“How do you think about ESG?” said my friend Moriah Shilton at a San Francisco NIRI summit some weeks back with hedge fund Citadel.
Silence. The four panelists shifted around. A couple whispered to each other. Finally, somebody offered with a throat-clearing cough, “It doesn’t factor into our portfolio decisions.”
For those not fluent in Investor Relations (IR) Speak, ESG is “Environmental, Social, Governance.” NIRI is the National Investor Relations Institute, professional association for the liaison between public companies and Wall Street.
ESG dominates the contemporary IR educational platform. NIRI has made a policy statement on ESG. There are at least two ESG sessions here at the NIRI Senior Round Table meeting (and NIRI national board meeting) this week in Santa Barbara.
The ESG heat isn’t coming from stock-picking investors, the “long-only” audience of public companies spending billions annually on communication through compliance-driven reports like 10Ks, 10Qs, press releases and proxies and via proactive outreach aimed at increasing share-ownership.
Nor is it, apparently, coming from hedge funds like Citadel, the other key audience – and I’d argue now the vital IR constituency because of its capacity to compete with the Great Passive Investment Wave – for public companies.
In fact, the Citadel team later said, “We vote with management on proxy matters, or we vote with our feet by selling shares.”
It’s passive money that’s obsessed with ESG. Passive investment to us is any form of capital allocation for a day or more (by contrast Fast Trading is an investment horizon of a day or less) driven by rules. That’s index investing, Exchange Traded Funds, or any variety of quantitative investment, from global macro to statistical arbitrage.
True, passives may oppose a proxy measure that doesn’t comport with an ESG platform. They will, however, continue owning the stock. Index funds pegged to a benchmark like the S&P 500 are required to own the securities comprising the benchmark.
It’s cognitively dissonant to own things you oppose.
But aren’t they trying to promote practices that make companies better stewards for stakeholders?
From my first exposure to it, good business has been sound financial management, the right people, products, markets, capital structure, the advancement of the best interests of your customers, employees, communities. These are essential strands of business DNA.
In fact, turning those into a checklist promotes the possibility that mediocre firms are treated the same as stellar ones by virtue of filling out a form. Rules breed uniformity.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in the stock market, where rules push prices toward a mean. Track the midpoint – as Passive money does – and returns become superior by pegging the average.
The investor-relations profession, the pursuit of excellence, Warren-Buffett-style investment strategies, are about unique differentiation. What makes a company better, superior?
Rules-based investing makes things the same. Passive money has boomed because shares of companies are increasingly products defined by shared criteria, like ESG. The more of that there is, the greater the probability the market will become homogeneous.
Without dismissing its merits, I’m perplexed by why public companies and stock-picking investors would promote shared criteria like ESG (why not differentiate with ESG if you’re so moved?). We don’t want the stock market to become a bunch of yellow pencils in a box.
I think a form of guilt has gripped the passive-investment colossus like what manifests among the Silicon Valley nouveau riche who ofttimes with minimal effort realize vast wealth, and then feel compelled to browbeat the rest about the “greater good.”
How one favors the greater good should be individually chosen, not directed by rules.
So from atop vast heaps of assets gained through doing nothing more than tracking a benchmark, Massive Passives are compelled to berate the market over purpose.
If that purpose is an ESG checklist, the purpose is a dictated set of rules. The very thing passive investment promotes. Ironic, right? By subtly suggesting moral superiority, passive investment advances its own self-interest: rules-based investing.
Rather than mindlessly embracing ESG as good for all, a sentient species capable of staggering creativity and achievement through the individual pursuit of happiness that inures to the benefit of the masses owes itself moments of objective reflection.
And the question to ponder is whether a uniform ESG blanket tossed over the capital markets furthers the pursuit of the excellence the IR profession and stock-pickers seek.