November 2, 2020

ESG: Election Edition

Tomorrow’s the day everyone’s been waiting for: my son’s birthday. Also, Election Day. Lots of people think that if there’s a “Blue Wave,” it would accelerate the push for “stakeholder capitalism” – especially after a group of Democratic senators announced a working group on Friday to signal that the rights of workers and long-term, sustainable operations would be a priority if their party gets wins up & down the ballot.

That may well be the case, but I don’t think a Trump victory means that we’ll be able to write off ESG. Remember the aftermath of the 2016 election and the US withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement? It only moved ESG momentum from the government to the patchwork of private ordering – if anything, it seemed to energize investors and companies to push in that direction.

For example, BlackRock first urged companies to serve a “social purpose” in a January 2018 letter, which ignited interest in “long-termism” and “corporate purpose.” Then we had the BRT statement last year, which is still making waves. Last week, this As You Sow review catalogued shareholder proposals on the topic of whether companies are adopting plans to implement the ideals of the BRT’s “corporate purpose” statement. And we’ve all been drowning in the proliferation of ratings and disclosure standards over the last four years.

DOL Leaves “ESG Investing” on Life Support

Then again, this administration has done a thing or two to try to divert attention from ESG issues. On Friday, the Department of Labor published the final version of its rule to require private-sector retirement plans to prioritize “pecuniary factors” when making investment decisions (I blogged about the proposal on our Proxy Season Blog back in June). It doesn’t expressly limit the use of ESG-themed investments, as had been proposed – but the substance of the proposal remained largely intact. This “Plan Adviser” article gives more detail:

The final version does include some significant changes compared with the proposal, which will seemingly protect the use of ESG investing to some extent. Chief among these changes is the fact that the text of the final rule no longer refers explicitly to “ESG.” Rather, it presents a framework that emphasizes that retirement plan fiduciaries should only use “pecuniary” factors when assessing investments of any type—which is to say that they should only use factors that have a material, demonstrable impact on performance. In this sense, the rule does seem to leave ample room for the use of ESG-minded investments, presuming these types of investments are assessed in a purely economic manner and that their financial features make them prudent investments.

The preamble to the final rule, on the other hand, does speak directly to the ESG topic. The DOL and EBSA officials said the preamble seeks to help stakeholders understand how the pecuniary framework may apply to the assessment of ESG investments in practice.

Another important change emphasized by senior DOL and EBSA leaders is that the final rule does not explicitly prohibit the selection of a fund that uses ESG factors as a plan’s qualified default investment alternative (QDIA). Once again, the final rule requires that a fund being selected as the QDIA must be assessed using purely pecuniary factors that are directly material to its financial performance. Beyond this, the final rule does stipulate that a fund is not appropriate as a QDIA if its stated objectives include explicitly non-pecuniary factors—for example addressing climate change itself, rather than addressing climate change’s impact on the financial outcomes of investors.

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Liz Dunshee