Do You Consider Yourself To Be An Activist?

By Frank Sherman

I was at a sustainability conference last week that was attended mostly by business and academia. After introducing myself and SGI at our table, I was asked “Do you consider yourself to be an activist?”

I hesitated for what felt like an eternity. What a loaded question! Was this a trap? Did he think I was going to the Milwaukee Art Museum after the conference to throw tomato soup on the paintings and glue my hands to the wall?

Given all the buzz about “anti-ESG,” “woke capitalism,” and “socialist political agenda” these days, I didn’t want to play into the culture war narrative. Republicans candidates for financial offices in Arizona, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, and Minnesota have all taken anti-ESG positions. They and other Republicans say big financial firms are abusing their power to advance a liberal agenda on issues like diversity, social justice and, especially, climate change. One Senator even accused Blackrock of breaking antitrust laws by being a member of the Climate Action 100+ coalition (which includes SGI, by the way). 

Most of the general public don’t understand what ESG means. The simplest description is a set of environmental, social, and governance considerations that investors use to try to understand risks and opportunities that aren’t accounted for in traditional financial models. For example, environmental risks like climate change present physical and transition risks that are not reflected in a company’s P&L or balance sheet. Another risk unaccounted for in the company’s financial statements are their impacts on human rights: to their employees, suppliers, customers and society at large. Although not recognized in financial reporting, these risks are very real…to individual companies and to the economy as a whole. They vary by region, industry, and individual company. Most investors and the public are blind to the magnitude of these risks. As society’s awareness of these risks increases, asset managers large and small are taking them into account in their portfolio management and corporate engagements.

Companies like Blackrock are pushing back on state laws which try to protect the fossil fuel industry (e.g. TX, WV) by explaining that ESG strategies are part of their fiduciary duty to manage material risks for their clients. But is that why SGI members use the ESG strategies? Is our sole incentive to manage long-term financial risks?

That’s part of it, no doubt. We are responsible for managing these funds as an obligation to our community members or clients. But SGI’s mission statement states that we also want to “to build a more just and sustainable world for those most vulnerable.” Our fiduciary duty goes beyond getting an adequate return on investment to also promote human dignity, act justly, enhance the common good, and provide care for the environment. The recently updated USCCB SRI guidelines speak to this double objective. The Guidelines are based on two principles: responsible financial stewardship and ethical & social stewardship based on Catholic moral principles. They espouse three strategies: Avoid Doing Harm, Actively Work for Change, and Promote the Common Good.

In addition to managing financial risks, SGI members view shareholder engagement with corporations as a powerful catalyst for social change. ICCR’s tag-line – “inspired by faith, committed to action” – sets forth our pledge to be active owners. Although I wouldn’t label SGI members as “activists,” we have been active owners for nearly 50 years. And I wouldn’t describe our capitalism as “woke” yet, but people are starting to wake up to the fact that the economy is supposed to serve society rather than the other way around.

Back to my conference table… I don’t think I answered the question posed to me very well at the time. With more time to reflect, I would respond that rather than an activist, I would describe SGI members as active owners inspired by faith!

Some helpful resources concerning the pushback on ESG investing:

Making the Investment Policy Statement Your Own

Building on our webinar about the revised USCCB Socially Responsible Investing Guidelines, SGI’s subsequent member webinar invites us to evaluate our investment practices and policies as expressed in an Investment Policy Statement (IPS). For some this may seem a dry document about asset allocation and expected returns. In fact, the Investment Policy Statement sets forth a set of goals for your institution. It can and should speak to what your institution stands for.

We were joined by:

We want to thank all of our members and guests for attending our webinar. We would greatly appreciate if you would take a quick minute to fill out our questionnaire, here, regarding your experience.

Slides are available here.

The Necessity to Perform Investor Human Rights Due Diligence

In this difficult time, we continue to follow the crisis in Ukraine from afar. The war itself and its humanitarian and economic fallout pose some tough questions. Good stewardship may come down to posing and answering difficult questions.

For at least two decades, we ignored Russia’s globalized corruption and localized aggression. Ignored may be too soft– some even welcomed it. On March 4, 2018, Putin’s agents poisoned former Russian spy Sergei Skripal, then residing in the United Kingdom. Investors and global companies were willing to look the other way. Again, investors and global companies willfully ignored the attempted assassination of opposition leader Alexei Navalny in August of 2020. In fact, Germany, China, and the US topped the list of major investors in the Russian economy that year. On-going investments allowed Putin to entrench power, and, now, he is an unopposed dictator and global security threat.

The commencement of the Russian war in Ukraine has led to a corporate withdrawal from Russia that happened faster than anyone could have imagined. In less than four weeks, from American Express to YouTube, 380 global companies announced some kind of withdrawal from Russia, based on data compiled by the Yale School of Management. At the same time, Yale tracks 39 companies that will remain in Russia or have refused to disclose plans regarding their operations. [The Yale list does not include Koch Industries or its subsidiaries that, according to Judd Legum, also are continuing their operations in Russia.]

The motivations for abandoning business in Russia could be described in a handful of categories. Some companies have left on principle. Some have left as a consequence of sanctions. Others may have left for fear of boycotts and backlash. Still others didn’t want to be labeled as being on “the wrong side of history.” Some have only halted operations for now.

There was, obviously, another, earlier course of action: those who, based on human rights due diligence, found that investment in Russia was a risk that they would not undertake. Due to internal assessments of human rights and political governance risks, informed by the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), those asset owners already had limited exposure to Russia. Since there has been an international armed conflict, internal armed conflict, and military occupation in Ukraine since 2014, enhanced human rights due diligence was required under the UNGPs. Change can be planned and gradual, or attempted in the heat of a crisis, but most would recommend the planned and gradual route.

Investors, like all business actors, are expected to respect human rights as outlined by UNGPs. Investor responsibility is increasingly embedded into legal frameworks (e.g. EU rules requiring investors to disclose steps taken to address the adverse impact of their investment decisions on people and the planet). ICCR’s Investor Alliance for Human Rights has developed a toolkit to help asset owners and managers address risks to people posed by their investments.

We should review the whole of our investments and use the IAHR toolkit and other resources to do so. Asset owners that expand investments in Saudi Arabia are willfully ignoring flashing warning lights about human rights risks. If Jamal Khashoggi’s brutal murder in 2018 did not persuade an asset owner or an asset manager, this weekend’s mass execution of 81 prisoners is not likely to be a deterrent either. Or consider Myanmar. Since the February 1, 2021 coup, gas revenues are the largest funding source for the Burmese armed forces. Foreign gas companies work hand-in-hand with Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), which is under control of the Myanmar military. The same can be said for investments in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (XUAR) of China and a host of other countries.

While the U.S. and international community have reacted with great speed and resolve to punish Russia’s most recent invasion of Ukraine, it is troubling that we have yet to levy a similar sanctions regime on the Chinese government for its genocide in Xinjiang.

The examples of Ukraine, Saudi Arabia, Myanmar, and XUAR China highlight the increasing severity and number of conflict-affected and high-risk areas across the globe. It is up to investors and companies to respond to these systemic risks with systemic solutions, putting conflict-sensitive policies and practices into place.

Our colleagues at Heartland Initiative developed the “Rights Respecting Investment in CAHRA methodology” as one resource to assist investors.

Rich Stazinski, executive director at Heartland put it this way: “Companies and investors have had nearly a decade since the Russian invasion of Crimea to grapple with the ongoing consequences of conflict and risk in Ukraine. While abiding by evolving rounds of economic sanctions and export controls is necessary to make companies and investors legally compliant, it is far from sufficient to fulfill their responsibilities under the UN Guiding Principles. In order to do so, they must adopt robust policy and practices that address the heightened risks of doing business in conflict-affected and high-risk areas, from Ukraine to Myanmar to Xinjiang.”

Asset owners need to ask difficult or controversial questions. The very issues facing our portfolios and, indeed, our planet are too important not to.

Revised: The USCCB SRI Guidelines

For the first time since 2003, the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops revised and approved new Socially Responsible Investment Guidelines at their gathering in November of 2021. SGI’s first webinar of 2022 examined what is new in the guidelines, how an investor might implement them, and how the guidelines may call us to act in new ways. We were so grateful to be joined by Duane Roberts of Dana Investment Advisors and Katie McCloskey of Mercy Investment Services.

The USCCB staff under the leadership of a Bishops’ Working Group, chaired by the USCCB Treasurer, developed a draft of the guidelines over two years. Both of our speakers were consulted as external subject matter experts.

This revision to the USCCB Socially Responsible Investment Guidelines provides an opportunity for Catholic investors to review and update their investment policy, and perhaps their investment program as a whole. The bishops are explicit about seeing the guidelines as a “holistic framework that sees economic development intrinsically linked to integral human development and good stewardship of God’s creation.”

Like all Church documents, these guidelines need some contextualization. Officially, their scope is quite narrow: the document guides the USCCB’s investments and other activities related to corporate responsibility. Apart from that narrow scope, there is a broader mission: that they serve as an inspiration, helping to inform the investment decisions of religious communities, dioceses and archdioceses, colleges and universities, healthcare organizations, and Catholic foundations. One might say that it is a rather practical expression of a Catholic vision for the economy.

As people of faith stewarding the assets of Catholic institutions, many SGI members have a unique opportunity to develop and apply the USCCB SRI Guidelines for asset stewardship in the present, while ushering in a different form of stewardship altogether in the coming decades. Having begun in 1973, SGI sees this as a journey. We thank you who are our members for being on the journey with us, and we invite and welcome others who are interested to be on this journey with us.

We also offer thanks to Duane and Katie for being such great companions on this journey. Again, we are very grateful for the presence of Duane and Katie 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.

Revised: The USCCB SRI Guidelines

For the first time since 2003, the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops revised and approved new Socially Responsible Investment Guidelines at their gathering in November of 2021. 

Please, join SGI for our first educational webinar of 2022 to learn about what is new in the guidelines, how an investor might implement them, and how the guidelines may call us to act in new ways. We’ll gather at 10 a.m. (Central) on Tuesday, February 15th, and we’ll be joined by Duane Roberts of Dana Investment Advisors and Katie McCloskey of Mercy Investment Services.

Join the webinar on Zoom via this link

If the Zoom meeting is full, please, join the webinar via our YouTube channel which will also live stream the webinar. We will attend to questions from the both Zoom and the YouTube comment box.

2021 – A Year of Resilience

Likely, we all thought the pandemic would be over sometime in 2021, and our hopes rose and fell with the daily infection counts. The vaccines worked better than expected, restrictions were relaxed, and things started to return to normal. Then came the COVID variants, which threw a wrench into our hopes for a swift recovery, and Omicron raises the specter of a deadly winter.

While the year had its joys, we would be remiss if we neglected to recall that, in our personal lives, SGI members and staff also mourned losses, including one who endured the loss of a daughter, and weathered storms.

The great problems that we face, such as racism, poverty and the climate crisis, are structural in nature. With long histories, they are embedded socially in ways that are often masked in day-to-day life.

Sadly, we learned on January 6th that the U.S., like so many places around the globe, is an all-too-fragile democracy, vulnerable to demagoguery and the exploitation of populist sentiment. Aware that corporate donations contributed to the chaos, shareholder calls for greater corporate political spending and lobbying disclosure garnered higher support than usual.

This year we saw what is possible as the 2021 Proxy Season provided a watershed moment in shareholder advocacy with record-breaking support for environmental proposals (Exxon Mobil being a case in point). SGI members drove a series of significant corporate engagements including Walmart, Merck, Restaurant Brands International, Wendy’s, Yum! Brands, and Kraft Heinz.

After President Biden’s increased the 2030 NDC to reduce GHG by 50%, the 26th meeting of the UN Conference of the Parties (COP26) fell short of expectations. However, important pledges on deforestation and methane and the phase down of coal and fossil fuel subsidies were steps forward. Senator Joe Manchin’s declaration that he opposes the Build Back Better reconciliation bill makes the administration’s task of meeting its climate goals far more difficult. As corporations and asset managers make net-zero commitments, Milton Friedman is turning in his grave; but it would be unwise to trust that companies will deliver on their promises, without investor pressure and third-party verification.

As we wrap up 2021, we look back at an amazing year. SGI has grown to 36 institutional members, elected a new board president and added new board members, including at-large members. We refreshed our strategic plan and hosted a great conference on Resilience: Building a Just & Equitable Economy for All. Our mission to build a more just and sustainable world for those most vulnerable continues in 2022. In the New Year, SGI will be hosting events to better understand the revised U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops Guidelines for Socially Responsible Investment. We will advocate for the critical components of the Build Back Better plan. And we will work with companies to live out their societal purpose. As we end another year marked by both pain and hope, we want to thank you, our members, for your contributions to our ministry. Shareholder advocacy works. May the holiday season refresh all of us for our important work for people and planet in the New Year.

Resilience: Building A Just and Equitable Economy for All – A Virtual Conference

The world looks different today than it did ten years ago, than it did five years ago, and even different than it looked just last year. Like many conferences, we were forced to move our 2020 conference to a virtual format as we dealt with the effects of the pandemic. This year is no different.

We are still grappling with the “new normal” and the remnants of an out of date structure which put those who are most vulnerable, last. COVID-19 surfaced other issues that, while crucial, have previously been neglected. The exacerbation of economic and racial inequities demonstrated and accentuated the fragility of our systems, structures, and policies. The pandemic shifted the narrative around “non-essential” employees and raised awareness of the critical importance of frontline workers, such as: grocery clerks, meat processing and farmworkers, delivery drivers, and many more in maintaining business operations and in ensuring the functioning of our global economic system. Many of these workers are women and people of color and this public health crisis has demonstrated their vulnerability and the disproportionate economic and health impacts they experience.

In one week, on October 12, 2021, Seventh Generation Interfaith Coalition for Responsible Investment (SGI-CRI) will hold its annual conference, aptly titled Resilience: Building a Just & Equitable Economy for All, virtually, from 4:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

As we begin the recovery process from the COVID-19 pandemic, we see a need and an opportunity to build a resilient society with systems and structures that are just and equitable for all. Our panel of company, investor, and labor representatives will offer their perspectives on how we can implement positive change from the learnings and challenges of 2020, dismantle systems that perpetuate gender and racial inequities, and build an economy that serves all people and ensures the dignity of all workers.

Our keynote address will be from Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, Co-Chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. Our panel, moderated by Caroline Boden of Mercy Investment Services, will include lively discussion with a diverse group of experts:   

If you are interested in attending, and haven’t previously registered, please do so here

The webinar link and information will be sent out prior to the conference date. We hope to see you there.

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.”

Questions to Ask Your Money Manager

By John Mueller of Dana Investment Advisors

For over twenty years, Dana has been managing ESG portfolios for clients. During this time, we’ve participated in countless meetings and been asked a wide array of questions. While the old adage, ”There is no such thing as a dumb question” holds true, there are usually questions that are more effective than others to help you find the right solution for your investment portfolio. Below is a list of questions we’ve faced over the years that we think can help investors determine the appropriate partner in their search.

What does ESG mean to you and your firm? We believe the most important, and perhaps the simplest, question is often the most overlooked. During meetings, many words or terms are generally used, and everyone nods in agreement, assuming they understand the definition of that word or term. However, one of the greatest missteps in these meetings is not asking for clarification or a better understanding. Often, there will be many different answers as to a particular definition, and that can be good. Yet, instead of trying to have the investment manager convince you that their method/approach is the best, simply ask yourself if their definition fits what you and/or your group is trying to achieve.

How long is your history with ESG investing? As time goes on, this question perhaps becomes less relevant, yet with the increase in asset flows and countless new product launches for ESG strategies, this question will perhaps give you clarity on the manger’s intentions. While time alone is not a determinant of qualification, it should provide another check box for you to determine if this investment manager is the right solution.

Does your firm rely on external ESG ratings, internal, or a combination of both? ESG research providers have grown exponentially in recent years. While many managers have internal methods, there are a number of researchers that specialize in ESG data. Neither answer is wrong, but there is such rapid growth of data that finding external sources can help form a more complete picture of a company’s policies or changes in policies. Both internal and external methods can have biases; therefore, understanding and partnering with multiple can help in eliminating some of these biases.

How does your firm handle companies with recent controversies or catastrophic events? Missteps and unfortunate events happen, but how the aftermath of such an event was dealt with is generally more telling. While catastrophic events are hard to predict, an investment manager’s response in the following days or weeks is of great importance. If they own shares, do they sell right away on headlines, do they seek to understand more before making a portfolio decision, or do they hold the position? These questions will give you more insights into their process. Controversies are generally more difficult and often have a less clear path to their solution. While investment managers may look at the issue differently from clients, their willingness to listen and discuss, or lack thereof, should be key in your evaluation, as these discussions can be vital in adding to the knowledge base for both the client and investment manager.

How do you approach corporate engagement and proxy voting? This question will help in determining the level of commitment the firm has to this space. While some may not currently be active in engagement, their answers will likely reveal their level of willingness to take on that role at a later date. Recent history has taught us that these actions can be impactful and look to be a greater piece of the puzzle going forward.

While this is only a sampling of questions, there are likely more that will be important to each individual organization. Some of the best questions we’ve been asked over the years don’t pertain to any investment strategy or philosophy. At the end of the day, you are choosing to invest with a person or a team, and asking questions about current events or personal backgrounds can be ways for you to better understand the driving force behind a firm’s ESG investing and other principles and characteristics, which is likely the best way to find a long-lasting partnership that will benefit all involved.

A Legal Framework for Impact

By Frank Sherman

Sustainable investing has not only become mainstream in recent years; it is now recognized as a mark of prudent investment practice. US-SIF reported last year that sustainable investing in the US increased 42% over the previous two years and now represents one in three dollars of the $51 trillion in total assets under professional management. A Morgan Stanley study found that, while the market experienced extreme volatility and recession in 2020, funds focused on “on environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors, across both stocks and bonds, weathered the year better than non-ESG portfolios.” Yet there are still those who challenge the legal basis for and prudence of incorporating ESG investment strategies.

SGI members who are institutional investors, pension fund trustees, asset managers, or      investment advisors must put their clients’ or beneficiaries’ interests before their own. Despite having been debunked many times, the myth that the fiduciary duty to act in the best interest of a client excludes ESG and socially responsible investing still exits. In a 2019 SGI webinar, Frank Coleman of Christian Brothers Investment Services (CBIS), referenced a 2005 study by law firm Freshfields, Bruckhaus, Deringer LLP which found investors could incorporate financially material ESG issues as part of their fiduciary duties. The Freshfields report contributed to the launch of the Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI). Frank also described a 2015 Freshfields report, Fiduciary Duty in the 21st Century, which clarified that ESG integration is not just permissible but required for many fiduciaries. Since its publication, financial regulators in Brazil, France, EU, Ontario, South Africa and UK have clarified ESG requirements in legislation.

However, these studies found that a fiduciary’s duty to account for the sustainability impact of their investment activity is limited to the extent that it impacted the financial performance of the assets. In other words, their fiduciary duty requires consideration of how sustainability issues affect the investment decision, but not how their investment decisions affect sustainability issues. Too many investors still approach ESG investing from a defensive posture, considering risk management alone.

Since the publication of the 2015 Freshfields report, the adoption of the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Agreement have significantly raised awareness within the investment community of global sustainability challenges. The third generation of responsible investors are beginning to measure, account for, and integrate the real-world sustainability impact of their investment activity. A third Freshfields report issued last week, The Legal Framework for Impact, considers the role of the investor as an active agent in shaping the world around us, rather than as a spectator betting on the side lines. This detailed, global, legal analysis demonstrates that investors should feel empowered to set impact goals and measure progress against them. It also highlights what must change to ensure that the rules that govern our financial system foster a truly sustainable economy.

SGI members have always considered the positive and negative impacts of their investments on people and the planet. We have been exposing tools to our members to help them assess these impacts. Investors, like all business actors, are expected to respect human rights as outlined by UN Guiding Principles on Business in Human Rights. Last year, the Investor Alliance for Human Rights published an Investor Toolkit on Human Rights for asset owners and managers to address risks to people posed by their investments. This spring, Ceres joined a number of other investor coalitions to launch the Paris Aligned Investment Initiative providing recommendations on key actions and methodologies for asset owners and managers to achieve net zero GHG emissions by 2050 across their portfolio.

So it is now clear that investors must look beyond the financial returns to understand the ESG impacts of their portfolios have on the real world around them—the world their beneficiaries live in.