil society leaders will gather to “demonstrate the groundswell of innovative, ambitious climate action from leaders around the world, highlight economic and environmental transition already underway and spur deeper commitment from all parties, including national governments.”

Says the governor: “California remains committed to a clean energy future and we welcome the responsibility to lead on America’s behalf…”

# # #

Coming:  ISS QualityScores for “E” and “S” for 1,500 Companies

As we communicated in early January, Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS) has expanded its long-term focus on corporate governance to encompass “E” and “S” issues for its QualityScore product for fiduciaries (its client base).  In late-January it is expected that ISS will issue the first wave of scores for 1,500 companies in six industries, expanding to 5,000 companies in additional industries by mid-year 2018.

The first 1,500 companies to be scored are in Autos & Components; Capital Goods; Consumer Durables & Apparel; Energy; Materials; and, Transportation.

The QualityScore is a Disclosure and Transparency Signal that investor-clients are seeking, says ISS, and an important resource for investors to conduct comparisons with corporate peers.

Keep in mind:  ISS serves its 1,700 clients with coverage in 117 global markets.

# # #

There’s much more information on this and other critical 2018 tipping points for corporate managers and investment professionals in the comprehensive management brief from the G&A Institute team posted on our G&A Institute’s “To the Point!” platform for you.

We’re presenting here more details on the MSCI trends forecast, the BlackRock CEO-to-CEO letter about Social Purpose for the Corporation, California’s move toward a low-carbon economy,  RepRisk’s focus areas for corporate behavior…and a host of additional important developments at the start of the year 2018 that will shape the operating environment throughout the year – and beyond! Read the brief here!

University Endowments – Fidicuiary Duties – Whose Money is it — What Are “Societal” Responsibilities?

by Hank Boerner – Chairman, G&A Institute

Many of our nation’s colleges and universities — which are “Social Institutions” — have long had established endowments. Some are truly wealthy — these are pools of assets designed to serve future generations.  Other types of  various types of social institutions” are similarly wealthy. Endowment assets are managed in-house or by outside professional money managers.   Over the years, the college and university endowments have been in focus for sustainable & responsible investors (SRI advocates) — as they are right now.

For example, Harvard University has an endowment fund reported to have  US$36 billion in Assets Under Management (AUM) — the largest of these “funds-for-the-future” of the higher education community in the USA.

The students and other stakeholders would like to see “more responsible” investing by the Harvard endowment, such taking the decision to divestment shares of traditional fossil fuel companies in the portfolio. (think: “ExxonMobil“). Among the arguments, gaining ground. including beyond the university endowments discussion, is that these public companies have “reserves” (such as coal, oil, natural gas) that are important parts of their capital markets valuation, and with climate change and the development of renewable fuel sources and other factors, the reserves on the balance sheet will over time become “stranded assets” – thus, devaluating the business enterprise. That is, the coal or crude oil in the gorund will not be harvested and sold…they will be stranded and of little or no value.  And therefore, as fiduciaries, responsible for the fund in the future, a collision course is set up:  the fund needs in 2050 will be diminished as the value of the corporate holdings moves downward.

And so, students of the Harvard Law School have filed a lawsuit seeking to compel the endowment fiduciaries (the trustees) to divest holdings in fossil fuel enterprises.  Interesting:  their case is based on 17th Century transactions (back when whale oil and wood were the primary energy sources).  In 1640, Harvard College was established as a seminary and documents were filed with the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  Under those documents, the 21st Century students argued that they had standing (to bring the action) under “special interest” provisions.

The endowment leadership responded:  “The endowment is a resource, not and instrument to compel social and political change…” (The New York Times). Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust has spoken on fossil fuel divestment.  In October 2013, a statement to the Harvard community said in part:  “[I] and members of the Corporate Committee on Shareholder Responsibility have benefitted from conversations [with students] who advocated divestment…while I share their belief in the importance of addressing climate change, I do not believe, nor do my colleagues on the Corporation, that university divestment from the fossil fuel industry is warranted or wise…”

The president also said that “…especially given our long-term investment horizon, we are naturally concerned about ESG factors that may affect the performance of our investments now and in the future…”  Harvard policy is engagement and collaboration, rather than “ostracizing” companies based on their product (such as fossil fuels). The Harvard Management Company brought on a VP for sustainable investing. (You should  read the full statement here: http://www.harvard.edu/president/fossil-fuels to understand the university’s official position on these issues).

Alice M. Chaney, who with six other Harvard students filed the lawsuit to compel Harvard Corporation (the governing body of the university) to divest fossil fuel companies, said the following: “We allege that Harvard’s investment in those companies violate its duties as a public charitable institution by harming students and future generations.” (Cheney is a law school student and member of the Harvard Climate Justice Coalition.)

The students — organized as “Divest Harvard” — have been campaigning on the issue.  The first step was a survey of students in 2012 — 72% at the college and 67% at the law school voted in favor of divestment.  Since then 200 faculty members, 1,000+ alumni, and 63,000 community members have signed divestment petitions, the group says.

The legal arguments:  the Harvard Corporation’s public charitable obligations include managing its endowment so as to protect the ability of Harvard students to learn and thrive. The Corporation also has a responsibility not to act in ways that threaten the health and welfare of future generations. (You can read her statement at: http://billmoyers.com/2014/11/22/suing-harvard/)

The pressure on universities to divest holdings in companies based on ESG issues is a long-time tradition.  American university interests were deciding factors, I believe, in the American and global campaigns to abolish Apartheid practices in South Africa in the 1980s and the aid to combatants in the civil war in Darfur more recently.  (The drive was to get investors out of the stock of US companies “supporting” the Sudan government which was making war on its own populations.)

Beth Dorsey, CEO of Wallace Global Fund and leader of the Divest-Invest Movement, commented on the Harvard University leadership’s opposition to divestment:  “In the last great divestment campaign, Harvard said ‘no’ before it said ‘yes’ and I think if just a matter of time.  Unlike the anti-apartheid movement, this is not just an ethical issue.  There is a powerful financial reason as well…”

As the lawsuit in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts / Suffolk County courts winds on, and the Divest Harvard protests continue, half a world away, the world’s largest Sovereign Wealth Fund – the US$800+ billion AUM Norway Government Pension Fund — just announced it will divest holdings in coal mining companies.  the list of companies will be made public on December 1.  The SWF will not divest oil and gas companies.  (Consider: the wealth of the wealth fund is primarily based on taxes on the country’s North Sea fossil fuels.)

While you think about that last tidbit, consider that the descendants of John D. Rockefeller — the 19th Century Titan of Industry who assembled the giant Standard Oil Company — have decided to divest their fossil fuel investments (in September 2013)! Great and great-great grandchildren Peter O’Neil, Neva Rockefeller Goodwin and Stephen B. Heintz are in the lead for the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, which has $860 million AUM.

Said Stephen Heintz:  “John D. Rockefeller, founder of Standard Oil, moved American out of whale oil and into petroleum.  We are quite convinced that if he were alive today, as an astute business man looking out to the future, he would be moving out of fossil fuels and investing in clean, renewable energy…”   (More about this in The Guardian coverage of the announcement at: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/sep/22/rockefeller-heirs-divest-fossil-fuels-climate-change)

The Rockefeller family announcement was an important part of a “momentum moment” for fossil fuel divestment proponents.  The influential World Council of Churches joined the divestment movement. American cities are adopting similar policies (as many did in the anti-Apartheid movement).  Advocates are working under the umbrella of the Divest-Invest Movement.  To date some 800 institutional investors have pledged to withdraw more than $50 billion in fossil fuel investment over the coming 5 years.

ExxonMobil’s position?  In October The Wall Street Journal headline read:  “Exxon Blasts Movement to Divest From Fossil Fuels…the oil giant seeks to counter the campaign…”  The article by Ben Geman said that the company published a “lengthy attack about the divestment movement, positioning the argument that [the movement] is at odds with the need for poor nations to gain better access to energy, as well as the need for fossil fuels to meet global energy demand for decades to come…” The author is Ken Cohen, VP for Public and Government Affairs (writing in the company’s blog.)

“Almost every place on the planet where there is grinding poverty,” he wrote, “there is energy poverty.  Wherever there is subsistence living, it is usually because there is little or no access to modern, reliable forms of energy.”

And so, the battle lines are formed — advocates vs. university, asset owners (and managers) vs big fossil fuel companies, institutions and fiduciaries (in Exxon’s view) vs. the people of poor nations.

The positions (and actions) of two important institutional investors could create a tipping point:  Harvard University (with considerable wealth, influence, prestige, powerful alumni, world-class faculty, a powerful publishing arm and on and on) and the Norwegian Sovereign Fund, which invests in literally thousands of public companies…and soon will have $1 trillion in AUM to leverage in pursuit of its social / societal issues policies and investment actions.

Stay Tuned to the Fossil Fuel Divestment Movement…and the push back by giants of the fossil fuel industry and their allies in the US Congress and other power centers.

 

 

 

 

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