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… 

We’re a Long Way from NYC’s Stonewall Inn, But Still a Ways to Go for Corporate LGBT Policies, Says Investor Coalition

by Hank Boerner – Chairman, G&A Institute

We’ve come a long way since the gay & lesbian communities mobilized and began in earnest their civil rights campaigns of the 1970s and 1980s and into the1990s. It was the New York City Police Department’s wrongheaded “raid” on the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village neighborhood in June 1969 that provided the important spark for the long-term, winning campaign by LGBT community for equal rights and equal protection under the laws of the land. “Stonewall” became a rallying cry for the next installment of the continuing “journey” of the civil rights movement in the United States.

The 1960s/1970s were the era of civil rights protests — we were involved in or witnessed and were affected by the civil rights / voting rights movement; the counter-culture “revolution” (remember the hippies?); the drive for adoption of the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution); and the anti-war movement protests against the conflict in Vietnam.  These were catalysts as well for the LGBT equal rights warriors of the decades that followed the 1969 Stonewall protests.

Finally, in recent years, after years of campaigning by LGBT advocates, most states have been adopting protective measures to protect the LGBT community.  Same gender marriage is a reality in many U.S. jurisdictions.

On November 7, 2014 The New York Times carried an update — it was a “milestone year” for LGBT rights advocates, the publication explained.  Voters in the 3Ms — Maine, Maryland and Minnesota – favored same-sex marriage; the first openly-gay US Senator (Tammy Baldwin) was elected by Wisconsin voters.

Still, there was vocal and often fierce opposition to same-sex marriage and equal protection under the law for LGBT citizens.

About LGBT Policies and the US Corporate Community

Many large companies (estimate:70 companies in the S&P 500 Index to date) have adopted non-discrimination policies to protect LGBT employees in the United States, says the 2014 Corporate Equality Index (a national benchmarking tool of the Human Rights Campaign).

We see these policies and programs for inclusion described in the many sustainability and responsibility reports we examine as exclusive data partner for the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) for the United States of America.

Still, legal protections for LGBT citizens are not sufficient in numerous US jurisdictions. “Homophobic” policies and attitudes still reign in too many US cities and states and local communities.

And policies, attitudes, practices in other countries?  Well, that’s really a problem, say sustainable & responsible investment advocates — and steps are being taken to address the situation.

The S&R investment advocacy campaign is focused on the LGBT employees of US firms working overseas.  In countries like Russia, one of the world’s largest industrial economies, which has harsh anti-LGBT policies. The US investor group points out that 79 countries consider same sex relationships illegal; 66 countries provide “some” protection at least in the workplace; and in some countries, homosexuality is punishable by death.

In a business environment that continues to globalize in every aspect, with American large-cap companies operating everywhere, the investor coalition is calling on US companies to extend their LGBT policies on anti-discrimination and equal benefits policies to employees outside the United States. A letter was sent by the coalition to about 70 large-cap companies (the signatories manage US$210 billion in assets.

Shelley Alpern, Director Social Research & Shareholder Advocacy at Clean Yield Asset Management explains: “Today, most leading U.S. corporations now have equitable policies on their books for their [American-based] LGBT employees. Ther’s a dearth of information on how many extend policies outside of the U.S. In starting this dialogue, we hope to identify best practices and start to encourage all companies to adopt them.”

The objective of the shareowner advocacy campaign is to stimulate interest in the issue and create a broad dialogue that leads to greater protection of LGBT employees of US companies operating outside of the United States.

Mari Schwartzer, coordinator of shareholder advocacy at NorthStar Asset Management compliments US firms with effective non-discrimination policies and states:  “While we are pleased that so many companies have adopted non-discrimination policies in the USA which incorporate equal protections for LGBT employees, the next phase of implementation is upon us — we must ensure that international employees are receiving equal benefits and are adequately protected.  Particularly those stationed in regions hostile to LGBT individuals…”

Signatories of the letters sent to companies include these sustainable & responsible investing advocates:  Calvert Investments; Jantz Management; Miller/Howard Investments; Office of the Comptroller of New York City; Pax World Management; Sustainability Group/Loring, Wolcott & Coolidge; Trillium Asset Management; Unitarian Universalist Association; Walden Asset Management; Zevin Asset management.

Companies contacted include:  Aetna, AIG, Allstate, Altria, Amazon, American Express, Apple, AT&T, Bank of America, Baxter, Best Buy, Boeing, Cardinal health, Caterpillar, Chevron, Cisco, Citigroup, Coca Cola, Colgate Palmolive, Costco, CVS Health, Delta, Dow Chemical, DuPoint, EMC, FedEx, Ford Motor, General Electric, General Dynamics, General Motors, Goldman Sachs, Google, HP, Home Depot, Honeywell, Human, IBM Ingram Micro, Intel, J&J, JPMorgan Chase, Lockheed Martin, McDonalds, McKesson, Merck, MetLife, Microsoft, Morgan Stanley, Oracle, PepsiCo, Pfizer, P&G, Prudential, Sears, Sprint, Starbucks, Target, Texas Instruments, United Continental, United HealthGroup, United Technologies, UPS, Verizon, Visa, Walgreen, Walt Disney, Walmart, Wellpoint, Wells Fargo.

Summing up the heart of the issue for investors (and corporate employees):  “Corporations must take the extra step to ensure consistent application of LGBT-inclusive workplace policies throughout their operations, regardless of location,” said Wendy Holding, Partner, the Sustainability Group of Loring, Wolcott & Coolidge.

World’s Largest Sovereign Wealth Fund – an Investor Actively Engaged in ESG Issues Like Fossil Fuel Divestment…Quo Vadis, Norway SWF?

by Hank Boerner – Chairman, G&A Institute

Here at G&A the team monitors a sizeable number of asset owners (like pension funds CalPERS and New York State Common), asset managers (Black Rock, Morgan Stanley State Street), S&R investors (TIAA-CREF, Trillium, Calvert) and other kinds of institutional investors – including the growing universe of Sovereign Wealth Funds (SWFs).

A SWFis generally described as an asset fund that is state owned and managed, and investing outside of the home nation for the benefit of the population of the home state — and especially for future generations.  The oldest SWF is the Kuwait Investment Authority,  founded in 1954, and funded with oil revenues.

The largest SWF in terms of asset base has long been ADIAAbu Dhabi Investment Authority — established more than 30 years ago by the Emirate and now with US$800 billion-plus in Assets Under Management (AUM). .

Today, it’s a given that the #1 tittle is now held by Norway — the Government Pension Fund Global designed for investing outside of the country (there is a companion fund, much smaller, for investing inside the nation).

Let’s take a look at Norway’s SWF — established almost 20 years ago.  The “inflow” of money to invest comes from sale of the country’s North Sea oil and gas reserves; the government levies a tax of 78% on oil and gas production, and has income from other taxes and dividends from Statoil, the government-managed oil company.

The fund is managed by Norges Bank Investment Management, part of the financial ministry. Investments are primarily in stocks and bonds, a bit of real estate.

The New York Times profiled the SWF in June 2014; among the highlights: the SWF will be more aggressive over the next 3 years, taking larger stakes (5% of more) in companies; expanding the real estate portfolio; will be an “anchor investor” in capital raising; will continue to invest in smaller companies and emerging markets; will continue to look at “green investments.”  The fund has traditionally invested in Europe and North America markets.  Largest holdings are in such companies as Nestle, Novartis, HSBC Holdings, Royal Dutch Shell, Vodafone Group.

Norway’s SWF managers are reported to be looking for investments in companies that are involved in renewable energy, energy efficiency, water / waste water management, and related fields — for both equity and bonds (possibly “green bonds” investments).

Here is where things get interesting.  The flow of funds into the SWF to invest since 1996 has come from oil and gas activities.  Earlier this year a panel of experts was assembled to study the SWF’s investments in oil and natural gas and coal — “fossil fuels.”  Environmentalists and political interests want to see less/or no investments in fossil fuels.  Where the fund’s future funds come from!

More recently, The Financial Times profiled the SWF (November 3, 2014) — and the discussion involved not only the huge size of the fund, and its success in investing (helping to fuel the growth of average US$165 million each year) but also the “climate change” issue.  Soon the fund will be the first SWF to reach US$1 trillion in AUM.  Will those assets include fossil fuel companies?

Yngve Slyngstad (CEO of the fund) was interviewed by FT; he indicated the SWF will begin next year how it will vote ahead of corporate shareholder meetings, beginning with about 30 companies. (The fund owns shares in 8,000 companies; that means with an average of 10 proxy items to vote on, some 80,000 decisions are necessary before votes are cast this global fiduciary with considerable clout.)

The Norway SWF did cast votes against big names in the portfolio; managers don’t like the combination of chairman and CEO so prevalent in US companies, so it voted against Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs and Jamie Dimon, JP MorganChase for their combined roles.

CEO Slyngstad explained to FT that the SWF is not necessarily an activist investor and does usually support company boards of companies in portfolio, but the CEO and chair at companies they invest in should be separate people. Auditors should be rotated. And shareowners should be allowed to nominate board candidates.

And then the conversation got to climate change and fossil fuels. Should the Norway fund divest fossil fuel investments? Should it back more green (renewable) technologies? Should the fund be used as a diplomatic policy or environmental policy instrument?

In Norway, the fund is regularly the focus of political discussion.  The assets managed are larger than the country’s Gross Domestic Product.

Some politicians want to make changes in the investment policies. Climate change is central to some politico’s views.  The Times quotes Christine Meisingset, who heads sustainability research at Storebrand, who said: “As a country we are so exposed to fossil fuels, a risky position in the transition to a low-carbon economy. That makes the discussion around the oil fund so important.”

The fund does not invest in tobacco companies or companies involved in weapons manufacturing.  Will it soon divest investments in fossil fuel companies…even as fossil fuels “fuel the growth” of the SWF itself?

Stay Tuned to the discussion in the nation of Norway — the wealth generated for its citizens from deep beneath the earth (oil and gas reserves) and being available to the SWF for investment helped to create one of the world’s most important investment portfolios.  And the SWF as the country’s investment mechanism may be among the largest of the institutional investors heeding the call to divest fossil fuel companies (which compromise a tenth of the portfolio right now).

The climate change – global warming dialogue centered on portfolio management approaches regarding fossil fuel divestment continues to…well, “heat up!”