God’s Work?

A little misunderstanding

One of the more interesting events of the past week was the sacking of Cardinal Giovanni Becciu, who amongst other duties was responsible for the Vatican’s ‘sainthoods and beatification department’. He was, as a circuit court judge might put it ‘no saint himself’, and despite his pleadings of innocence that it was all ‘a misunderstanding’, his involvement in a number of dubious property transactions was enough to end his career.

This is not the first financial scandal in the Vatican to put it mildly, and in general the relationship between finance and religion is usually not a close one (relatedly German academics have found an inverse relationship between trustworthiness and willingness to work in the financial services industry).

Apart from the pronouncement by the former chief executive of Goldman Sachs that the bank was doing ‘God’s work’ there are few people who think religion and finance go hand in hand. One exception was Sir John Templeton, whom I had the honour to meet a number of times.

However, the idea that finance can do good, and shape the world in a progressive way has gained some credence with the rise of ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) investing. Together with the fast growing ETF (Exchange Traded Fund) industry, ESG is now one of the hottest areas in investment management (ESG ETF’s are therefore very hot).

The premise of ESG investing is to better direct capital away from ‘sinning’ companies (e.g. tobacco companies, miners, weapons manufacturers) and towards those who behave in a socially responsible way. In practice, investors use ESG ratings to score companies according to their ESG contribution, and in most cases avoid companies with poor ratings. In reality however, this does not work that well.

First, ‘sin’ companies tend to have a very good performance track record. The work of academics Elroy Dimson, Paul Marsh and Mike Staunton shows that the tobacco and alcohol stocks are amongst the very best performers over the past one hundred years. Secondly, many companies are adapting to ESG ratings and in some cases, can appear superficially ‘ESG’ friendly whilst their underlying instincts do not change much.

Thirdly, the age of QE (quantitative easing) has lowered the cost of capital for companies, so that in a market climate of plentiful liquidity, there is arguably less of a penalizing effect from ESG active investors. Facebook for example, does not have a good ESG rating, but as a mega sized social media company with high expected earnings growth, it is in the ‘fashionable’ part of the stock market.

So, if finance is to steer capital in the right or ‘good’ direction, ESG as an investment style needs to acquire ‘teeth’ or real impact. There are several emerging avenues here.

One relatively strict approach is to forgo the prospect of decent returns on ‘sin’ stocks and restrict the universe of stocks in a portfolio according to certain criteria. Islamic Sharia based portfolios do this, as do portfolios owned by various branches (i.e. Germany) of the Catholic Church. Practically these portfolios would exclude stocks in sectors like weapons, mining, alcohol etc.

Another approach that is slowly on the rise is ESG activism, where an activist fund will take a position in the security of a company with the aim of campaigning to make its business better in terms of governance, less environmentally unfriendly and more socially responsible. If and where these activists are sincere about improving corporate behaviour, there is scope to find mechanisms where passive investors can pledge the voting rights of shares they hold to be voted in an ‘ESG friendly manner’, especially in areas like executive compensation.  

A third more telling reform, would be for central banks to adopt a very strict ESG approach to their asset purchases, in the manner of the ‘Quid Pro Quo’ this note had discussed in March (https://thelevelling.blog/2020/03/22/quid-pro-quo/).

In the light of the finding by the US Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis found that that ‘383 companies whose bonds were bought by the Fed paid dividends to their shareholders, including 95 that also conducted layoffs, and 227 companies had been accused of illegal conduct sometime in the past three years’, central banks in general and the Fed in particular have room to make a significant impact on corporate social responsibility by only buying assets of firms who have credible ESG credentials.

If they were to do so, and technically there is no reason why not if they follow clear data based ESG frameworks, it would be a corporate game changer. In reality many regulators are well behind the curve here, if the behavior of BaFin (German financial regulator) in the face of egregious corporate governance breaches at Wirecard is anything to go by.

So, there is an enormous public policy opportunity, which is to make finance more values based. There are already echoes of this in the debate amongst EU countries to tie aid to member states to their adherence to its values (notably in the case of Hungary and Poland). If such a trend does materialize, then it will be one of the positive changes in the post globalized world order.

Have a great week ahead,

Mike

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