The Results Are In: Sustainable, Responsible, Impact Investing by U.S. Asset Managers At All-time High — $8 Trillion!

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

We have an important update for you today: The US SIF Report on “US Sustainable, Responsible and Impact Investing Trends, 2016,” was released this week.

The top line for you today: In the U.S.A., sustainable, responsible and impact (SRI) investing continues to expand — at a rapid and encouraging pace.

As we read the results of 2016 survey report, we kept thinking about the past 30 or so years of what we first knew as “socially responsible,” “faith-based,” “ethical” (and so on) approaches to investing, and that more recently we declared to be sustainable & responsible investing (SRI). And even more recently, adding “Impact Investing”).

At various times over the years we tried to visualize “how” the future would be in practical terms when many more mainstream investors embraced SRI / ESG approaches in their stock analysis and portfolio decision-making.

We’re happy to report that great progress continues to be made. It may at times have seemed to be slow progress for some of our SRI colleagues, especially the hardy pioneers at Domini, Trillium, Calvert, Zevin, Walden, Christian Brothers/CBIS, As You Sow, Neuberger Berman, and other institutions.  But looking over the past three decades, always, in both “up and down” markets, and especially after the 2008 market crash — sustainable, responsible and impact investment gained ground!

And so, we in the U.S. SRI community anxiously look forward to the every-other-year survey of U.S.A. asset owners and managers to measure the breadth and depth of the pool of assets that are managed following ESG methods, SRI approaches, etc.

Here are the key takeaways for you in the just-released survey by the U.S. Forum for Sustainable & Responsible Investment (US SIF), the trade association of the SRI community that has tracked SRI in its survey efforts since 1995-1996, and the US SIF Foundation.

2016 Survey Highlights:

• At the start of 2016, ESG (“environmental/social/governance”) factors were being considered for US$8.72 trillion of professionally-managed assets in the United States of America.

• SRI Market size: that is 20 percent / or $1-in-$5 of all Assets Under Management (AUM) / for all US-domiciled assets under professional management (that is almost $9 Trillion of the total AUM of $40.3 trillion).

• This is a gain of 33% over the total number ($6.572 trillion in AUM) in the previous US SIF survey results at the start of 2014.

• Surveyed for the 2016 report: a total of 447 institutional investors, 300 money (asset) managers, and 1,043 community investment institutions. This can be described as a diverse group of investors seeking to achieve positive impacts through corporate engagement -or- investing with an emphasis on community, sustainability or advancement of women.

Drivers: Client demand is a major driver – the U.S. asset owners hiring asset (money) management firms are increasingly focused on ESG factors for their investments — as responsible fiduciaries.

ESG Criteria: Survey respondents in the investment community had 32 criteria to select from in the survey, including E-S-G and product related activities (ESG funds); they could add ESG criteria used as well.

What is important to the investors surveyed?  The report authors cited responses such as:

• Environmental investment factors — now apply to $7.79 trillion in AUM.
• Climate Change criteria – now shape $1.42 trillion in AUM – 5 times the prior survey number.
• Clean Technology is a consideration for managers of $354 billion in AUM.
• Social Criteria are applied to $7.78 trillion in AUM.
• Governance issues apply to $7.70 trillion in AUM, 2X the prior survey.
• Product specific criteria apply to $1.97 trillion in AUM.

The Social criteria (the “S” in ESG) include conflict risk; equal employment opportunity and diversity; labor and human rights issues.

Product issues include tobacco and alcohol; these were the typically “screened out” stocks in the earlier days of SRI and remain issues for some investors today.

Mutual Funds:
Among the investment vehicles incorporating ESG factors into investment management, the survey found 519 registered investment companies (mutual funds, variable annuity funds, ETFs, closed-end funds). Total: $1.74 trillion in AUM.

Alternative Investment Vehicles:
There were 413 alternate investment vehicles identified as using ESG strategies (including private equity, hedge funds, VCs). Total: $206 billion in AUM.

Institutional Investors:
The biggie in SRI, with $4.72 trillion in AUM, a 17% increase since the start of 2014 (the last survey). These owners include public employee funds; corporations; educational institutions; faith-based investors; healthcare funds; labor union pension funds; not-for-profits; and family offices.

Community Investing:
The survey included results from 1,043 community investing institutions, including credit unions; community development banks; loan funds; VC funds. Total: $122 billion in AUM. (These institutions typically serve low-to-moderate income individuals and communities and include CDFI’s.)

Proxy Activism:
SRI players are active on the corporate proxy front: From 2014 to 2016, 176 institutional investors and 49 money managers file / co-file shareholder resolutions at U.S. public companies focused on environmental (E) or social (S) issues. (The number remains stable over the past four years, the report tells us.) The major development was that where such resolutions received 17% approval from 2007 to 2009, since 2013, 30% of resolutions received 30% or more approval.

There are five primary ESG incorporation strategies cited by US SIF: (1) Analyzing, selecting best-in-class companies, positive choices for the portfolio; (2) negative approaches / exclusionary approaches for certain sectors or industries or products by/for the fiduciary; (3) methods of ESG integration — considering various ESG risks and opportunities; (4) impact or “outcome” investing, intended to generate social (“S) or environmental (“E”) impact along with financial return; (5) selecting sustainability-themed funds of various types.

Commenting on the survey results, US SIF CEO Lisa Woll observed that as the field grows, some growing pains are to be expected. . .with the continuing concern that too often, limited information is disclosed by survey respondents regarding their ESG assets. While the number of owners and managers say that they are using ESG factors, they do not disclose the specific criteria used. (This could be, say, criteria for clean energy consideration, or labor issues of various kinds.)

The US SIF biannual survey effort began in 1996, looking at year-end 1995 SRI assets under management. In that first year, $639 billion in AUM were identified. By the 2010 report, the $3 billion AUM mark was reached. That sum was doubled by the 2014 report.

Year-upon-year, for us the message was clear in the periodic survey results: The center (the pioneering asset owner and management firms) held fast and key players built on their strong foundations; the pioneers were joined by SRI peers and mainstream capital market players on a steady basis (and so the SRI AUM number steadily grew); and investors — individuals, and institutions — saw the value in adopting SRI approaches.

Today, $1-in-$5 in Assets Under [Professional] Management sends a very strong signal of where the capital markets are headed — with or without public sector “enthusiasm” for the journey ahead in 2017 and beyond!

There is a treasury of information for you in the report, which is available at:

Congratulations to the US SIF team for their year-long effort in charting the course of SRI in 2015-2016:  CEO Lisa Woll; Project Directors Meg Voorhes of the US SIF Foundation and Joshua Humphreys of Croatan Institute; Research Team members Farzana Hoque of the Foundation and Croatan Institute staff Ophir Bruck, Christi Electris, Kristin Lang, and Andreea Rodinciuc.

2016 survey sponsors included: Wallace Global Fund; Bloomberg LP; JP Morgan Chase & Co.; Calvert Investments; TIAA Global Asset Management; Candriam Investors Group; KKR; MacArthur Foundation; Neuberger Berman; Saturna Capital (and Amana Mutual Funds Trust); Bank of America; BlackRock; CBIS (Catholic Responsible Investing); Community Capital Management Inc.; ImpactUs; Legg Mason Global Asset Management / ClearBridge Investments; Morgan Stanley Institute for Sustainable Investing; Sentinel Investments; Trillium Asset Management; Cerulli Associates; and, Walden Asset Management.

A footnote on terminology: Throughout the survey exercise and reporting, terms used include sustainable, responsible and impact investing; sustainable investing; responsible investing; impact investing; and SRI. These are used interchangeably to describe investment practices.

About US SIF:  This is a three-decade old, Washington-DC-based membership association that advances SRI to ensure that capital markets can drive ESG practices. The mission is to work to rapidly shift investment practices toward sustainability, focusing on long-term investment and the generation of positive social and environmental impacts.  SIF Members are investment management and advisory firms; mutual fund companies; research firms; financial planners and advisors; broker-dealers; non-profit associations; pension funds; foundations; community investment institutions; and other asset owners.

Governance & Accountability Institute is a long-time member organization of the U.S. Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment (US SIF).

As part of the G&A Institute mission, we are committed to assisting more investing and financial professionals learn more about SRI and ESG — especially younger professionals interested in adopting SRI approaches in their work.  G&A is collaborating with Global Change Advisors to present a one-day certification program hosted at Baruch College/CUNY on December 14, 2016.  Details and registration information is at:

Big News Out of the U.S. Department of Labor For Fiduciaries — Opportunity to Utilize ESG Factors in Investment Analysis and Portfolio Management

by Hank Boerner – G&A Institute Chairman

Back in the late-1960s and early 1970s, as allegations of older worker retirement abuses gained wide media attention, members of the U.S. Congress focused on “retirement security” issues. After high-profile committee hearings, the Congress passed the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, signed into law by our 40th CEO, President Gerald Ford. The U.S. Department of Labor was assigned to develop and oversee the operating rules-of-the road for retirement plan fiduciaries — including public employee pension systems; corporate retirement plans; endowments; foundations; trusts.

Over the next 30 years the Department of Labor’s operating arms for regulating “ERISA” — especially including the Employee Benefits Security Administration — tweaked the rules & regulations with such actions as clarifying letters (such as to the Pacific Coast Roofers Pension Plan and the Northwestern Ohio Building Trades and Employer Construction Industry Investment Plan) and a series of “interpretive bulletins” to clarify the rules for fiduciaries.

The passage of ERISA was a great boon for many Americans. The law opened the door for institutional investors to dramatically expand their investments in other than the traditional “prudent man” vehicles of old, like U.S. Treasury notes, bills and bonds and municipal bond issues. Trillions’ of dollars flowed into the equities market after the 1970s and trading volume (at exchanges) soared.

Many of us benefited directly and indirectly from ERISA, including individuals opening 401-k plans made possible by the legislation. The portfolios of public pension funds in particular soared in total value. (CalPERS, the California public employee plan, has US$300 billion in AUM; $150 billion of these assets are in public equity.)

The financial good times rolled, in large measure due to ERISA!

Periodically, the ERISA officials (working under the political appointees of various U.S. Presidents) would issue guidance. The cottage industry of law firms, accounting firms, pension consultants, actuaries and other ERISA-focused professionals grew by leaps and bounds. And, from the early 1980s on, there was steadily growing embrace of new approaches to investing, and new products ginned up with retirement “security” in mind.

Game Changer: The Emergence of Sustainable Investing

The new approaches included embrace of ESG performance for greater analysis [by asset owners and asset managers], and greater focus on and inclusion of ESG-related products offered by financial services firms for fiduciaries’ portfolios (mutual fund, indexes, benchmarks, etc). The latest survey by the Forum for Sustainable & Responsible Investing (US SIF) established a high water mark: a total of US$6.2 trillion in Assets Under Management were managed using ESG approaches as we entered 2014; that’s $1 in $6 in U.S. equity markets. The US SIF was in the vanguard in getting the Department of Labor guidance clarified regarding ESG investment.

Emblematic of the changes taking place as the Department of Labor prepared its latest guidance, S&P Dow Jones Indices (part of McGraw Hill Financial) busily announced three new climate change index series — two focused on carbon efficiency, and a fossil fuel free index. “Climate change and its impact present a challenge from an investment perspective,” said the index company.

2008 ERISA Guidance — Chilling Effect for ESG

In October 2008, in the waning days of President George W. Bush’s Administration, the Department of Labor issued its Interpretive Bulletin Relating to the Fiduciary Standard in Considering Economically Targeted Investments (“ETIs” in government-ese). The regulators’ guidance was interpreted by many investors as saying that only financial risk and return could be considered by the tens of thousands of fiduciaries in the USA overseeing pension funds, etc. “Other” considerations, such as a company’s ESG performance, were not acceptable.

Never mind that sustainable investing was growing significantly in importance in the U.S. and global capital markets. Never mind that the collapse of the stock market in 2008, thanks to the reckless behavior of the big bank holding companies, and look-the-other way regulators. The dives of stock prices would drive investors to the safety offered by sustainable investing products and instruments. Never mind that a growing army of stakeholders saw sustainable investing — that is, investing with collateral interests as well as the traditional financials — was becoming mainstream.

October 2015 ERISA Guidance – Encouraging!

Institutional investors (asset owners) and professional asset managers began engaging with Department of Labor officials soon after President Barack Obama took office to discuss DoL guidance for plan fiduciaries. Since 2009, of course, ESG-focused investments have soared in volume. One after another academic studies have been published to provide evidence that sustainable investment has clear financial payoff as well as “collateral” benefits. (Think:  Who would not encourage company managements to lower their environmental liabilities, create more “green” products that consumers want, improve policies and actions involving the diversity of their enterprises, avoid regulatory costs including fines, and more, more, more in terms of becoming a more sustainable company attractive to a greater number of investors?)

In late-October, the DoL’s Employee Benefits Security Administration issued an updated Interpretive Bulletin — this time, clearly stating that terms like socially responsible investing, sustainable & responsible investing, ESG investing, impact investing, and economically targeted investing (ETI), while not uniform in meaning…are related to any investment that is selected in party for its collateral benefits apart from investment return to the investor.

The Bulletin is being distributed via the Federal Register now to explain to fiduciaries that the 2008 Bulletin is officially withdrawn and replaced with language that reinstates the language dating back to 1994 (setting out the basic advice that fiduciaries should act prudently to diversify their plan to minimize the risk of large losses).

Highlights of the new DoL ERISA guidance:

• In updated terms, guidance includes plan consideration of ESG factors such as environmental, social or corporate governance (ESG) — these do not need special scrutiny (as the 2008 guidance implied). The 2015 Bulletin specifically refers to such current terms-of-art as sustainable & responsible investing.

• Fiduciaries should not be dissuaded from pursuing [such] investment strategies as those that consider ESG factors, even when they are used solely to evaluate the economic benefits of investments and identify economically superior instruments and investing in ETIs [where they are economically equivalent].

• When a fiduciary prudently concludes that such an investment is justified solely on the economic merits of the investment, there is no need to evaluate collateral goals as “tie breakers.” And, setting aside the 2008 advice, there is no need for considerable documentation as to why (for example an ESG investment) was chosen.

• The Labor Department does not believe ERISA (the 1974 law and subsequent rules & regulations, and opinions) prohibits a fiduciary from addressing ETIs or incorporating ESG factors in investment policy statements or integrated ESG-related tools, metrics and analyses to evaluate an investment’s risk or return or choose among otherwise equivalent investments.

Cautionary guidance: In issuing the October 2015 Bulletin the DoL staff reminds fiduciaries that section 403 and 404 of ERISA do not permit fiduciaries to sacrifice the economic interests of the plan participants in receiving their promised benefits in order for the plan to pursue collateral goals. BUT — the DoL has “consistently recognized” that fiduciaries MAY consider collateral goals as tie-breakers when choosing between investment alternatives that are otherwise equal with respect to risk and return over the appropriate time horizon.

ERISA does not direct investment choice where investment alternatives are equivalent and the economic interests of the plan’s participants and beneficiaries are protected if the selected investment in economically equivalent to competing instruments.

Setting the Record Straight

The 2008 guidance appeared to say that investing with collateral goals in mind should be rare, and had to be documented to demonstrate compliance with ERISA’s “rigorous standards.” The 2015 guidance sets the record straight: “Plan fiduciaries should appropriately consider factors that potentially influence risk and return — ESG issues may have a direct relationship in the economic value of the plan investment. These issues are proper components of the fiduciary’s primary analysis of the economic merits of competing investment choices.”

Again, underscoring for the record: The Department does not believe ERISA prohibits a fiduciary from addressing ETIs or incorporate ESG factors in investments….

We could say that investors encouraging such actions as fiduciaries divesting fossil fuel companies because of concerns about “stranded assets” left in the ground (and not be counted as reserves) can breathe easier with the new DoL guidance.

John K.S. Wilson, head of corporate governance and engagement at Cornerstone Capital Group noted in response to the guidance: “An important purpose of this Interpretive Bulletin is to clarify that plan fiduciaries should appropriately consider factors that potentially influence risk and return. Environmental, social and governance issues may have a direct relationship to the economic value of the plan’s investments. Collateral benefits include environmental protection, social equity and financial stability, which Cornerstone considers necessary outcomes for the mitigation of long-term macroeconomic investment risk.” (Wilson is the former director of corporate governance at TIAA-CREF, where he oversaw voting of proxies at the CREF portfolio (8,000 companies.)

Sending a Clear Signal to Plan Fiduciaries

We see the Interpretive Bulletin as sending a clear signal to U.S. fiduciaries that considering ESG factors is recognized as an important part of the fiduciary’s duty in evaluating risk and return. As Social Finance commented in its reaction — “US DOL Announced ERISA Guidance to Unlock Impact Investments.” Over time — the guidance will (unlock ESG investing’s power. that is)!

You can read the U.S. Department of Labor Interpretive Bulletin summary at:

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Congratulations to US SIF chief executive officer Lisa Woll and her colleagues in continuing the long engagement with the Department of Labor to get clear guidance on ESG investing. Sustainable investing champions involved in the long engagement with the Department of Labor include Adam Kanzer (Domini Fund); Jonas Kron (Trillium); Meg Voorhes (SIF); Tim Smith (Walden Asset Management).

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!”