Getting Serious About SASB: Company Boards, Execs and Their Investors Are Tuning In. What About Accounting Firms?

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

February 26, 2020

The importance of the work over the recent years of the Sustainable Accounting Standards Board in developing industry-specific ESG disclosure recommendations was underscored with the recent letters to company leadership from two of the world’s leading asset management firms.

Corporate boards and/or executive teams received two important letters in January that included strong advice about their (portfolio companies’) SASB disclosures. 

BlackRock CEO Larry Fink explained to corporate CEOs his annual letter:  “We are on the edge of a fundamental reshaping of finance. Important progress in improving disclosure has been made – many companies already do an exemplary job of integrating and reporting on sustainability but we need to achieve more widespread and standardized adoption.” 

While no framework is perfect, BlackRock believes that the SASB provides a clear set of standards for reporting sustainability information across a wide range of issues, from labor practices to data privacy to business ethics. 

In 2020, BlackRock is asking companies that the firm invests in on behalf of clients to publish a disclosure in line with industry-specific SASB guidelines by year end (and disclose a similar set of data in line with the TCFD’s recommendations). 

In a thought paper, BlackRock explained that disclosures intended for investors need to focus on financially material and business relevant metrics and include supporting narratives. The recommendations of the TCFD and the SASB (standards) are the benchmark frameworks for a company to disclose its approach to climate-related risks and the transition to a lower carbon economy.

Absent such robust disclosure, investors could assume that companies are not adequately managing their risk. Not the right message to send to current and prospective investors in the corporation, we would say.

State Street Sends Strong Signals

Separately, State Street Global Advisors (SSgA) CEO Cyrus Taraporevala in his 2020 letter to corporate board members explained:  “We believe that addressing material ESG issues is a good business practice and essential to a company’s long-term financial performance – a matter of value, not values.” 

The asset management firm [one of the world’s largest] uses its “R-Factor” (R=“responsibility”) to score the performance of a company’s business operations and governance as it relates to financially material and sector-specific ESG issues.

The CEO’s letter continued:  The ESG data is drawn from four leading service providers and leverages the SASB materiality framework to generate unique scores for 6,000+ companies’ performance against regional and global industry peers. “We believe that a company’s ESG score will soon effectively be as important as it credit rating.”

The Sustainable Accounting Standards Board

About SASB’s continuing progress:  Recommendations for corporate disclosure centered on materiality of issues & topics were fully developed in a multi-party process (“codified”) concluding in November 2018 for 77 industry categories in 11 sectors by a multi-party process.

The recommendations are now increasingly being used by public companies and investors as important frameworks for enhanced corporate disclosure related to ESG risks and opportunities. 

To keep in mind: A company may be identified in several sectors and each of these should be seriously considered in developing the voluntary disclosures (data sets, accompanying narrative for context).

Bloomberg LP (the company headed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, now a presidential candidate seeking the Democratic nomination) is a private company but publishes a SASB Disclosure report. (Bloomberg is the chair of SASB as well as the leader of his financial information firm.)

The company published “robust” metrics using the SASB on three industry categories for 2018: Internet & Media Services; Media & Entertainment; Professional & Commercial Services.

Bloomberg LP is privately-owned; this was an example for public company managements. The report explained:

“The nature of our business directs us to consult three industries (above). We provide a distinct table for each…containing topics we have identified as material and against which we are able to report as a private company. Quantitative data is followed by narrative information that contextualizes the data table and is responsive to qualitative metrics.”

Solid advice for company boards and executives beginning the expansion of disclosure using the SASB.

SASB Guidance

SASB provides a Materiality Map for each sector (SASB uses its SICS® – The Sustainability Industry Classification System) and provides a Standards Navigator for users. There is also an Engagement Guide for investors to consider when engaging with corporates; and, an Implementation Guide for companies (explaining issues and SASB approaches).

The fundamental tenets of SASB’s approach is set out in its Conceptual Framework: Disclosures should be Evidence-based; Industry-specific; Market-informed.  The recommended metrics for corporate disclosure include fair representation, being useful and applicable (for investors), comparable, complete, verifiable, aligned, neutral, distributive.

Accounting and Audit Professionals Advised: Tune In to SASB

Separate of the BlackRock and SSgA advice to companies and investors, accounting and auditing professionals working with their corporate clients are being urged to “tune in” to SASB.

Former board member of the Financial Accounting Standards Board (“FASB”) Marc Siegel shared his thoughts with the New York State Society of CPAs in presenting: “SASB: Overview, Trends in Adoption, Case Studies & SDG Integration”.  The Compliance Week coverage is our Top Story in the newsletter this week.

Marc Siegel is a Partner in E&Y’s Financial Accounting Advisory Service practice, served a decade on the FASB board (managers and shapers of GAAP) and was appointed to the SASB board in January 2019.

He was in the past a leader at RiskMetrics Group and CFRA, both acquired by MSCI, and is recognized as a thought leader in financial services – his views on SASB will be closely followed.

With the growing recognition of the importance of SASB recommendation for disclosure to companies and the importance of SASB’s work for investors, he encouraged the gathered accountants to get involved and assist in implementing controls over ESG data, suggesting that SASB standards are a cost-effective way for companies to begin responding to investor queries because they are industry-specific. 

Accountants, he advised, can help clients by putting systems in place to collect and control the data and CPA firms can use SASB standards as criteria to help companies that are seeking assurance for their expanding sustainability reporting.

This is an important call to action for accounting professionals, helping to generate broader awareness of the SASB standards for those working with publicly-traded companies and for internal financial executives.

The G&A Institute team has been working with corporate clients in recent years in developing greater understanding of the SASB concepts and approaches for industry-specific sustainability disclosure and helping clients to incorporate SASB standards in their corporate reports. 

We’ve also been closely tracking the inclusion of references to “SASB” and inclusion of SASB metrics by public companies in their reporting as part of our GRI Data Partner work. ‘

The G&A Institute analyst teams examine and assess every sustainability report published in the USA and have tracked trends related to how companies are integrating SASB disclosures into their reporting. 

What began as a trickle of SASB mentions in corporate reports several years ago is now increasing and we are capturing samples of such inclusions in our report monitoring and analysis.

Over the past four+ years we’ve developed comprehensive models and methodologies to assist our corporate client teams incorporating SASB disclosures in their public-facing documents (such as their sustainability / responsibility / citizenship reports, in Proxy Statements, for investor presentations and in other implementations).

Our co-founder and EVP Louis Coppola was among the first in the world (“early birds”) to be certified and obtain the SASB CSA Level I credential in 2015.

If you’d like to discuss SASB reporting for your company and how we can help please contact us at info@ga-institute.com

There’s information for you about our related services on the G&A Institute web site: https://www.ga-institute.com/services/sustainability-esg-consulting/sasb-reporting.html

Top Story

Benefits of sustainability reporting: takeaways for accounting 
Source: Compliance Week – According to former Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) member Marc Siegel, companies are being asked for sustainability information from many sides and are facing a bumpy road because they are under pressure due to pervasive… 

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… 

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/

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

by Hank Boerner – Chairman, G&A Institute

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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