This article originally appeared in Forbes on February 28, 2020.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with senior management and directors of companies across America reviewing, analyzing, measuring and integrating into company operations, a focus on environmental, social, and governance (“ESG”) considerations. Nor is it a new concept. As one general counsel of a Fortune 200 company told me last summer, “We’ve been integrating ESG into our operations for the past 40 years.”
The reason is, of course, that embracing ESG adds value to companies. This is especially true in the emerging markets, where independent directors, outside audits and anti-nepotism policies all indicate a company’s embrace of good governance. On environmental issues, look no farther than BP or Brazilian-based Vale S.A. to see the damage of what reckless neglect of sound environmental policies can do to the value of a company—BP lost 54% of its value after the oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, and Vale has plunged in value after the dam holding back mine tailings failed last year, and also faces criminal and murder charges for the more than 250 deaths that happened as a result of the dam failure.
The “S” of ESG speaks for itself. Taking care of your employees, including offering those aspects of 21st century benefits—such as maternal and parental leave, or allowing employees to work remotely, are now essential elements of attracting and retaining good workers. Ten years ago, the consulting world warned us of the impending “war for talent.” That struggle is only intensifying as a new generation is not just embracing but redefining “work-life balance.” Even Goldman Sachs, long known for its brutal work schedule, changed their rules after the suicide of one of their young telecom analysts in 2015. Simply stated, embracing ESG adds value to a company.
Impact Investing on the other hand, does not add value. Impact investing is a nice way to re-label “political investing”—investing with a specific political agenda—be it against the companies that supply our military, coal companies, gun companies and many others. Impact Investing is the antithesis of the utilitarian principles on which, the United States was founded—the greatest good for the greatest number of people—and instead is based on “investing to force change based on my personal political agenda”, and “I certainly know more than you so I will impose my will upon you.”
The absolute worst example of this is allowing politics to undermine fiduciary duty in the management of our public pension funds. From California to New York City, governors and mayors have tried to pad their liberal credentials by forcing public pension trustees to abdicate fiduciary duty to their political whims. However, in the case of California, state employees and retirees pushed back last October when they voted to toss the sitting CALPERS board president in favor of Jason Perez, a Corona, CA police officer who ran on removing politics from the management of California’s public employee pension fund.
In 2001, California stripped tobacco companies from the CALPERS portfolio thereby leaving almost $4 billion of performance (alpha) on the table. More recent proposals have targeted oil companies and private prison companies. One has to assume, that should Mike Bloomberg be elected president, his crusade as mayor of New York against sugar and soda companies will continue. But play politics in the legislature not in our public pension plans.
Now banks and money managers, seeking to appease their own activist clients and shareholders, are trying to put lipstick on the hog by advocating for ESG when what they are doing is advocating for a political agenda. We must not, however, allow them to advance political investing by calling it “ESG.” Again, ESG is used around the world as a way to help both large and small companies increase shareholder value by good governance, being good stewards of the environment and taking care of their employees. ESG is not about forcing pension funds, or banks, to stop funding soda companies, coal companies, private prison companies, defense industry companies or anything else that offends politicians, activists, elitists or scared bank CEOs seeking to impose their supercilious arrogance over fiduciary responsibility.