SHARE Summit 2021 was a virtual event this year. I missed the sidebar conversations so important at most conferences. Additionally, since I was home and had plenty of work to do, I attended fewer sessions than I would have in Vancouver. Still, even when virtual, this annual conference is among the best. I cannot think of another conference that so thoroughly reconnects espoused human ESG values with investing practice. I offer some quick takes in hopes of meeting readers there in 2022. Also search #SHARE2021.
Like last year, SHARE Summit 2021 opened each day with a statement acknowledging its origination from the unceded land of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations. Many participants from around the country and even other countries also made similar acknowledgments. SHARE had sessions on the indigenous economy and reparations.
Kevin Thomas, the CEO of SHARE, began the Summit with a great talk about why you can’t wipe the slate clean of systemic racism without redress. Maybe the Truth portion of Truth and Reconciliation is also necessary?
These issues appear more frequently discussed in Canada than in the States. Perhaps the idea of a Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans in the States should be expanded to include indigenous people. Will baby bonds have broader appeal as a solution? Read The Anti-Racism of Baby Bonds and Baby Bonds, Morningstar.
In the following, I crib from wonderful highlights provided each day by the amazing SHARE team, adding my own thoughts.
SHARE Summit 2021: Day 1
Shannon Rohan of SHARE moderated a keynote conversation with Demond Drummer, Co-Founder and Executive Director of New Consensus.
Demond outlined what he thinks is required for the Green New Deal and a Green COVID Recovery. He argues that this recovery must be sustainable and that our collective definition of the term ‘sustainable’ needs to be fully inclusive of environmental, economic, political, and social change.
His presentation focused on:
- The scale of mobilizing needed is like WWII and the New Deal. Public dollars organized private capacity.
- “Green” must consider that pollution and environmental degradation affects poor and racialized communities disproportionately. The New Deal and WWII lifted the country out of Depression but continued to protect the racial order of segregation. Bank regulations cut out black and indigenous people. Much of what we have in place is based on systemic economic inequality.
- COVID-19 highlights existing weaknesses in society. Renters get evicted, utilities are shut off, and masks are not distributed to protect frontline workers.
- The recovery. We need three substantial shifts in thinking about money and markets:
- From currency to the economy. The currency is not the economy.
- From profitable investments to productive investments. Investments in gold and Bitcoin can be profitable, but those are not productive assets that put people to work. Nor do such investments benefit society.
- From government as taxer, spender, and regulator to government as an investor and shaper of markets. Think of how much the GI Bill and the interstate highway system added to US productive capacity after WWII.
- “We’ve got to be okay with relaxing the need of talking about the “Green New Deal,” so long as we’re accomplishing a similar goal. Meet people where they are … what they’re interested in and what they care about.” We need kitchen sink times infinity aimed at climate and inequality.
Links and Resources
- New Consensus: The Green New Deal
SHARE Summit 2021: Day 2
Practical Realities of Responsible Investment Oversight: Strategies for evaluating asset managers’ ESG performance
This session provided practical advice to asset owners on the kind of information to look for when hiring new managers and monitoring new managers regarding their ESG performance.
SPEAKERS: Colin Baines, Friends Provident Foundation; Faith Ward, Brunel Pension Partnership; and Tamara Herman, SHARE and Committee on Workers Capital. MODERATOR: Mritunjay (MJ) Sinha, Catherine Donnelly Foundation.
- Proxy voting policies and records are critical to understanding an investment manager’s approach to ESG and stewardship. SHARE’s proxy voting audit tool can help asset owners conduct an evaluation.
- Can your portfolio manager answer questions about ESG thoughtfully, or do they defer to specialized staff? Yes, specialized ESG staff are valuable and important. However, your portfolio manager should be able to field almost all questions related to ESG if these factors are truly integrated.
- Brunel’s Asset Manager Accord exemplifies the relationship most of us should seek with our asset managers.
- The Committee on Workers’ Capital Report on BlackRock and its approach to workers’ rights in its stewardship practices.
- The Transition Pathway Initiative helps investors assess company preparedness for the transition to a low-carbon economy.
- ESG investing Olympics reports on the impact of 60 shareholder proposals and assesses where to go from here.
Workers’ rights and risks at Amazon: Investor action ahead of the 2021 AGM
Speakers: Gagandeep Kaur, Warehouse Workers Centre; and Fredric Nyström, Öhman Fonder. MODERATOR: Hugues Létourneau, Committee on Workers’ Capital and SHARE
Gagandeep Kaur described working conditions in Amazon’s Canadian warehouses. The unrealistic productivity standards at Amazon jeopardize worker safety and render following COVID-19 prevention guidelines difficult for workers. Amazon workers ask for respect, dignity, and inclusion in decisions that could impact their long-term health. Workers should be able to exercise their right to unionize.
Fredric Nyström described his fund’s engagement with Amazon on workers’ rights. His letter, signed by over 80 investors with $7 trillion in AUM, asks Amazon to be neutral on Alabama workers’ upcoming vote to form a union. The company sent a generic response and did not acknowledge their request for a meeting with board members.
Calls to action:
- Gagandeep’s organization is working to bring in legislative changes regarding warehouse operations and productivity standards, which investors may be asked to support.
- Frederic calls on investors to engage Amazon on labor issues.
- Hugues noted that investors could hold Amazon accountable by voting to support shareholder resolutions and withholding votes on board members.
- Learn more about upcoming labor-related votes, including at Amazon, at a Canadian Capital Stewardship Network webinar on April 15th.
Note: I will have a post up at CorpGov.net in a week or so about ten shareholder proposals, including my own, coming to a vote at the upcoming Amazon meeting. Watch for something with a clever title, like Amazon Proposals 2021. Three of us filed almost the same proposal, aimed at getting workers on the Board. Two of us withdrew in that area to let the strongest group move forward.
Links and Resources:
- Amazon’s own investors are reportedly telling the company to stop pressuring warehouse workers who have begun to vote on forming the firm’s first union (Business Insider)
- Investor Brief – Amazon In-Depth: Work, Rights, and Risks at Amazon.com, Inc. (Committee on Workers’ Capital)
SHARE Summit 2021: Day 3
RISING TO THE CHALLENGE – TIME FOR A RADICAL RETHINK OF CORPORATE GOVERNANCE
SPEAKERS: Tom Powdrill, PIRC; Susheela Peres da Costa, Regnan; Lenore Palladino, University of Massachusetts, Amherst. MODERATOR: Kevin Thomas, CEO, SHARE.
This session asked, what are the kinds of governance changes that would move the needle for corporate accountability. A fast-paced “shark tank” format required each panelist to ‘pitch’ one proposal for governance reform. Then the audience voted for their favorite.
Prof. Palladino made the case for creating space for worker-representatives on Boards of Directors. Shareholders shouldn’t be the only stakeholders with a say in governance. She dispensed with some of the common arguments against adding workers to boards, including the supposed conflicts of interest between workers and governance duties. All board members share a common fiduciary duty. Still, our notion of fiduciary duty needs to be adjusted to a stakeholder model of capitalism. United for Respect’s proposal at Walmart has become a model for others. Note: I filed proposals on the topic for this year at WD-40, Woodward, Walt Disney, Starbucks, Citigroup, and Edwards Lifesciences (as well as the aforementioned Amazon). In each case, I cited a paper by Palladino. PIRC is recommending votes in favor.
Tom Powdrill took the position that reform of executive compensation should be the priority. He argued that current pay structures focus too much attention on incenting executives to perform their basic jobs, such as protecting public safety. Long-term incentives have had the perverse effect of driving executive compensation up even further, on the basis that executives are taking on a “risk.” We do our jobs for our salaries, not our bonuses. Equity incentives have driven inequality. Rewards lag, so they often come during down-turn. That looks bad. Executives and workers should be paid based on similar models. He recommends against voting for the most complex pay schemes. Find out how your investment managers vote. Note: My pension fund, CalPERS, is voting against more than half of say on pay items. Read my review CEO Pay Machine Destroying America.
Susheela Peres da Costa made her case that a company-level view of governance is too narrow to be effective. Many of the concerns we attempt to address are part of an economic ecosystem. Directors should view governance within that framework. A company-first approach provides a disincentive to consider externalizing costs. Most investors are “universal owners,” exposed to the market as a whole, not just to individual companies. Therefore, we need a broader view of the health and risks of the economy. Consider that public companies compete with private companies where we don’t get a say. Many new companies, especially those building off the internet, are going public with dual-class shares that leave founders and their progeny in charge forever. Note: I suggest reading Changes in “Becoming Material.” Yes, it is dense. That is because Jon Lukomnik and James P. Hawley attempt to pack their book, Moving Beyond Modern Portfolio Theory: Investing That Matters, into a page or two. Get the book.
- Following their first round of comments, audience members had an opportunity to ask questions, and a vote was held on the most useful governance reform.
- Panelists agreed that all three approaches are needed, and discussed the best approaches to move forward. There was agreement that policy advocacy is a key component, at the level of securities regulators and legislation. That is best approached through “coalitions of capital” – such as those in SHARE’s networks.
- The vote results were close. Prof. Palladino’s proposal took the top spot, with 36%; Peres da Costa’s proposal received 35% and 29% voted to prioritize executive compensation.
- Susheela Peres da Costa referred the audience to an explanation of “Universal ownership.”
- Active Ownership 2.0: The Evolution that Stewardship Urgently Needs
THEMATIC SESSION: Getting Warmer: Investor action on the climate crisis is heating up
SPEAKERS: Dr. Janis, Sarra, Canada Climate Law Initiative (CCLI); Sonia Medina, Children’s Investment Fund Foundation; Jonathon Fowlie, Vancity. MODERATOR: Mike Toulch, SHARE
ABOUT THE SESSION:
This session explored new strategies and tactics that are arising as institutional investors use their leverage to meet the climate challenge.
- Dr. Janis Sarra provided background on the CCLI, which examines the legal basis for corporate directors, officers, and pension fiduciaries to consider, manage, and report on climate-related financial risks and opportunities. Dr. Sarra highlighted the CCLI’s recent work around the particular role that audit committees must play in ensuring that climate risk disclosures are reflected in audited financial statements. Climate is a material risk. Boilerplate language won’t cut it. Funds cannot switch methodologies without explaining. There is no legal deference to investment boards like there is to corporate boards under the business judgment rule. Insurance companies must focus on both their liability side, to cover extreme events. They also need to focus on their asset side. How risky are their own investments?
- Sonia Medina described CIFF’s recent initiative ‘Say on Climate’ which aims to introduce mandatory annual shareholder votes on corporate climate action plans. The ‘Say on Climate’ initiative consists of three basic asks for companies: 1. Disclose annually emissions 2. Publish a plan to manage those emissions; and 3. Provide the plan for a vote at AGMs. The goal of the initiative is to hold companies accountable for their actions and progress on emissions reductions. Note: As You Sow, filed one of these proposals on my behalf at Union Pacific.
- Jonathon Fowlie outlined Vancity’s experience joining the Partnership for Carbon Accounting Financials (PCAF). PCAF is a voluntary initiative allowing institutions to measure and disclose the emissions associated with their investment and lending portfolios. The work undertaken by Vancity through PCAF has allowed Vancity to go beyond its longstanding commitment to carbon neutrality in operations to consider loan portfolio impacts, which are probably greater.
- A recurring theme throughout the discussion: a target without a plan is just a dream. Investors and asset managers need to use their leverage to ensure companies are setting meaningful targets AND action plans. They need to report against that plan annually AND disclose climate risk in their financials. We get results when we set expectations and evaluate them against a plan.
- The International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS), has provided guidance that climate risk is material at every level and should be disclosed in financial submissions. Audit committees are important for ensuring this data fits into the company’s financials and is reported to shareholders in a meaningful way.
- Standards are important, both so external stakeholders can compare apples to apples across the board, and ensure disclosure is meaningful and consistent. Nonetheless, standards are evolving. That may always be the case. We must apply them as we go and revise. We have to build the plane while flying it, which includes not relying on ‘transition’ finance as a reason to lag behind global peers.
- Far too many asset managers lack literacy and competence on climate and investors need to hold them accountable. Asset managers’ renewal letters are a chance to ‘up the game’ with respect to our expectations of them.
- Audit Committees and Effective Climate Governance from Canadian Corporate Law Initiative
- IFRS – Effects of Climate Related Matters on Financial Statements
- Say on Climate campaign site
- Principles for Carbon Accounting Financials
- A PCAF ‘best practices’ spotlight: Vancity Mortgages
SHARE Summit 2021: Day 4
Challenging Inequality and Injustice in the Economic Recovery: How are investors rising to the challenge?
SPEAKERS: Shante Little, Transform Finance; Pat Miguel Tomaino, Zevin Asset Management; Sarah Couturier-Tanoh, SHARE. MODERATOR: Mitchell Anderson, United Church of Canada Pension Plan.
- Rosa van den Beemt, of BMO Global Asset Management, provided opening remarks. Rosa stated that, first and foremost, we should recognize that investors are working in a financial system that has kept intact and exacerbated inequality. Investors have a responsibility to make finance part of the solution, instead of the problem, and they should create a financial system to benefit all, not just a few.
- Shante Little, discussed how her organization creates a space for discourse and collaboration between previously disconnected stakeholders and investors. Transform Finance makes the case that investors need to go beyond current traditional investment approaches, and highlight the work of racial justice leaders. Aside from screening, defunding, and divesting from toxic industries, investors need to identify racial justice implications on all investments. Shante states that we cannot focus on the obvious, we need to look at everything that is creating racially unjust outcomes.
- Pat Miguel Tomaino discussed his role in integrating environmental, social, and governance (ESG) approaches to assemble socially responsible portfolios. Negative screens are just the beginning. We need to understand how companies approach racial justice issues in their workforces, supply chains, and products, and recognize how those risks and opportunities will affect the business. How do we show up for racial justice?
- Sarah Couturier-Tanoh discussed how her organization designs engagement priorities to strive for a sustainable economy. Through engagement with companies, such as Dollarama and McDonald’s, SHARE has played an integral role in demanding greater disclosure for shareholders to formalize responsibility towards decent work and human rights. She notes that there is a growing number of investors that recognize the value of decent work for better returns and higher productivity.
- Across the United States and Canada, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated and illuminated existing inequalities that have disproportionately impacted Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities. Not only are “essential workers” overrepresented by BIPOC, Shante noted that Black-owned businesses were shuttered at more than double the rate of white-owned businesses during COVID-19. With this crisis illuminating many inequalities in our financial system, all the panelists agreed that investors need to be more intentional in their efforts to combat racial injustice.
- Beyond ethical and rational priorities and reasons, a lack of decent work opportunities can generate financial, operational, and regulatory risks. In some cases, these risks can affect a company’s business in the short and long term. Building a resilient ecosystem requires an interplay between public policy and the business sector. Pat notes that investors need to work on both fronts: disrupt and engage with companies and work with public policymakers.
- Companies need to provide meaningful metrics (e.g. pay equity and racial and gender pay gap metrics) for shareholders to gain a better understanding of workers’ access to decent work opportunities, including equal pay and opportunities.
- Inequality costs money and investors need to see inequality as something that is material.
Call to Action:
- The process is just as important as the outcome. Investors and trustees alike should allocate time for development and education around racial justice (including anti-racist training).
- Trustees should review their proxy voting policies and socially responsible investment principles to ensure their policies address all issues around racial inequality.
- Investors should seek out racial justice outcomes with the same passion as financial outcomes.
- Investors should be brave. Shareholders have the power to explore new ways to incorporate social issues into their investment strategies.
Links and Resources:
- Advancing Racial Justice and Equity in Our Investments: Making Leadership from Canada’s Philanthropic Sector Count (SHARE, August 2020)
- Addressing Capital’s Effect on Racial Justice: How investments drive injustice and what investors can do about it (Transform Finance, September 2020)
- Closing the Racial Inequality Gaps: The Economic Cost of Black Inequality in the U.S. (Citi GPS: Global Perspectives & Solutions, September 2020)
- How can investors help confront racial justice? (Zevin Asset Management, LLC, Updated October 2019)