Watching the Major Stock Indexes – For Strong ESG Signals from the Corporate Sector

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

October 2020

Indexes – Indices – Benchmarks – these are very important financial analysis and portfolio management tools for asset owners and their internal and external managers.

We can think of them as a sort of report card; fiduciaries can track their performance against the benchmark for the funds they manage; financial sector players can develop products for investment (mutual funds, Exchange Traded Funds, separate accounts and so on) to market to investors using the appropriate benchmark.

If the investable products are focused on the available equities of the largest market cap companies for investment, the most widely-used indexes will likely be the S&P 500®, created back in March 1957 by Standard & Poor’s and the Russell 1000®, created in 1984 by the Frank Russell Company.

Today the S&P 500 Index is managed by the S&P Global organization.  The Russell 1000 is managed by FTSE Russell, a unit of the LSE Group (London Stock Exchange Group).

There are more or less 500 corporate entities in the S&P 500 Index that measures the equity performance of these companies (those listed on major exchanges).

There are other important indexes by S&P for investors to track:  The S&P Global 1200, S&P MidCap 400, and S&P SmallCap 600, and many more.

Russell 1000® is a subset of the Russell 3000®; it is comprised of the 1000 largest market cap companies in the USA. The R1000 represents more than 90% of the USA’s top publicly-traded companies in the large-cap category.  Both indexes are very important tools for professional investment managers and send strong trending signals to the capital markets.

The G&A Institute team closely tracks the ESG and sustainability  disclosure & reporting practices and each year; since 2010 we’ve published research on the trends, first with the S&P 500, and for 2019 and 2020, we expanded our research into to the larger Russell 1000 index. (The top half of the 1000 roughly mirrors the S&P 500.)

The 500 and 1000 companies are important bellwethers in tracking the amazing expansion of corporate sustainability reporting over the past decade.  Yes, there were excellent choices of select benchmarks for sustainable and responsible investors going back several decades – such as the Domini 400, going back to 1990 — and we tracked those as well.  (The “400” was renamed the MSCI KLD 400 Social Index in 2010).

But once major publicly-traded companies in the United States began escalating the pace of sustainability and ESG reporting, many more investors paid attention.  And media tuned in.  And then the ESG indexes proliferated like springtime blooms!

Those bigger customers (the large cap companies) of other firms began expanding their  ESG “footprint” and considering the supply and sourcing partners to be part of their ESG profile.  So, customers are now queried regularly on their ESG performance and outcomes.

Once the critical mass — 90% of large-cap U.S. companies reporting in our latest S&P 500 research – how long will it be for many more mid-caps, small-caps, privately-owned enterprises to follow the example?  Very soon, we think.  And we’re closely watching!  (And will bring the news to you.)

If you have not reviewed the results of the G&A Institute research on the ESG reporting of the S&P 500 and the Russell 1000 for 2019, here are the links:

Note:  Click here for more helpful background on the S&P 500 and the Russell 1000 large equities/stock indexes, here is Investopedia’s explanation.

Excellent Wrap up From GreenBiz:
At last, corporate sustainability reporting is hitting its stride

About “Stakeholder Capitalism”: The Public Debate

Here is the Transition — From the Long-Dominant Worldview of “Stockholder Capitalism” in a Changed World to…Stakeholder Capitalism!

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

October 2020

As readers of of G&A Institute’s weekly Sustainability Highlights newsletter know, the shift from “stockholder” to “stakeholder” capitalism has been underway in earnest for a good while now — and the public dialogue about this “21st Century Sign of Progress” has been quite lively.

What helped to really frame the issue in 2019 were two developments:

  • First, CEO Larry Fink, who heads the world’s largest asset management firm (BlackRock) sent a letter in January 2019 to the CEOs of companies in portfolio to focus on societal purpose (of course, in addition to or alongside of corporate mission, and the reasons for being in business).
  • Then in August, the CEOs of almost 200 of the largest companies in the U.S.A. responded; these were members of influential Business Roundtable (BRT), issuing an update to the organization’s mission statement to embrace the concepts of “purpose” and further cement the foundations of stakeholder capitalism.

These moves helped to accelerate a robust conversation already well underway, then further advanced by the subset discussion of Corporate America’s “walking-the-talk” of purpose et al during the Coronavirus pandemic.

Now we are seeing powerful interests weighing in to further accelerate the move away from stockholder primacy (Professor Milton Friedman’s dominant view for decades) to now a more inclusive stakeholder capitalism.  We bring you a selection of perspectives on the transition.

The annual gathering of elites in Davos, Switzerland this year — labeled the “Sustainable Development Impact Summit” — featured a gaggle of 120 of the world’s largest companies collaborating to develop a core set of common metrics / disclosures on “non-financials” for both investors and stakeholders. (Of course, investors and other providers of capital ARE stakeholders — sometimes still the inhabiting the primacy space on the stakeholder wheel!)

What are the challenges business organizations face in “making business more sustainable”?

That is being further explored months later by the World Economic Forum (WEF-the Davos organizers) — including the demonstration (or not) of excellence in corporate citizenship during the Covid-19 era. The folks at Davos released a “Davos Manifesto” at the January 2020 meetings (well before the worst impacts of the virus pandemic became highly visible around the world).

Now in early autumn 2020 as the effects of the virus, the resulting economic downturn, the rise of civil protests, and other challenges become very clear to C-suite, there is a “Great Reset” underway (says the WEC).

The pandemic represents a rare but narrow window opportunity to “reflect, reimagine, and reset our world to create a healthier, more equitable, and more prosperous future.”

New ESG reporting metrics released in September by the World Economic Forum are designed to help companies report non-financial disclosures as part of the important shift to Stakeholder Capitalism.

There are four pillars to this approach:  People (Human Assets); Planet (the impact on natural environment); Prosperity (employment, wealth generation, community); and Principles of Governance (strategy, measuring risk, accounting and of course, purpose).

The WEF will work with the five global ESG framework and standard-setting organizations as we reported to you recently — CDSB, IIRC, CDP, GRI, SASB plus the IFAC looking at a new standards board (under IFRS).

Keep in mind The Climate Disclosure Standards Board was birthed at Davos back in 2007 to create a new generally-accepted framework for climate risk reporting by companies. The latest CDSB report has 21 core and 34 expanded metrics for sustainability reporting. With the other four collaborating organizations, these “are natural building blocks of a single, coherent, global ESG reporting system.”

The International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC, another of the collaborators) weighed in to welcome the WEF initiative (that is in collaboration with Deloitte, EY, KPMG and PWC) to move toward common ESG metrics. And all of this is moving toward “COP 26” (the global climate talks) which has the stated goal of putting in place reporting frameworks so that every finance decision considers climate change.

“This starts”, says Mark Carney, Governor, Bank of England, and Chair of the Financial Stability Board, “with reporting…this should be integrated reporting”.

Remember, the FSB is the sponsor of the TCFD for climate-related financial disclosure.  FSB is a collaboration of the central banks and treasury ministries of the G-20 nations.

“COP 26 was scheduled for November in Glasgow, Scotland, and was postponed due to the pandemic. We are now looking at plans for a combined 26 and 27 meeting in November 2021.”  Click here for more information.

There is a lot of public dialogue centered on these important moves by influential players shaping and advancing ESG reporting — and we bring you a selection of those shared perspectives in our Top Stories in the Sustainability Highlights newsletter this week.

Top Stories On Davos & More

And then there is this, in the public dialogue on Stakeholder Capitalism, adding a dash of “reality” from The New York Times:

US Banks and Climate Change – What’s the Exposure to Climate Risk?

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

October 27 2020

Banks have long been at the center of the U.S. economy, and federal policies (federal legislation, rules) for the last century have been designed to support, encourage and protect banking institutions, and the customers the banks serve.

The Federal Reserve System – America’s vital central bankers – was one of the last central banks of the industrial nations to be organized (through the 1913 Federal Reserve Act). The Fed plays a critical role in U.S. bank oversight and support.

There is also a robust state-level banking oversight and protection system. Take New York State  — for many years, the state’s bank licensure activities were second only to the Federal governments. Many foreign banks “land” in NY and obtain a state license to begin to operate.

In all this oversight and protection [of the banking system], in all the laws, rules and regulations for the U.S. banking sector, risk is regularly addressed. It is central to bank regulation and the foundation of rules etc.

The questions centered on risk become more critical in this, an era of fast-rising climate change challenges.

What is the broad scope the financial services sectors’ (and the banking industry’s) responsibilities and accountabilities as seas rise, super storms roar ashore, flood waters rise, enormous wildfires occur, and more?

The Ceres organization’s “Ceres Accelerator for Sustainable Capital Markets” looked at the U.S. banking sector’s exposure to climate risk – to ask and try to answer: what are the systemic and financial risks of climate change for stakeholders, for the banking industry, and the broader economy?  That’s our Top Story pick for you this week.

The researchers looked at the risk associated with the syndicated lending of major U.S. banks in climate-relevant sectors of the economy. Key quote: “Our future depends on banks’ understanding of, and disclosure of, their exposure to major risks like climate change” (Steven Rothstein, MD of the accelerator).

The good news is that a growing number of the major U.S. banks have announced moves to look more closely at climate change impacts. Bank of America, for example, joined other big banks in disclosing the “E” effect of its lending practices. The big banks (like Citi Group) have joined forces in the Partnership for Carbon Accounting Financials Initiative.

Some 70 banks and investors from five continents are involved (with US$9 trillion in AUM). Lots going on in banking circles related to climate change challenges these days!

TOP STORIES

The Ceres Accelerator for Sustainable Capital Markets report on banking:

Something we were pleased to be a part of — WSJ Feature Section on “Leadership and Sustainability”. Journalists Dieter Holger and Fabiana Negrin Ocha interviewed the G&A leadership team in the “Show Us The Numbers” feature:

Big News: US SIF Report on US Sustainable and Impact Investing Trends 2020 Released

Big News:   As 2020 Began, $1-in-$3 of Professionally Managed AUM in the United States Had ESG Analysis and/or Portfolio Management Strategies Applied…US$17.1 Trillion Total

November 2020 — Every two years, since 1996, the influential trade organization for sustainable, responsible and impact investment (US SIF) conducts a year-long survey of professional asset managers to determine the total of USA-based assets under management (“AUM”) that have ESG analysis and/or portfolio management applied.

The Trends report just released charts the AUM with ESG analysis and strategies in the United States at $16.6 trillion at the start of 2020 – that’s 25X the total since the first Trends report in1996, with compounded growth rate of 14 percent. (The most rapid growth rate has been since 2012, says US SIF.)

Consider: This means that today, $1-in-$3 of professionally managed assets in the United States follows analysis and/or strategies considering ESG criteria. (The total of US assets under professional management at the start of 2020 was $51.4 trillion.)

This is a dramatic 43% increase over the survey results of the 2018 Trends report – that effort charted a total of $11.6 trillion in ESG-managed AUM in the USA at the start of 2018.

The survey respondents for the current Trends report identified the ESG-focused AUM practices of 530 institutional investors; 384 money managers; 1,204 community investment institutions – all applying environmental, social, and corporate governance criteria in their portfolio management.

What are top ESG issues identified by money management professionals in the survey effort?

  • Climate Change-Carbon: $4.18 trillion – #1 issue
  • Anti-Corruption: $2.44T
  • Board Room Issues: $2.39T
  • Sustainable Natural Resources/Agriculture: $2.38T
  • Executive Compensation: $2.22T
  • Conflict Risk (such as repressive regimes or terrorism, this cited by institutional investors): $1.8T

Note that many strategies and ESG analysis and portfolio management approaches can be overlapping.

Lisa Woll, US SIF Foundation CEO explains: “Money managers and institutional investors are using ESG criteria and shareholder engagement to address a plethora of issues including climate change, sustainable natural resources and agriculture, labor, diversity, and political spending. Retail and high net worth individuals are increasingly using this investment approach, with $4.6 trillion in sustainable investment assets, a 50% increase since 2018.”

The 2020 Trends report counts two main strategies as “sustainable investing” – (1) the incorporation of ESG factors in analysis and management of assets and (2) filing shareholder resolutions focused on ESG issues.

What are the top issues for the professional asset owners, their managers, and other investment professionals participating in the survey? Gauging the leading ESG issues for 2018-to-2020, examining the number of shareholder proposals filed, the Trends report charts the following in order of importance:

  • Corporate Political Activity
  • Labor & Equal Employment Opportunity
  • Climate Change
  • Executive Pay
  • Independent Board Chair
  • Special Meetings
  • Written Consent
  • Human Rights
  • Board Diversity

Looking at the 2020 Trends report, we have to say — we’ve certainly come a long, long way over the years. When first Trends survey was conducted at the end of 1995, the total AUM was just US$639 billion. The shift to sustainable, responsible, impact investment was underway! (The report released on November 16th is the 13th in the series.)

For information about the US SIF Report on US Sustainable and Impact Investing Trends 2020, and to purchase a copy of the report: https://www.ussif.org/trends

Governance & Accountability Institute is a long-time member of the Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment (US SIF) and a sponsor of the 2020 Trends report. US SIF is the leading voice advancing sustainable and impact investing across all asset classes.

Members include investment management and advisory firms, mutual fund companies, asset owners, research firms, financial planners and advisors, community investment organizations, and not-for-profits. The work is supported by the US SIF Foundation that undertakes educational and research efforts to advance SIF’s work.

Louis Coppola, G&A EVP and Co-founder, is chair of the SIF Company Calls Committee that arranges meetings of SIF member organizations with publicly-traded companies to discuss their ESG/Sustainability efforts.

US SIF Trends 2020 Report Published November16, 2020: