Eyes on Financial Accounting and Reporting Standards – IASB & FASB Consider “Convergence” and Separate Actions

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

March 2021

Investors Call For More Non-Financial Standards for Corporate Reporting, Less Confusion in “Voluntary” Disclosure.

Should there be more clarity in the rules for corporate sustainability accounting and reporting as many more investors embrace ESG/Sustainable analysis and portfolio management approaches?

Many investors around the world think so and have called for less confusion, more comparability, more credible and complete corporate disclosure for ESG matters.

Accounting firms are part of the chorus of supporters for global non-financial disclosure standards development.

Where and how might such rules be developed? There are two major financial accounting/reporting organizations whose work investors and stakeholder rely on: The International Accounting Standards Board (IASB) and in the United States of America, the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB). Both organizations develop financial reporting standards for publicly traded companies.

There are similarities and significant differences in their work. The US system is “rules-based” while the IASB’s approach has been more “principles-based” The differences have been diminishing to some degree with the US Securities & Exchange Commission more recently embracing some principles-based reporting.

By acts of the US Congress, FASB (a not-for-profit) was created and has governmental authority to impose new accounting rules — while the IASB rules are more voluntary.

The US system has “GAAP” – Generally Accepted Accounting Principles for guidance in disclosure. The adoption of IFRS is up to individual countries around the world (144 nations have adopted IFRS).

The IASB standards are global; these are the “IFRS” (International Financial Reporting Standards) issued by the IASB.

The FASB standards are used by US-based companies. For years, the two organizations have tried to better align their work to achieve a global financial reporting standard – “convergence”.

The IFRS Foundation is based in the United States and has the mission of developing a single set of “high-quality, understandable, enforceable and globally-accepted accounting standards (the IFRS), which are set by IASB.

In 2022 IASB and FASB will have a joint conference (“Accounting in an Ever-Changing World”) in New York City to “…strengthen connections between the academic and standard-setting communities…” and explore differences and similarities between US GAAP and IFRS Standards.

Consider that the Financial Stability Board (FSB), which launched the TCFD, is on record in support of a single set of high-quality global accounting standards.

Convergence. In the USA, the “whole of government” approach to the climate crisis by the Biden-Harris Administration may result in encouragement, perhaps even rules for, corporate ESG disclosure. The IASB is not waiting.

The IFRS Foundation Trustees are conducting analysis to see whether or not to create another board that would issue global standards for sustainability accounting and reporting.

A proposal will come by the time of the UN Climate Change Conference this fall. Should the IFRS foundation play a role? The International Federation of Accountants (IFAC) thinks so.

Many questions remain for IASB and FASB to address, of course. This is a complex situation, and we bring you some relevant news in the newsletter this week.

TOP STORIES

Here’s an update from the IFRS Foundation and what is being considered:

Meanwhile, the European Commission separately is exploring how to strengthen “non-financial” reporting – there’s the possibility that there could be EU standards developed:

Helpful information about the FASB-IASB differences:

Corporate Sustainability Reporting: Changes in the Global Landscape – What Might 2021 Bring?

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

Change is a-coming – quite quickly now – for corporate sustainability reporting frameworks and standards organizations.  And the universe of report users.

Before the disastrous October 1929 stock market crash, there was little in the way of disclosure and reporting requirements for companies with public stockholders. The State of New York had The Martin Act, passed in 1921, a “blue sky law” that regulates the sales and trades of public companies to address fraud issues.  That was about it for protecting those buying shares of public companies of the day.

Under the 100 year old Act, the elected New York State Attorney General is the “Sheriff of Wall Street — and this statute is still in effect. (See: AG Eliot Spitzer and his prosecution of the 10 large asset managers for analyst shenanigans.)

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, elected two-term governor of NY before his election to the highest office in November 1932, brought along a “brains trust” to Washington and these colleagues shaped the historic 1933 Securities Act and 1934 Securities Exchange Act to regulate corporate disclosure and Wall Street activities.

Story goes there was so much to put in these sweeping regulations for stock exchanges, brokerage houses, investor protection measures and corporate reporting requirements that it took two different years of congressional action for passage into law in the days when Congress met only briefly and then hastened home to avoid the Washington DC summer humidity and heat.

The Martin Act was a powerful influence on the development of foundational federal statutes that are regularly updated to keep pace with new developments (Sarbanes-Oxley, 2002, updated many portions of the 1934 Act).

What was to be disclosed and how? Guidance was needed by the corporate boards and executives they hired to run the company in terms of information for the company’s investors. And so, in a relatively short time “Generally Applied Accounting Principles” began to evolve. These became “commonly accepted” rules of the road for corporate accounting and financial reporting.

There were a number of organizations contributing to GAAP including the AICPA. The guiding principles were and are all about materiality, consistency, prudence (or moderation) and objectivity like auditor independence verifying results.

Now – apply all of this (the existing requirements to the Wild West of the 1920s leading up to the 1929 financial crash that harmed many investors — and it reminds one of the situations today with corporate ESG, sustainability, CR, citizenship reporting.  No generally applied principles that all can agree to, a wide range of standards and frameworks and guidance and “demands” to choose from, and for U.S. companies much of what is disclosed is on a voluntary basis anyway.

A growing chorus of institutional investors and company leaders are calling for clear regulatory guidance and understanding of the rules of the road from the appointed Sheriffs for sustainability disclosures – especially in the USA, from the Securities & Exchange Commission…and the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB), now the two official keepers of GAAP.

FASB was created in the early 1970s – by action of the Congress — to be the official keeper of GAAP and the developer of accounting and reporting rules.  SOX legislation made it official; there would be two keepers of GAAP — SEC and FASB.  GAAP addressed material financial issues to be disclosed.

But today for sustainability disclosure – what is material?  How to disclose the material items?  What standards to follow?  What do investors want to know?

Today corporates and investors debate the questions:  What should be disclosed in a consistent and comparable way? The answers are important to information users. At the center of discussion: materiality everyone using corporate reports in their analysis clamors for this in corporate sustainability disclosure.

Materiality is at the heart of the SASB Standards now developed for 77 industry categories in 11 sectors. Disclosure of the material is an important part of the purpose that GAAP has served for 8-plus decades.

Yes, there is some really excellence guidance out there, the trend beginning two decades ago with the GRI Framework in 1999-2000. Publicly-traded companies have the GRI Standards available to guide their reporting on ESG/sustainability issues to investors and stakeholders.

There is the SAM Corporate Sustainability Assessment (CSA), now managed entirely by S&P Global, and available to invited companies since 1999-2000. (SAM was RobecoSAM and with Dow Jones Indexes managed the DJ Sustainability Indexes – now S&P Global does that with SAM as a unit of the firm based in Switzerland.)

Since 2000, companies have had the UN Global Compact principles to include in their reporting. Since 2015 corporate managers have had the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to report on (and before that, the predecessor UN Millennium Development Goals, 2000-2015). And the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosure (TCFD) recommendations were put in place in 2017.

The Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC) in February 2010 issied “guidance” to publicly-traded companies reminded corporate boards of their responsibility to oversee risk and identified climate change matters as an important risk in that context.

But all of these standards and frameworks and suggested things to voluntarily report on — this is today’s thicket to navigate, picking frameworks to be used for telling the story of the company’s sustainability journey.

Using the various frameworks to explain strategy, programs, actions taken, achievements, engagements, and more – the material items. Profiling the corporate carbon footprint in the process. But there is no GAAP to guide the company for this ESG reporting, as in the example of financial accounting and reporting.

Institutional investors have been requesting more guidance from the SEC on sustainability et al reporting.  But the commission has been reluctant to move much beyond the 2010 risk reminder guidance even as literally hundreds of publicly-traded companies expand their voluntary disclosure.  And so we rely on this voluntary disclosure on climate change, diversity & inclusion efforts, political spending, supply chain management, community support, and a host of other ESG issues. (Human Capital Management was addressed in the recent Reg S-K updating.)

We think 2021 will be an interesting year in this ongoing discussion – “what” and “how” should companies be disclosing on sustainability topics & issues.

The various providers of existing reporting frameworks and standards and those influencing the disclosures in other ways are moving ahead, with workarounds where in the USA government mandates for sustainability reporting do not yet exist.

We’ve selected a few items for you to keep up with the rapidly-changing world of corporate ESG disclosures in our Top Stories and other topic silos.

There are really important discussions!  We watch these developments intently as helping corporate clients manage their ESG / sustainability disclosures is at the heart of our team’s work and we will continue to keep sharing information with you in the Highlights newsletter.

More about this in The Wall Street Journal with comments from G&A’s Lou Coppola: Companies Could Face Pressure to Disclose More ESG Data (Source: The Wall Street Journal)
TOP STORIES

Advancing Toward a Circular New York

By Kirstie Dabbs – Analyst-Intern, G&A Institute

New York City’s latest OneNYC 2050 strategy outlines an ambitious sustainability agenda that includes goals to achieve zero waste to landfill by 2030, and carbon neutrality by 2050.

New Yorkers who track city- and state-wide environmental goals and regulations are likely aware of the importance of renewable energy and energy efficiency in achieving this climate strategy, but those actions alone won’t fulfill New York’s ambitions.

A circular economy must also be adopted in order to further reduce greenhouse gas emissions and waste, while also conserving resources. Although the OneNYC strategy does make note of this shift, many New Yorkers remain unfamiliar with even the concept of the circular economy, let alone its principles, practices and potential impact.

What is the Circular Economy?

Also known as circularity, the circular economy calls for a reshaping of our systems of production and consumption, and an inherently different relationship with our resources.

Rather than following our current “linear” economic model that extracts resources to make products that are used and disposed of before the end of their useful life, a circular economy follows three core principles to extend the value of existing resources and reduce the need to extract new resources:

  • Design out waste.
  • Keep products and materials in use.
  • Regenerate natural systems.

These three principles — as put forth by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation — create opportunities to reduce and potentially eliminate waste,  from the design phase all the way to a product’s end of life.

Materials Matter

In the design phase, the choice of materials plays a critical role in either facilitating or preventing recirculation of materials down the line. By choosing to manufacture products with recycled materials, companies will drive demand for more post-consumer feedstock, further reducing waste to landfill which is aligned with the City’s waste-reduction goal.

Companies can also choose to manufacture products using responsibly sourced bio-based materials, which enable circularity because they biodegrade at the end of life with the appropriate infrastructure in place.

WinCup and Eco-Products are examples of companies leading the way toward biodegradable paper and plastic cup alternatives. The regenerative process of biodegradation is in line with the third principle of circularity and supports New York City’s waste goals in bypassing the landfill altogether and heading directly to the compost pile.

Durable Design Increases Product Lifespan and Reduces Consumer Demand

In addition to applying material design principles to divert material from landfill, companies can deploy design and marketing strategies to keep their products in use longer.

Designing durable products and those that can be easily repaired not only leads to longer product lives, but also reduces waste and demand for new products. Creating products that will be loved or liked longer – such as “slow” fashion that won’t go out of style – is another tactic to extend the emotional use of a product.

Finally, companies such as Loop that combine durability with reuse offer a solution to the packaging waste dilemma by keeping long-lasting packaging in circulation.

According to a 2019 report from the European Climate Foundation, by recirculating existing products and materials, the demand for new materials will decrease, reducing environmental degradation and product-related carbon emissions.

How Will the Circular Economy Help Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions?

The same report also notes that in order to meet the carbon reduction targets outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we “cannot focus only on…renewables and energy efficiency” but must also ”address how we manufacture and use products, which comprises the remaining half of GHG emissions.”

A recent press release from the World Economic Forum (WEF) summarized it succinctly: If we don’t link the circular economy to climate change, “we’re not just neglecting half of the problem, we’re also neglecting half of the solution.”

New York’s Steps to Advance the Circular Economy

Although the principles of circularity can be applied to an individual’s or organization’s behavior, to fully achieve a circular economy the economic system as a whole must fully adopt these principles.

According to a recent report by Closed Loop Partners — an investment company dedicated to financing innovations required for a circular economy — the four key drivers currently advancing circularity in North America are investment, innovation, policy and partnership. All are important and increasing; we are seeing the private and public sectors collaborating to take advantage of the economic opportunity offered by circularity while executing this environmental imperative.

The New New York Circular City Initiative

Closed Loop Partners, along with several other private and public organizations, have come together to found the New York Circular City Initiative, officially launching this month.

One of several partners participating in the initiative is the NYC Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), and Chief Strategy Officer Ana Arino spoke last year of how the NYCEDC is well-positioned to inspire and implement city-wide changes leading to a circular economy through levers such as real estate assets; programs to support circular innovation; its intersectional position between the private and public sectors; and public-facing awareness campaigns.

The vision of the New York Circular City Initiative is “to help create a city where no waste is sent to landfill, environmental pollution is minimized, and thousands of good jobs are created through the intelligent use of products and raw materials.” Through engagement in this collaborative effort, the City is taking an important step toward circularity, that, if scaled, has the potential to make significant and lasting changes in the local economy—and beyond.

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Kirstie Dabbs is pursuing her M.B.A. in Sustainability with focus on Circular Value Chain Management at Bard College.  She is currently an analyst-intern at G&A Institute working on GRI Data Partner assignments and G&A research projects. In her role as an Associate Consultant for Red Queen Group in NYC she provides organization analyses and support for not-for-profits undergoing strategic or management transitions.

 

Profile:  https://www.ga-institute.com/about-the-institute/the-honor-roll/kirstie-dabbs.html

 

This article was originally published on the GreenHomeNYC blog on September 28, 2020.

 

Busy Summer 2020 for the World of ESG Players – Rating Agencies, Information Providers, UNGC & the SDGs…and More

August 27 2020

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

It’s been a very busy summer for organizations managing corporate reporting frameworks and standards, for ESG rating agencies, and for multilateral agencies focused on corporate sustainability and responsibility.

If you are a corporate manager — or a sustainable investment professional — do tune in to some of the changes that will affect your work in some ways. Here’s a quick summary:

ISS/Institutional Shareholder Services
For four decades, ISS has been the go-to source on governance issues for proxy voting and corporate engagement guidance for major fiduciaries (pension funds are an example).

Two years ago, “E” and “S” ratings were added for investor-clients.

Now, ISS ESG (ISS’s responsible investing unit) is providing “best-in-class fund ratings” that assess the ESG performance of 20,000 firms. Funds will be rated 1-to-5 (bottom is 1) – this to be a broad utility resource for investment professionals. And for corporate managers – ISS ESG scores along with those of other ESG ratings agencies are a factor in whether your company is included in indexes, benchmarks, maybe ETFs and mutual funds that are being rated.

Bloomberg LP
It’s launching E, S & G scores for thousands of firms (highlighting environmental and societal risks that are material to a sector).

First sector up is Oil & Gas, with 252 firms rated. Also, there are new Board Composition scores, with Bloomberg assessing how well a board is positioned to respond to certain G issues. (Note that 4,300 companies are being rated – probably including yours if you are a publicly-traded entity.)

And in other news:

UN Global Compact and the SDGs
The UNGC observes its 20th anniversary and in its latest survey of companies, the organization asked about the SDGs and corporate perspectives of the 17 goals and 169 targets. The findings are in the blog post for you.

MSCI
This major ESG ratings agency expanded its model for evaluating company-level alignment to the Sustainable Development Goals. New tools will help capital markets players to enhance or develop ESG-themed investment services and products.

Global Reporting Initiative
The GRI continues to align its Universal Standards with other reporting frameworks or standards so that a GRI report becomes a more meaningful and holistic presentation of a company’s ESG profile.

GRI Standards were updated and planned revisions include moving Human Rights reporting closer to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and other inter-governmental instruments.

Climate Disclosure Standards Board
The CDSB Framework for climate-related disclosure is now available for corporate reporters to build “material, climate-related information” in mainstream documents (like the 10-k). This is similar to what the TCFD is recommending for corporate disclosure.

This is a small part of what has been going on this summer. We have the two top stories about ISS and Bloomberg and a whole lot more for you in the G&A Sustainability Update blog.

For your end-of-summer/get-ready-for-a-busy-fall schedule!

Top Stories

The G&A Blog with many more organizations and their actions here.

So Where Is The Corporate Sustainability Journey a Half-Year Into the Dramatic Impacts of the Coronavirus?

August 19, 2020 — in the midst of a strange summer for all of us

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

The questions may be going around in your universe and the answers offered up, say, inside the corporate enterprise as the senior executives and function, business unit and other managers meet the challenges posed by the virus pandemic, related economic disruption and civil protests on a number of topics.  This is about Quo Vadis, Our Sustainability Journey!

The Conference Board is a century-old, well-regarded business organization founded by corporate CEOs who were focused on “knowledge-sharing” at the beginnings of modern corporate management theories.

Today, 1,200 companies are involved as member organizations, typically with varying managers’ participation in sections devoted to specific topics and issue areas. These include Economy, Strategy & Finance; ESG (including Corporate Citizenship and Corporate Governance); Human Capital Management (including Diversity, Equality and Inclusion) …and other focus areas that fit the functional needs of today’s companies.

At G&A Institute we closely follow the extensive research and insights regularly shared by the Board as part of its foundational mission – sharing knowledge. This week The Conference Board issued its survey results for the question(s) asked of corporate connections: “What impact, if any, do you expect the COVID-19 crisis to have on your company’s overall sustainability program?”

If we asked our corporate colleagues that question, we could expect the answers to be all over the place. The Board did ask, and the answers were “sharply divided”, staff reported.

The Conference Board conducted two different surveys — one at more than 200 companies, focused on generating responses from general counsel, corporate secretaries and investor relations execs; the other queries, at 40 companies with questions asked of dedicated sustainability executives.

Top line: Three-in-ten sustainability execs expect the current health crisis to increase emphasis on their “E” and “S” efforts – while only one-in-ten of their fellow governance execs agree with that premise.

Example: responding to whether or not COVID-19 “put general sustainability efforts on temporary hold,” only 7% of sustainability executives said yes, while 19% of legal, governance and IR folks felt that way.

The short survey results are available for you in a Top Story.

Says The Conference Board staff: “This divergence of opinions reveals companies need to reach an internal consensus on the crisis’ impact on their sustainability programs and be prepared to communicate [it] in a cohesive and consistent manner.”  Good advice!

Inside the corporate structure, people may have differing views on what is “sustainability,” what their own company’s sustainability programs are about, (Strategy? Actions? Engagements? Achievements? Third-Party Recognitions?) And senior execs may have different opinions about the real impact of the virus on the company’s operations — not all impacts are yet fully understood as the pandemic roars on around the world.

But there are positives being reported. For example, we are seeing reports every day now of increased productivity at some companies because people are at home and not wasting hours commuting.  Emails are being answered early in the morning and way after dark — increasing the firm’s communication and productivity.

What is the outside view of this, beyond the corporate sector?

While inside the corporate enterprise there may be differences of opinion on the direction of the sustainability journey, here’s some important “outside” news from Sam Meredith at CNBC: “Sustainable investment funds just surpassed US$1 trillion for the first time.”

He cited recent UBS research that the global public sector has been stepping up support for green projects. And, he cited a Morningstar report that spelled out factors contributing to the record 2Q inflows to ESG mutual funds.  Investors are putting their money where their “sustainability beliefs” may be, we could say.

Adding some intelligence to the results of our reading of The Conference Board survey results, Morningstar says: “…the disruption caused by the virus highlighted the importance of building sustainable and resilient business models based on multi-stakeholder considerations…”

Of course, there are no easy answers “inside” to harmonize the views of the executives responding to surveys about their company’s sustainability efforts.  But we can offer some advice.  Looking at the almost 2,000 corporate sustainability et al reports our team analyzed over the past year, we are seeing the formulas for success in the corporate sustainability journey.

People at the top (board room and C-suite) are the champions of the corporate sustainability efforts.  Strategy is set at the top and communicated effectively throughout the organization.  (“Strategem” is the root of the work — in ancient Greece, this was the work of the generals.  The leaders inside the company must lead the sustainability journey!)

Goals are to be set (carbon emissions reduction, increased use of renewable energy, reduction of waste to landfill, water usage and water discharge, and much more); progress is regularly measured and managed. And disclosed.

Serious attention is paid to the firm’s diversity & inclusion efforts and results; effective human capital management (HCM) is a priority at all levels, and in all geographies.

Meaningful engagements — internally and with external parties — are top priorities at multiple levels. Supply chain and sourcing efforts are monitored and bad actors and bad practices are eliminated, with management understanding that the firms in their supply network are part of their ESG footprint.

And the periodic public reporting on all of the above and more is based on the materiality of data and information — the stuff the investors want to know more about for their analysis and portfolio management.

Senior leadership understands that corporate sustainability is not about just “feeling good” but an important element of playing to win in the competition for capital and achieving industry leadership and being recognized for their efforts and accomplishments.  As Morningstar advises, sustainability is part of the business model.

So in the context of the ongoing Covid-19 crisis, the resulting economic and financial dislocations, the caring for the firm’s valuable human assets..quo vadis for your corporate sustainability journey?

Interesting conversations going on, for sure.  Read the survey results from The Conference Board survey and see what you agree/disagree.  Thanks to our colleagues at the board for all the management knowledge that they share.

Top Stories

Publicly-traded Companies Have Many More Eyes Focused on Their ESG Performance – And Tracking, Measuring, Evaluating, ESG-Linked-Advice to Investors Is Becoming Ever-More Complex

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

Some recent developments for consideration by the boards and C-Suite of publicly-traded companies as established ESG ratings agencies up their game and new disclosure / reporting and frameworks come into play.

The “Global Carbon Accounting Standard” will debut in Fall 2020. Is your company ready? Some details for you…

Financial Institutions – Accounting for Corporate Carbon

The Partnership for Carbon Accounting Financials (PCAF) was organized to help financial institutions assess and then disclose the Greenhouse Gas emissions (GhGs) of their loans and investments to help the institutions identify and manage the risks and opportunities related to GhGs in their business activities.

Think: Now, the companies in lending or investment portfolios should expect to have their carbon emissions tracked and measured by those institutions that lend the company money or put debt or equity issues in their investment portfolios.

The financial sector kimono will be further opened. This could over time lead to a company lagging in ESG performance being treated differently by its institutional partners, whether the company in focus discloses their GhG emissions or not.

For companies (borrowers, capital recipients), this is another wake-up call – to get focused on GhG performance and be more transparent about it.

This effort is described as the to be the “first global standard driving financial institutions to measure and track the climate impact of their lending and investment portfolios.”

As of August 3, 2020, there are 70 financial institutions with AUM of US$10 trillion collaborating, with 16 banks and investors developing the standard…to be a common set of carbon accounting methods to assess and track the corporate emissions that are financed by the institutions’ loans and investments.

Significant news: Morgan Stanley, Bank of America (owners of Merrill Lynch) and Citi Group are all now members of the partnership and Morgan Stanley and Bank of America are part of the PCAF Core Team developing the Standard.

The institutional members of the Core Team leading the work of developing the PCAF Standard are: ABN AMRO, Access Bank, Amalgamated Bank, Banco Pichincha, Bank of America, Boston Common Asset Management, Credit Cooperatif, FirstRand Ltd, FMO, KCB, LandsBankinn, Morgan Stanley, Producanco, ROBECO, Tridos Bank, and Vision Banco.

The work of the PCAF will feed into the work of such climate initiatives as the CDP, TCFD, and SBTi (Science-based Target Initiative).

The work in developing the “Standard” includes an open comment period ending September 30, 2020. The final version of the Standard will be published in November.

Morgan Stanley, in its announcement of participation, explained: MS is taking a critical step by committing to measure and disclose its financial emissions…and those in its lending and investment portfolio. As other institutions will be taking similar steps.

(Morgan Stanley became a bank during the 2008 financial crisis and therefore received federal financial aid designed for regulated banking institutions.)

Tjeerd Krumpelman of ABN AMRO (member of the Steering Committee) explains: “The Standard provides the means to close a critical gap in the measurement of emissions financed by the financial industry. The disclosure of absolute financed emissions equips stakeholders with a metric for understanding the climate impact of loans and investment…”

Bloomberg Announces Launch of ESG Scores

Bloomberg LP has launched proprietary ESG scores – 252 companies are initially scored in the Oil & Gas Sector and Board Composition scores have been applied for 4,300 companies in multiple industries.

This approach is designed to help investors “decode” raw data for comparisons across companies; Bloomberg now presents both (raw data and scores) for investors.

This offers “a valuable and normalized benchmark that will easily highlight [corporate] ESG performance, explains Patricia Torres, Global Head of Bloomberg Sustainable Finance Solutions.

There is usually stronger data disclosure for the Oil & Gas Sector companies, says Bloomberg (the sector companies account for more than half of carbon dioxide emissions, generating 15% of global energy-related Greenhouse Gas emissions).

Governance scoring starts with Board Composition scores, to enable investors to assess board make up and rank relative performance across four key areas – diversity, tenure, overboarding and independence.

Bloomberg describes the “E, S” scores as a data-driven measure of corporate E and S (environmental and social) performance across financially-material, business-relevant and industry-specific key issues.

Think of climate change, and health and safety, and Bloomberg and investor clients assessing company activities in these against industry peers.

This is a quant modelling and investors can examine the scoring methodology and company-disclosed (or reported) data that underly each of the scores.

Also, Bloomberg provides “data-driven insights” to help investors integrate ESG in the investment process. This includes third party data, access to news and research content, and analytics and research workflows built around ESG.

Sustainalytics (a Morningstar company) Explains Corporate ESG Scoring Approach

The company explains its ESG Risk Rating in a new document (FAQs for companies). The company’s Risk Ratings (introduced in September 2018) are presented at the security and portfolio levels for equity and fixed-income investments.

These are based on a two-dimension materiality framework measuring a company’s exposure to industry-specific material ESG risks…and how well the company is managing its ESG risks.

Companies can be placed in five risk categories (from Neglible to Severe) that are comparable across sectors. Scores are then assigned (ranging from 9-to-9.99 for negligible risk up to 40 points or higher for severe risk of material financial impacts driven by ESG factors).

The company explains: A “material ESG issue” (the MEI) is the core building block of Sustainalytics’ ESG Risk Rating – the issue that is determined by the Sustainalytics Risk Rating research team to be material can have significant effect on the enterprise value of a company within an sub-industry.

Sustainalytics’ view is that the presence or absence of an MEI in a company’s financial reporting is likely to influence the decisions made by a reasonable investor.

And so Sustainalytics defines “Exposure to ESG Risk” and “Management of ESG Risk” and applies scores and opinions. “Unmanaged Risk” has three scoring components for each MEI – Exposure, Management, Unmanaged Risk.

There is much more explained by Sustainalytics here: https://connect.sustainalytics.com/hubfs/SFS/Sustainalytics%20ESG%20Risk%20Rating%20-%20FAQs%20for%20Corporations.pdf?utm_campaign=SFS%20-%20Public%20ESG%20Risk%20Ratings%20&utm_medium=email&_hsmi=93204652&_hsenc=p2ANqtz–uiIU8kSu6y0FMeuauFTVhiQZVbDZbLz18ldti4X-2I0xC95n8byedKMQDd0pZs7nCFFEvL172Iqvpx7P5X7s5NanOAF02tFYHF4w94fAFNyOmOgc&utm_content=93203943&utm_source=hs_email

G&A Institute Perspectives: Long established ESG raters and information providers (think, MSCI, Sustainalytics, and Bloomberg, Refinitiv, formerly Thomson Reuters) are enhancing their proprietary methods of tracking, evaluating, and disclosing ESG performance, and/or assigning ratings and opinions to an ever-wider universe of publicly-traded companies.

Meaning that companies already on the sustainability journey and fully disclosing on same must keep upping their game to stay at least in the middle of the pack (of industry and investing peers) and strive harder to stay in leadership positions.

Many more eyes are on the corporate ESG performance and outcomes. And for those companies not yet on the sustainability journey, or not fully disclosing and reporting on their ESG strategies, actions, programs, outcomes…the mountain just got taller and more steep.

Factors:  The universe of ESG information providers, ratings agencies, creators of ESG indexes, credit risk evaluators, is getting larger and more complex every day. Do Stay Tuned!


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: https://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: https://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.

SEC Provides Public Companies with COVID-19 Filing Deadline Relief and Guidance on the Financial Reporting Effects of the Virus

Summary of Audit Committee and Auditor Oversight Update (No. 58 February-March 2020)

by Daniel L. GoelzerFellow, G&A Institute

As companies struggle with the uncertainties and disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC) has taken steps to assist public companies in complying with their reporting and disclosure obligations. The SEC has issued orders that extend for 45 days the deadline for most public company filings due between March 1st and July 1st, although companies that wish to take advantage of this relief must comply with certain conditions.

In addition, the Division of Corporation Finance had issued guidance providing staff views on disclosure and other securities law issues arising from COVID-19 and related business and market disruptions.

SEC Exempts More Small Companies from ICFR Audits

On March 12, the SEC adopted amendments to the definitions of the terms “accelerated filer” and “large accelerated filer”.

The effect of these amendments is to exclude certain smaller public companies from accelerated filer status. As a result, these companies will no longer be required to obtain an auditor’s report on the effectiveness of their internal control over financial reporting and will have additional time to file annual and periodic reports with the SEC.

Companies that qualify as smaller reporting companies under the Commission’s rules and have less than $100 million in revenue will move from accelerated filer to nonaccelerated filer status.

Managements and audit committees of companies affected by these amendments should consider whether or not discontinuing the ICFR audit is cost-effective.

Internal Auditors Are Missing Key Risks

The Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA) has released its annual survey of Chief Audit Executives. The 2020 North American Pulse of Internal Audit “reveals serious gaps in internal audit’s coverage, with audit plans deficient in key risk areas.”

For example, the IAA found that almost one-third of respondents did not include cybersecurity/information technology in their audit plans. In addition, more than half did not include governance/culture or third-party relationships, and 90 percent did not include sustainability.

Audit committees should consider whether the internal audit staff’s plans for the coming year match the committee’s view of risk.

What’s on the Audit Committee’s Agenda in 2020?

Part II: COVID-19

During the past month, COVID-19 has radically altered public company priorities and challenges. This Update summarizes the views of three large accounting firms on the financial reporting issues that companies – and therefore audit committees — will face in the new environment.

Deloitte Perspectives

In Financial Reporting Considerations Related to COVID-19 and an Economic Downturn (March 25, 2020), Deloitte discusses key accounting and financial reporting considerations related to economic conditions that may result from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Deloitte’s comprehensive 64-page analysis includes the following sections:

  • Select SEC and PCAOB Announcements Related to COVID-19,
  • SEC Reporting and Disclosure Considerations, Broad Financial Reporting and Accounting Considerations, Internal Control Considerations, and
  • Financial Reporting Under ASC 852 for Entities in Reorganization Under the Bankruptcy Code.

The Deloitte paper also includes an appendix with industry-specific insights for eleven industry sectors. The executive summary discusses six accounting and reporting issues that “will be the most pervasive and challenging as a result of the pandemic’s impact.”

PwC’s Perspectives

PwC’s Responding to COVID-19: Considerations for corporate boards (March 20, 2020) states that boards “need to be proactive and agile, and they need to respond with strong leadership.” Accordingly, boards “will want to immediately consider” four broad issues:

  • Business (e.g., employee well-being,impact on strategy, share repurchases and dividends,supply chain,and liquidity);
  • tax policy and Washington;
  • financial reporting (e.g., financial reporting operations, earnings guidance, judgments and estimates, revenue recognition, and internal control testing);
  • and governance.

In a second publication — 1 2020 Audit committee newsletter: Helping you prepare for your next meeting — PwC adds some points specifically for audit committees.

E&Y Perspectives

In Five Financial Reporting Issues to Consider as a Consequence of COVID-19 (March 23, 2020), EY acknowledges that “the impact on financial reporting may not be the first thing that comes to mind as a consequence of the outbreak.”

Nonetheless, “there is an important and challenging role here for preparers of financial statements, audit committees and auditors.”

EY states that five issues will be priorities: Going concern and liquidity, impairment assessment, contract modifications, fair value measurement, and government assistance and income tax.

# # #

Daniel Goelzer is a retired partner in the law firm of Baker McKenzie. He is a member of the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board and advises a Big Four accounting firm on audit quality issues. From 2002 to 2012, he was a member of the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board and served as Acting PCAOB Chair from August 2009 through January 2011. From 1983 to 1990, he was General Counsel of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Mr. Goelzer is a CPA and a lawyer.

He is a G&A Institute Fellow. 

You can follow the Audit Blog:  @BlogAuditor on Twitter or @the-audit-blog on medium.com

Company in the CSR Reporting Spotlight: Salesforce

By Julia Nehring – Report Analyst-Researcher, G&A Institute

In recent months I have been analyzing many dozens of corporate sustainability, responsibility, stewardship, corporate citizenship, and similarly-titled public reports. Many of these are published by very prominent names with well-known brands attached to the corporate name.

For example, you probably know of Salesforce. As many technology companies have done, the enterprise began humbly in a small West Coast residence in 1999, when several entrepreneurs attempted to re-imagine how businesses could utilize computer software.

Today, the company offers a variety of sales, marketing, analytics, and other business services to its 150,000+ clients, which include startups, nonprofits, governments, large corporations, and anything in-between.

Measuring success, between 2017 and 2019 alone, Salesforce’s employee base increased 44 percent and its billions of dollars’ in revenue increased by 58%.

During this period of significant growth, Salesforce has impressively been lauded as a best workplace for diversity, a best workplace for women, and a best workplace overall, among numerous other types of accolades.

The Company’s Reporting Practices

Salesforce discusses these and a range of other accomplishments in its FY19 Stakeholder Impact Report. However, I am not commenting here to heap praise on Salesforce.

Using my lens as a CSR analyst-intern, I will attempt to highlight several reporting frameworks and concepts Salesforce has chosen to use in its most recent report that provide both transparency and promotional value for the company’s practices and accomplishments.

I also offer my own comments and ideas that come from learning about different reporting guidelines from different agencies, as well as reviewing many dozens of corporate CSR reports as a GRI report analyst.

Clicking on any of the links below will take you to G&A resources mentioned about the topic.

ESG Reporting Frameworks

By far the most commonly-used framework worldwide by companies in G&A’s research is the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI). Salesforce includes multiple references to this framework (formally, the GRI Standards) in its content index. (Best practice: including a content index in your company’s report to help users find information quickly.)

However, the report was not prepared “in accordance” with the GRI Standards. Instead, Salesforce opted to reference only certain disclosures and metrics of the GRI framework, as they apparently deemed applicable internally.

The apparent rationale? Since each framework identified in the report — including the GRI Standards, the Task Force on Financial-related Disclosures (TCFD), and the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) — define materiality in different ways, Salesforce did “not attempt to formally reconcile the divergent uses of the term materiality”.

In other words, instead of providing a more complete set of disclosures for one of the frameworks, the company opted to in effect dabble in each.

Along with its GRI references, the report includes some SASB references in the content index, and (positively) mentions its support of and use of the TCFD in conducting a climate-related scenario analysis.

I think investors may find this confusing. While Salesforce is ahead of the majority of companies who do not currently acknowledge SASB or TCFD at all, it is difficult for the report reader to discern which disclosures from each framework have been excluded. This does not help to paint a full picture for the reader.

It appears the company does acknowledge this, as it states that, “Over time we will work to expand our disclosures and align more closely to the leading frameworks, even as the frameworks themselves rapidly evolve.” A good practice, I think.

United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

Salesforce is a supporter of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (the 17 SDGs). In its report, Salesforce lists 12 SDGs that the company closely aligns with.

However, the company does not explicitly state how each SDG aligns with a particular action or initiative. Providing this level of detail — common practice among companies that discuss SDGs in their reports — Salesforce could show the reader that these are not merely ideals for the company, but that in fact Salesforce is actually taking actions in regards to each stated goal.

Regarding External Review

Ernst & Young was retained to review and provide limited assurance for select sustainability metrics in Salesforce’s report.

The items reviewed cover Salesforce’s reported GHG emissions, energy procured from renewable resources, and carbon credits. A limited level of assurance and review of only GHG data or specified sections is very commonly seen in CSR reports.

The companies that tend to stand out among their peers in our wide and deep research of corporate disclosure are those that have decided (strategically) to obtain reasonable/high assurance, or opt to have the entire report reviewed by credible third party auditors.

Salesforce’s awards and growth speak for themselves — the company is undoubtedly providing great value to its clients and doing so in a way that people admire.

While its Stakeholder Impact report overall does an excellent job at showcasing the company’s progress, in my comments here I covered the above areas to encourage and provoke thoughts of striving for even greater completeness and reader comprehension.

Not just for Salesforce, but for public companies in general with Saleforce’s report as one example.

Epilogue: Why did I decide to review Salesforce?

During my time as an analyst-intern for G&A Institute, my intern colleagues and I analyzed dozens upon dozens of CSR reports in depth over the months, many of which are reports of The Business Roundtable (BRT) companies.

Many BRT CEO members signed on to the re-stated “corporate purpose” statement last summer and we researched the companies’ sustainability / responsibility track records and public disclosure practices.

In our research, we found that:

  • Twenty-nine (29) BRT companies had upward trends for all Yahoo! platform’s sharing of Sustainalytics scores (including those for environment, social, and governance) since 2017.
  • Of these 29, five had CEOs that were identified on the Harvard Business Review’s Top 100 CEOs list
  • Of these five, Salesforce was the only company whose Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) score rose between 2017 – 2018 (from “B” to”A” score)

So, while I certainly do enjoy using Salesforce’s tools at my job, it had no bearing on my decision to analyze the company’s CSR report for this project. The company’s growth in spite of (or because of) its commitment to people and planet is very exciting to see.

I hope that my analysis is helpful to Salesforce and other companies that may be following this corporate responsibility leader’s sustainability journey.

* * * * * * * *

Since her internship as a report analyst, Julie Nehring joined G&A as a Sustainability Analyst. She continues her research role as a member of the G&A team. She pursued an MBA at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign and interned at the Caterpillar Inc Data Innovation Lab. Julie previously worked for several years as a project manager for a national environmental consulting firm and for a year as an AmeriCorps volunteer. As the president of her university’s Net Impact chapter, she enjoyed helping colleagues and classmates get involved and volunteer in the community.

Note the views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or position of Governance & Accountability Institute regarding the company.

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…