Do You Know Where Your Asset Manager Is (on climate)?

By Frank Sherman

This article augments an earlier blog by John Mueller of Dana Investment Advisors on Questions to Ask Your Money Manager.

There is a growing recognition within the financial sector of its responsibility, as well as its power, to transition the economy to a low carbon future.  The Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ), representing $70tn in assets, is committed to achieving the objective of the Paris Agreement to limit global temperature increases to 1.5°C. Combined with Net Zero commitments from countries representing approximately 70% of global GDP, it sounds like the world has turned the corner on climate change. However, there is a gap between these long term ambitions and short term actions. The latest round of UN Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) put the world on track for less than a 1% reduction in emissions by 2030 vs. 45% called for by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (see Responsible Investor, Aug 17, 2021).

As a small asset owner, what can an SGI member do to ensure they are part of the solution rather than contributing to the problem? One easy strategy is to ask your asset manager about their climate stewardship activities, including proxy voting. The UN-convened Net-Zero Asset Owner Alliance, part of the GFANZ composed of over 40 institutional investors (including some ICCR members), recently released a new resource designed to help asset owners set expectations for, evaluate, and engage with asset managers on their climate-related proxy voting activities. As well, the resource is useful to asset owners who retain the right to vote their shares or to those asset owners with internally managed portfolios by integrating the principles into their own proxy voting and asset manager selection, appointment, and monitoring processes. These foundational guidelines are centered on four themes: governance, interest alignment, merit-based evaluation, and transparency. They help asset owners construct their own expectations of their asset managers’ proxy voting approaches.

Many asset managers have already made the commitment to align their portfolios with net-zero as part of the Net-Zero Asset Manager Initiative (NZAMI), which is also part of the GFANZ. Among the 128 signatories with $43tn in assets under management have already signed on to this Initiative are some of the biggies like Blackrock, Vanguard, and State Street. If you find your asset managers are part of NZAMI, you have the opportunity as a client to ask about how they are actualizing this goal within their management of their portfolio. If your asset managers have not yet signed on to NZAMI, you should ask them “why not?” I suggest you share this resource with your Investment Committee with a recommendation to review your own proxy voting guidelines and your expectations set with your asset management service providers. At the same time, you may want to challenge your Investment Committee to consider signing on to the Net-Zero Asset Owner Alliance themselves. As Blackrock’s Larry Fink has made clear, “climate risk is investment risk.”

Webinar: Proxy Voting

On April 16th, SGI’s quarterly member webinar examined how the engagement season will be shaped by the pandemic and racial justice issues. We are grateful that Michael Passoff of Proxy Impact and Meredith Miller of the UAW Retiree Medical Benefits Trust joined us to enrich our conversation. We had some great interaction in the question and answer period, and, if a member missed it, please, email a staff member for a link to the recording.

Every year, billions of shares are voted at more than 3,000 shareholder meetings of public companies. “Proxy plumbing” is an informal name for the system by which proxy materials land in shareholders’ mailboxes each year. The name is apt. Today’s proxy plumbing is confusing, inefficient and expensive, much like some interconnected jumble of water pipes, joints and faucets. Michael and Meredith helped give us a clearer understanding of how shareholders can better navigate the maze.

Again, we are very grateful for the presence of Michael and Meredith in this webinar, for their commitment to this work, and their generosity in sharing their wisdom and experience with us. As always, we welcome your feedback via a confidential evaluation found here. Slides are available here.