Carina Silberg: ‘we believe in the companies we have selected’
From ‘ethical’ analyst to head of governance and sustainability at one of the largest occupational pension companies in Europe, Carina Silberg discusses what asset owners can expect from the companies in which they invest.
The head of governance and sustainability at Swedish pension fund Alecta, Carina Silberg started her journey with environmental, social and governance (ESG) standards about 20 years ago, “when the ESG profession wasn’t really what it is today”.
“I had taken an interest in what broadly affects business to be successful and, by chance, I started off as a researcher for a company then called GES Investment Services [composed of] a number of environmentally engaged people that wanted to combine environmental awareness with finance,” she tells Net Zero Investor.
Silberg says that she has learned about the challenges corporations could face and, as a result, about “the reasonable expectations to have on companies on their behaviour, both to the planet and to people”.
“At that time, we were called – if I translate from Swedish – ‘ethical’ analysts.”
The firms that these analysts were working with at the time, however, did not know how to articulate ESG: “We would look at the environmental preparedness of a company or their social standards, but we wouldn't really take into consideration … how [it is] going to make business and what [its] real challenges on the long term from a sustainability perspective are”.
Silberg says the goal of Alecta, which has SEK 1,120bn in assets under management, has long been to obtain climate commitments from the companies in which it invests, as this remains “a dominant theme” among the ESG criteria that the pension fund applies to its investment strategy.
“Our portfolio looks pretty decent from that perspective, but now it's very much about understanding how the companies deliver on those commitments: ‘what's going to take you there?’” she explains.
Silberg, who has been at Alecta for six years, says the occupational pension provider, which manages capital for 2.6 million private individuals and 35,000 companies in Sweden, has taken “a different road than many other pension funds”.
“We've had quite a simple approach. For example, our equity portfolio, which is roughly 40% of the assets we manage, is invested in only about 100 companies, so it's a very concentrated portfolio where we hold large stakes, which usually makes us have access to the companies that we're invested in.”
Before investing in companies, the Swedish group’s analysts and equity department generally monitor their development for some years, “seeing where they're heading and benchmarking them against other companies,” Silberg says.
“They want to find … the ones that have a really great journey ahead both financially but also in [terms of] growth and innovation. Many of our companies are partly legacy companies that have a heritage of doing innovation.”
Asked about the responsibility of asset owners in moving the market, Silberg says Alecta’s investment strategy has been focused on finding “a portfolio of companies that is outperforming the others”.
“The companies we have selected, we believe in them, we believe they are good performers, and we want to see them transition.”
She recognises, however, that the narratives between Alecta and other asset owners could differ, especially for energy investments.
“I have tremendous respect for those who have the muscles and the capacity and resources to intentionally invest into a company and really want to transform it. We've said that in theory we could invest in a transition case. So far, we haven't done that.”
Credibility of transition plans
For firms struggling with the transition or caught up in a controversy, Silberg says that if Alecta were considering divestment, it would always engage first: “We would never just hit and run”.
“We generally share the same views and goals as the companies that we invest in, so, usually it's not a conflict when we come to that discussion with companies,” she points out.
But determining the credibility of transition plans is “one of the most difficult things”, she highlights, because many of the Swedish pension fund’s companies are not directly linked to fossil fuels or even energy. “It's more indirect.”
“We have a lot of exposure to the auto industry, transportation, so there it's very much about understanding the pathway, how is the fleet transforming and what's the pace of transition?” she says.
“But it's very difficult for us to assess whether one plan is better or more robust or more credible than another.”
As an active owner, Alecta is engaged in the nomination committees of companies listed in Sweden. “We have about 35 Swedish holdings and we are on the nomination committee of 20 of them,” Silberg notes.
In this respect, the pension fund looks to contribute to voting decisions at every holding company’s AGMs that proposes changes to the board, “acting in the interest of all shareholders”, she adds.
“That’s a very important aspect for us … that is a very good opportunity to put long-term influence on a company.”