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 S&P 500® Universe — Setting the Pace for Corporate Sustainability Reporting: 90% Mark Reached!

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

The popular corporate equity “baskets” including the Dow Jones Industrial Index, Nasdaq 100, S&P 500, the Russell 1,000 – 2,000 – and 3,000– in essence consist of the underlying value of the corporate shares in each basket (or benchmark for investors).

Today, there is an ocean of stock indexes for asset managers to license from the creators and then apply process and approaches for keeping track of the companies in the fiduciary portfolio, or to analyze and pick from the underlying issues for their portfolio.

Alternative benchmarks and indexes may be dependent on market cap size and have variations in the index family to fine tune the analysis (think of the varieties of Wilshire, Russell, S&P Dow Jones, etc.).

There has been a steady move by many asset managers from “active management” to passive investment instruments, with this transition key benchmarks become an important tool for the analyst and portfolio manager.

One large-cap index really dominates the capital markets:  The S&P 500.

G&A Institute’s Annual S&P 500® Research
Almost a decade ago, the team at G&A Institute began gathering corporate reports to build our models and methodology for guiding client’s corporate disclosure and reporting — and focusing especially on the structured reports of U.S. publicly-traded companies, we selected the universe of companies that the index creators include in the S&P 500 Index®.

Here’s why:  The S&P 500 Index is the most-widely-quoted index measuring the stock performance of the 500 largest investable companies listed on American stock exchanges.  Asset managers licensees like State Street, MCSI, Invesco Capital and London Stock Exchange Group use this index for their constructing ETFs and other investable products.

This universe of public companies provided for our team a solid foundation for tracking and analyzing the activities of these 500 companies as they began or expanded their sustainability reporting. In 2011, that first year. we found just about 20% of the 500 were publishing sustainability reports.

And here’s the dramatic news:
G&A’s just-completed report shows 90% of the S&P 500 companies produced a sustainability report in year 2019!

Tracking the Trends
Over the decade of close tracking and analysis of the 500 companies in the index, the good news is we saw the number of reports steadily grow.

We charted the broad impact of these market-leading enterprises on such reporting frameworks and standards as the GRI and SASB as those standards evolved and matured and were adopted by the companies in the 500.  We saw…

CDP disclosure steadily expanded in structured reports and (stand alone) corporate responses to CDP on carbon emissions, water, supply chain, forestry products.

The adoption of UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by companies as they were in some way conceptually a part of a company’s sustainability strategy (and subsequent reporting).

And more recently, there was the adoption of TCFD recommendations by corporate issuers in the U.S. – that began to show up in reports recently.

Starting with 2010 reporting, the first G&A analysis, we’ve shared the highlights of the research efforts.

Teams of talented, passionate and bright analyst-interns developed each year’s report (you can see who they are/were in G&A’s Honor Roll on our web site).  Most of the team members have moved on to career positions in the corporate, investment, public sector and NGO communities.

Download this year’s report, examining 2019 corporate sustainability reporting by the S&P 500 companies.

We’ve organized the deliverable for both quick scanning and concentrated reviewing.  Let us know if you have questions about the research results.

Stay tuned to G&A’s upcoming Russell 1000 Index® analysis of 2019 reporting.

This second important index/benchmark was created several decades ago by the Frank Russell Company and is now maintained by FTSE Russell (subsidiary of the London Stock Exchange Group)

The largest companies by market cap companies are available as benchmarks for investors in the S&P 500 (largest cap) and for the next 500 in the Russell 1000.

The ripple effects of the S&P 500 companies and more recently some of the Russell 1000 companies on corporate sustainability disclosure and reporting is fascinating for us to track.

Many mid-cap and small-cap companies are now adopting similar reporting policies and practices.  Privately-owned companies are publishing similar reports.  All of this means volumes of ESG data and narrative flowing out to investors – and fueling the growth of sustainable investing.  We find this all very encouraging in our tracking of corporate reporting.

Here are the details for you:

Top Stories

90% of S&P 500 Index Companies
Publish Sustainability Reports in 2019,
G&A Announces in its Latest Annual
2020 Flash Report

Source: Governance & Accountability Institute, Inc. – G&A Institute announces the results of its annual S&P 500 sustainability reporting analysis. 90% of the S&P 500 published corporate sustainability reports, an all-time high!


Adding Important Perspectives to G&A’s S&P 500 Research Results

What is Greenwashing? The Importance of Maintaining Perspective in ESG Communications
Source: AlphaSense, Pamela Styles principal of Next Level Investor Relations LLC – “Greenwashing” can generally be described as ‘the practice of only paying lip service to environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors with token gestures.’ In practice, greenwashing occurs when an organization presents…

New report measures boardroom diversity at top S&P 500 companies
Source: CNBC – There’s a renewed focus on diversity in the boardroom, but a new report shows not much is changing. CNBC’s Seema Mody reports.

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.

Will We Ever See SEC Rules / Guidance For Corporate ESG Disclosure and Reporting? The Question Hangs in the Wind…

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

People have questions about corporate sustainability / ESG / responsibility / citizenship disclosure and reporting.  Such reporting has been on a hockey stick rise in recent years.

Should ESG/sustainability etc reporting be regulated?  How? What would be regulated in terms of disclosure and reporting – what should the guidelines for corporate issuers be?  Does this topic become a more important part of the SEC’s ongoing Reg S-K (disclosure) revamping? What information do investors want?  What do companies want to have covered by regulation?  Many questions!

Some answers are coming in the European Union for both issuers and investors with new and proposed regulations.

And in the main will have to come in the U.S.A. from the Securities & Exchange Commission — at some point.

SEC was created with the adoption of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934.  The agency was specifically created by the U.S. Congress to oversee behaviors in the securities and markets and the conduct of financial professionals.

Publicly-traded company reporting oversight is also an important part of the SEC mission. The 1933 and 1934 acts and other subsequent legislation (all providing statutory authority for rulemaking and oversight) provide the essential framework for SEC to do its work.

As Investopedia explains for us, the purpose of the 1934 act is “to ensure an environment of fairness and investor confidence.”  The ’34 act gave SEC broad authority to regulate all aspects of the securities industry and to enforce corporate reporting by companies with more than US$10 million in assets and shares held by 500 or more shareowners.

An important part of the ongoing SEC’s mission, we should say here, is to protect investors and be open to suggestions “from the protected” to improve the complicated regimes that guide corporate disclosure. So that investors have the information they need to make buy-sell-hold decisions.  Which brings us to S-K.

In recent months, the SEC staff has been working on the steps to reform and updates segments of Reg S-K and has been receiving many communications from investors to suggest reforms, updates, expansion of, corporate disclosure.  (Details are below in the news release from SEC in 2019. The SEC proposed rule changes, still in debate, are intended to “update rules” and “improve disclosures” for investors and “simplify compliance efforts for companies”.)

Regulation S-K provides standard instruction for filing forms required under the 1933 and 1934 acts and the Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975.

Especially important in the ongoing initiative to update Reg S-K, we believe:  the setting out for SEC staff and commissioners of facts and perspectives so that serious consideration is given to the dramatic sea changes in (1) the growth of sustainable investing and the related information needs; (2)  and, the vigorous corporate response, particularly in the form of substantial sustainability / ESG reports issued.

Most of the corporate reports published in recent years have been focused on the recommended disclosures as advanced by popular frameworks and widely-recognized reporting standards (such as those of GRI, SASB, CDP, TCFD, et al).

Will we see SEC action on S-K rules reform that will draw applause from the sustainable investors? Now, we point out, including such mainstream players as BlackRock, State Street and Vanguard Funds, to name but a few owners found in almost every corporate top holder list.

Ah, Depends.  Political winds have driven changes in rules at SEC. Then again, it is an election year.  (To be kept in mind:  There are five SEC commission members; two are appointed and confirmed Democrats, two are Republicans – and the chair is nominated by the president…right now, a Republican holds that position.)

Investor input is and should be an important part of SEC rule making. (All of the steps taken by the Commission to address such items as corporate disclosure and reporting in adopting or amending the rules have to follow the various statutes passed by the congress related to the issue.  Investor and stakeholder input is an important part of the approach to rule-making.  Sustainable investing advocates have been making their views abundantly clear in this initiative to update Reg S-K.)

The SEC Investor Advisory Committee formally makes recommendations to the agency to help staff and commissioners be aware of investor sentiment and help to guide the process through the advice provided.

Recently the committee voted to make recommendations to the SEC on three topics: (1) accounting and financial disclosure; (2) disclosure effectiveness; and, (3) ESG disclosure.

The committee said they decided that after 50 years of discussion on ESG disclosure it is time to make a move, now that ESG / sustainability are recognizably important factors in investing.  Given the current political environment in Washington, there probably won’t be much movement at SEC on the issue, many experts agree.

But the marker has been strongly set down in the committee’s recent report, one of numerous markers set down by sustainable investment champions.  

Commissioner Hester M. Pierce addressed the Investor Advisory Committee, and shared her perspectives on ESG reporting.  “The ambiguity has made the ESG debate a difficult one…”  She thinks “the call to develop a new ESG reporting regime…may not be helpful right now…”  (She is a Republican nominee, a lawyer in academia.)

We have included her comments in the selection of four Top Stories for you.  Another of the items – the comments of SEC Chair Jay Clayton along the same lines about ambiguity and confusion of ratings etc. (he is also a Republican appointee).

To which sustainable investing proponents might say – if not now, when, SEC commissioners!

While the conversation may at times be focused on “what do investors want,” there is also wide agreement among corporate boards and executives that guidance and standardization in corporate ESG / sustainability et al reporting would be very helpful.

With the current comments of the leadership of SEC we are not quite there yet.

Interesting footnote:  The October 1929 stock market crash helped to plunge the nation into the Great Depression.  The 1932 presidential elections resulted in New York Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt (a Democrat) moving to the White House in March 1933 and swiftly taking action to address important public policy issues.  He brought him his “brains trust”, experts in various public policy issues that helped to create sweeping reforms and creation of powerful regulatory agencies — such as the SEC.

The story goes that there was so much to do that the financial markets and corporate oversight legislation had to be divided into two congressional sessions – in 1933 and 1934 (the congress met for shorter periods in those days – the members were part-timers).  Thus, the Securities Act of 1933 and the 1934 act.

Regulation overall was then and today is a very complicated topic!

Top Stories

SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee Makes Disclosure Recommendations  (Source: Cooley PubCo)

SEC Chair Warns of Risks Tied to ESG Ratings 
(Source:  Financial Times)

In addition, see:

New Evidence During the COVID-19 Crisis That ESG Approaches Will Pay Off From Wall Street

Excellence in Corporate Citizenship on Display in the Coronavirus Crisis
Post #10 in the Series – April 6 2020

Important Bloomberg info update – April 8th

By Hank Boerner and Louis CoppolaG&A Institute

Some of the messages we’ve been sharing supports our belief that the companies that continue on the paths of their sustainability journey during the virus crisis will be stronger (in the crisis) and come out stronger as the crisis subsides. That will benefit stakeholders and shareholders.

We posit:  Those publicly-traded companies recognized as sustainable investment leaders should benefit in the competition for capital – access, cost of capital, inclusion in key indices and benchmarks, and so on.

We’ve been monitoring for news and perspectives that support the theory and share some things we’ve found with you.

HSBC Headline: ESG Stocks Did Best in COVID-19 Slump

Climate and sustainable investments outperformed as pandemic struck.

The global bank HSBC’s Ashim Paun (co-head of ESG research) in March published results of the examination of the effect of ESG factors on public companies’ equity in the virus crisis sell off.

The research looked at 613 shares of global public companies valued at more than US$500 million where “climate solutions” generate at least 10% of revenues plus 140 stocks with the highest ESG scores and values above the global average.

Key Takeaway: While the virus upended many economies and markets, shares of companies focused on ESG or climate change have outperformed.

He cites this: Performance from 23 March to 10 December 2019 (the start of the virus in East Asia) was the base for comparison.

Results: Climate-focused shares outperformed others by 7.6% from December on and by 3% since February. And from 24 February, when the market’s high volatility began.

There are four (4) “HSBC Climate Solutions Database” divisions:

  1. Environment & Land Use Management;
  2. Low Carbon & Energy Production;
  3. Energy Efficiency & Energy Management
  4. Climate Finance.

All of these beat the markets over both period – Low Carbon by 11% plus since December, says HSBC. There were regional differences noted in the research results. (The report was published 25 March.)

During the crisis period, Ashim Paun advises that investors think about how well companies are managing their ESG risks – including what companies are best-case, worst-case, and highest likelihood scenarios.

And he shared this with his global investor clients: “Our core conviction is that issuers succeed long-term, and deliver shareholder returns when the create value for all shareholders. When crisis like COVID-19 manifest, particularly with “S” and “E” causes, and implications, investors can see ESG as a defensive characteristics.

The highlights are here – access to HSBC’s full research report is limited to subscribers.

https://www.gbm.hsbc.com/insights/global-research/esg-stocks-did-best-in-corona-slump

There is a very comprehensive examination of the HSBC research on BusinessGreen:

https://www.businessgreen.com/news/4013404/hsbc-companies-focused-climate-change-outperformed-virus-spread?ct=t(RSS_EMAIL_CAMPAIGN)&mc_cid=8dd16a5562&mc_eid=cc59b566af

* * * * * * * *

In a Financial Times opinion piece by David Stevenson we saw this: He asked the question, are ESG and sustainability the new alpha mantra?

His answer: when money managers begin again to look for alpha strategies, his bet is that more than a few will tell investors that sustainability and ESG will top the list in the search for performance.

He interviewed thought leaders at Impax Asset Management, DWS and BNP Paribas and cited the research of several researchers for the column.

* * * * * * * *

Bloomberg Asks — Believe the Investor’s Urging Will Pay Off?

As we shared with you last week and repeat here as part of this commentary:

Bloomberg LP provides us with some of the answer.

Bloomberg Intelligence’s (BI) Shaheen Contractor (ESG Team BI Industry Analyst) in a brief for terminal users noted that an analysis of ESG Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) during the selloff for the week ending February 28 provided a buffer for their investors and outperformed their benchmarks. The data: only 8% of ESG ETFs had outflows while 22% of all U.S. ETFs saw outflows.

This, as she writes, suggests ESG is seen by investors as a long-term investment and not a trading strategy.

And the flow to ESG ETF’s suggests that these instruments are “sticky” and less cyclical. Where where the flows to ESG ETFs? BlackRock, JPMorgan, BNP Paribas, Societe Generale, DWS, State Street, and Vanguard all saw inflows during the drawdown.

Good news for investors looking for “proof of concept” of ESG/sustainable investing from Shaheen Contractor – thanks to her and Bloomberg for sharing this good news.

Her email is: scontractor2@bloomberg.net

The brief: “ESG ETFs See Relative Outperformance, Inflows During Drawdown”

For information Bloomberg: https://blinks.bloomberg.com/news/stories/Q6RT29T0G1L2

* * * * * * * * *

IMPORTANT UPDATE — APRIL 8TH

From Bloomberg Green – dated March 31, 2020 – Claire Ballentine reporting.

As of that date, 59% of U.S. ESG ETFs were beating the S&P 500. And 60% of European ESG ETTs were beating the MSCI Europe Index.

In 2029, sustainable ETFs added more than $8 billion (4X the 2018 level) and another $4 billion were added in January 2020.

Even with the sell off in February and March, $3 billion was added in that period.

* * * * * * * *

G&A Institute Team Note
We continue to bring you news of private (corporate and business), public and social sector developments as organizations in the three societal sectors adjust to the emergency.

The new items will be posted at the top of the blog post and the items posted today will move down the queue.

We created the tag “Corporate Purpose – Virus Crisis” for this continuing series – and the hashtag “#WeRise2FightCOVID-19” for our Twitter posts. Do join the conversation and contribute your views and news.

Do send us news about your organization – info@ga-institute.com so we can share. Stay safe – be well — keep in touch!

Perspectives – Bloomberg, McKinsey, Leading ESG Investors, Mark Cuban – on Corporate Purpose and the Virus Crisis

Excellence in Corporate Citizenship on Display in the Coronavirus Crisis – Post #8   

“Corporate Purpose – Virus Crisis”   #WeRise2FightCOVID-19

April 1, 2020

By Hank Boerner, Chair & Chief Strategist, and the G&A Institute team members

On Corporate Purpose – Words and Actions – Thoughts From Influentials As The Virus Crisis Deepens Worldwide — the Focus on Purpose Can Help Corporate Generals Lead From the Front

In summer 2019, The Business Roundtable (BRT), the association of the CEOs of 200 firms, revamped the organization’s mission statement to read…

…“as leaders of America’s largest corporations, BRT CEOs believe we have a responsibility to help build a strong and sustainable economic future in the United States.”

This followed the publication of the January 2019 CEO-to-CEO letter of Larry Fink, who heads BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager (and therefore a major fiduciary investing in the BRT companies). He regularly writes to the CEOs of companies that BlackRock invests in to let them know where of the major investors stands.

He wrote at the start of 2019…

…Purpose is not the sole pursuit of profits but the animating force for achieving them. And, profits are in no way inconsistent with purpose; in fact, profits and purpose are inextricably linked.

And again in his January 2020 letter to CEOs, Chair & CEO Larry Fink said:

…“As I have written in past letters [to CEOs in 2019, 2018] a company cannot achieve long-term profits without embracing purpose and considering the needs of considering the needs of a broad range of stakeholders. Ultimately, purpose is the engine of long-term profitability.”

Fast forward to March 2020 and now into April. What is the walk-of-the-talk of the CEOs (181 of them) who were signatories as the coronavirus crisis grips the U.S. and the world — and the actions of the signatories’ firms as stakeholders look for aid, comfort, security, payroll, taxes paid, and more?

And what other companies not necessarily in the Roundtable? What actions are taken leveraging corporate power to help society?

The stakeholders are watching. And a good number of the Business Roundtable companies are responding to address societal needs.

And what are the perspectives shared about all of this? We bring you some of these today. Here are some of the views and advice of experts and  influentials.

McKinsey Speaks – On How to Demonstrate Corporate Purpose

Says the influential management consulting firm, McKinsey & Company: Companies will define what they do in the crucible of COVID-19 response – or be defined by it.

So what could company managements be doing when the primary purpose of their efforts is to help the enterprise survive? McKinsey acknowledges this — and provides some advice. This is from their bulletin today.

Questions are being asked, of course, related to survival. How long will the crisis last? What are peers doing? How do we pay our people?

“WIN” – what is important now? (The G&A team has asked and helped to answer that question many times in our three decades of crisis management support for client companies over the years.)

First up, advises the McKinsey team members — understand your stakeholder needs and then with the understanding gained, prioritize your response. There will be tradeoffs among stakeholders – prepare for that.

Then, bring the greatest strengths of the organization to bear – consider, how can you make a difference?

McKinsey advises “collaborate with suppliers and customers and they may identify strengths you didn’t know you had”.

Examples offered:  Car makers can make ventilators (GM, Ford etc). Perfume companies can rapidly turn to manufacture hand sanitizer (LVMH and Estee Lauder are doing that today as we’ve reported in these briefs).

As you move forward, test the assumption and decisions you are taking against your stated purpose – communicate – explain (how and why).

Banks have a commitment to lend money in their community. If the bank pulls away – why? The action could help to define that institution in and after the crisis.

Give people something to do! (We also shared this advice a number of times early in the crisis.)

Involve employees in solutions. Give them a sense of purpose. Your team is looking for signals of leadership. And how to help.

And McKinsey says, the positive is that you may in the process be identifying the next generation of your company’s leadership!

Try new ways. Try using “cross-cutting” teams to develop new solutions, new ways to do things.

When in 2005 Hurricane Katrina hit, Wal-Mart Stores asked employees to deliver supplies to areas that were hard to reach. And we remember that the company’s store managers on their own ordered extra supplies and kept the stores open – even as their own homes were being destroyed.

That led to the CEO embarking on a strategic sustainability journey that revolutionized the whole company and in the process formed the Sustainability Consortium!

And like the best of the military leaders, you should yourself lead from the front. Communicate – often, early. Don’t sugarcoat the news. Adapt to changing conditions (and then communicate again). Your enterprise looks to its leaders for guidance.

Things that stand out for us that McKinsey explains:

  • Executives are uniquely poised now to bring corporate power, guided by social purpose to aid millions of dislodged and vulnerable lives. Done well, your actions can bridge the divide between shareholders and stakeholders. And leave a lasting, positive legacy.
  • Credibility is both essential and fragile element of executive leadership. Authentic actions demonstrate the company’s genuine commitment to social purpose.

Thanks to McKinsey’s Bill Schaninger, senior partner in Philadelphia, and Bruce Simpson, senior partner in Toronto, and their colleagues Han Zhang and Chris Zhu, for the valuable insights and guidance offered to corporate leaders.

* * * * * * * *

Mark Cuban on COVID-19 – Words & Action

We are often entertained by the antics of Mark Cuban on the courts (he’s owner of the Dallas Mavericks NBA team) and appearances on the hit TV show, “Shark Tank”. He was serious this week in addressing the virus crisis.

On Twitter he advised the federal policymakers: “Dear government, here is why you require companies that receive bailouts to retain 100% of their employees. The cost of the bailout loan – eventual payments will cost taxpayers less than the cost of government assistance programs for fired employees. Case closed.”

And…

“If you run a business, BEFORE YOUR FIRE ANYONE (or any more), you have an obligation to yourself/employees to find every gov loan option available today and those soon to come. Find the time. When the gov loans start you want to be already an expert and in line.”

Mark Cuban then walked-the-talk, setting up a way to pay his team’s venue employees (American Airlines Arena) even though games are cancelled and no one is coming. Then sent $100,000+ to the area’s not-for-profits aiding the Big D residents.

* * * * * * * *

Investor Coalition Speaks Its Mind on Corporate Purpose

Nearly 200 long-term institutional investors (with AUM of US$4.7 trillion) called on company managements to protect their workers – difficult to do, the investors acknowledge. Board directors are accountable for long-term Human Capital Management strategies (they remind board members on both domestic U.S. and global companies).

The steps companies could take, says the investor group:

  • Provide paid leave – including emergency leave) for full-time, part-time and subcontracted workers.
  • Prioritize health and safety – meaning, worker and public health safety, and to protect social license to operate. That may include closing facilities as precautionary step.
  • Maintain employment levels – your workers are well-trained (we hope!) and will enable the company to ramp up quickly once the crisis is resolved.
  • And be on the watch for any moves that may be discriminatory.
  • Maintain customer – and supplier — relationships to ensure that you can help stabilize them if necessary (such as financial challenges to suppliers) and to protect your own and other communities and businesses.
  • Practice financial prudence – demonstrate, the advisors strongly urge, the highest levels of ethical financial management and responsibility. And, limit executive and senior management compensation during the crisis (not repeating the practices of companies in the 2008 financial practices with money provided by the taxpayer).

Corporate leadership is critically-needed, the coalition stresses, to help society get through the crisis.

Among the investors in the coalition issuing the advice to public company managements: the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) coalition (with 300 institutional members); the New York City public employees pension fund, led by Comptroller Scott Stringer; AFL-CIO fund; the state treasurers of Connecticut, Maryland, Rhode Island, Oregon, Vermont; American Federation of Teachers (AFT); the British Columbia Government and Services Employees Union; Aviva Investors; APG; Boston Common Asset Management; Coalition on Corporate Responsibility in Indiana & Michigan; Cornerstone Capital Group; Communications Workers of America (CWA); Robeco Asset Management; numerous foundations and religious orders and denominations.

Information: https://www.iccr.org/program-areas/human-rights/investor-action-coronavirus

All of this is spelled out in the “Investor Statement on Coronavirus Response” being circulated among fiduciaries.

* * * * * * * *

Believe the Investor’s Urging Will Pay Off?

Bloomberg LP provides us with some of the early answers.  Bloomberg Intelligence’s (BI) Shaheen Contractor (ESG Team BI Industry Analyst) in a brief for terminal users noted that an analysis of ESG Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) during the selloff for the week ending February 28 provided a buffer for their investors and outperformed their benchmarks. The data: only 8% of ESG ETFs had outflows while 22% of all U.S. ETFs saw outflows.

This, she writes, suggests ESG is seen by investors as a long-term investment and not a trading strategy.

And the flow to ESG ETF’s suggests that these instruments are “sticky” and less cyclical. Where where the flows to ESG ETFs? BlackRock, JPMorgan, BNP Paribas, Societe Generale, DWS, State Street, and Vanguard all saw inflows during the drawdown.

Good news for investors looking for “proof of concept” of ESG/sustainable investing from Shaheen Contractor – thanks to her and Bloomberg for sharing this good news.

Her email is: scontractor2@bloomberg.net

The brief: “ESG ETFs See Relative Outperformance, Inflows During Drawdown”

For information, it is on the Bloomberg: https://blinks.bloomberg.com/news/stories/Q6RT29T0G1L2

* * * * * * * *

Lead from the front.  The general who led the effort to win WW II for the U.S.A. and the democracies, General Dwight D. Eisenhower (President, 1953-1961) observed:   “Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.  You don’t lead by hitting people over the head–that’s assault, not leadership.”

* * * * * * * *

G&A Institute Team Note
We continue to bring you news of private (corporate and business), public and social sector developments as organizations in the three societal sectors adjust to the emergency.

The new items will be posted at the top of the blog post and the items today will move down the queue.

We created the tag Corporate Purpose – Virus Crisis” for this continuing series – and the hashtag WeRise2FightCOVID-19 for our Twitter posts.  Do join the conversation and contribute your views and news.

Send us news about your organization – info@ga-institute.com so we can share.   Stay safe – be well — keep in touch!

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!”