Questions We Are Thinking About in the Midst of Major Disruption on Sustainable Investing Trends & Corporate Sustainability Journeys

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

As the global coronavirus pandemic continues to uproot our normal business, financial, economic and personal pursuits, questions that we could logically ask are…

(1) what impact does the virus crisis have on the ongoing corporate sustainability / ESG / citizenship efforts; and

(2) what is the investor reaction – does the move into more sustainable / ESG investment vehicles continue?

Some answers come from Sanghamitra Saha, of Zack’s, writing in Yahoo Finance – “Here’s Why ESG ETFs Are Hot Amid Pandemic”.

He begins by explaining that ESG investing has remained “hot” since the pre-outbreak period, and as Wall Street recorded its worst quarter overall since Q 2008, ESG ETFs appeared [somewhat] resilient to acute selloffs in Q1 2020. (Read, he says: “ESG ETFs Appear Unscathed by the Coronavirus Carnage”.)

These investment vehicles had US$8 billion-plus inflow in 2019, four times their total 2018 inflow. In the first three months of 2020 the flow into ESG Exchange Traded Funds was $6.7 billion — pushing total assets in such funds to $19 billion (only a bit less than the total in February 2018).

Several of these ETFs outperformed the S&P 500® and came close to the Nasdaq performance (which has been the hot place for returns in 2020, bouncing close to the 9000 mark as we write this).

What are some of the reasons for such outperformance even during the virus crisis?

The author shares perspectives from Morningstar and Bloomberg, and presents data on performance on some of the ETFs offered by Nuveen, State Street SPDRs, Vanguard, and iShares MSCI.

We’ve been seeing news and commentary about this trend since the start of the virus crisis as investors seek out what they consider to be more resilient, “safer” companies as packaged in the respective ESG ETFs.  What are public company managements doing to be part of this trend?

Mary Mazzoni, Senior Editor of Triple Pundit and Managing Editor of CR Magazine, shares news from the corporate sector in “Sustainability Isn’t Stopping:  Just Ask These Companies.”

The firms and the stories of their continuing sustainability journeys that she profiles include Bayer and Microsoft.

She begins by addressing the comments of business columnist John D. Stoll in The Wall Street Journal…that “several top companies are starting to put the brakes on their ESG programs due to economic strain…”

Pushing back in TriplePundit:  “Right now we’re all understandably consumed with the human suffering and economic strain posed by the pandemic…but we’re not convinced we’ll see a sunsetting of sustainability – and the eight corporate examples are just some of the reasons why…”

The two Top Stories present the two answers to the questions posed up top.  And throughout the collection in this week’s newsletter you’ll see other answers presented in slightly different form.

The good news from the G&A Institute offices is that our corporate clients continue with vigor and strong commitment on their respective sustainability journeys, even as operations are disrupted by the virus crisis.

Managers tell us that questions from their investors about sustainability, ESG and related issues continue to increase, and major customers continue to ask questions related to their own supply chain management.

2020 is a challenging year – and sustainable, resilient companies are stepping up to meet the challenges, setting a welcome pace.

Top Stories

Here’s Why ESG ETFs Are Hot Amid Pandemic
Source: Yahoo Finance – Environmental, social and governance (“ESG”) investing has remained a hot favorite among investors since the pre-outbreak period. Wall Street recorded the worst quarter to start 2020 since the fourth quarter of 2008. But ESG ETFs appeared somewhat resilient to acute selloffs in Q1 (read: ESG ETFs Appear Unscathed by the Coronavirus Carnage).

Sustainability Isn’t Stopping: Just Ask These Companies
Source: Triple Pundit – Over the weekend, a sustainability-focused Wall Street Journal article started making the rounds on social media. In it, business columnist John D. Stoll notes that several top companies are starting to pump the brakes on their…

And here’s some additional perspectives on the two questions to mull over:

Seven Ways To Make Business Truly Sustainable Post-COVID
Source: Forbes – We humans are a spectacularly resilient species. Wars, famines, plagues, economic crashes – we dust ourselves off and press on. So we will get beyond COVID-19. But is it too much to hope that, devastating as the virus’s effects…

Can companies still afford to care about sustainability?
Source: FT – Note — Please use the sharing tools found via the share button at the top or side of articles. Copying articles to share with others is a breach of FT.com T&Cs and Copyright Policy….

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.

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…

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.

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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. 

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… 

Breaking News: $12 Trillion in Professionally Managed Sustainable Investment Assets — $1-in-$4 of Total U.S. Assets

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

Call it “sustainable and responsible investing” or “SRI” or “ESG investing” or “impact investing” – whatever your preferred nomenclature, “sustainable investing” in the U.S.A. is making great strides as demonstrated in a new report from US SIF.

The benchmark report issued today – “The Report on US Sustainable, Responsible and Impact Investing Trends 2018” – by the U.S. Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment (US SIF) puts things in perspective for investors and corporate managers:

  • At the beginning of 2018, the institutional owners and asset management firms surveyed reported total sustainable investment at US$12 trillion AUM – that is 26% of the total assets under professional management in the U.S.A. — $1-in-$4 of all investable assets!
  • That’s an increase of 38% since the last US SIF report at the start of 2016. The AUM of sustainable investments then was $8.72 trillion. That was $1-in-$5.
  • And that was an increase of 33% since the survey of owners and managers at the start of 2014.
  • Sustainable investing jumped following the 2008 financial crisis, with growth of 240% from 2012 to 2014.

The US SIF bi-annual survey of investors began in 1995, when the total of sustainable investments professionally managed was pegged at $639 billion. There has been an 18-fold increase in sustainable investing assets since then – at a compound rate of 13.6% over the years since that pioneering research was done.

The researchers queried these institutions in 2018:

  • 496 institutional owners (fiduciaries such as public employee pension funds and labor funds – these represented the component of the survey results at $5.6 trillion in ESG assets**).
  • 365 asset/money managers working for institutional and retail owners;
    private equity firms, hedge fund managers, VC funds, REITS, property funds;
    alternative investment or uncategorized money manager assets);
  • 1,145 community investing institutions (such as CDFIs).

What is “sustainable investing”?  There are these approaches adopted by sustainable investors:

  • Negative/exclusionary screening (out) certain assets (tobacco, weapons, gaming);
  • Positive/selection of best-in-class considering ESG performance (peer groups, industry, sector, activities);
  • ESG integration, considering risks and opportunities, ESG assets and liabilities);
    Impact investing (having explicit intention to generate positive social and environmental impact along with financial return);
  • Sustainability-themed products.

The top ESG issues for institutional investors in 2018 included:

  • Conflict Risk (terror attacks, repressive regimes) – $2.97 trillion impact;
  • Tobacco related restrictions – $2.56 trillion
  • Climate Change / Carbon-related issues – $2.24 trillion
  • Board Room issues – $1.73 trillion
  • Executive Pay – $1.69 trillion

Asset managers identified these issues as among the most important of rising concerns:

  • Climate change and Carbon
  • Conflict risk

Prominent concerns for asset owners included:

  • Transparency and Corruption
  • Civilian firearms / weapons
  • a range of diversity and equal employment opportunity issues.

The Proxy Voting Arena

The shareowners and asset managers surveyed regularly engage with corporate executives to express their concerns and advocate for change in corporate strategies, practices and behaviors through presentation of resolutions for the entire shareholder base to vote on in the annual corporate elections.

From 2016 to 2018 proxy seasons these resolutions were focused on:

  • Proxy access for shareowners (business associations have been lobbying to restrict such access by qualified shareowners).
  • Corporate Political Activity (political contributions, lobbying direct expenses and expenses for indirect lobbying by business groups with allocated corporate contributions).
  • A range of environmental and climate change issues.
  • Labor issues / equal employment opportunity.
  • Executive compensation.
  • Human Rights.
  • Call for independent board chair.
  • Board Diversity.
  • Call for sustainability reporting by the company.

Public employee pension systems/funds led the campaigns with 71% of the resolutions filed in 2016, 2017 and 2018.

Labor funds accounted for 13% of filings.

Asset/money management firms accounted for 11.5%.

A total of 165 institutional owners and 54 asset managers filed or co-filed resolutions on ESG issues at the beginning of the 2018 proxy voting season.

The ESG Checklist

The institutions and asset managers queried could answer queries that addressed these ESG, community, product factors in describing their investment analysis, decision-making and portfolio construction activities. This is a good checklist for you when discussing ESG issues and topics with colleagues:

The “E” – Environmental:

  • Clean technology
  • Climate change / carbon (including GhG emissions)
  • Fossil fuel company divestment from portfolio, or exclusion
  • Green building / smart growth solutions
  • Pollution / toxics
  • Sustainable Natural Resources / Agriculture
  • Other E issues

The “S” – Social (or “societal”):

  • Conflict risk (repressive regimes, state sponsors of terrorism)
  • Equal employment opportunity (EEO) / diversity
  • Gender lens (women’s socio-economic progress)
  • Human rights
  • Labor issues
  • Prison-related issues (for-profit prison operators)
  • Other S issues

The “G” – Corporate Governance:

  • Board-related issues (independence, pay, diversity, response to shareowners)
  • Executive pay
  • Political contributions (lobbying, corporate political spending)
  • Transparency and anti-corruption policies

Product / Industry Criteria:

  • Alcohol
  • Animal testing and welfare
  • Faith-based criteria
  • Military / weapons
  • Gambling
  • Nuclear
  • Pornography
  • Product safety
  • Tobacco

Community Criteria:

  • Affordable housing
  • Community relations / philanthropy
  • Community services
  • Fair consumer lending
  • Microenterprise credit
  • Place-based investing
  • Small and medium business credit

The report was funded by the US SIF Foundation to advance the mission of US SIF.

The mission: rapidly shift investment practices towards sustainability, focusing on long-term investment and the generation of positive social and environmental impacts. Both the foundation and US SIF seek to ensure that E, S and G impacts are meaningfully assessed in all investment decisions to result in a more sustainable and equitable society.

The bold name asset owners and asset managers and related firms that are members of US SIF include Bank of America, AFL-CIO Office of Investment, MSCI, Morgan Stanley, TIAA-CREF, BlackRock, UBS Global Asset Management, Rockefeller & Co, Bloomberg, ISS, and Morningstar.

Prominent ESG / sustainable investment players include Walden Asset Management, Boston Common Asset Management, Clearbridge, Cornerstone Capital, Neuberger Berman, As You Sow, Trillium Asset Management, Calvert Investments (a unit of Eaton Vance), Domini Impact Investments, Just Money Advisors, and many others.

The complete list is here: https://www.ussif.org/institutions

Information about the 2018 report is here: https://www.ussif.org/blog_home.asp?display=118

About the US SIF Report:  The report project was coordinated by Meg Voorhees, Director of Research, and Joshua Humphreys, Croatan Institute.  Lisa Woll is CEO of US SIF.  The report was released at Bloomberg LP HQs in New York City; the host was Curtis Ravenel, Global Head of Sustainable Business & Finance at Bloomberg. q1

Governance & Accountability Institute is a long-time member. EVP Louis D. Coppola is the Chair of the US SIF Company Calls Committee (CCC) which serves as a resource to companies by providing a point of contact into the sustainable investment analyst community

** Institutional owners include public employee retirement funds, labor funds, insurance companies, educational institutions, foundations, healthcare organizations, faith-based institutions, not-for-profits, and family offices.

Critical Development for CDP Responders in 2018 & 19: CDP Introduces Additional Alignment With FSB Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures Recommendations

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

Corporate ESG Data, Data, Data – it’s now everywhere and being digested, analyzed and applied to corporate equity analytics and portfolio decision-making.

Whether your public company participates in the annual round of organizing responses to the ever-more comprehensive queries from leading ESG / sustainability / CR rating agencies or not, there is a public ESG profile of your company that investors (asset owners, managers and analysts) are examining and applying to their work.

If you don’t tell the story of your firm’s progress in its sustainability journey, someone else will (and is).  And if you have not embarked on the journey yet…and there is not much to disclose and report on…you are building the wrong kind of moat for the company.  That is, one that will ever-widen and impair access to capital and affect the cost of capital.  And over time, perhaps put the company’s issues on the divestiture list for key investors.

This sounds a bit dramatic, but what is happening in the capital markets these days can be well described as a dramatic shift in focus and actions, with corporate ESG strategies, actions, programs, achievements, and disclosure becoming of paramount importance to a growing body of institutional and retail investors.

Consider these important developments:

  • The influential Barron’s editors, reaching hundreds of thousands of investors every week, beginning in Fall 2017 made coverage of corporate sustainability and sustainable investing a mainstay of the magazine’s editorial content.
  • Morningstar, the premier ranker of mutual fund performance, added sustainability to the analysis of funds and ETFs with guidance from Sustainalytics, one of the major ESG rating firms (and Morningstar made a significant investment in the firm).
  • SustainableInvest, headed  by Henry Shilling, former leader on sustainability matters for Moody’s Investor Service, noted that in 2Q 2018 as the proxy season was ending, 2018 voting was notable for the high level of “E” and “S” proposals, some achieving majority votes in shareholder voting at such firms as Anadarko Petroleum, Kinder Morgan and Range Resources.  Assets in 1,025 sustainable funds analyzed added $14 billion during 2Q and ended in June at US$286 billion; more than $1 billion was new net cash inflows, demonstrating investor interest in the products.

Significant:  according to the Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance and Financial Regulations, two-thirds of investor-submitted proxy resolutions focused on having the company follow through on the 2-degrees scenario (testing) were withdrawn and company boards and managements agreed to the demand for climate risk reporting.

The FSB TCFD Impact on Corporate Sector and Financial Services Sector

The Financial Stability Board, an organization founded by the central bankers and financial leaders of the G-20 nations, created a Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (“TCFD”) to develop climate-related financial disclosures for adoption by financial services sector firms and by publicly-traded companies in general.

The 32-member Task Force, headed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, announced financial recommendations for companies and investors in June 2017.

The essence of the recommendations:

  • Corporate boards and managements should focus on the risks and opportunities present and in the future taking into account a global temperature risk of 2-degrees Centigrade (3.5-F), and in the future, 4-C and even 6-C global temperature rises.

The risks (presented are not just to the affected companies but to the financial sector institutions investing in the company, institutions lending funds to the company, carriers insuring the company, etc.).

The risks and opportunities related to climate change should be thoroughly analyzed using the scenario testing that the company uses (an example would be projecting future pricing, regulations, technologies, and “what ifs” for an oil and gas industry company).

The company should consider in doing the scenario testing and analyzing outcomes the firm’s corporate governance policies and practices; strategies for the long-term; risk management policies and resources; establishing targets; and, putting metrics in place for measuring and managing climate risk.  Then, the next step is disclosing this to investors and other stakeholders.

Key Player:  CDP and its Wealth of Corporate, Institutional and Public Sector Data

The CDP – formerly known as the Carbon Disclosure Project – was founded almost two decades ago (2000) as a United Kingdom-based not-for-profit charity at the urging of the investment community, to gather corporate “carbon” data.

Timing:  soon after the start of meetings of the “Conference of the Parties” (or “COP”), organized by the United Nations as the Climate Change Conferences. (The “UNFCCC”.)

In the mid-1990s, the Kyoto Protocol emerged that legally-bound nations to their pledge to reduce Greenhouse Emissions (GHGs).  The U.S.A. did not sign on to the global protocol during the tenure of President George W. Bush, and the agreement reached in Paris at the COP meeting in 2015 was finally agreed to by President Barack Obama.

And then began the process of withdrawal under President Donald Trump.  The U.S.A. is now the prominent holdout (among the community of 197 nations signed on) in the global effort to address global warming before the danger point is passed.  In Paris, the COP agreed that the threshold was 2-degrees Centigrade.

Today, a growing universe of investors and many other stakeholders are increasingly focused on the role of carbon emissions in the framing of questions about what to do as scientists charted the warming of Earth’s climate.

And so — ESG / environmental data is critical to the mission of determining “what to do” and then implementing measures to address climate change challenges.

The Critical Role of CDP 

CDP over almost two decades since its founding has become the premier repository of corporate data related to climate change – with more than 6,000 companies’ data collected and shared in organized ways with the investment community.  (That includes the ESG data of half of the world’s public companies by market cap.)

The CDP emissions data focused has broadened over 16 years to now include water, supply chain, forestry (for corporates) and environmental data from more than 500 cities and some 100 states and regions available to investors.

Key user base:

  • 650-plus institutional investors with US$87 trillion in Assets Under Management.
  • Corporate Supply Chain members (such as Wal-Mart Stores) that collect data from their suppliers through CDP—a universe of 115 companies with over $3.3 trillion in combined purchasing power.

When the TCFD recommendations were being developed, CDP announced a firm commitment to align with the task force recommendations.

Following their release of the Task Force recommendations in July 2017, CDP held public consultations on a draft version of the TCFD-aligned framework. The current 2018 Climate Change questionnaire that corporations received from CDP is fully aligned with the TCFD recommendations on climate-related disclosures related to governance, risk management, strategy, and metrics and targets.

The TCFD recommendations are already aligned with the majority of CDP’s longstanding approach to climate change disclosure, including most of the recommendations for climate-related governance, strategy, risk management as well as metrics and target disclosure.

However, this year CDP has modified some questions and added new ones — the most impactful being on climate-related scenario analysis to ensure complete alignment.

Some modifications include:

The Governance section now asks for more information about oversight of climate change issues and why a company doesn’t have board-level oversight (if applicable). CDP also requests information about the main individual below the board level with the highest responsibility — and how frequently they report up to the board.

Next, in the risks and opportunities section, CDP now asks for the climate-related risk & opportunity identification, and assessment process.

As in past years, questions are posed in the Business Strategy module to allow companies to disclose whether they have acted upon integrating climate-related issues into their strategy, financial planning, and businesses.

CDP has also added a question for high impact sectors on their low carbon transition plans, so data users can gauge and further understand the sustainable and strategic foresight that these companies aim to achieve.

CDP also added a new question on scenario analysis, explaining that scenario analysis is a strategic planning tool to help an organization understand how it might perform in different future states.

A core aim of the TCFD recommendations is for companies to improve their understanding of future risks and develop suitable resilience strategies.

Finally, the TCFD recommendations highlighted five (5) sectors as the most important. In 2018, CDP rolled out sector-specific questions for the four non-financial sectors that the TCFD highlighted (they are energy, transport, materials, and agriculture).

TCFD also highlighted the financial sector – looking forward, in 2019, CDP is planning to release a financial sector-specific climate change questionnaire.

The TCFD resources for investors and corporate managers are embodied in three documents – (1) the Main Report; (2) an Implementation Annex; (3) the Technical Supplement for Scenario Analysis.  These are available at:  www.fsb-tcfd.org

G&A Institute Perspectives:

Our team has been assisting corporate managers in organizing the response to the CDP annual survey and we’ve tracked over the years the steady expansion of information requested of companies.

Our advice to companies not reporting yet:  get started!  The CDP staff members are very cooperative in assisting new corporate reporters in understanding what data are being sought (and why) and providing answers to questions.

CDP’s founding CEO Paul Simpson cautions:  “Big companies:  get better at telling those who hold the purse strings how climate risks could affect your bottom line.”

And so, our mission at G&A includes helping corporate issuers tell a better sustainability and ESG story, including the story told in the data sets communicated to 650-plus institutional investors by CDP!

CDP data is everywhere, we advise clients, including for example being part of the volumes of ESG data sets that Bloomberg LP shares on its terminals (through the terminal ESG Dashboard).

On the supply chain side, we point out that more than US$3 trillion is the collective spend of companies now addressing their supply chain sustainability factors and environmental impacts (customers see suppliers as part of their own CDP footprint).  Corporate leaders in this effort include Apple, Honda and Microsoft, CDP points out.

Resources:

CDP’s Technical Notes on the TCFD are available at: https://b8f65cb373b1b7b15feb-c70d8ead6ced550b4d987d7c03fcdd1d.ssl.cf3.rackcdn.com/cms/guidance_docs/pdfs/000/001/429/original/CDP-TCFD-technical-note.pdf?1512736184

The “A” List of CDP naming the world’s business leaders on environmental performance (160 firms) is at: https://www.cdp.net/en/scores-2017

The CDP USA Report 2017, focused on key findings on Governance, ESG and the Role of the Board of Directors is available at: https://b8f65cb373b1b7b15feb-c70d8ead6ced550b4d987d7c03fcdd1d.ssl.cf3.rackcdn.com/cms/reports/documents/000/002/891/original/CDP-US-Report-2017.pdf?1512733010

There’s an excellent interview with CDP CEO/Founder Paul Simpson at: http://www.ethicalcorp.com/disruptors-paul-simpson-atypical-activist-who-woke-c-suites-climate-risk

You can check out Henry Shilling’s SustainableInvest.com at: https://www.sustainableinvest.com/second-quarter-2018-sustainable-funds-investing-review/

 

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

# # #

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

 

 

Proof of Concept for Sustainable Investing: The Influential Barron’s Names the Inaugural “The Top 100 Sustainable Companies — Big Corporations With The Best ESG Policies Have Been Beating the Stock Market.”

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

Barron’s 100 Most Sustainable Companies

Barron’s is one of the most influential of investor-focused publications (in print and digital format) and a few months ago (in October), the editors published the first of an ongoing series of articles that will focus on ESG performance and sustainable investing, initially making these points:

  • Barron’s plans to cover this burgeoning style of investing on a more regular basis. A lot of possible content that was developed was left on the cutting room floor, the editors note.
  • Says Barron’s: “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.”
  • And:  “Given the corporate scandals of recent days (Wells Fargo, Equifax, Chipotle, Volkswagen, Valeant Pharmaceuticals), it is clear that focus on companies with good ESG policies is the pathway to greater returns for investors!”

The current issue of Barron’s (Feb 5, 2018) has a feature article and comprehensive charting with this cover description:

The Top 100 Sustainable Companies – Big Corporations With the Best ESG Policies Have Been Beating the Market.”

Think of this as proof of concept: The S&P 500® Index Companies returned 22% for the year 2017 and the Barron’s Top 100 Sustainable Companies average return was 29%.

The 100 U.S. companies were ranked in five categories considering 300 performance indicators.  Barron’s asked Calvert Research and Management, a unit of Eaton Vance, to develop the list of the Top 100 from the universe of 1,000 largest publicly-held companies by market value, all headquartered in the United States.

Calvert looked at the 300 performance indicators that were provided by three key data and analytic providers that serve a broad base of institutional investors:

  • Sustainalytics,
  • Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS)
  • and Thomson Reuters ASSET4 unit.

Five umbrella categories were considered:

  • Shareholders
  • Employees
  • Customers
  • Planet
  • Community

There were items considered in the “shareholders” category, like accounting policies and board structure; employee workplace diversity and labor relations; customer, business ethics and product safety; planet; community; GHG emissions; human rights and supply chain.

We can say here that “good governance” (the “G” in ESG) is now much more broadly defined by shareholders and includes the “S” and “E” performance indicators (and management thereof), not the formerly-narrow definitions of governance. Senior managers and board, take notice.

Every company was ranked from 1-to-100, including even those firms manufacturing weapons (these firms are usually excluded from other indexes and best-of lists, and a number of third party recognitions).

Materiality is key: the analysts adjusted the weighting of each category for how material it was for each industry. (Example: “planet” is more material for chip makers using water in manufacturing, vs. water for banking institutions – each company is weighted this way.)

The Top 100 list has each company’s weighted score and other information and is organized by sector and categories; the complete list and information about the methodology is found at Barron’s.com.

The Top 5 Companies overall were:

  • Cisco Systems (CSCO)
  • salesforce.com (CRM)
  • Best Buy (BBY)
  • Intuit (INTU)
  • HP (HPQ)

The 100 roster is organized in categories:

  • The Most Sustainable Consumer Discretionary Companies (Best Buy is at #1)
  • The Most Sustainable Financials (Northern Trust is #1) – Barron’s notes that there are few banks in the Top 100. Exceptions: PNC Financial Services Group and State Street.
  • The Most Sustainable Industrials (Oshkosh is ranked #1)
  • The Most Sustainable Tech Outfits (Cisco is at the top)

Familiar companies names in the roster include Adobe Systems, Colgate-Palmolive, PepsiCo, Deer, UPS, Target, Kellogg, Apple, and Henry Schein.

Singled out for their perspectives to be shared in the Barron’s feature commenting on the ESG trends: John Wilson, Cornerstone Capital; John Streur, Calvert; Calvet Analyst Chris Madden; Paul Smith, CEO of CFA Institute; Jon Hale, Head of Sustainability Research at Morningstar.

Calvert CEO John Streur noted: “This list gives people insight into companies addressing future risks and into the quality of management.”

Top-ranked Cisco is an example of quality of management and management of risk: The company reduced Scope 1 and 2 GHG emissions by 41% since 2007 and gets 80% of its electricity from renewable sources.

This is a feature article by Leslie P. Norton, along with a chart of the Top 100 Companies.

She writes: “…Barron’s offers our first ranking of the most sustainable companies in the U.S. We have always aimed to provide information about what keenly interests investors – and what affects investment risk and performance…” And…”what began as an expression of values (“SRI”) is finding wider currency as good corporate practices…”

The complete list of the top companies is at Barron’s com. (The issue is dated February 5th, 2018)  You will need a password (for subscribers) to access the text and accompanying chart.

For in-depth information: We prepared a comprehensive management brief in October 2017 on Barron’s sustainable coverage for our “G&A Institute’s To the Point!” web platform: https://ga-institute.com/to-the-point/proof-of-concept-for-sustainable-investing-barrons-weighs-in-with-inaugural-list-of-top-100-sustainable-companies/

News From the Sustainability Front as The Trump White House Makes Controversial Moves on ESG Issues — Actions and Reactions

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

February 23, 2017
Forward Momentum! – Sustainability 2017

Are you like many of us having sleepless nights and anxiety spells as you watch the antics of the Trump White House and the creeping (and similarly moving-backwards) effects into the offices of important Federal agencies that the Administration is taking over?

Consider then “other news” — and not fake news, mind you, or alt-news — but encouraging real news that is coming from OTHER THAN the Federal government.

We are on track to continue to move ahead in building a more sustainable nation and world — despite the roadblocks being discussed or erected that are designed to slow the corporate sustainability movement or the steady uptake of sustainable investing in the capital markets.

Consider the Power and Influence of the Shareowner and Asset Managers:

The CEO of the largest asset manager in the world — BlackRock’s Larry Fink — in his annual letters to the CEOs of the S&P 500 (R) companies in January said this: “Environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors relevant to a company’s business can provide essential insights into management effectiveness and thus a company’s long-term prospects. We look to see that a company is attuned to the key factors that contribute to long-term growth:
(1) sustainability of the business model and its operations; (2) attention to external and environmental factors that could impact the company; (3) recognition of the company’s role as a member of the communities in which it operates.

A global company, CEO Fink wrote to the CEOs, needs to be “local” in every single one of its markets. And as BlackRock constructively engages with the S&P 500 corporate CEOs, it will be looking to see how the company’s strategic framework reflects the impact of last year’s changes in the global environment…in the ‘new world’ in which the company is operating.

BlackRock manages US$5.1 trillion in Assets Under Management. The S&P 500 companies represent about 85% of the total market cap of corporate equities.  Heavyweights, we would say, in shaping U.S. sustainability.

* * * * * * * *

As S&R investment pioneer Steve Viederman often wisely notes, “where you sit determines where you stand…” (on the issues of the day).  More and more commercial space users (tenants and owners) want to “sit” in green spaces — which demonstrates where they “stand” on sustainability issues.

Consider:  In the corporate sector, Retail and other tenants are demanding that landlords provide “green buildings,” according to Chris Noon (Builtech Services LLC CEO). The majority of his company’s construction projects today can easily achieve LEED status, he says (depending on whether the tenant wanted to pursue the certification, which has some cost involved). The company is Chicago-based.

This is thanks to advances in materials, local building codes, a range of technology, and rising customer-demand.

End users want to “sit” in “green buildings” — more than 40% of American tenants recently surveyed across property types expect now to have a “sustainable home.” The most common approaches include energy-saving HVAC systems, windows and plumbing. More stringent (local and state) building codes are also an important factor.

Municipalities — not the Federal government — are re-writing building codes, to reflect environmental and safety advances and concerns. Next week (Feb 28) real estatyer industry reps will gather in Chicago for the Bisnow’s 7th Annual Retail Event at the University Club of Chicago to learn more about these trends.

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Institutional investors managing US$17 trillion in assets have created a new Corporate Governance framework — this is the Investor Stewardship Group.

The organizers include such investment powerhouses as BlackRock, Fidelity and RBC Global Asset Management (a dozen in all are involved at the start). There are six (6) Principles advanced to companies by the group that including addressing (1) investment stewardship for institutional investors and (2) for public corporation C-suite and board room. These Principles would be effective on January 1 (2018), giving companies and investors time to adjust.

One of the Principles is for majority voting for director elections (no majority, the candidate does not go on board). Another is the right for investors to nominate directors with information posted on the candidate in the proxy materials.

Both of these moves when adopted by public companies would greatly enhance the activism of sustainable & responsible investors, such as those in key coalitions active in the proxy season, and year-round in engagements with companies (such as ICCR, INCR).

No waiting for SEC action here, if the Commission moves away from investor-friendly policies and practices as signaled so far. And perhaps – this activism will send strong messages to the SEC Commissioners on both sides of the aisle.

Remember:  $17 trillion in AUM at the start of the initiative — stay tuned to the new Investor Stewardship Group.  These are more “Universal Owners” with clout.

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Not really unexpected but disappointing nevertheless:  The Trump Administration made its moves on the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), part of the Bakken Field project work, carrying out a campaign promise that caters to the project’s primary owners (Energy Transfer Partners**) and other industry interests, S&R investors are acting rapidly in response.

The company needed a key easement to complete construction across a comparatively small distance. Except that…

  • The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe says the route would cross their drinking water source, impact their sacred sites, and threaten environmentally-sensitive areas;
  • would violate treaty territory without meeting international standards for their consent; (this is the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, which according to the U.S. Constitution, should be the supreme law of the land);
  • and ignore alleged shortcomings in the required environmental review (under the National Environmental Policy Act – NEPA).

These are “abuses”, and banks and financial services firms involved may be complicit in these violations by the nature of their financing, S&R investors note. Their involvement in the project financing could impact their brands and reputations and relationships with society. And so S&R shareholders are taking action.

Boston Common Asset Management, Storebrand Asset Management (in Norway) and First Peoples Worldwide developed an Investor Statement to Banks Financing the DAPL. The statement — being signed on to by other investors — is intended to encourage banks and lenders to support the Rock Sioux Tribe’s request for re-routing the pipeline to not violate — “invade” — their treaty-protected territory. The violations pose a clear risk, SRI shareholders are saying.

The banks involved include American, Dutch, German, Chinese, Japanese, and Canadian institutions.  They in turn are owned by shareholders, public sector agencies, and various fiduciaries — “Universal Owners,” we would say.

The banks include: Bayerische Landesbank (Germany); BBVA (Argentina); Credit Agricole (France); TD Securities (Canada); Wells Fargo; ABN AMRO (The Netherlands); Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ; and Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, and others.

The shareholders utilizing the Investor Statement say they recognize that banks have a contractual obligation with the respect to their transactions — but — they could use their influence to support the Tribe’s request for a re-route…and reach a “peaceful solution” acceptable to all parties.

As The Washington Post reported on January 24th, soon after the Trump Administration settled in, President Trump signed Executive Orders to revive the DAPL and the Keystone XL pipelines. “Another step in his effort to dismantle former President Barack Obama’s environmental legacy,” as the Post put it.

One Executive Order directed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to “review and approve in an expedited manner” the DAPL. Days later the Corps made their controversial decision, on February 7th reversing course granting Energy Transfer Partners their easement. This week the remaining protestors were removed from the site (some being arrested).

The sustainable & responsible & impact investment community is not sitting by to watch these egregious events, as we see in the Investor Statements to the banks involved. The banks are on notice — there are risks here for you.

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May be what is happening in the asset management and project lending activities related to the project is the IBG / YBG worldview of some in the financial services world:  I’ll Be Gone / You’ll Be Gone when all of this hits the fan one day.  (Like the massive Ogalala Aquifer being contaminated by a pipeline break. The route of the extension is on the ground above and on the reservation’s lake bed.  Not to mention the threats to the above ground Missouri River, providing water downstream to U.S. states and cities.)

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Energy Transfer Partners, L.P:  (NYSE:ETP)  This is a Master Limited Partnership based in Texas.  Founded in 1995, the company has 71,000 miles of pipelines carrying various products. The company plans to build other major pipelines — the Rover Project — to carry product from the shale regions (Marcellus and Utica) across the Northern U.S. state east of the Mississippi.  ETP LP acquired Sunoco (remember them?).

Mutual Funds – Bond Holders – other key fiduciaries with brands of their own to protect — are funding the operations of ETP LP.

Brand names of equity holders include Oppenheimer; Goldman Sachs Asset Management; CalPERS; JPMorgan Chase.  Bond holders include Lord Abbett, PIMCO, Vanguard.  There are 567 institutional owners — fiduciaries — with some 45% of ownership, according to Morningstar. Partners include Marathon Petroleum Company (NYSE:MPC) and Enbridge (NYSE:ENB). (Bloomberg News – August 2, 2016 – both firms put $2 billion in the project and related work.)

The Partnership used to have an “Ownership” explanation on its web site — now it’s disappeared. But you can review some of it in Google’s archived web site pages here: http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:http://www.energytransfer.com/ownership_overview.aspx&num=1&strip=1&vwsrc=0

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We are seeing in developments every day (like these above with non-governmental strategies and actions) that hold out promise for corporate and societal sustainability advocates and sustainable investment professionals that with — or without — public sector support, the Forward Momentum continue to build.

We’ll share news and opinion with you — let us know your thoughts, and the actions that you / your organization is taking, to continue the momentum toward building a better future…a more sustainable nation and world.

Out the Seventh Generation, as the Native American tribes are doing out in the American West in protecting their Treaty lands.  In that regard we could say, a promise is a promise — the Federal and state governments should uphold promises made in treaties.  Which are covered as a “guarantee” by the U.S. Constitution that some folk in politics like to wave around for effect.

FYI — this is Article VI:  “This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land, and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby…”