Will a code of conduct bring clarity to ESG data?
Christopher Marchant talks to the Financial Conduct Authority’s Mark Manning on what the UK regulator’s proposed ESG code of conduct means for responsible investors.
In November 2022, the UK’s fiscal regulatory body the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) launched a group to develop an ESG code of conduct for data and ratings providers, developed in conjunction with M&G, Moody’s, the London Stock Exchange Group and Slaughter and May, and with a first meeting by year end.
Mark Manning, sustainable finance and stewardship lead at the FCA, carries broad insight into the ESG considerations of the authority and what this code might look like in practice.
Of what the FCA hopes to achieve with the code of conduct, Manning tells Net Zero Investor: “The role that ESG data and ratings providers play has expanded substantially over the past few years. In some cases, ESG ratings are being embedded into the design of fund benchmarks and into investment mandates and investment processes.
“We very much see the proposed code of conduct as being part of that aim to provide an effective and trusted ecosystem around ESG labelled products and financial instruments.”
Reliability of ESG data
What has prompted a seemingly sudden desire across the world to regulate the world’s ESG data providers has in fact derived from years of concerns over consistency and reliability. This issue has led many financial institutions to create their own proprietary models for measuring ESG, which only serves to further muddy the issue of what score means what in the space.
Giving his own assessment of the current state of play, Manning, who is speaking at Net Zero Investor’s annual conference on 12 December, says: “ESG data is not yet complete, and not yet consistent and comparable. This largely reflects the fact that we do not yet have a flow of complete, consistent and comparable data coming from companies in the real economy.”
The FCA’s ESG strategy in recent years has prioritised improving the flow of information coming into the financial services sector. The organisation has taken its first steps in implementing the recommendations of the Task Force on Climate Related Financial Disclosure (TCFD) within its regulatory framework, initially for listed companies. In parallel, it has been working to promote the establishment of the International Sustainability Standards Board (ISSB), which was ultimately founded at COP26 last year.
Will standards be lost in translation?
Something that the FCA must be keenly aware of is that the UK regulatory body is far from alone in trying to establish a set of standards for ESG data providers.
On the European continent, the European Securities and Markets Authority (ESMA) is currently assisting the European Commission in introducing regulatory safeguards for ESG ratings, having published its initial findings in June this year.
Moreover, in May 2022 in the US, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) proposed amendments to rules and reporting forms to promote reliable information for investors concerning funds’ and advisers’ incorporation of ESG factors. Japan has also compiled a draft code of conduct for ESG evaluation and data providers.
With an eye on these separate standards and a desire to prevent excessive differences between ESG regulation across borders, the FCA has appointed the International Capital Market Association (ICMA) and the International Regulatory Strategy Group (IRSG) as the secretariat leading work on the ESG code of conduct.
“What we need ultimately is a globally coherent code given that many of the providers in this space are global providers.
“We would want the ISSB to be a global baseline for sustainability-related reporting that can interoperate with any jurisdiction-specific standards, and at least a common core component for each jurisdiction”, says Manning.
A possible barrier to the effectiveness of the ESG Code of Conduct is that in its current form it will exist on a voluntary basis. This would provide an obvious get-out clause for any ESG data providers that wish to avoid its constraints by simply not signing up.
However, the FCA is pushing the UK Treasury for the chance for the authority’s remit to extend to ESG data providers, and thus transform the code into a key part of a “proportionate and effective regulatory regime”.
“We do believe that regulatory oversight is needed in this area, though it's ultimately a matter for government as to whether they decide to go that route. This oversight would allow us to implement mandatory requirements, which could certainly be informed by where a voluntary code ultimately lands”, says Manning.
Inconsistency in applying ESG data has aided financial institutions that wish to present investments at their most green or ethical, when scoring from a different ESG provider may present them more unfavourably. The differing ways of inspecting such data has also led to some seemingly strange decisions, such as the S&P 500 ESG index earlier this year removing electric car manufacturer Tesla due to perceived social and governance lapses, while retaining oil and gas giant ExxonMobil on the index.
The FCA itself has already confronted greenwashing, in October proposing new measures including investment product sustainability labels and restrictions on how terms like “ESG”, “green” or “sustainable” can be used.
As to whether the FCA’s upcoming ESG code of conduct will help abate the wave of greenwashing flooding over the financial world, Manning says: “The code of conduct is about making the ecosystem for ESG-oriented products and services more effective because decisions can be made on the basis of data and ratings that are better understood.
“It cannot help wilful greenwashing if there is a deliberate attempt to exaggerate or mislead. The FCA does however have other initiatives that are aiming to tackle exaggerated or unsubstantiated claims, such as the proposals that we have issued for sustainable investment labels.”
Mark Manning will be at Net Zero Investor’s annual conference on 12 December, hosted at the London Stock Exchange, speaking on the topic of “net zero investor regulation and best practice”.