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….

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.