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ESG Assets Surging but at Risk

US SIF study documents environmental, social, and governance — ESG assets — under management surging. ESG assets now account for one in every four investment dollars. Demand for ESG asset focus is coming from real people.

In contrast, the Main Street Investors Coalition [funded by the National Association of Manufacturing (NAM)], insists on “maximizing performance ahead of pursuing social and political objectives.” If NAM gets its way, ESG assets will be cut to a trickle.

In a letter to the SEC ahead of an upcoming Staff Roundtable on the Proxy Process NAM writes,

Investment advisers should have policies and procedures in place that require the identification of a clear link to shareholder value creation before voting in favor of any proxy proposal, including those focused on ESG topics.

However, as you will read below, the public wants to move in a different direction. The public wants to invest in ESG assets – those geared toward not only making money but creating a better world.

The US SIF Foundation’s 2018 biennial Report on US Sustainable, Responsible and Impact Investing Trends, found that sustainable, responsible and impact investing, SRI assets, now account for $12.0 trillion—or one in four dollars—of the $46.6 trillion in total assets under professional management in the United States. This represents a 38 percent increase over 2016.

The Trends Report—first compiled in 1995—is the most comprehensive study of sustainable and impact investing in the United States. From the first report when assets totaled just $639 billion to today, the sustainable and responsible investing industry has grown 18-fold and has matured and expanded across numerous asset classes.

The 2018 report identified $11.6 trillion in ESG incorporation assets under management at the outset of 2018 held by 496 institutional investors, 365 money managers and 1,145 community investing financial institutions. The largest percentage of money managers cited client demand as their top motivation for pursuing ESG incorporation, while the largest number of institutional investors cited fulfilling mission and pursuing social benefit as their top motivations.

In addition, 165 institutional investors and 54 investment managers collectively controlling nearly $1.8 trillion in assets filed or co-filed shareholder resolutions on ESG issues between 2016 and the first half of 2018.

Eliminating double counting for assets involved in both ESG incorporation and filing shareholder resolutions produces the net total of $12.0 trillion in SRI strategies at the start of 2018.

Money managers and institutions are utilizing ESG criteria and shareholder engagement to address a plethora of issues including climate change, diversity, human rights, weapons and political spending,

said Lisa Woll, US SIF Foundation CEO.  Additionally, retail and high net worth individuals are increasingly utilizing this investment approach with $3 trillion in sustainable assets.

Ellen Dorsey, Executive Director of the Wallace Global Fund, a leading foundation endowment that has embraced sustainable investing and supported the Trends Report since 2010, noted,

We support this research as a critical tool to track crucial trends in the industry and benchmark our own goal of 100% mission alignment, as we promote an informed and engaged citizenry, help fight injustice and protect the diversity of nature.

According to Amy O’Brien, Global Head of Responsible Investing at Nuveen, the investment management division of TIAA:

What the US SIF Trends Report shows incontrovertibly, is that investors are truly beginning to understand the value of ESG considerations as an effective means of managing risk and improving investment performance. With an intensified focus on important issues such as climate change and corporate board gender diversity, we hope to see creative solutions that will help address these challenges, and in turn, drive shareholder value in the years ahead.

Top ESG Asset Criteria

The relative prominence of specific ESG criteria differed between money managers (firms that manage assets on behalf of others) and institutional asset owners (entities like pension funds, foundations and educational endowments that own and invest assets, often via money managers).

The report breaks out the top ESG issues by types of investment vehicles, including registered investment companies, such as mutual funds and exchange traded funds (ETFs), private equity and venture capital funds, community investing institutions and others.

The report also provides detail on the top ESG criteria by each of nine types of institutions: public funds, insurance companies, educational institutions, philanthropic foundations, labor funds, hospitals and healthcare plans, faith-based institutions, other nonprofits and family offices.

Asset managers:  Climate change was the most important specific ESG issue considered by money managers in asset-weighted terms; the assets to which this criterion applies more than doubled from 2016 to 2018 to $3.0 trillion. Other top ESG categories included tobacco, conflict risk, human rights, and transparency/anti-corruption. Concern among money managers and their clients about civilian firearms was also on the rise.

Asset owners:  For institutional asset owners, conflict risk was the top specific ESG criteria, up 8 percent from 2016 to $3.0 trillion followed by tobacco, carbon/climate change, board issues, and executive pay.

Investor Advocacy for ESG Issues

From 2016 through the first half of 2018, 165 institutional investors and 54 investment managers collectively controlling nearly $1.8 trillion in assets at the start of 2018 filed or co-filed shareholder resolutions on ESG issues. “Proxy access” was the leading issue raised in shareholder proposals, followed by disclosure and management of corporate political spending and lobbying.

The proportion of shareholder proposals on social and environmental issues that receive high levels of support has been trending upward. During the proxy seasons of 2012-2015, only three shareholder proposals on environmental and social issues that were opposed by management received majority support, while 18 such proposals received majority support in 2016 through 2018.

In addition, the number of survey respondents that reported engaging in dialogue with companies on ESG issues increased notably since 2016.

Other Findings

Both the number and assets under management of registered investment companies incorporating ESG continued to grow at a strong pace. Assets in mutual funds reached $2.6 trillion, up 34 percent over 2016, and the number of ETFs more than doubled from 25 to 69.

ESG assets under management in 780 alternative investment vehicles, including private equity and venture capital funds, hedge funds, and real estate investment trusts (REITs) or other property funds, totaled $588 billion at the start of 2018. This is nearly triple the assets identified in 2016, and an 89 percent increase in the number of funds.

With assets of $185.4 billion, the community investing sector, which includes community development banks, credit unions, loan and venture funds, has experienced rapid growth over the last decade, nearly doubling in assets between 2014 and 2016, and growing more than 50 percent from 2016 to 2018.

The National Association of Manufacturing claims to have formed the Main Street Investors Coalition to ensure the individual investor’s interests are considered. Yet, money is pouring into ESG assets because more and more individuals are investing their values.

That letter from NAM to the SEC also asks that proxy proposal resubmission levels be raised from 3% of the vote in year one, 6% after two years and 10% after three to new thresholds of 6%, 15% and 30% respectively. Additionally, “NAM supports increasing the existing $2,000 threshold to a level that more appropriately reflects true ‘skin in the game’ for a shareholder sponsoring a proposal.” At least one bill in Congress aims at setting that level at 1% of the total value of the company

In summary, at a time when the public is clamoring for ESG assets and shareholder proposals to address ESG issues, NAM is calling on the SEC to:

  • double or triple resubmission thresholds on proxy proposals,
  • eliminate most proposals through high thresholds required for initial submissions,
  • prohibit investor advisors from voting for shareholder proposal unless they have identified the proposal is clearly linked to “shareholder value creation.”

Can NAM stem the flood of ESG assets? The SEC was created to protect investors. NAM seems to be asking the SEC to protect corporate managers from investors.

   

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Shareholder Collaboration

Shareholder Collaboration is a new ECGI working paper by Jill Fisch and Simone M. Sepe. Fisch is one of my favorite researchers, being insightful and less predictable than many of those in the primary academic hubs of corporate governance (Harvard, Stanford, and Delaware). In Shareholder Collaboration, the authors discuss the growing importance of a collaborative model, in contrast to models based on management power or shareholder power. (download paper in pdf) Continue Reading →

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Who Wants Impact Investing?

“Impact investing” – financial investments designed to generate a measurable, positive impact on society, while also providing potential returns – is growing in popularity, according to new research conducted by American Century Investments. The “appeal” of impact investing reached 49% among 2018 survey participants, compared to 38% in 2016. At 56%, Millennials find impact investing most appealing, followed by Gen Xers and Baby Boomers at 52% and 44%, respectively. Continue Reading →

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Gender Quotas in California Boardrooms May Pave Way for Diversity

By August 31, 2018, California could become the first state in the nation with gender quotas to mandate publicly held companies that base their operations in the state to have women on their boards. The legislation—SB 826—will require public companies headquartered in California to have a minimum of one female on its board of directors by December 31, 2019. That minimum will be raised to at least two female board members for companies with five directors or at least three female board members for companies with six or more directors by December 31, 2021. Continue Reading →

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Stock Buyback: Shareholder Initiative

A stock buyback can increase senior executive pay, unrelated to performance. First, stock buybacks increase the value of long-term performance stock options and other forms of equity pay. Second, senior executives sometimes time their own stock sales to take advantage of the bump in price that usually accompanies stock buyback announcements. Such behavior defeats the purpose of incentivizing a long-term focus. To address our concern that performance pay should not be artificially boosted by a stock buyback, I recently submitted a proposal to Cisco Systems and expect to submit similar proposals to other companies.

Last year, I submitted a similar proposal to GE. The updated submission to Cisco Systems adds a provision to address market timing. As always, I welcome suggestions and comments from interested readers. How can such resolutions be improved? What have I missed? Or, if you disagree, why are my concerns unwarranted? Use the comment section below the post or email me. Continue Reading →

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Prison Labor: Corporate Supply Chain

NorthStar Asset Management, Inc., a Boston-based wealth management firm, announced that it has published a white paper outlining its perspective on the issue of domestic (U.S) prison labor in company supply chains, and recommending best practices for companies and investors to uncover and respond to abusive labor practices.

Prison Labor in the United States: An Investor Perspective goes into detail about how prison labor has become a critical issue related to economic inequality, racial justice, and human rights. Explained CEO Julie Goodridge, Continue Reading →

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Measuring Effectiveness: SDG Investing

A new measuring effectiveness roadmap helps investors ensure they are moving beyond generating environmental or social impact through individual market transactions and are better aligning with broader system-level goals (e.g., the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, SDGs). Group action along the same trajectory can better influence system-level change. The measuring effectiveness roadmap helps investors answer the following question: How can I measure whether I, as a long-term institutional investor, have contributed to promoting the long-term wealth-creating potential of the environment, society, or the financial system? Continue Reading →

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Millennials: Sustainability 401k Plans

As millennial-aged employees now represent the majority of the U.S. workforce, it is increasingly important that corporate management finds ways to engage them in the company. Creating 401k plans which connect to their core values — like solving human, social and environmental problems through their work and investments — can be a huge advantage to the company as a whopping 85% of millennials surveyed in the 2016 US Trust study said they consider their investment decisions as “a way to express their social, political, and environmental values.” This attracts the best talent, spurs employee engagement, extends retention, and sparks innovation. Continue Reading →

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Trump Jump: Disclose Political Expenses

The Trump Jump

The Center for Political Accountability reported today on a Trump Jump. Mutual funds support for the CPA’s corporate political disclosure resolution jumped significantly in the first year of the Trump presidency. In 2017, support increased to 48% from 43% in 2016, according to an analysis by Fund Votes. The analysis also found that abstentions decreased from 5% to 3%. My own habits also took a Trump jump, since this is the first year I beguan submitting such proposals. My first target is Kimberly-Clark, (KMB) with several more to come.

According to CPA president Bruce Freed, Continue Reading →

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Standing Voting Instructions: Reviewed

Standing Voting Instructions: Empowering the Excluded Retail Investor by Jill E Fisch just could be the most important article on corporate governance this year… if it is widely read and acted on. Download at ecgiPenn Law or SSRN. The above photo is from Small Investors Support the Boards. But Few of Them Vote, The New York Times. Unfortunately, most will not bother to read the article. What follows is both and summary of main points and my commentary. Hopefully, this post will lead to reading the research and adding your voice to those petitioning the SEC to facilitate standing voting instructions. Continue Reading →

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Pearl Meyer on CEO Pay Ratios

Pearl Meyer on CEO Pay Ratios: Pay Transparency is the New Black

Pearl Meyer on CEO pay ratios. The leading advisor to boards and senior management released its 2018 Looking Ahead to Executive Pay Practices survey but long before that, in May 2015, one of their principals declared Pay Transparency is the New Black. I guess that means pay transparency will be the next thing in corporate governance fashion. Or maybe like the TV series Orange is the New Black, we will have a lot of laughs along as CEO pay ratios are disclosed but we have a sinking sense this will not end well. Continue Reading →

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Moskowitz Winner: CSR & Executive Compensation

Moskowitz Prize Winner Announced

Moskowitz prize winner for 2017 was announced today by the Center for Responsible Business at the Haas School of Business, University of California, Berkeley, in collaboration with The SRI Conference (). The prize is named after research pioneer Milt Moskowitz, one of the first researchers to look for the connection between good corporate citizenship and profitability. Sustainable and responsible investing remains the focus.
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Key Climate Vote Survey Provides Tool

The 50/50 Climate Project released their Key Climate Vote Survey 2017 (link) of votes by America’s largest investors. Those attending last week’s informative Fall Conference of the Council of Institutional Investors in San Diego found out about it and many other newsworthy items.

Key Climate Vote Survey 2017: Groundbreaking Season?

First-time approval of climate risk proposals at Exxon (XOM) and Occidental (OXY) represents a huge win. Victory was only possible because of a highly visible shift in voting by mainstream funds State Street, J.P. Morgan, as well as from BlackRock and Vanguard, which joined climate risk proponents for the first time.

However, do not get complacent. More effort to get mutual funds to address climate change is still needed. According to the 50/50 Climate Project representatives at CIIVanguard backed only 15% of such proposals, while Blackrock voted for only 9% — despite both managers’ high-profile support of resolutions at ExxonMobil and Occidental. The cynic in me says votes may be more driven by the potential for adverse publicity, rather than potential impact on value, although the two are undoubtedly correlated. Compare to Vanguard’s Investment Stewardship 2017 Annual Report.

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Broad-Based Ownership at Twitter: Academic Perspective

twitter-co-op-620x412Through a proxy proposal, we asked the Twitter board to study broad-based ownership, such as cooperatives, for lessons to be learned on how to make Twitter both more productive and more democratic.

The proposal won enough votes to be brought back next year. In the meantime, we continue building a campaign and studying broad-based ownership models ourselves. With that backdrop, I was delighted to see commentary in Fortune by Joseph Blasi and Douglas Kruse entitled, Why Don’t Twitter’s Employees and Customers Buy the Company?   “Consider why it might actually work,” they argued. Continue Reading →

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Hybrid Listed Cooperatives

Hybrid Listed Cooperatives

Hybrid Listed Cooperatives attempt to consider more stakeholders

Innovations in Cooperative Ownership: Converted and Hybrid Listed Cooperatives (Link), by O.F. van Bekkum and J. Bijman, is one of the more interesting research papers I have read since our proposal for Twitter (TWTR) to study cooperatives won 5% of the vote, making it eligible for resubmission for the 2018 annual meeting. Before we redo the proposal (and perhaps expand its use to other companies), I want to examine the available research. If you lean of other studies, please let me know. For background on the 2017 proposal at Twitter and alternatives, see the following: Continue Reading →

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California Diversity Forum 2017: Part 1

CalPERS and CalSTRS sponsored a diversity forum in Sacramento on Wednesday, May 12, 2017.  The goal of the Diversity Forum was to bring together investment and corporate executives to discuss how to better capitalize on the abilities of the diverse modern workforce. While I think diversity should be adopted simply because it is morally right, often economics speaks volumes in the finance community. The McKinsey Global Institute estimates that narrowing the global gender gap could add US $12 trillion in annual gross domestic product to global growth.


The Forum focused on:

  • Recent research
  • Developing and implementing positive, solutions-oriented initiatives and real world best practices
  • Insight and experience of industry leaders

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Mutual Funds Hold Back Political Spending Transparency

Mutual Funds Hold Back Political Spending Transparency

Mutual Funds Hold Back Political Spending Transparency

A Public Citizen report shows mutual funds hold back political spending transparency through their proxy voting behavior. Fully 64% of political spending disclosure shareholder proposals would have passed with majority support if major mutual funds owning more than 5% had voted in favor of them in 2016.

The report, released during a telephone press conference last week, calls on the nation’s largest mutual fund companies to support political spending disclosure. Press conference participants included US Sen Robert Menendez (D-N.J.); John Coates, professor of law and economics at Harvard Law School; and Patrick Doherty, director of corporate governance for the Office of the New York State Comptroller.

For years shareholders have been pushing companies to disclose information critical to shareholders’ ability to evaluate their investments. Major mutual fund companies can and should play a pivotal role, according to Public Citizen and its partners in the Corporate Reform Coalition. Continue Reading →

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Global Sustainable Investment Up 25%

Global Sustainable Investment ReviewThe Global Sustainable Investment Alliance (GSIA) released its biennial Global Sustainable Investment Review 2016, showing that global sustainable investment assets reached $22.89 trillion at the start of 2016, a 25% increase from 2014.

Sustainable investment encompasses the following activities and strategies:

  1. Negative/exclusionary screening,
  2. Positive/best-in-class screening,
  3. Norms-based screening,
  4. Integration of ESG factors,
  5. Sustainability themed investing,
  6. Impact/community investing, and
  7. Corporate engagement and shareholder action.

Yet, many in the mainstream press continue to disparage sustainable investing. This morning, Justin Baer of the Wall Street Journal reported that “interest in so-called environmental, social and governance investing is surging.” (State Street Offers New Tool to Gauge Environmental, Other Social Risks) There is nothing “so-called” about the movement to ESG investing. It is real.

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Proxy Statements Increase Disclosures

Proxy Statements Disclosing Engagement

Nearly half of S&P 100 companies included information in their proxy statements that showed how they responded to shareholder concerns and made changes to policies, according to a new report from Equilar, Innovations in Proxy Design, featuring commentary from Donnelley Financial Solutions and Pay Governance.

In 2012, just 14.3% of the S&P 100 included disclosures in their proxy statements on how they modified their practices after engaging shareholders, a figure that increased to 42.0% in 2016.

Disclosing Modifications

Disclosing Modifications in Proxy Statements

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Equilar GDI: Board Gender Parity 2055

Equilar GDI - gender parityThe new Equilar GDI (Gender Diversity Index) found it will take nearly 40 years for Russell 3000 boards of directors to reach gender parity. If the current rate of growth remains the same, Russell 3000 boards would reach 50% male and 50% female representation in Q4 2055.

Diversity Forum

I urge readers 5/10 join CalPERS & CalSTRS at this year’s Diversity Forum, an all-day event in Sacramento. We do not have to wait for 2055 to obtain gender parity. Join us to learn strategies that should move us forward at a substantially quicker pace. MoDiversity Forum 2017re information:

Equilar GDI: Research

The Equilar GDI is an index that measures 50% representation of both males and females on Russell 3000 boards as “1.” As of December 31, 2016, Russell 3000 boards were at 0.30 on the index, nearly one-third of the way toward parity. The data reflects that 15.1% of board seats at Russell 3000 companies were occupied by women as of year end. This represented an increase from 13.9% at the same point in 2015, which was up from 13.2% in 2014.  Continue Reading →

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Gadfly Proposals Reduce Value?

Deal Professor Envisions Corporate Gadfly

Starting with Corporations

Gadfly proposal on your corporate proxy? One implicit conclusion from a recent academic study is that you should short the company as soon as the SEC disapproves the company’s no-action request, since a proposal from a gadfly is likely to reduce the company’s value. Even though their intent is primarily to show why managers generally oppose proposals, that is the takeaway investment strategy one might conclude from a paper by John G. Matsusaka, Oguzhan Ozbas and Irene Yi entitled Why Do Managers Fight Shareholder Proposals? Evidence from No-Action Letter Decisions. (Why Do Managers Fight Shareholder Proposals, pdf)

Investors Skeptical of Gadfly Proposals

Researchers found a statistical correlation between Securities and Exchange Committee (SEC) staff decisions to block a no-action request and negative abnormal returns over the period of 2007-2016, “suggesting that investors agree with managers that these proposals are value-destroying.” “[O]ur main finding is that the market responded positively to the granting of a no-action letter.” “Investors are not particularly skeptical of proposals by unions and public pensions, but appear to view proposals by individual ‘gadfly’ shareholders as value-destroying.” Continue Reading →

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Short-Termism Explored in Research

Short-TermismTwo research papers that have the potential to reshape investor thinking on the detrimental impacts of short-termism by investors have won the Investor Responsibility Research Center Institute (IRRCi) annual investor research competition. The winners were presented at the Columbia Law School’s 2016 Millstein Governance Forum, Governance, Leadership and the Future of the Corporation, in New York City. In addition, each winning research team was presented with a $10,000 award.

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Tipping Points for Intentional Investors

Tipping Points 2016Tipping Points 2016,  a new state-of-the-industry report profiled 50 investors investors with $17.3 trillion in assets, finds that investors are deliberately incorporating new investment approaches to help address systems-level risks and opportunities. The study indicates that investors are intentionally attempting to influence systems-level risk factors previously ignored as beyond the impact-ability of institutional investors.
The report  identifies ten tools through which major institutional investors are deploying “intentional, systems-level investing.” The report also offers specific examples of investors working to impact global challenges including financial system sustainability, climate change and human rights issues.

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