Scottish Widows stewardship chief sees growing misalignment between pension funds and asset managers
Asset managers’ actions are increasingly in conflict with pension funds' best interests, Maria Nazarova-Doyle tells Net Zero Investor
As proxy season is in full swing, all eyes are on asset owners' engagement and stewardship efforts to influence the course and direction of their portfolio companies.
So far, net zero efforts have had limited success, with many investors prioritising different issues and themes over net zero, climate and ESG.
To get an insight into how Scottish Widows goes about these questions, Net Zero Investor sat down with Maria Nazarova-Doyle, head of responsible investments and stewardship at the Scottish life insurance and pensions giant.
City of London-based Nazarova-Doyle, who joined Scottish Widows just three years ago, also sits on the board of the UK Sustainable Investment and Finance Association (UKSIF).
The level of engagement and active stewardship are increasingly hot topics of conversation within the sector. How does Scottish Widows find the right balance?
Active stewardship is about improving companies trajectory in order to serve the long-term interests of pension scheme members. With a portfolio of thousands of companies, there must be balance through prioritising material and salient ESG issues and collaborating with others to ensure impact and efficient use of resources.
Our investment decisions are based on a range of factors, including commercial viability and the extent to which target assets would meet our various ESG criteria. This approach aims to safeguard long-term value for members and support the creation of sustainable benefits for the economy, the environment, and society.
But it’s important to remember that responsible investing isn’t solely about maximizing returns. At its core, responsible investing is also about supporting the restructure of the global economy to better match the 21st century’s unique priorities.
To what extent do you engage with the companies you invest in? How do you apply pressure?
We delegate the bulk of engagement and voting activities to our designated investment managers, but work closely with them to oversee their efforts in these areas. We consistently monitor our main asset managers’ voting activities to ensure their approach to systemic issues like environmental risks is aligned with our own voting guidelines. We aim for the value of investments to be preserved over the longer term and, where possible, enhanced. Should material concerns arise, we can and do take action. For example, through overriding voting decisions.
With our main managers we have put in place arrangements that allow us to vote closer to our own position on a variety of ESG issues. With some, we can direct the votes ourselves, and with others, we have put policies in place that are closely aligned with our own approach.
New managers that we appoint must be signatories to the UN Principles of Responsible Investment (PRI) and the UK Stewardship Code 2020, with existing managers given until the end of 2024 at the very latest to become signatories to the latter, if applicable within their jurisdiction.
Our tiered system, outlined in our Stewardship Report, separates our asset managers by varying levels of control we have over their investment practices, which impacts the type of stewardship activity we are able to carry out. Our core appointed managers, across Tier 1 and 2, are expected to already be signatories to the UK Stewardship Code as detailed above. This helps us to drive high standards of stewardship across a broad range of ESG issues.
How do you shape your stewardship policy?
Any good stewardship approach needs to consider both financial risk and return – both of which can be significantly influenced by a variety of ESG factors. Each year we review our policy to ensure it is up to date with the latest market and regulatory developments. For example, last year we added human rights as a stewardship theme to ensure social factors are given enough weigh in engagement alongside environmental factors.
We also carry out client and member engagements every year specifically on reviewing our stewardship policy positions. Their thoughts are captured through questionnaires and meetings to help us gauge what is most relevant to them. We also welcome any wishes from our clients that we feed into our stewardship policy annual review. Responsible Investment is a fast-moving area with our understanding constantly evolving to keep up with the latest scientific developments and societal expectations.
How do you see the role of asset owners in shaping the net zero agenda?
Given the diversity and size of their portfolios, pension funds hold considerable sway as asset owners and shareholders. Our industry can and should act through stewardship activity to promote positive corporate action on a broad range of ESG issues, from shaping the net zero agenda to bolstering board diversity.
Along with industry peers, Scottish Widows has already undertaken some in-depth work to date in trying to tackle the environmental problems we collectively face as a society. There has been a recent wave of policy changes across the industry, such as refining stewardship approaches and the implementation of Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) reporting. I’m confident that, together, we will continue to build on these successes and ensure that the transition to a net zero global economy is both effective and just.
It is very important that we keep both the companies we invest in and our asset mangers to account on their transition strategies and actions. Recently, we have noticed a growing misalignment between long term interests of pension savers and asset managers’ actions, which is noticeable in the recent voting patterns.
Can you elaborate on that, please.
Yes, asset managers supporting corporate climate transition plans that have insufficient capex alignment, no robust planning on Scope 3 emissions or just transition considerations, and continuing to support management of companies even when they roll back on their public commitments cannot be a good thing for long-term investors. Given this, we are undertaking a collective engagement initiative with asset managers to ensure greater alignment so that we can continue to protect the interests of our customers.
How do you 'green' your investment portfolio? What do you look out for?
A crucial part of our responsible investment strategy is our commitment to decarbonisation: we are targeting halving our portfolio greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and delivering a fully net-zero portfolio by 2050.
With the release of our Climate Action Plan last year, we became the first UK insurer to publish a detailed roadmap for exactly how we will achieve those goals – which includes investing £20-25 billion into climate-aware investment strategies by 2025.
In practice, that means using funds such as those we have announced this month to invest in companies who are adapting to become net zero businesses, as well as those leading the way in the development of the key technologies and infrastructure needed to help us contain global warming. At the same time, we are reducing our investments in high carbon-emitting companies with no plans to change, especially where we see a high-risk of such investments becoming stranded assets.
While climate concerns have taken precedence within our portfolio to date, we are also seeking to increase our exposure to companies actively involved in providing solutions to issues related to nature degradation. Just this year, we launched our new Global Environmental Solutions Fund, which invests in a diverse range of nature-related themes such as renewable energy equipment and generation, transmission and distribution, electrical equipment, energy efficiency and storage, clean mobility, sustainable food, sustainable water use as well as biodiversity and deforestation.
You mentioned greenwashing and greenhushing earlier, issues that a growing number of corporates are guilty of and investors are faced with. How do you build in checks and balances?
Effective stewardship should have checks and balances at its heart. This involves questioning companies on their reporting and encouraging companies to have their climate targets verified.
However, it’s hugely important that regulators create an environment which necessitates best practice – there’s only so much we can do from within the pensions industry.
The definitions underpinning the FCA’s proposed new Sustainability Disclosure Requirements will be pivotal to the success of the net zero financial regulatory environment. SDR provides a great opportunity for the FCA to rebuild trust among investors, policymakers, and consumers, and get industry behind the new labelling system. If it’s successful, the results will be truly transformative.
Another opportunity where we’re urging for more government intervention is on nature-related initiatives. The Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures (TNFD)’s reporting requirements are set to be published in September and widely implemented later this year. In our latest report on nature and biodiversity, we urged the UK Government to leverage this timely opportunity to make the UK the first country to mandate economy-wide TNFD reporting, once the final framework is agreed upon. Nature and climate issues need to be addressed in parallel – at their core, both are deeply interlinked.
Greenhushing is a real worry for me, mostly because this has the potential to reduce the positive competitive tension and fast paced progress we have seen in the industry over the last few years. With the focus on greenwashing going through the roof at the moment, this is unfortunately encouraging companies to keep their efforts quiet instead of shouting loud about exciting things they are doing, which in turn galvanizes the rest of the industry to level up. While greenwashing is a real risk, we need to think very carefully about the balance here as tipping into greenhushing is not going to be positive for anyone.