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:

Expanding Public Debates About the “What” & “How” of Corporate ESG Disclosure

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

March 2, 2021

Corporate sustainability / ESG reporting — What to disclose? How to frame the disclosures (context matters!)? What frameworks or standards to use?  Questions, questions, and more questions for corporate managers to consider as ESG disclosures steadily expand.

We are tuning in now to many more lively discussions going on about corporate ESG / sustainability et al public disclosures and structured reporting practices — and the growing complexity of all this disclosure effort, resulting often in disclosure fatigue for corporate practitioners!

Corporate managers ponder the important question:  which of the growing number of ESG frameworks or standards to use for disclosures? (The World Economic Forum (WEF) describes some 600 ESG guidelines, 600 reporting frameworks and 360 accounting standards that companies could use for reporting.  These do vary in scope, quantity, and quality of metrics.)

In deciding the what and how for their reporting, public companies consider then the specifics of relevant metrics and the all-important accompanying narrative to be shared to meet users’ rising information needs…in this era of emergent “stakeholder capitalism”.

Of course, there is the question for most companies of which or what existing or anticipated public sector reporting mandates will have to be met in various geographies, for various sectors and industries, for which stakeholders.

We here questions such as — how to get ahead of anticipated mandates in the United States if the Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC) does move ahead with adoption of new rules or at least strong guidance for corporate (and investor) sustainability reporting.

The European Union is today ahead in this area, but we can reasonably expect the USA to make important moves in the “Biden Climate Administration” era.  (The accounting standards boards are important players here as well as regulatory agencies in the sovereign states.)

Company boards, executive committees, professional staff, sustainability team managers wrestle with this complex environmental (for ESG disclosure) as their enterprises develop strategies, organize data flows, set in place data measurement protocols, and assemble the ESG-related content for public disclosure. (And, for expanded “private sharing” with ESG ratings agencies, credit risk agencies, benchmark/index managers, to meet customer ESG data requests, and more).

The list of issues and topics of “what” to disclose is constantly expanding, especially as institutional investors (asset owners and their managers) develop their “asks” of companies.

Climate change topics disclosure is at the top of most investor lists for 2021. Human Capital Management issues have been steadily rising in importance as the COVID-19 pandemic (and spread of variants) affects many business enterprises around the globe.

In the USA, SEC has new guidance for corporate HCM disclosures.  Political unrest is an issue for companies.  Anti-corruption measures are being closely examined.

Diversity & Inclusion (including in the board room and C-suite) is growing in importance to investors.

Also, physical risk to corporate assets in the era of superstorms and changing weather patterns – what are companies examining and then reporting on?  Exec compensation with metrics tied to performance in ESG issues is an area of growing interest.

We are monitoring and/or involved in multiple discussions and organized initiatives in the quest to develop more global, uniform, comparable, reliable, timely, complete, and assured corporate sustainability metrics, and accompanying narrative.  And, to provide the all-important context (of reported data) – what does the data mean?  It’s a complicated journey for all involved!

This week we devote the content of this week’s Highlights newsletter to various elements of the public discussions about the many aspects of the journey.

Here at G&A Institute, our team’s recommended best practice:  use multiple frameworks & standards that are relevant to the business and meet user needs; these are typically then disclosed in hybridized report where multiple standards are harmonized and customized for the relevant industries and sectors of the specific company’s operations and reflect the progress (or even lack of) of the enterprise toward leadership in sustainability matters.

This approach helps to reduce disclosure fatigue for internal corporate teams challenged to choose “which” framework or standard and the gathering of data and other content for this year’s and next year’s ESG disclosures.

We shared our thoughts in a special issue of NIRI IR Update, published by the National Investor Relations Institute, the important organization for corporate investor relations officers:


Here are our top selections in the content silos for this week that reflect the complexity of even the public debates about corporate ESG disclosure and where we are in early-2021.

TOP STORIES

The ever-evolving world of ESG investing from a few different points of view. What are the providers of capital examining today for their portfolio or investable product decision-making?  Here are some shared perspectives:

Picking Up Speed – Adoption of the FSB’s TCFD Recommendations…

January 21 2021

by Hank BoernerChair & Chief StrategistG&A Institute

Countries around the world are tuning in to the TCFD and exploring ways to guide the business sector to report on ever more important climate related disclosures.  Embracing of the Task Force recommendations is a key policy move by governments around the world.

After the 2008 global financial crisis, the major economies that are member-nations of the “G20” formed the Financial Stability Board (FSB) to serve a collective think tank and forum for the world’s leading developed countries to develop strong regulatory, supervisory, and other financial sector policies (guidance, legislation, regulations, rules).

Member-nations can adopt the policies or concepts for same developed collectively in the FSB setting back in their home nations to help to address financial sector issues with new legislative and/or adopted/adjusted rules, and issue guidance to key market players. The FSB collaborates with other bodies such as the International Monetary Fund (the IMF).

FSB operates “by moral suasion and peer pressure” to set internationally-agreed to policies and minimum standards that member nations then can implement at home. In the USA, members include the SEC, Treasury Department and Federal Reserve System.

In December 2015, as climate change issues moved to center stage and the Paris Agreement (at COP 21) was reached by 196 nations, the FSB created the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures, with Michael Bloomberg as chair.  The “TCFD” then set out to develop guidelines for corporate disclosure on climate change-related issues and topics.

These recommendations were released in 2017, and since then some 1,700 organizations endorsed the recommendations (as signatories); these included companies, governments, investors, NGOs, and others.

Individual countries are taking measures within their borders to encourage corporations to adopt disclosure and reporting recommendations. There are four pillars -– governance, strategy, risk management, and metrics & targets.

A growing number of publicly-traded companies have been adopting these recommendations in various ways and publishing standalone reports or including TCFD information and data in their Proxy Statements, 10-ks, and in sustainability reports.

The key challenge many companies face is the recommendations for rigorous scenario testing to gauge the resiliency of the enterprise (and ability to succeed!) in the 2C degree environment (and beyond, to 4C and even 6C),,,over the rest of the decades of this 21st Century.

Many eyes are on Europe where corporate sustainability reporting first became a “must do” for business enterprises, in the process setting the pace for other regions.  So – what is going on now in the region with the most experienced of corporate reporters are based?  Some recent news:

The Federal Council of Switzerland called on the country’s corporations to implement the TCFD recommendations on a voluntary basis to report on climate change issues.

Consider the leading corporations of that nation — Nestle, ABB, Novartis, Roche, LarfargeHolcim, Glencore — their sustainability reporting often sets the pace for peers and industry or sector categories worldwide.

Switzerland — noted the council — could strengthen the reputation of the nation as global leader in sustainable financial services. A bill is pending now to make the recommendations binding.

The Amsterdam-based Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) is backing an EU Commission proposal for the European Financial Reporting Advisory Group (EFRAG) to consider what would be needed to create non-financial reporting standards (the group now advises on financial standards only). The dual track efforts to help to standardize the disparate methods of non-financial reporting that exist today.

The move could help to create a Europe-wide standard. The GRI suggests that its Global Sustainability Standards Board (GSSB) could make important contributions to the European standard-setting initiative.

And, notes GRI, the GSSB could help to address the critical need for one global set of sustainability reporting standards.  To keep in mind:  the GRI standards today are the most widely-used worldwide for corporate sustainability reporting (the effort began with the first corporate reports being published following the “G1” guidelines back in 1999-2000).

The United Kingdom is the first country to make disclosures about the business impacts of climate change using TCFD mandatory by 2025.

The U.K. is now a “former member” of the European Union (upon the recent completion of “Brexit” process), but in many ways is considered to be a part of the European region. The UK move should be viewed in the context of more investors and sovereign nations demanding that corporations curb their GhG emissions and help society move toward the low-carbon economy.

In the U.K., the influential royal, Prince Charles — formally titled as the Prince of Wales — has also launched a new charter to promote sustainable practices within the private sector.  He has been a champion of addressing climate challenges for decades.

The “Terra Carta” charter sets out a 10-point action plan designed to reduce the carbon footprint of the business sector by year 2030.  This is part of the Sustainable Markets Initiative launched by the prince at the January 2020 meeting in Davos, Switzerland at the World Economic Forum gathering.

Prince Charles called on world leaders to support the charter “to bring prosperity into harmony with nature, people and planet”. This could be the basis of global value creation, he explains, with the power of nature combined with the transformative innovation and resources of the private sector.

We closely monitor developments in Europe and the U.K. to examine the trends in the region that shape corporate sustainability reporting — and that could gain momentum to become global standards.  Or, at least help to shape the disclosure and reporting activities of North American, Latin American, Asia-Pacific, and African companies.

It is expected that the policies that will come from the Biden-Harris Administration in the United States of America will more strenuously align North American public sector (and by influence, the corporate sector and financial markets) with what is going on in Europe and the United Kingdom.  Stay Tuned!

TOP STORIES FOR YOU FROM THE UK AND EUROPE

Items of interest — non-financial reporting development in Europe:

Looking to 2021- Michael Bloomberg Advises: What President Biden Should Do

December 31, 2020

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

This is my last post of 2020 – indeed, a chaotic, challenging and tumultuous year for corporate managers and investment professionals.  And the rest of us!

At this time last year we were looking forward to continued peace and economic growth. That new virus spreading infection inside China was a blip on the horizon for many people. 

Most of us did not foresee the rapid spread of this dangerous virus to all corners of the globe, and the resulting tragedy of the immensity of deaths, as many families lost loved ones,  We were not adequately prepared for the resulting economic upheaval posing serious challenges to leaders in the private sector, public sector and capital markets.  At year end we are still working our way through the mess. 

And so we come the start of a new calendar year — 2021! — with all of humanity wishing for better days! 

Many eyes are on the United States of America, the world’s largest economy, which will soon have new leadership in the White House and the important arms of the federal government, the cabinets. Those are State, Treasury, Defense, Interior, Energy, Labor, Commerce, and other departments as well as in key agencies such as the Securities & Exchange Commission, and the Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA).

The better days could start on January 20th when a new President and Vice President are sworn in and a new Congress will already be in office (the 117th Congress will convene on January 5th with 100 Senators and 435 Members of the House of Representatives). 

And there is much work for all of those leaders to do!  There are especially high expectations of soon-to-be President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris…and the men and women they will appoint or nominate (for U.S. Senate confirmation) to help in leading the USA forward, working in cabinet offices or federal agencies. .

President Biden has said that his will be the “climate change administration” and that meeting the challenges posed by climate change is a top priority.

What should / can be done as these leaders settle into the office?

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, head of the Bloomberg LP organization — he with the loudest megaphone to reach and influence capital markets players, government leaders, NGOs, climate activists, multilateral organizations leaders, and many more leaders and influentials — has some specific suggestions for the Biden-Harris team as they assume office.

Here are some of the highlights of Mayor Mike’s suggestions:

  • “Biden Needs to Lead on Climate Reporting” (the headline of the editorial with the suggestions – there’s a link below).
  • Biden’s pledge to rejoin the Paris Agreement should be carried out and this will send a strong signal to the world. But that will take us back four years (when Secretary of State John Kerry led the US delegation in joining the agreement).
  • To move forward President Biden on his first day in the Oval Office should begin the effort to bring together the leaders of the G-20 nations (the world’s leading economies*)  to endorse a mandatory standard for global businesses to measure and then report on risks all nations face from climate change.

There are mechanisms and players in place to help make rapid progress.

Remember that Michael Bloomberg heads the TCFD – the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures — which was formed by the Financial Stability Board (FSB) —  the board a creation of the G20 nations after the disaster of the 2008 financial crisis. 

The concept of the FSB is to serve as a sounding board and think tank for the leading economies of the world to address among critical issues risks to the financial system. 

This is the organization’s official description: “The Financial Stability Board (FSB) is an international body that monitors and makes recommendations about the global financial system.  The FSB promotes international financial stability; it does so by coordinating national financial authorities and international standard-setting bodies as they work toward developing strong regulatory, supervisory and other financial sector policies. FSB fosters a level playing field by encouraging coherent implementation of these policies across sectors and jurisdictions.”

This means that the FSB, working through its member organizations, seeks to strengthen financial systems and increase the stability of international financial markets. The policies developed in the pursuit of this agenda are then implemented by jurisdictions and national authorities.  

Members include the US Department of the Treasury, the Federal Reserve System, and the Securities & Exchange Commission.  

The TCFD is a creation of these and other members. 

The TCFD issued recommendations for companies to measure, manage and report on risks and opportunities related to climate change — which Mayor Bloomberg sees as key driver in directing capital to companies with smarter, more responsible leadership that protect and company and seize opportunities related to climate change.

The TCFD guidelines have been adopted or endorsed by 1,000-plus companies and organizations in 80 countries on six continents, Michael Bloomberg pointed out in his editorial.  Sovereign members of the G20 are among the endorsers — Japan, Canada, France, New Zealand, the United Kingdom. 

And so the United States of America — the world’s largest economy — could serve as the catalyst, the unifier, the key player in the drive for adoption of global standards under Biden-Harris leadership. 

This would serve to bring a coordinated effort to deal with the challenges posed by climate change on a global basis, help to develop the right regulations for the world’s family of nations to develop uniform, comparable regulations for climate change disclosure and reporting, and remove uncertainty for corporate leaders and their providers of capital. 

Michael Bloomberg, whose own company’s widely-used platform (“the Bloomberg”) carries volumes of ESG data, tapping his own knowledge of ESG data, advises us that such data must be useful, comparable, and not be confusing (as is frequently now the case). 

Even with the increasing flow of ESG data, the world’s financial markets, Michael Bloomberg points out, operate in the dark today in terms of climate change – which he sees as the biggest risk to the global economy.

Michael Bloomberg is urging the Biden-Harris team to take action “…to help to develop a single global disclosure framework for climate risks that helps drive a faster and more effective response to climate change”.

Or else we will continue “with competing frameworks that make it harder for investors and businesses to identify risks, leading to more economic harm and lower progress”.

Mayor Bloomberg’s summing up his views:  “Climate disclosure is not flashy but it’s one of the important tools we have to speed progress on prevent climate change and economic hardship…which could dwarf the effects of the financial crisis.  The faster we make [disclosure] standard practice globally, the safer and stronger the economy will be.  The US can help lead the way.”

There’s the complete editorial and more perspectives shared at bloomberg.com/opinion.

And so we end 2020 (farewell!) and begin a new year, filled for many people with great hope and promise for better days.  Stay Tuned!  And best wishes to you for the new year.  

#  #  #

P.S. Michael Bloomberg was also the Chair of the Sustainable Accounting Standards Board (SASB) Foundation, 2014-2018 and remains supportive of the organization.

You can follow Michael Bloomberg on his web site:  https://www.mikebloomberg.com/

*  The G20 nations are the USA, UK, Germany, France Italy, Japan, Canada (these are the G7); Argentina, Australia, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey.  Plus “guests” – Spain; two African countries; the International Monetary Fund; World Bank; United Nations; the World Trade Organization; the Financial Stability Board (all attend G20 summits).  

To understand the influence of the Financial Stability Board, here are the members: https://www.fsb.org/about/organisation-and-governance/members-of-the-financial-stability-board/

The members of the Task Force (TCFD) and other information: https://www.fsb-tcfd.org/about/

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

The U.S. Department of Labor – Proposed Rule Addressing ESG Investment Selections by Fiduciaries – the Drama Continues As Agency Downplays Importance of ESG

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

August 9 2020

In the early 1970s, Congressional hearings featured allegations of abuses by managers of corporate pension funds taking actions to systemically deny men and women approaching retirement age their promised benefits.  A law was passed to protect plan beneficiariesThe Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974.

This was intended by the Congress of that day to create standards for private-sector plans to protect the financial and health of beneficiaries of corporate plans.

The U.S. Department of Labor was designated is the primary designated arm enforcing “ERISA”,  charged with “protecting the interests of employee benefit plans participants (workers) and their beneficiaries”.

Other agencies have plan oversight responsibilities as well – the U.S. Treasury Department (the IRS) and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC).

PBGC is like the FDIC protection for bank customers’ money; when a corporate pension plan fails, the PBGC assumes responsibility for providing retirement benefits to retirees. When a company with a retirement plan goes belly up, filing bankruptcy, or giving up responsibility for the plan, the PBGC takes over to help the plan’s beneficiaries (they don’t get all that was promised by the plan when it was managed by the company they worked for).

Among other elements of the ERISA law and operating rules, there are standards set for fiduciaries and managers of worker retirement plans and welfare benefit plans.

ERISA has been updated since passage 40+ years back and the DOL rules have changed over time.  So have related Internal Revenue Service rules.  In 1978 the Internal Revenue Code was amended to allow taxpayers to have a tax-deferred, defined, voluntary retirement plan of their own – the familiar 401 (k) plan that millions participate in.

In the latest summary from the DOL’s Employee Benefits Security Administration of DOL (“EBSA“) for FY 2013(!) — ERISA rules [then] applied to 684,000 retirement plans, 2.4 million health plans and 2.4 million additional welfare benefits.

These plans covered 140 million workers and beneficiaries – at the time, that was about half of the American workforce – and assets under management of the plans exceeded US$7 trillion.

To simplify what follows here, the rules adopted by federal regulators are intended to explain and enforce the statute passed by Congress – in this case, protection of worker rights and oversight of fiduciaries managing workers’ assets in plans.

There is a structured process for creating the enforcing agency rules-of-the-road for those organizations being overseen (for ERISA, fiduciaries, plan managers) and these rules could be changed from time-to-time and also be “interpreted” by regulators through communications intended to clarify the rules.

ESG Investment and the Department of Labor Perspectives

As “sustainable” or “ESG” investing became a preferred approach for individuals in plans and managers of plans, many more institutions and individuals preferred those investments, alongside or instead of more traditional investments.

Investors want to be able to invest in an ESG-themed mutual fund or ETF along with or instead of a traditional version that may track a benchmark of the same type.

Example:  There are many investment managers whose fund track the widely-used S&P 500 benchmark (from S&P Global) and investable products with an S&P 500 ESG benchmark.

State Street a few days ago launched an S&P 500 ESG Exchange Traded Fund (ETF) “to provide investors an opportunity to tap into ESG investing at the core of their portfolio” (with a very low expense ratio). This “EFIV” tracks the new S&P 500 ESG Index.

SSgA explains: “ESG investing is approaching a critical inflection point…the collective call for change is growing louder and investor increasingly taking a stand through their investment choices.”

How do the regulators of ERISA react to such progress?  To the call for change?  To respond to investors’ call for action?

By moving backward in rule-making with changes in rules to make it more difficult for plan managers and beneficiaries to invest in ESG vehicles.

To be sure, rules are subject to change. The DOL’s first guidance on ESG investment issues as issued back in 1994.

More recently, in 2008 (during the Administration of President George W. Bush) guidance appeared to be designed to restrict ESG investments by plan fiduciaries.

In 2015 (during the Administration of President Barack Obama) DOL guidance gave the green light to ESG investments…if the investment is appropriate based on economic considerations including those that may derive from ESG factors. (See our perspectives here from November 2015: http://ga-institute.com/Sustainability-Update/big-news-out-of-the-u-s-department-of-labor-for-fiduciaries-opportunity-to-utilize-esg-factors-in-investment-analysis-and-portfolio-management/)

And now in 2020, in June DOL’s EBSA proposed a “new investment duties rule” with “core additions” to the regulations.  (“Financial Factors in Selecting Plan Investments” — this to address “recent trends involving ESG investing”).

Among the comments of DOL that really wrankled the ESG investor universe:

  • New text was added to codify DOL’s “longstanding position” that plan fiduciaries must select investments based on financial considerations relevant to the risk-adjusted economic value of an investment (or “course of action”).
  • The reminder that “Loyalty” duty prohibits fiduciaries from subordinating interests of plan participants and beneficiaries to “non-pecuniary goals”.   ESG factors could be “pecuniary” factors — but only if they present economic risk/opportunity under generally-accepted investment theories.
  • New text was added on required investment analysis and documentation for the “rare circumstance” when fiduciaries are choosing among “truly economically-indistinguishable” investments.  (Huh?)
  • A provision that fiduciaries must consider “other” available investments to meet prudence and loyalty duties.
  • A new provision for selection of investment alternatives for 401-K plans describes what is required for “pursuing” one or more ESG-oriented objectives in the investment mandate (or include ESG “parameters” in the fund name).

DOL Comments On These:

“ERISA plan fiduciaries may not invest in ESG vehicles when they understand an underlying investment strategy…is to subordinate return or increase risk for the purpose of non-financial objectives.”  And

“Private [Sector] employer-sponsored retirement plans are not vehicles for furthering social goals or policy objectives…not in the interest of the plan…ERISA plans should be managed with unwavering focus on a single, very important social goal: providing for the retirement security of American workers.”

After the rule changes were published, numerous investors pushed back – some summaries for you that were published on the 401K Specialist web platform of the responses of some fiduciaries who object to the proposed rule (“Commenters Hammer DOL of Proposed  ESG Rule”).

More than 1,500 comments have been submitted so far to DOL, calling for changes in the proposed rule, withdrawal, and the very short comment period (just 30 days, ended August 3, vs. the usual 90 days).

Investor/Fiduciary Pushback:

T. Rowe Price:   The proposed rule is attempting to solve a problem that does not exist. Worse, the proposed rule discourages fiduciaries from taking into account ESG factors that should be considered.

ICCR/Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility:  The rule would impose significant analytical and documentation burdens on fiduciaries of benefit plans governed by ERISA wishing to select (or allow individual account holders to select) investments that use ESG factors in investment analysis, or that provide ESG benefits (signed by 138 member institutions).

ESG Global Advisors: The Proposal has misunderstood and/or mischaracterized the nature and purpose of ESG integration…this is likely to lead to confusion for ERISA fiduciaries and additional costs to plan savers. Plan fiduciaries will struggle to fulfill their obligation to integrate all financially-material ESG risk factors into their investment process.

Morningstar: The Department’s rule is out of step with the best practices asset managers and financial advisors use to integrate ESG considerations into their investment processes and selections. The proposed rule would…erect barriers to considering ESG factors that many financial professionals consider as a routine part of investment management…

Voya Financial Inc.: The Proposal is fundamentally flawed for two reasons…among the many qualitative factors an ERISA fiduciary may appropriately consider…the Proposal singles out ESG factors and subjects them to special tests…second, the Proposal fails to account for the positive effect on investment behavior that the availability of ESG-focused investment options can have…

American Retirement Association: …appropriate investments that include ESG factors should not be prohibited from qualifying as Qualified Default Investment Alternatives (“QDIAs”)…

The Wagner Law Group:  The proposed amendment is inconsistent with existing law and guidance…it would require fiduciaries to only consider pecuniary factors instead of using their judgment and discretion to evaluate investments under the totality of circumstances…a narrow list of permissible factors is inconsistent with the notion that prudence is not determined by a checklist and is a fact-specific determination…

BlackRock:  …the Proposal creates an overly prescriptive and burdensome standard that would interfere with plan fiduciaries’ ability and willingness to consider financially-material ESG factors…we urge DOL to engage with the industry to understand how investment options incorporating ESG factors are used in ERISA plans…

Members of Congress – the body that passed ERISA during its 93rd session in 1974 – reacted along partisan lines.

Republican members of the House Committee on Education and Labor submitted a letter of support of the DOL action.

Democrat Party members (41 of them) of the House and 20 members of the House Education and Labor Committee expressed opposition to the rule changes.

The Securities & Exchange Commission is looking at ESG investments as well – soliciting public comment “for the appropriate treatment for funds that use terms such as ESG in their name and whether the terms are likely to mislead investors” (also in the Federal Register post).

In May 2020 the SEC Investor Advisory Committee / Investor-as-Owner Subcommittee issued their perspectives on ESG disclosure:  https://www.sec.gov/spotlight/investor-advisory-committee-2012/recommendation-of-the-investor-as-owner-subcommittee-on-esg-disclosure.pdf

There are more details for you here (the investor response summaries): https://401kspecialistmag.com/commenters-hammer-dol-on-proposed-esg-rule/

The Department of Labor’s EBSA proposal highlights are here as published in the Federal Register, June 30, 2020: http://ga-institute.com/Sustainability-Update/big-news-out-of-the-u-s-department-of-labor-for-fiduciaries-opportunity-to-utilize-esg-factors-in-investment-analysis-and-portfolio-management/

Notes:  The Secretary of Labor is Eugene Scalia, a nominee of President Donald Trump.

Acting Assistant Secretary for EBSA is Jeanne Klinefelter Wilson (appointed in June 2020).

There is an ERISA Advisory Council with six members.  Effective July 14, 2020:

  • Glenn Butash is chair; he is managing counsel at Nokia Corp.
  • David Kritz is vice-chair; he is deputy counsel at Norfolk Southern Corp.
  • John Harney is partner at law firm O’Donoghue and O’Donoghue.
  • Peter Wiedenbeck is Washington University School of Law professor.
  • James Haubrock is CPA and shareholder, Clark Schaefer Hackett.
  • Lisa Allen is compliance consultant, Altera Group.

Stay Tuned:  We will update you when decisions are announced by the Department of Labor.

Moving The World Forward Toward a More Sustainable Future: The Member Nations of the United Nations, Working Collaboratively For Progress in the 21st Century

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

“The United Nations” began as a World War II-era strategy as President Franklin D. Roosevelt talked about the allies of the United States of America partnering in the fight to save democracy and collectively battling the regimes of fascist dictators in Europe and Asia.

On January 1, 1942, 26 nations “united” in Washington DC to coordinate the battle with the “Axis” powers.  (“Axis” – the axis line, said President Roosevelt, ran from Berlin (Germany) through Rome (Italy) and to Tokyo (Japan) – the clear linkage in his mind of the fascist leadership.)

In February 1942 the president addressed the nation in his 20th “fireside chat” (broadcasting nationwide on “the radio”) to talk about the progress of the war.

The U.S. was coming from far behind in terms of preparedness for a global battle, and so an important part of the progress in this, the start of the first year of U.S. involvement in the global conflict, President Roosevelt explained to the nation of 125 million souls:

“The United Nations constitutes an association of independent peoples of equal dignity and equal importance. The United Nations are dedicated to a common cause. We share equally and with equal zeal the anguish and the awful sacrifices of war. In the partnership of our common enterprise, we must share in a unified plan in which all of us must play our several parts, each of us being equally indispensable and dependent one on the other.

“We have unified command and cooperation and comradeship. We of the United Nations are agreed on certain broad principles in the kind of peace we seek. The Atlantic Charter applies not only to the parts of the world that border the Atlantic [Ocean)] but to the whole world; disarmament of aggressors, self-determination of nations and peoples, and the four freedoms – freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.”

The leader of the free world of that era envisioned an global organization that could bring about a new world ordering, to assure greater peace and prosperity to many peoples of the world.  President Franklin Roosevelt passed away in April 1945; soon the global conflict ended; and then what he long envisioned became the possible:

On October 24, 1945, 50 nations gathered in San Francisco to sign on to the “United Nations Conference on International Organizations” – and the UN as we know it today was launched.  (We celebrate UN Day on 24 October in commemoration of that historic event.)

Today the UN has 193 members – sovereign states that have equal representation in the UN General Assembly. The UN is the world’s largest intergovernmental organization – a forum for governments, not a world government.  And within the organization are important initiatives that have been shaping corporate responsibility, corporate citizenship, sustainability, and for capital markets, as well as for sustainable investing.  These are agencies, programs, institutes, global collaborations, and other entities.

You know some of them as the UN Principles for Responsible Investing (PRI); the UN Global Compact (UNGC); the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); the work of the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP).

Today we are hearing quite a bit in the corporate sector and in the capital markets about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (adopted 1948); the UN has been the driving force behind 80-plus “human rights laws”.  Consider:  the declaration has been translated into 380 languages to date, says the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights..

We are sharing with you three recent highlights from the UN universe.   First, an update from the UNGC CEO Lisa Kingo, stressing that now is the time for society to invest in the 1.5C future…”there never has been a time”, she points out, “like today for coming together and jumpstarting a worldwide transformation towards a more inclusive and sustainable net-zero economy.”

Also from the UNGC, news of the launch of the Ocean Stewardship 2030 Report – to be a roadmap for how ocean-related industries and policymakers can jointly secure a healthy and productive ocean by 2030.

We are now in the Decade of Action on the Global Goals (the SDGs). The UNGC is an initiative of the UN Secretary General, a call to companies everywhere to align their operations and strategies with 10 universal principles focused on human rights, labor, environment and anti-corruption.

The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) is today an independent global foundation that was birthed by the United Nations, building on the principles advanced for corporate responsibility by the NGO Ceres (based in Boston). An organization known for a philosophy of “constant improvement”, GRI recently organized an Agriculture and Fishing Project Working Group that will lead the work to create a new sustainability standard for ag & fishing.

This is part of the work of GRI’s New Sector Program – a multi-stakeholder group will move forward the initiative to help companies with ag and fishing in their value chains promote transparency and accountability, and better understand their role in sustainable development.

It’s almost 80 years now since President Franklin Delano Roosevelt – one of the most progressive leaders in U.S. history – conceived of the “united nations”, as a necessity to bring together the resources of other nations to fight a war on all of the continents, whose outcome was then uncertain.  And then to assure the peace and work to end wars, or at least settle disputes peacefully.

In November 2010 Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon noted:  “Sadly, FDR never saw the fruits of his efforts.  He died weeks before the founding conference. Yet his vision lives on in the UN Charter’s collective commitment to peace and security, economic and social welfare, tolerance and fundamental human rights.  Franklin Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms. This legacy of multilateral cooperation guides us today…”

Well said!

Top Stories

OOPS
In the June 8th issue of our newsletter (Highlights), with headline “Will We Ever See SEC Rules/Guidance for Corporate ESG Disclosure and Reporting?  The Question Hangs in the Wind..”  We incorrectly identified the corporate reporting regulations being reviewed by the Securities & Exchange Commission – should have said “Reg S-K” (not Reg F-D).  Sorry for the any confusion caused.  A more complete commentary on all of this is here on our blog.

Reporting and Disclosing Corporate ESG & Sustainability Results– Key Resources Roundup

By Kelly Mumford – Sustainability Reporting Analyst Intern – G&A Institute

Sustainability, Corporate Responsibility, and Environmental Social Governance (ESG) – these are some of the key buzz words circulating in capital markets’ circles that have become increasingly more important to both investors and corporate leaders as the risks of climate change to business organizations steadily increase.

We are now at the critical tipping point where it is necessary for all businesses to publicly report on and in various ways amply disclose how climate related risks — and related opportunities – and other issues such as Human Rights and Human Capital Management (HCM) might affect their business. And, to disclose what they are doing to address and mitigate such risks.

A recent institutional investor survey report by the Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance that focused on ESG risk and opportunities found that investors recognize the growing risks of non-financial factors such as climate change, which is at the top of the agenda.

Climate change issues and human capital management were cited in the 2020 survey as the top sustainability topics that investors are focusing on when engaging with their boards.

Regardless of sector, all companies understand the importance of engaging with these topics. With that said, ESG and sustainability topics are playing a more concrete role in the private sector.

The good news is that there are significant resources available to help companies measure and report on sustainability and ESG, promote greater transparency, demonstrate better risk management, talk about improved performance, and in turn better promote the corporate brand value and reputation.

Such corporate disclosure and reporting have been shown to help to create higher shareholder returns and improve corporate economic performance.

With this in mind, standardized frameworks and indices are being used by corporations to provide more accurate and transparent information to their investors as well as all of their stakeholders.

However, as more diverse resources become available (examples are sustainability and responsibility frameworks, indices, and standards) there is also a need for distinctions to be made among them. To group all of these resources together would be inaccurate and misleading as each has unique advantages and distinction for both investors and corporate reporters.

Some of the key resources available in this space include: SASB, MSCI, Sustainalytics, Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS), Dow Jones Sustainability Index (the DJSI), TCFD, CDP, SDGs, and GRI.

To more easily understand their similarities and differences these can be grouped into broader categories. Such categories include: reporting standards, ESG ratings, indices, disclosure frameworks, investor surveys, and international goals. We’ll explain these in this commentary.

ABOUT CORPORATE REPORTING STANDARDS
The leading reporting standards present an effective way for companies to structure and publicly disclose “non- financial” information — such as strategies, actions, performance and outcomes for governance, environmental, and social impacts of the company. (That is, impacts affecting stakeholders, including investors.)

These important disclosures can be identified in the form of “sustainability, corporate responsibility, corporate citizenship” reporting.  Many such corporate reports explain how a company measures ESG performance, sets goals, and manages programs effectively – and then communicates their impact to stakeholders.

Reporting standards help to streamline the process of corporate reporting and allow stakeholders to better identify non-financial disclosures against widely used and accepted standards.

THE GLOBAL REPORTING INITIATIVE (GRI)
This is a long-established, independent organization (a foundation) that has helped to pioneer sustainability reporting. Since 1997 the organization has been working with the business sector and governments to help organizations (corporations, public sector and social sector organizations) communicate their impact and sustainability issues –such as climate change, human rights, governance and social well-being.

The current GRI sustainability reporting standards evolved out of four prior generations of frameworks dating to 1999-2000 (when the first reports were published, using “G1”) — and today is one of the most commonly-used with diverse multi stakeholder contributions to standards-setting.

GRI has been responsible for transforming sustainability reporting into a growing practice and today about 93% of the largest corporations report their sustainability performance using the GRI Standards.

  • Advantage of use for reporters: corporate reporting using the GRI standards helps to create consistent disclosures and facilitates engagement with stakeholders on existing and emerging sustainability issues. Further, use of GRI standards helps to create a more consistent and reliable landscape for sustainability reporting frameworks for both the reporters and their constituencies, especially including investors.

THE SUSTAINABILITY ACCOUNTING STANDARDS BOARD (SASB)
These more recent standards enable business leaders to identify, manage, and communicate financially-material sustainability information to investors. There are now 77 industry-specific standards (for 11 sectors) available for guidance.  These standards for an industry (and many companies are classified in more than one industry) help managers to identify the minimal set of financially-material sustainability topics and associated metrics for companies in each industry.

SASB standards help company managements to identify topics most relevant to their enterprise, and communicate sustainability data more efficiently and effectively for investors.

  • Can be used alone, with other reporting frameworks, or as part of an integrated reporting process. The G&A Institute team in assisting companies with their reporting activities use a hybrid approach, using both GRI and SASB as best practice.

 

ESG RATINGS/ DATA SUPPLIERS
A growing number of independent third-party providers have created ESG performance ratings, rankings and scores, resulting from assessment and measurements of corporate ESG performance over time against peers for investor clients. These ratings often form the basis of engagement and discussion between investors and companies on matters related to ESG performance.

There are several major ratings with varying methodology, scope, and coverage that are influencing the capital markets. Keep in mind there are numerous ESG data providers and ratings providing information to investors and stakeholders; however, for the scope of this post not all are mentioned.

INSTITUTIONAL SHAREHOLDER SERVICES (ISS) — ESG GOVERNANCE QUALITYSCORES(R)
ISS is a long-time provider of “corporate governance solutions” for institutional asset owners, their internal and external managers, and service providers. ISS provides a variety of ESG solutions for investors to implement responsible investment policies. The firm also provides climate change data and analytics and develops a Quality Score (for G, S and E) that provides research findings on corporate governance as well as social and environmental performance of publicly-traded global companies for its investor clients.

The ESG Governance QualityScore is described as a scoring and screening solution for investors to review the governance quality and risks of a publicly-traded company.

Scores are provided for the overall company and organized into four categories — covering Board Structure, Compensation, Shareholder Rights, and Audit & Risk Oversight.

Many factors are included in this score but overall the foundation of scoring begins with corporate governance, the long-time specialty of this important provider.

  • ISS Advantage: as a leading provider of corporate governance, the ISS ESG Governance QualityScore leverages this firm’s deep knowledge across key capital markets. Further, these rankings are relative to an index and region to ensure that the rankings are relevant to the market that the public company operates in.

MSCI ESG RATINGS
MSCI has a specific ESG Index Framework designed to represent the performance of the most common ESG investment approaches by leveraging ESG criteria. Indexes are organized into three categories: integration, values, and impact.

MSCI also creates corporate ESG ratings by collecting data for each company based on 37 key ESG issues. AI methodology is used to increase precision and validate data as well as alternative data to minimize reliance on voluntary disclosure.

Consider:

  • MSCI is the largest provider of ESG ratings with over 1,500 equity and fixed-income ESG Indexes. The firm provides ESG ratings for over 7,500 global companies and more than 650,000 equity and fixed-income securities (as of October 2019).
  • Advantages for investors: Focuses on intersection between a company’s core business and industry-specific issues that can create risks and opportunities. ESG ratings gives companies a rated score of AAA-to-CCC, which are relative to industry peers. Companies are rated according to their exposure to risk and how well they manage risks relative to peers. Companies are analyzed on calendar year basis and are able to respond to the profile developed for investors by MSCI analysts.

SUSTAINALYTICS
This organization rates sustainability of exchange-listed companies based on environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) performance. The focus is on ESG and corporate governance research and ratings.

What makes them unique: their ESG Risk Ratings are designed to help investors identify and understand material ESG risks at the security and the portfolio level.

The corporate ESG risk rating is calculated by assessing the amount of unmanaged risk for each material ESG issue that is examined. The issues are analyzed varying by industry and depending on industry, a weight is given to each ESG issue.

  • Key: The assessment focuses on most material risks, using a two-dimensional lens to assess what risks the corporation faces and how well leadership manages the identified risks. Absolute ratings enable comparability across industries and companies for investors; corporate governance ratings are integrated into the ESG risk rating, and controversy research is also considered for the risk ratings. The performance is based on both quantitative metrics and an assessment of controversial incidents, allowing for the complete picture to be demonstrated with the ESG ranking.
  • Unique point: Total ESG risk score is also presented as a percentile so it can be compared across industries. This allows for a better understanding of how the industry performs as a whole, so to better assess how well a company is performing relatively.

SOME OF THE LEADING INDICES
Indexes / benchmarks help to make capital markets more accessible, credible, and products or approaches better structured for investors. They allow for performance benchmarks to represent how equity and/or fixed-income securities are performing against peers.

Specialized ESG indices specifically have been gaining in favor over the recent years as investors become more interested in responsible / sustainable investing. This out-performance is evident in the time of the coronavirus crisis with ESG funds inflow exceeding outflow of traditional indexes. Investors see this as a sign of resilience and excellence in risk performance for ESG companies.

It is evident that ESG index funds have been outperforming key core indexes — such as the S&P 500 Index(r). (The new S&P 500 ESG Index has been outperforming the long-established sister fund.)

Also, the growing abundance of ESG data and research has helped to promote the development and embrace of corporate ESG ratings, which in turn allows for the construction of even more such indices.

Because these indexes represent the performance of securities in terms of ESG criteria relative to their peers, it helps define the ESG market and availability of sustainable investing options.

There are now numerous ESG Indices available to investors – to cover them all that would require another blog post. So, for the sake of this brief post only DJSI is mentioned, as it is one of the mostly widely-known and frequently used by global investors.

DOW JONES SUSTAINABILITY INDICES (DJSI)
This is a family of indices evaluating the sustainability performance of thousands of publicly-traded companies. DJSI tracks the ESG performance of the world’s leading companies in terms of critical economic, environmental, and social criteria. These are important benchmarks for investors who recognize that corporate sustainable practices create shareholder value. The indexes were created jointly with Dow Jones Indexes, and SAM, now a division of S&P Global Ratings (which owns the DJSI).

  • This was the first global sustainability index – created in 1999 by SAM (Sustainable Asset Management of Switzerland) and Dow Jones Indices. Today, owned and managed by S&P Global Ratings.
  • Advantage for investors: Combines the experience of an established index provider with the expertise of a sustainable investing analytics to select most sustainable companies for the indexes from across 61 industries. Calculated in price and total return disseminated in real time. This is an important benchmark for many financial institutions.
  • Selection process is based on companies’ total sustainability score from annual SAM Corporate Sustainability Assessment (the important CSA that results in the corporate profile). All industries are included, and the top 10% (for global indices, top 20% for regional indices, and top 30% for country indices) of companies per industry are selected

CORPORATE DISCLOSURE FRAMEWORKS
Disclosure frameworks are used to improve the effectiveness of financial disclosures by facilitating clear communication about certain criteria. There are long-standing frameworks such as created by the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) that establish standards for U.S. corporate financial accounting.

Similarly, there is now a suggested disclosure framework related to the corporation’s financial information but that focuses on climate related risks and opportunities — the Financial Stability Boards’ “Taskforce on Climate-related Financial Disclosures” — or TCFD. (The FSB is an organization of the G20 countries; member participants are the securities and financial services administrators and central bankers of the largest economies.  The U.S. members include SEC, the Federal Reserve System and the Treasury Department.  The FSB considers future regulations that could be considered in the member countries.)

As the capital markets players interest in corporate sustainability and ESG grows, and public policy makers recognize the threat of many ESG issues to the health of their nations, it is not surprising that there would be a specific resource developed for corporate climate-related financial disclosures.

Investors have a heightened awareness of the risks that climate change issues poses to their holdings, so it is now considered to be a best practice for company managements to report and disclose on these risks and responses to address them – using among other resources the TCFD recommendations for disclosure.  Here is what you need to know:

TASKFORCE ON CLIMATE RELATED FINANCIAL DISCLOSURES (TCFD)
Developed by the Financial Stability Board (FSB) to encourage voluntary, consistent, climate related financial disclosures that could be useful to investors. N.Y.C. Mayor/Bloomberg LP founder Michael Bloomberg serves as the chairman and founder of the task force (which has a 32-member board).

The “TCFD” recommendations for corporate disclosure are intended to help both publicly-traded companies and investors consider the risks and opportunities associated with the challenges of climate change and what constitutes effective disclosures across industries and sectors.

This approach enables users of financial information to better assess risk and helps to promote better corporate disclosure. The recommendations call for disclosure around four core areas — governance, strategy, risk management, and metrics and targets.

To keep in mind:

  • The initial recommendations applied to four financial sector organizations (bankers, insurers, asset owners, asset managers). And to four industry categories – oil & gas; food & agriculture; transport; building materials and management.
  • Advantage for companies: following the TCFD recommendations represents an opportunity for companies following the recommendations to bring climate-related financial reporting to a wider audience.

INVESTOR-FOCUSED SURVEYS – CORPORATE RESPONSES
Investor interest surveys — such as those conducted by CDP – can provide an advantage for companies in responding to disclose important ESG data and take part in the movement towards building a carbon-neutral economy.

The information provided to CDP by companies makes up the most comprehensive dataset tracking global climate progress. Investors use these volumes of data on climate change, deforestation, supply chain management and water security to inform decision-making, engage with companies, and identify risks and opportunities.

Corporate response to the annual, global surveys benefits investors and provides companies with ways to inform investor engagement strategies.

CDP
Established by investors 20 years ago as the Carbon Disclosure Project, CDP today is an organization that supports the movement of cities and companies toward greater measurement, management and disclosure of key data and information to promote a carbon neutral economy.

These data helps to manage risks and opportunities associated with climate change, water security and deforestation. More than 2,000 companies in North America and 8,000 globally disclose data through CDP.

Disclosure is key, not only for measuring impact but also for setting goals and targets that enable climate action. CDP has been at the forefront of the disclosure movement to track and measure global progress towards building a more sustainable world.

  • Advantage: reporting to CDP is advantageous because it helps companies get ahead of regulatory and policy changes, identify certain ESG risks, and find new opportunities to manage those risks in a way that is beneficial for both business — and the planet.
  • TCFD Connection: The CDP response questions have been aligned with the TCFD and a good comprehensive CDP response can provide a baseline for a majority of the necessary disclosures for TCFD.

INTERNATIONAL GOALS – THE SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT GOALS (SDGS)
The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals are unique in that they are a set of widely-accepted international goals. Countries, cities, and companies all over the world and use these goals as a way to inform and inspire action on sustainable development goals. The goals are very broad in aims so it allows for parties to adapt and use the goals that are most relevant. They are non-binding and therefore their implementation depends on local government or corporate polices to be upheld.

These are a United Nations-developed plan to [among the goals] end extreme poverty, reduce inequality, and protect the planet. The SDGs succeeded the Millennium Goals (2000-to-2015) and extend collaborative and independent action out to year 2030 by public, private and social sector organizations.  The goals (17 in all with 169 underlying targets) have been adopted by 193 countries and emerged as a result of the most comprehensive multi-party negotiations in the history of the United Nations.

The SDGs focus on ways to generate impact and improve the lives of all people. The goals are related to themes such as water, energy, climate, oceans, urbanization, transport, and science and technology.

  • The SDGs are not focused on any sector or stakeholder in specific. Instead they serve as a general guidance that can be used at any level.
  • Distinctions: as one of the most widely recognized frameworks for corporate consideration, companies and stakeholders can use the Goals as a way to guide their sustainability initiatives. Many companies recognize them in corporate reports and many align certain aspects of their mission to relevant SDGs.

# # #

AUTHOR’S CONCLUSION
As asset owners and asset managers now expect – and demand – greater corporate disclosure on climate change-related topics and issues, there are numerous resources available for managers to create and inform comprehensive, compelling reports for public access.

It is up to company leaders to identify the category of resources that would best benefit them, whether that be aligning with a disclosure framework, answering a CDP survey, or using ESG ratings. Most leading companies are taking a hybrid approach and utilizing the best features of the most common frameworks to maximize the ROI of their investments in this area.  We’ve identified some of the most-utilized here but there are still many more resources available in each category depending on industry, sector, geography, nature of the business, and other factors.

While the large universe and diversity of sustainability and ESG disclosure and reporting resources might be confusing to make sense of, it is increasingly obvious that investors are relying on ESG factors when making decisions and that the importance of climate change is only growing.

The team at Governance & Accountability Institute are experts in helping corporate clients work with the frameworks, etc. profiled here.  I serve as a reporting analyst-intern at, reviewing literally dozens of corporate sustainability / ESG / citizenship – responsibility – citizenship et al reports each month.

ABOUT KELLY MUMFORD 
Kelly Mumford is a graduate of the Development Planning Unit at the University College London. She graduated with a Master’s of Science in Environment and Sustainable Development (with Merit). Her course focused on environmental planning and management in developing countries and culminated with a month of field work in Freetown, Sierra Leone. She led a group during their research on the water and sanitation practices of a coastal community in the city of Freetown. Her work in preparation for this fieldwork includes a policy brief, published by their partner research organization.

Kelly has been very active in the environmental sector and prior to this interned at Natural Resources Defense Council. She holds a Sustainability Associate Credential from the International Society of Sustainability Professionals and has been an active member of the organization, planning and executing a successful N.Y.C. chapter’s whale watching event. She holds a B.A. in Environmental Studies and a minor in Spanish studies from the University of Delaware. She plans to pursue a career in sustainability, focusing on ESG and leveraging her research experience and knowledge of sustainability reporting.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top Stories

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

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

In addition, see:

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. 

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