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.

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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.”

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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. 

For the Board Room and C-Suite –Questions and Advice From the Harvard Business Review About Corporate ESG and Sustainability

Corporate managers & executives: is your board “sustainability/ESG fluent”? And if not – why not?

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

Attorney Silda Wall Spitzer and John Mandyck, CEO of Urban Green Council, writing in Harvard Business Review explain that while “some” board members have become increasingly “sustainability/ESG fluent” many companies [still] don’t expect their directors to understand sustainability or ESG and don’t provide board room education on the subject matter.

Those enterprises are at a competitive disadvantage, the authors believe. 

An important game-changer for the board room and C-suite to understand is the profound influence of ESG as investment professionals (institutional asset owners and their management firms) increasingly use ESG data, ratings, rankings, and scores to analyze their portfolio holdings (and screening prospective investments).

These ratings, rankings, scores and comprehensive ESG profiles provide a foundation of corporate ESG data and information from the independent ratings agencies that the asset owners and managers use to refine their models and apply to portfolio management policies and practices.

The HBR authors explain the basics of this for the publication’s broad management audience – those men and women at the top of the corporate pyramid who should be aware of, understand and be focused on their company’s ESG strategies, actions and outcomes (or current lack thereof!).

The company’s sustainability scores provided by third party organizations are based on corporate disclosure and performance in three main categories (environmental, social, governance).

Here at G&A Institute we see the leaders in large-cap space embracing sustainability / ESG as evident by the results of our annual survey of the S&P 500 Index® companies’ sustainability & responsibility reporting. 

From the rate of about 20 percent eight years ago, we now find 86% of the 500 large-cap firms are now publishing such reports — many using very innovative and robust approaches.

We’re seeing that the mid-cap and small-cap companies are catching on to the trend and beginning their own sustainability journey that will result in still broader disclosure and reporting.  But not all mid- and small-caps are on board yet. 

This is an area of tremendous opportunity for leadership by companies who make the first move in their sectors and differentiate themselves from their industry and investment peers.

In our conversations with managers at companies just starting out on their sustainability journey (or contemplating same), we explain that there is already a “public ESG profile” of the company “out there” and being studied by investors.

Perhaps, being studied by a good portion of the company’s current shareowner base, depending on the size of the company (the market cap), geography, sector or industry classification, or other factors.

The often- scattered and diverse elements of the existing ESG public profile come from the company’s financial filings, regulatory filings (such as for environmental data), financial and other analyst reports, the company’s web site postings, ESG “brochure-type” reports — and a host of ratings and scores created by the ESG ratings providers and used by investors.

There are more than 200 such ESG / sustainability ratings organizations of varying size and type.  The major influencers for institutional investors include ESG raters such as MSCI, Sustainalytics, and Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS), and ESG data providers such as Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters.

What directors and executives of all public companies need to understand is that important decisions about their companies are being made in large measure now by the foundational work of these organizations and their many peers around the world.

And if the company does not tell the story of its sustainability journey, others will (and are).

Potential Impacts:

The work of the ESG ratings firms also can affect company-customer relationships; employee recruitment and retention; business partnerships and collaborations; relations with civic leaders and the communities the company operates in; for global players, the countries they operate in; the stock exchanges their issues trade on; their insurers and re-insurers views of the enterprise…and other aspects of corporate finance.

While “ESG” and “sustainability” may be seen as touchy-feely and “non-financial” concepts in some board rooms and C-suites, the material ESG issues are really about the company’s risk management profile, the quality of leadership at the top, competitive advantage, sustainability in the traditional investment view (the company has lasting power and is a long-term value proposition), and more.

As for being “non-financial”, the HBR authors point to a Harvard B-School study that found that $1 invested in a company focused on ESG resulted in $28 return vs. $14 for those companies not yet focused on ESG.  What director would not want to brag about this kind of achievement that is real and financial? It’s time to stop thinking of ESG as being touchy feely and squishy!

The HBR commentary is good basic overview for directors to help them understand the role of the board in overseeing and helping to shape the strategies and actions that will comprise their company’s sustainability journey. 

Author Silda Wall Spitzer is the former First Lady of New York State and co-founder and CEO of New York Makers, which curates NYS-made gifts and events that “define New York State”.  She is a former private equity director. Information at: https://newyorkmakers.com/

Co-author John Mandyck is CEO of Urban Green Council; its mission is to transform buildings in New York City and around the world through research, convening, advocacy and education. More information at: https://www.urbangreencouncil.org/aboutus

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