How Advocates of ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’ Distort Shareholder Power

BlackRock CEO Larry Fink takes part in the Yahoo Finance All Markets Summit in New York in 2017. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)
By pressuring companies to put ‘sustainability’ before profit, they hurt pensioners, small investors, and all those who depend on a robust economy.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE M any years ago now, Milton Friedman explained something that should never have needed explaining, when, writing for the New York Times Magazine, he reminded his readers what —and whom — a company is meant to be for:

In a free-enterprise, private-property system, a corporate executive is an employee of the owners of the business. He has direct responsibility to his employers. That responsibility is to conduct the business in accordance with their desires, which generally will be to make as much money as possible while conforming to [the] basic rules of . . . society, both those embodied in law and those embodied in ethical custom. . . .

What does it mean to say that the corporate executive has a “social responsibility” in his capacity as businessman? If this statement is not pure rhetoric, it must mean that he is to act in some way that is not in the interest of his employers.

The executives who retool a company’s mission to suit a particular conception of “social responsibility” are spending shareholders’ money on a moral agenda unrelated to company objectives, an affront that’s only made worse if their crusade depresses returns, share price, or both.

Friedman was writing in 1971. Since then, like so many bad ideas, corporate social responsibility has become institutionalized. To take a recent example, in 2017 JP Morgan Chase gave $500,000 to the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization that, sadly, has strayed far from its original ideals. Had they learned of it, this gift would probably have irritated a good many shareholders. The employee who had to justify it was — you guessed it — the bank’s “head of corporate responsibility,” a title that signifies how deep the rot has gone.

It’s been a long time since companies’ supposed social responsibility could be discharged by a handout or two, but the pressure on them to toe some outsider’s line has, in recent years, been stepped up. Often repackaged as a demand that corporations be measured by the extent to which they match arbitrary and ever-tightening E (environmental), S (social), and G (governance) standards, it is now a way of corralling private enterprise without the bother of legislation. The G, which can cover such issues as transparency and compliance, is relatively uncontroversial, but so far as many shareholders are concerned, insisting on the E and, to a lesser degree, the S, which can range from the benign (worker safety) to the malign (stipulating what legal products a company may or may not sell), is a form of expropriation.

It is a mark of just how ingrained the ideas behind ESG have become that the Financial Times, mistakenly thought by the old-fashioned to be the house journal of capitalism, now has a section presumptuously called “Moral Money,” billed as “the trusted destination for news and analysis about the fast-expanding world of socially responsible business, sustainable finance, impact investing, [ESG] trends, and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals” — a rebarbative combination for which those running the FT clearly believe there is an audience.

If Davos is any indicator, they are right. Here’s an extract from the World Economic Forum’s “Manifesto for 2020”:

A company serves society at large through its activities, supports the communities in which it works, and pays its fair share of taxes. It ensures the safe, ethical and efficient use of data. It acts as a steward of the environmental and material universe for future generations. It consciously protects our biosphere and champions a circular, shared and regenerative economy. It continuously expands the frontiers of knowledge, innovation and technology to improve people’s well-being. . . .

A company is more than an economic unit generating wealth. It fulfils human and societal aspirations as part of the broader social system. Performance must be measured not only on the return to shareholders, but also on how it achieves its environmental, social and good governance objectives.

Unfortunately, what goes on in Davos does not stay in Davos.

The existence of the FT’s “Moral Money” section is yet more evidence of this larger trend. In a recent edition, we could read about how a Bank of America analyst examined the environmental implications (at least as seen from the perspective of climate warriors) of bringing supply chains closer to home in the wake of COVID-19. The author’s conclusion that doing so would reduce emissions would, in happier times, not have concerned investors — their interest would only have been in the financial consequences of such a change. But we do not live in those times.

Banks are not charities. They would not write research reports of this type unless there was a market for them, and there is. ESG investing is becoming big business. Thus, as one of the “Moral Money” team reports:

According to research from Sustainable Research and Analysis, an independent research shop based in New York, the total assets held in sustainable mutual funds and ETFs hit $1.6tn in 2019, growing from a base of just $400bn at the end of 2018. Even with the coronavirus outbreak sending markets into a tailspin, ESG funds added a further $500bn in assets through Q1 2020.

Reading on, there is a glimmer of hope:

But only a small portion came from net new money. In 2019, investment managers rebranded 475 existing funds to incorporate ESG factors, which accounted for more than $1tn, or 86 per cent of the total “new” ESG assets.

So Wall Street is behaving with its customary cynicism, and in the moral universe of “Moral Money” that will not do:

On the face of it, this seems troubling and sends up red flags for greenwashing.

It would take a heart of stone not to laugh here, but one would be laughing too soon:

Henry Shilling, director of research at Sustainable Research and Analysis, says most asset managers are not just slapping an ESG label on their funds and calling it a day. “Most of the rebranded funds have adopted ESG integration strategies,” he said, explaining that they had explicitly changed their prospectus documents to include ESG as a part of their investment process and were engaging with portfolio companies on ESG issues.

“Engaging with,” however, can mean sending a token memo or doing something more substantive. So it’s time for some more pearl-clutching:

Even with all of the companies making public commitments to cut emissions and look out for stakeholder interests, a shocking minority have gone so far as to tie executive pay to any sort of ESG metric. In fact, new research from Sustainalytics shows just 9 per cent of all companies in the FTSE AW index have done so. And on top of that, the vast majority of those that have done so have only targeted occupational health and safety.

“Only” is doing a lot of work there.

It’s worth pausing to note the citations of Sustainanalytics, which describes itself as “the leading independent global provider of ESG and corporate governance research and ratings to investors,” and of Sustainable Research and Analysis, a firm that serves “as a source for sustainable investment management information, research, opinions and sustainable fund ratings.” Both are part of the flourishing (and profitable) ecosystem that ESG investing has created. It encompasses consultancies, advocacy organizations, “chief sustainability officers,” and many, many more rent-seekers besides. ESG is bad news for investors, but it is not a bad way of filling the wallets of those that feed off it.

None of this is to deny that there is room for ESG-based investment strategies. If investors want to base their stock selection in whole or in part on ESG criteria, that is, of course, up to them, and if investment companies wish to market ESG-compliant funds, that’s fine. Funds that will not invest in companies that, say, sell guns or alcohol have been around for a long time. ESG-compliant funds are simply an extension of the entirely reasonable idea that investors should not be forced to choose between their principles and smart investment. The more choice that such investors have the better.

But choice is the key word here. Much of the pressure for companies to raise their ESG game comes either directly from state or other governmental pension funds, which are not exactly free from political pressure and ideological bias, or from the investment companies that wish to sell to them. Thus “Moral Money” reports on a number of proxy fights over ESG issues brewing at companies such as ExxonMobil and the British bank Barclays. Among those named as leading the charge in these battles are Brunel Pension Partnership, which manages the pension funds for ten local British governments, the Liverpool-based Merseyside pension fund (also for local government employees), and — this is far from just a British thing — the New York State Common Retirement Fund.

Turn to Brunel’s website, and you find that:

[Brunel’s] investment team [has] the ability to clearly think in 10 to 20-year timeframes. As such, environment and social risk considerations, along with good governance and stewardship, are integrated into [its] decision making processes. . . .

The key objective of our climate policy is to systematically change the investment industry to ensure that it is fit for purpose for a world where temperature rise needs to be kept to well below 2°C compared to pre-industrial levels.

Pension funds ought to be trying to deliver the best possible economic returns for their pensioners, who are, in a sense, captive clients. Equally, where such pensions are funded or, in the case of defined-benefit schemes, underwritten in whole or in part by taxpayers, there is — or there ought to be — a duty owed to those who may end up on the hook for them. But for Brunel, other objectives now seem to have come into play.

A still bigger problem may yet come from investment groups such as BlackRock. As the FT notes, the firm is currently coming under fire from ESG activists, despite the stance taken by its chairman and CEO, Larry Fink, who claimed in a letter earlier this year that “climate change has become a defining factor in companies’ long-term prospects,” and went on to explain how:

BlackRock [has] announced a number of initiatives to place sustainability at the center of our investment approach, including: making sustainability integral to portfolio construction and risk management; exiting investments that present a high sustainability-related risk, such as thermal coal producers; launching new investment products that screen fossil fuels; and strengthening our commitment to sustainability and transparency in our investment stewardship activities.

More details were set out in a letter to clients:

We have been working to improve access for several years — for example, by building the industry’s largest suite of ESG ETFs, which has allowed many more individuals to more easily invest sustainably. . . . We intend to double our offerings of ESG ETFs over the next few years (to 150), including sustainable versions of flagship index products, so that clients have more choice for how to invest their money.

Some of this merely reflected BlackRock’s self-interest — and there’s nothing wrong with that. As noted above, extending investor choice is to be welcomed. But there is also the fact that:

Every active investment team at BlackRock considers ESG factors in its investment process and has articulated how it integrates ESG in its investment processes. By the end of 2020, all active portfolios and advisory strategies will be fully ESG integrated — meaning that, at the portfolio level, our portfolio managers will be accountable for appropriately managing exposure to ESG risks and documenting how those considerations have affected investment decisions.

Investors are free not to invest with BlackRock, but because BlackRock is so large, that doesn’t eliminate the problem that this new policy could pose. Before the coronavirus crisis began, BlackRock had over $7 trillion under management. If a company doesn’t play by BlackRock’s ESG rules, it risks shutting itself off from a potentially substantial source of capital and/or support for its share price. If a company’s management decides that it doesn’t want to run that risk, it may have to adopt policies that damage the business’s long-term prospects. That might help the share price, at least for a while, but it is hardly a desirable outcome.

Even if a company has no interest in having BlackRock as a shareholder, BlackRock may have an interest in it. Once BlackRock takes a stake in a company, the chances are that it will apply pressure on management, as any shareholder has the right to do. Most shareholders only do so to increase their return, but BlackRock, whatever its claims about the connection between “sustainability” and longer-term profitability, has other targets in mind:

We have engaged with companies on sustainability-related questions for several years, urging management teams to make progress while also deliberately giving companies time to build the foundations for disclosure consistent with the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) and TCFD. We are asking companies to publish SASB- and TCFD-aligned disclosures, and as expressed by the TCFD guidelines, this should include the company’s plan for operating under a scenario where the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global warming to less than two degrees is fully realized. Given the groundwork we have already laid and the growing investment risks surrounding sustainability, we will be increasingly disposed to vote against management when companies have not made sufficient progress. [Emphasis added.]

SASB and TCFD are two other creatures in the ESG ecosystem. The former was once chaired by Michael Bloomberg, while the latter still is. SASB says that it is on a “mission . . . to help businesses around the world identify, manage and report on the sustainability topics that,” it claims boldly, if inaccurately, “matter most to their investors.” Meanwhile, TCFD, the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures, says it aims to “develop voluntary, consistent climate-related financial risk disclosures for use by companies in providing information to investors, lenders, insurers, and other stakeholders,” an objective with a clever twist: If companies do not go along with these “voluntary” disclosures, their banks and insurers — part of a sector unusually susceptible to political pressure — may turn the screws.

As a shareholder, BlackRock has every right to insist that the managements of the companies in which it invests comply with its diktats. Equally, other shareholders are free to insist that BlackRock be told to take a hike, at which point the whole thing can be thrashed out at a general meeting. But many of the other shareholders will also be institutional investors. Even if they do not agree with BlackRock’s agenda, they may feel compelled by commercial pressures of the type that I have mentioned above to go along.

In effect, therefore, many companies — and not just those that are publicly listed — will be forced to change the way they do business as they try to keep up with ever-more-stringent rules set not by democratically elected legislators but by the unaccountable, the ambitious, the greedy, and the fanatical. Milton Friedman would have been appalled (if not altogether surprised) that activists such as these ESG vigilantes could exercise such a power through their ownership of shares. Today’s small investors, pensioners, and, for that matter, anyone else who depends on a robustly growing economy ought to be angrier still.

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