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….

Today: Huge Financial Flows as the U.S.A. Aids the Business Community and Workers, Families…How Is the Flow Facilitated?

April 28, 2020 –   #WeRise2FightCOVID-19  Excellent in Corporate Citizenship on Display in the Coronavirus Crisis – #18

Introduction
These are the times when actions and reactions to crisis helps to define the character of the corporation and shape the public profiles of each of the corporate citizens. For the managements of companies, these are not easy times.

Important decisions are to be made, many priorities set in an environment of unknown unknowns — and there are many stakeholders to be taken care of.

The Good News 
Corporations are not waiting to be part of the solution – decisions are being made quickly and action is being taken to protect the enterprise.  This is no easy task while protecting the corporate brand, the reputation for being a good corporate citizen, watching out for the investor base and the employee base — and all stakeholders.

What are companies doing? How will the decisions made at the top in turn affect the company’s employees, customers, hometowns, suppliers, other stakeholders?  Stay tuned to our series.

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

The government of the United States of America is directing hundreds of billions’ of dollars toward individuals, families, business enterprises, and local and state governments to aid in the response to the coronavirus emergency.  How do the much-needed funds reach the intended recipients?

As the U.S. Congress, the Federal Reserve System and the Treasury Department (and other agencies) make the moves to provide continuing financial support for small businesses, laid off and furloughed employees, and major industries like airlines, the ramping up of the enabling technologies to facilitate the financial flow is a herculean task.

Take the first round of financial aid to small business, with funds channeled from the Small Business Administration (SBA) through big banks, regional banks, community banks, credit unions, and other qualified lenders.

As U.S. banks and credit unions faced the “instant” onslaught of a huge volume of applications for financial aid, FIS (working with a growing number of financial institutions) leveraged its “Real-Time Lending Platform” to digitize and automate the lending process. The platform is now processing a high volume of loans and can be scaled to meet demand as needed.

FIS created a COVID-19 Online Resource Center to provide its clients with options and information to “adapt and rebound” to virus emergency challenges. Link:  https://www.fisglobal.com/response-center

About the Company
FIS is a leading provider of technology solutions for merchants, banks and capital market firms worldwide.  The company has more than 55,000 people “globally dedicated to advancing the way the world pays, banks and invests by applying its scale, deep expertise and data-driven insights”.  FIS is a Fortune 500 enterprise and is included in the S&P 500® Index. (FIS:NYSE)

FIS is now using its technology platforms to enable U.S. banks and credit unions to provide loans and other economic relief to small businesses and merchants under the Small Business Administration (SBA) “Paycheck Protection Program” (that is within the CARES ActCoronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act).

The PPP authorizes lenders (in the first round) to provide up to $349 billion in funds to U.S. small business and merchants that are impacted by COVID-1. Loans can be forgiven in time if used for payroll costs and certain other expenses; all funds must be used by June 30th.

FIS is also waiving minimum monthly service charges for April for U.S. and U.K. merchants and providing free virtual terminal access for U.S. merchants and retailers enrolled in the Worldpay from FIS IQ online portal (for remote processing).

The company is also providing online grocery shopping for SNAP benefit recipients (SNAP is a U.S. Department of Agriculture program – the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).

Using FIS technology, SNAP benefit recipients in a piloted program (rolled out in Washington State, Oregon and Nebraska) can use their Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards to make online purchases of groceries through authorized retailers – such as Walmart and Amazon.

FIS government agency clients in the states of Arizona, Florida, Idaho and California were next in line for the program. (Typically, EBT users have to make their purchases at brick & mortar retailers.)

In 2017 CEO Gary Norcross became a signatory of CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion, a network of 500-plus CEOs in 85 industry categories.

Talk About Overload
In the context of describing FIS’ involvement in the Federal aid programs, consider the complexity of banks, credit unions and lenders managing the load of loan applications.  In FY 2019, SBA managed just $28 billion in loans.  That was for 52,000 loans totaling $23 billion under the flagship 7A program and 6,000 loans for $5 billion under the SBA 504 program.

As of April 24, 2020 the volume is:  38,984 loans totaling $7,967,174,888 under just the SBA Disaster Assistance Nationwide National Economic Injury Disaster Loan program!

And no doubt there is more Federal financial aid to be on the table as the coronavirus continues.

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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 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 – stay healthy — keep in touch!

 

Technology: Providing Vital Components Influencing the Fight Against COVID-19

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. This is post #17 in the series, “Excellence in Corporate Citizenship on Display in the Coronavirus Crisis” –

16 April 2020   #WeRise2FightCOVID-19   “Corporate Purpose – Virus Crisis”

By Lama Alaraj – Sustainability Reporting Analyst-Intern at G&A Institute

As the tasks of our everyday world are put on hold, all around the world we are playing the waiting game, hoping for an end to this madness.

While at home, waiting for the world to be “normal” again, often our only source of communication with the outside is through our tech devices.

Without most people doing much to get ready for the unanticipated spread of the virus, technology for connecting with one another and the outside world was widely-available and already serving as our first source of comfort…and tech connectivity remains so during this crisis.

Where we stand today: Many sectors in our economies are muted and our reliance as a global society leaning on the digital world greater than ever.

What about after the crisis ebbs and then eventually passes? This is a survey of what is happening in the virus crisis and how tech companies are lending their support. And what developments during the crisis might be breakthroughs for future use.  Here is a round-up of what tech companies are doing in the virus crisis.

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Blue Dot
From the beginning of the crisis, this Canadian tech startup had caught on to the danger posed by virus even before the WHO released an official statement. Blue Dot used a cloud-based GIS platform that works to detect infectious disease outbreaks around the world. This sophisticated technology also uses AI to send alerts about diseases tailored to the affected region (source: Bluedot, 2020).

The power of knowledge enabled by these approaches to use of advanced technology is unrivaled. Artificial intelligence (AI) has the capability of harnessing a previously unthinkable amount of data to sift through, then applying results to an algorithm and calculating vital information that influences our responses (Source: Bowles, 2020).

Technology tools were not only able to detect the first few cases of COVID-19, but through this innovative software development, Blue Dot was able to predict the region the disease was going to spread to from the initial location at Wuhan.

The CBS Network program “60 Minutes” had a good look at the technology and approach behind the success of the Blue Dot detection capabilities.  The program:  ‘The Computer Algorithm That Was Among the First to Detect the Coronavirus Outbreak”.

Subtext:   On New Year’s Eve, a small company in Canada was among the first to raise the alarm about an infectious disease outbreak. Its computer algorithm calculated where the virus might spread next. The technology could change the way we fight another contagion.

You can see the segment here: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/coronavirus-outbreak-computer-algorithm-artificial-intelligence/

We are seeing the global tech giants partnering with the American government to fight against the pandemic. Supercomputers and Artificial Intelligence are the key components in the battle.

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The IBM supercomputer (Watson) is built to analyze standard mathematical problems utilizing AI to generate algorithms based on various models.

In Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the IBM technology was used to look at 8000 different drug compounds – quickly narrowed down to 77 that are believed to be possible components of a future vaccine (Gil, 2020).

This supercomputing / processing power has helped in the current crisis by being able to conduct rapid research that otherwise would have taken years.

Although technology has not yet found a solution for our current dilemma, the foundations and resources these companies are providing are based on valuable insights — giving us relief from trying to understand this disease completely in the blind.

The relationship between health and technology — which has been going on for years —  is now leading the fight in the combat zone.  And there are many promising opportunities for society in the post-crisis, thanks to tech advances.

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Microsoft – another global tech giant — has introduced a Healthcare chatbot. The bot uses machine learning to quickly assess COVID-19 symptoms and provide a resolution of whether you should stay home or seek medical help. The US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is currently using this innovation.

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A statement from Alphabet’s Google Inc, and Apple Inc was released recently in regards to the latest development against the fight. The tech giants are now going to utilize AI through our smartphones in order to be able to track the movement of COVID-19.

The end result is that our smartphones will actually start sending us warnings when we have come into contact with a person who has tested positive with the deadly virus.

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Although this is an incredibly sophisticated innovation that can help us flatten the curve, where do we draw the line when it comes to AI and our morals and ethics?  And personal privacy?

There have been a lot of positive changes coming out from this sector that will aid the world’s health professionals with resources to speed up the process in finding a cure.

However, the concept of utilizing surveillance and accessing our private medical records is an area of concern for many. This exact turn in events is what makes humankind fear the coming of AI.

While economies around the world are experiencing a global shutdown and many are suffering due to this, some tech companies have actually experienced new growth.

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Zoom, a video conferencing application, actually experienced a dramatic surge in the amount of users (10X user growth just in days!).

Many people in all walks of life had to adapt quickly to the new norm and Zoom presented its platform as the easy, available answer to be able to connect multiple users at once making meetings, interviews, school classes possible. (The company did experience problems and suffered wide public criticism in the rollout to a broader audience, with many new users mostly unfamiliar with the platform.)

As Zoom shows, the world as we know it every day can be completely transformed in the blink of an eye.

In a world that has just turned dark, our strength must not be divided. Zoom in its concern for society gave us the platform to jump back into our accustomed social constructs in order to hold onto some sense of normal — but for many, through a digitalized lens.

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Bloomberg LP reported that Samsung was experiencing growth in the crisis. The company released their results for the Q1 with an unexpected increase in sales by 5%.

The positive performance of some tech companies can be attributed to the economic shock we are in due to the pandemic. The instantaneous lock-downs across the world changed the consumer demand pattern, where the almost-complete transition to work from home and adaptation to social distancing spiked a demand in video gaming — and thus demand for semiconductors that Samsung provided (Kim, 2020).

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Cautionary Note
The growth the companies are currently experiencing may not be sustainable throughout the rest of the year due to the continuing, aggressive economic downturn and spreading of the virus.

With all these changes that we are seeing it is important to take into account the concern that some may not be able to take part in this ongoing transition. Many businesses have completely shut down for the time being without being able to continue production from home.

We are asking ourselves the questions: What will happen to these concerns when the virus crisis levels off and then subsides? What will happen to their workers?

Moreover, in areas where poverty is more prevalent, and rural regions, there is a real digital divide. This is becoming quite evident in the crisis.

Not every household has access to the internet (or can afford access) and therefore individuals and families cannot take part in the current state of daily life.

The opportunity to cling on to some piece of our world as we knew it is not available to all. For example, there are many school children who currently are not able to attend school, and without technology are missing out on continuing their education. Often, this is simply because they do not have adequate access to the internet or a machine to use for their class work.

We are seeing companies in the tech industry doing their part through the donation of large sums of money to various needy causes.  Examples:

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Google has stepped up and is donating US$800 million to help governmental institutions and small businesses through this pandemic and economic crisis. The money will be supplied through channels of advertising credits/grants and loans (Zakir, 2020). Although this does not “fix” the detrimental effects of COVID-19, the tech giant provides temporary relief in dire times.

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Chuck Robbins, the CEO of Cisco released a statement that the company will be donating “$225 million in cash, in-kind and planned-giving” to support the cumbersome fight against the pandemic.

During times of crisis, of course we do need business leaders like this CEO to help to meet peoples’ needs in order to provide humanity with hope and comfort amid the chaos. That includes shifting from normal production to emergency supplies for the medical community.

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Honeywell has turned their operations over to producing N95 masks in their facilities, to help to address the global supply shortage. Efforts such as these are helping to make us more capable of coping through this crisis and the corporate contributions are helping buffer the severity of the pandemic.

The significance of the technology sector’s heavy involvement with the pandemic of today is no surprise. While many of us are sheltered at home, the internet has become our source of sanity. For many governments, artificial intelligence is their presumed knight in shining armor, ready to save the world.

I do believe that in the new normative we will not be shying away from our relationship with groundbreaking technology. However, there is much uncertainty in this transition.

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The Future Outlook
Our heavy dependence on the technology sector during this crisis is going to have dramatic impacts in our labor force, education and our various economic markets. Moreover, current global economies who do not have a developed technological sector may be left further behind and unable to reap benefits from the current against the pandemic.

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About the Author
Lama Alaraj
is a Sustainability Reporting Analyst-Intern at G&A Institute. She graduated from Dalhousie University (Canada) with a double major in economics and international development studies. Over the years, she developed a growing interest in the power of technology and how it manages to integrate in every sector in our global community.

In addition to the G&A analyst-internship, Lama is currently working as a marketing consultant for Web.com, a company built on web development.

Her personal goal is to take the knowledge she gains from this role and apply it extensively throughout any project or role she takes on.

Lama is very excited to be part of the G&A Institute community and to learn about how industries manage to adhere to their environmental responsibilities. Lama thinks that as the climate continues to change, the choices we make today are more vital than ever.

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G&A Institute Team Note

In this series we are bringing you news of private (corporate and business), public and social sector developments as organizations in the three societal sectors adjust to the emergency.

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!