How to confront the anti-ESG campaign
Witold Henisz, from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, explains why the anti-ESG investing movement is gaining ground, and what can be done to mitigate its impact.
The anti-ESG or anti-woke investment movement is following the classic playbook of disinformation and propaganda by creating a false equivalence between the ESG movement and its opponents. In the manner that many of the same funders and politicians sought to discredit climate science, they are now working to discredit efforts to improve the incorporation of climate science and other ESG factors into valuation models used by investors, consultants and corporates. Make no mistake, this is a concerted and organised effort, and it is having a substantive and dangerous impact.
- On August 23, the state of Florida Board of Advisors adopted Governor Ron DeSantis’ proposal banning “social, political or ideological interests”. DeSantis claimed that “corporate power has increasingly been utilised to impose an ideological agenda on the American people through the perversion of financial investment priorities under the euphemistic banners of environmental, social and corporate governance and diversity, inclusion and equity”.
- The states of West Virginia and Texas have adopted related policies restricting state retirement and investment funds from doing business with financial institutions that believe climate change is an economic risk or that engage in any boycotts of fossil fuels respectively. Fifteen other states are considering similar legislation.
- At least two investment vehicles, including one backed by Peter Thiel and Bill Ackman, have been launched that will allow private investors with similar beliefs to access a portfolio of companies in which ESG factors are explicitly not included or perhaps poorly performing firms on ESG factors are even overweighted.
- In this year’s season of shareholder Annual General Meetings (AGMs), a record number of shareholder resolutions were filed by conservative shareholders.
There is a growing false and dangerous perception that these developments imply that there are two equivalent sides in this debate: pro- and anti-ESG, and even that the latter is somehow winning. It is important to explore the factual basis of the relative importance of these two claims.
- When the state of Texas restricted its ability to engage with financial institutions that acknowledge climate risk, they ruled out working with the largest and most sophisticated issuers of municipal bonds and forced themselves to work with smaller, less experienced and less sophisticated banks who put ideology ahead of economics. Guess what? They paid more. How much more? My colleague Dan Garrett finds that Governor Greg Abbott and other opponents of ESG cost Texas taxpayers over $500m in higher fees.
- It is true that Strive and other investment vehicles have amassed several hundred millions of dollars from investors who wish to ignore the materiality of ESG factors. However, over $35trn dollars of assets under management wish to take such factors into account.
- And what did those conservative shareholder resolutions actually ask for and achieve? They asked ExxonMobil to ignore all other resolutions and JP Morgan to transform itself into a public benefit corporation so that they can live up to their stakeholder commitments and formally abandon shareholder interests. Many other conservative shareholder resolutions ask companies to explore the impact of diversity, equity, and inclusion practices on their white (male) employees. These resolutions were not designed to shape corporate policy or to win. They were designed solely to generate news and make it appear that there are two sides in this debate. But let’s count the actual votes not the claims. Of the 43 conservative proposals filed by the National Legal and Policy Center, the National Center for Public Policy Research, and Steven J Milloy, the average level of support received was 7%. Not including these 43 proposals, the average success rate was 30%. This isn’t balance or a victory for anti-ESG and anti-woke investing. This is a resounding defeat. Shareholders have looked at these proposals and concluded that anti-ESG proposals are far less material than ESG proposals. A recent Morningstar analysis concurs and concludes that “the reality is that most of these proposals did not garner much support. However, these proposals did receive a lot of attention, and perhaps that was the point” (emphasis added).
- New research published in Nature highlights just how successful the conservative effort to confuse the public on the science of climate change has been. When asked about their estimate for the percentage of support for climate change mitigation policies, respondents guess 37%–43%. The actual number is 66%–80%. Once again, the perception of two sides doing battle fails to stand up to the data, but opponents – thanks to decades of propaganda – have perceptions on their side.
While we need more objective third-party research – like that which we conduct at the ESG Initiative at Wharton – as well as work to improve and constructively criticise the still developing field of ESG investing, we also need advocates of such improvement to counterattack rather than be silent. We all have a stake in the outcome of this now highly politicised debate. US SIF: The Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment provides a clear, strong, accessible and useful rebuttal.
Climate risk is investment risk. There is no credible other side, only an ideological opposition cynically seeking a wedge issue for upcoming political campaigns – and, so far, it appears to be working. Proponents of climate science and more sustainable investing need to plan and execute their counterattack. Silence in the face of such an attack is complicity. Which side are you on?
Witold Henisz is vice dean and faculty director, ESG Initiative, Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. This article was originally published by Knowledge at Wharton and also appeared on LinkedIn.