Untangling ESG Investing

One of the missions of our firm is to encourage other financial advisors to adopt Sustainable, Responsible and Impact Investing techniques. In pursuit of this goal, I recently had the opportunity to go on the “Untangling Fintech” podcast hosted by Stathis Partners, a firm focused on delivering market intelligence to advisors and executives working at banks and credit unions. As I very rarely have the opportunity to speak with these types of advisors, I jumped at the opportunity to get the message of Sustainable Investing out to this group.

This conversation went on for a while, and it got a bit technical (it is aimed at other financial advisors after all), but we had a LOT of fun recording it, and if you’re looking for a way to get to know me and the way our firm approaches ESG data, this is an excellent way to do it. You’ll also hear from our partners at YourStake.org, who sponsored the podcast, and get to know why we’ve chosen to work with them.

You can listen to the podcast here, or where ever you get your podcasts these days.

 

Hosts:

Scott Stathis and Bob Mittel

Discussion Guests:

  • Gabe Rissman – Co-Founder, YourStake
  • Patrick Reed – Co-Founder YourStake
  • Sean Meighan – Managing Director, Advisory Services, Atria Wealth Solutions
  • Max Mintz – Financial Planner, Common Interests
  • Keith Burger – National Sales Director, formally AIG now Luma Technologies

Sponsoring Partner:

YourStake

Music Credits:

Band: A Rusty Something (Nick Simpson)

Song: SSRI

Click here to view the show page at Stathispartners.com

And click here to view the show notes, including the graphics that were discussed on the podcast. 

Watch the Official Selections of the 2020 ESG Film Festival!

These are the films from the 2020 ESG Film Festival, presented on Dec 3rd. From 508 entries, these 12 films were selected to showcase the power of ESG and Impact, and inspire audiences around the world to act. Every action we take has power.

As a member of the advisory board for this event, I helped to judge the film festival we presented at the event. We’re proud to present the films we selected below. Films denoted with Honorable Mention were not screened live due to time constraints, but were deemed on merit worthy of inclusion here.

Flowers in the River This film won both the Judges Best Film & Audience Choice awards!
Directed by: Tiffany Steeves & Andrea Chung – United States. Ankit Agarwal, founder of Phool, shares the story of the flower recycling business he created and the impact it is having on the Ganges River in India

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Making of ‘Flowers in the River’
The filmmakers behind the documentary that won both of the awards at the 2020 ESG Film Festival share where the story idea came from, how they made the film, and a valuable life lesson learned along the way.

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Seeding the Sea
Directed by Sarah Redmond & Caroline Almy – United States.
Off the coast of Belize, seaweed farming is a more sustainable alternative than fishing. Lowell Godfrey grew up there, and now owns his own seaweed farm that he hopes will inspire other fishermen

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The Voice Of The Voiceless
Directed by Dalton Tokarcyzk – United States.
Indie rapper Marcel “FloStorm” Jones reflects on his experiences as a protestor who was arrested during the George Floyd-inspired protests during the late spring of 2020


Gando
Directed by Teymour Ghaderi – Islamic Republic of Iran.
In the Sistan and Baluchestan provinces of Iran water is scarce. However, where there is a Gando, an Iranian crocodile, there is water. The girls who fetch it risk life and limb.

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Dry Tears of the Aral
Directed by Danila Volkov – Russian Federation.
The shrinking of the Aral sea over the last 60 years is the ‘most staggering disaster of the twentieth century,’ (UNDP) and has turned the lake into a toxic salt plain. Mr. Kamalov fights for the lake.

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Waste Warriors of Bangalore
Directed by Goutham Varrier – India.
The people who work tirelessly to keep Indian cities clean often lead a very difficult life, with poor income, and no social security. Indha Mahoor and the NGO Hasiru Dala want to change that

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Embers
Directed by Lexie Chu – United States.
A look back on the devastating 2018 Southern California fires through the eyes of animal rescuers.

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Be Bold and Win the Dream
Directed by Novera Hasan Nikkon – Bangladesh.
A group of young girls in one of the most remote villages of the northern region of Bangladesh organized under the banner of a football team to stand against the gender discrimination present in their society

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Iceberg Licking Society
Directed by Nathan Ceddia – Iceland. *Honorable Mention
A never before seen look into the mysterious world of the Iceberg Licking Society as the association faces iceberg-licking’s greatest threat: global warming

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90 Minutes Without Meat
Directed by Dan Botterill – United Kingdom. *Honorable Mention
Football club Forest Green Rovers are known for being the world’s first carbon-neutral football club, as well as only serving plant-based fare during matches.

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What About My People?
Directed by Tiffany Steeves – United States. *Honorable Mention.
Lerang Selolwane, co-CEO of Lucient Engineering in Botswana, shares his personal journey and vision for his country.

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Te’la
Directed by Peter Okojie – Nigeria. *Honorable Mention

The short story of a young man that came from the northern part of Nigeria and migrated to Lagos state, one of the fastest growing cities in Africa, for a better future.

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InvestmentNews also has these videos on their website as well, with more information about the event.

What we’re doing internally and the importance of planning

In the spirit of full transparency, we thought it would be worth taking a minute to discuss how Common Interests has prepared for emergencies.

  • Our first priority is the security of our clients’ accounts and our ability to provide access and up-to-date information in times of crisis. To this end, we have conducted rigorous due diligence on our partners, and have evaluated their business continuity plans. We invite you to read the business continuity plans for our key partners here:
  • Our second priority is making sure that our firm is protected so that we can continue to serve our clients. Too many people rely on us for us to get sick. Here are the steps we’re taking:
      • Our office functions almost entirely on cloud based systems. Our phones, trading system, meeting platforms, website, and client files are all hosted on separate secure cloud servers with redundant backups. We converted to these systems in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, and have been training and preparing for the next disaster since then. We have relied on these systems to continue working from the road at conferences in the past, and have full confidence in our ability to continue to serve our clients from anywhere with a stable internet connection and a power outlet.
      • We re-configured our scheduling tool to provide additional clarity and make additional options available to our clients, while restricting non-client meetings. Our firm has offered Virtual meetings for years, and we’re extremely comfortable meeting over video chat with screen-sharing. To protect both ourselves and our clients, we are encouraging everyone to meet with us virtually or over the phone.
        • Give the new configuration of our scheduling tool a spin below! We’re here to talk. Please feel free to use it to find a time to chat, even if you only have a quick question (there’s an option for that!)



 

Max will be speaking at the United Nations on December 5!

I’m very pleased to announce that my partner Max will be speaking at the inaugural InvestmentNews ESG & Impact Forum on Dec. 5 at the United Nations.

While we specialize in Sustainable, Responsible and Impact investing for our clients, we also believe that we have a responsibility to educate and help other advisors adopt these techniques. That’s why Max has agreed to be on the advisory board for this event and give his time to speak. The panel he’s on will be moderated by Jon Hale of Morningstar (read his blog here), and will feature Colleen Denzler of Smith Capital Investors and Marguerita Cheng, the CEO of Blue Ocean Global Wealth.

Here’s what they will discuss:

As the demand for impact investment opportunities continues to grow, so does the increased responsibility on advisers to develop stronger investor education programs, increase transparency and adopt more precisely-defined metrics for measuring impact. ESG and impact investors, primarily motivated by moving the needle on specific environmental, social and governance issues, while also pursuing financial returns are increasingly flexing their purchasing power with advisers. It’s important therefore for investment advisers to understand that each client has views that are unique and diverse, requiring flexibility and customization to support each client’s goals. This panel will explore best in practice communication strategies for a more meaningful and effective client engagement experience.

As you can see, this conference is focused on Financial Advisors and other financial professionals. Click Here to register. And when you use code ESGFRIEND you can get a $50 discount. Please feel free to share this using the links below if you know anyone who would be interested in attending, and use the hashtag #INimpact so InvestmentNews knows you’re coming!

Climate Risk in Passive Investing

We’ve been seeing a lot of articles recently about a “bubble” in passive (index) investing. We haven’t commented much on this trend, as we’re big fans of low cost index funds in our portfolios. However, an article came out yesterday in Forbes that makes a point connected with this debate that we agree with wholeheartedly. Jeff McMahon writes in his article “Index Funds Face Heightened Risk From Climate Change” that Index funds are uniquely exposed to the systematic risks faced by climate change, and specifically to the inevitable policy response to climate change.

The Principles For Responsible Investing (PRI) (of which we are a signatory) has been doing a lot of research on this (see here for more information, or click here to view the slides from a recent event we attended with the PRI). We have incorporated this viewpoint into our portfolios, and the way we’ve done it speaks directly to McMahon’s article from yesterday.

McMahon points to the recent testimony before Congress from Alicia Seiger, the Managing Director of Stanford’s Sustainable Finance Initiative, who argues that investors are less able to manage climate risk because they are less able to monitor it (you can read her entire testimony here). We completely agree with this for the vast majority of index funds on the market today, but in our practice we have discovered that there are a number of ESG approaches that can be used to manage this risk (see this blog post from earlier this year for more information). Further, by looking at the PRI’s research, we believe we can identify the most likely policy responses and manage these risks within our portfolios.

The most likely policy levers to secure an accelerated and just transition Source: UNPRI (https://www.unpri.org/climate-change/what-is-the-inevitable-policy-response/4787.article)

By mindfully choosing investments that incorporate Environmental, Social and Governance data in their investment process, we believe we can manage these risks. However, there are a number of different approaches emerging within the investment community, and they do not all have the same results! If you are interested in what we’re doing to manage these risks in our portfolios, or if you would like us to analyze your investments to see how exposed you are to these risks, click here to schedule an appointment!

Quantifying the risks from Climate Change

CDP (formerly the Climate Disclosure Project) came out with a new report this week, their Global Climate Change Analysis for 2018. The summary of the report is well worth a read (it has some really great interactive charts if you’re a data nerd like I am), but there were a few takeaways that were so spectacular that we felt compelled to write a short post highlighting their findings. I’ll go through a few of the top quotes from the report and provide a little commentary of my own.

215 of the biggest global companies report almost $1 trillion at risk from climate impacts, with many likely to hit within the next 5 years

5 years is not a long time, especially for clients nearing retirement. We believe we have a duty to manage these risks in our investment portfolios.

Companies report potential $250 billion in losses due to the write-offs of assets

These are assets on the books, that contribute to the current valuations (and therefore stock prices) of many of these companies. In addition to “stranded asset risk” from fossil fuel reserves that cannot be extracted or burned, this number includes the damaging impacts from severe weather and other impacts from climate change.

Climate business opportunities calculated at $2.1 trillion, nearly all of which are highly likely or virtually certain

THIS is the opportunity for sustainable investing. By investing through the lens of sustainability as we do, we hope to capture these opportunities in our portfolios while mitigating the risks from climate change.

Potential value of sustainable business opportunities almost 7x the cost of realizing them ($311 billion in costs, $2.1 trillion in opportunities)

There are more takeaways, which you can read a summery of at CDP’s Press Release on the report, (where these quotes were pulled from). They highlight the challenges that disclosure still faces, but as investment advisors, the message to us is clear:

  • Climate risk must be managed in investment portfolios.
  • These risks are not something that future generations alone will bear – we are feeling the impacts today, and business leaders expect these impacts to accelerate to the point where there are material effects on their bottom line within the next 5 years.
  • We have to act. Our firm is doing our part as much as we can – from building sustainable portfolios, to offering no-minumum fossil fuel free portfolios so anyone can join our movement.

I hope you’ll be motivated to join us. Click the link in the bottom right corner of this page to schedule an appointment with us to learn how you can join our community and use your investments to create change.

 

Common Interests Model Portfolio Featured in Citywire RIA Magazine

As a part of our commitment to expanding the reach of sustainable investing, I sat down with Citywire RIA Magazine to talk about how we approach the design and implementation of our portfolios. We talked about our Investment Philosophy, the investment models we offer to clients, and how we add new investments to our portfolios.

We even shared our Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) screened Moderate risk model with them so other advisors get tosee how we think about these issues.

We hope that by giving interviews like this one, we can encourage the larger community of financial advisors to take a harder look at investments that use Environmental, Social, and Governance factors. The interview also includes a discussion on the different approaches we take when clients come to us with specific requests, like Faith Based investing or Fossil Fuel Free Investing. If you’re curious, or would like to read more about our approaches, we’ve done a great blog post on the subject already!

Stewardship and Investing

My Partner and I are proud to be Social Entrepreneurs. Therefore, every day we talk about Sustainable, Responsible and Impact Investing (SRI).  We also talk about Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) screening and scoring.  More importantly, we talk about managing risk, rates of return, portfolio growth and retirement planning. That’s our business! Making money for our clients in a Sustainable and Responsible way.

All of these subjects come from the same source – STEWARDSHIP!  That’s ultimately the foundation of the discussion.  We can ask ourselves: “Will future generations have what they need to live a full and productive life in the future?”  The answer is evidenced by each of us, every day.  The decisions we make in our daily lives tell our story; good or bad. We will follow this truth: If it is to be it is up to me!

Stewardship means mindfully behaving in such a way that if everyone did the same, we would all be better off and our future would be bright!

How can we do this stewardship thing?  First, we must learn about the Circular Economy where there is NO Waste!  Second, we should  examine the supply chain management of corporations we buy things from. This will uncover hidden problems or harmful behaviors along the chain. The United Nations gives us a very good road map. They created the Sustainable Development Goals. They speak directly to the subject of Stewardship and show us what needs to be solved!

We can also turn to Shareholder Advocacy.  This actually FORCES Stewardship when needed!  This involves posting resolutions for corporate shareholders to vote on, in terms of continuing or stopping various corporate behaviors. This is the ‘walk softly, but carry a Big Stick’ approach to stewardship. Believe it or not, aberrant corporate behavior can be, and IS, changed every year by shareholder vote, or the threat of a shareholder vote!  We can make a difference!

There is definitely a need for an overwhelming theme of planetary stewardship.  Fortunately it is built into the SRI/ESG world by definition.  I think we should actually start taking credit for it! My first step is to start actually using the STEWARDSHIP word aloud in public.

Effective Impact Investing

I’m excited to announce a blog post written in collaboration with Gabe Rissman of Stake and the Real Impact Tracker, on the Effective Altruism forum, entitled Effective Impact Investing.

A little background, as this links to a fairly obscure corner of the internet: in the distant past, I was a Philosophy major at Rutgers University where I became involved in the philosophy club and founded the Rutgers Undergraduate Philosophy Journal. Through my studies, I became involved with a group called Giving What We Can, which examined both the impact of our charitable dollars (much of which go to administrative overhead at various charities and is otherwise not put to work as donors expect). Bob and I have since been back to Rutgers to speak with this group. 

While I was studying Philosophy, my partner, Bob Goellner (then my financial advisor) introduced me to Sustainable, Responsible and Impact Investing, and how we can use Environmental, Social and Governance factors in the investment process, and I was struck by how I could align my investments with my values and use the power of money to create change in the world. I became a financial advisor due to my desire to help people plan for their futures and the legacy they leave behind – because future generations depend on the decisions we make today, both in terms of their finances and the impact of our investments on the planet and society.

At the end of last year, a philosopher named Hauke Hillebrandt made an argument that Impact investing is only a good idea in specific circumstances (originally titled: “Donating effectively is usually better than Impact Investing”) which I felt compelled to respond to. I’m proud of our response, and very pleased to work with Gabe, as his training at Yale and mine at Rutgers complemented each other nicely. The work we’ve produced together is written in an academic style and references a number of other academic studies as the forum it’s posted in requires, but it represents how we think about impact in our portfolios, and especially how much we value Shareholder Advocacy, where we use the power of active ownership to engage with the companies our clients own in their portfolios to change corporate behavior.

I invite you to read our entire post, and send us comments! We want to know what you think. The post can be found here: https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/Rkr2W8ADSGwWXfRBF/effective-impact-investing

You can learn more about Gabe and his work here.

2018 Trends in Responsible Investing

Our trade organization, USSIF, the US Social Investment Forum, puts out a biannual trends report, which examines the state of the Responsible Investing movement.

The highlight of the report is this image, which shows the exponential growth of Sustainable and Responsible investing in the US:

At the time of publication, almost $12 Trillion dollars is invested in responsible investing strategies in the US, which represents an 18-fold increase since 1995, and 38% growth since 2016, the last time this report was published.  In fact, 26% of all assets under professional management in the US are now incorporating Environmental, Social and Governance data into their investment process in one way or another.

It’s important to break that data down further.  This chart is a snapshot of 2018, which examines who is investing in these strategies, and whether those investors are merely using ESG data in their investment process, or whether they are engaging with the companies they own in their portfolios to try to change corporate behavior:We are THRILLED to see such huge numbers on this chart. In fact, the data has changed so much since the last report that it’s really worth digging deeper into the orange slices at the right to see what change is being created in the world.  By examining shareholder resolutions, one tool investors use to make companies to change their behavior, we can see some of the priorities that the industry and institutional investors have set over the last few years:

This chart looks at Money Manager activity, which matters a great deal to us, as this is the category we fall into.  In fact, as a firm, we contributed to this report through our continued membership in the United Nations Principles for Responsible Investment  (you can view our data here), which was one of the primary sources for this report.

Interestingly, Institutional Investors, had much different priorities:

Clearly, both groups take similar sets of issues seriously, but institutional investors place a greater priority on Governance issues than money managers.  In our view, institutional investors are well suited to working on governance issues, as they tend to be long term issues that require longer term engagement.

Breaking this work down into more detail also yields insights: battles over Proxy Access have slowed down after strong investor support.  The share of S&P 500 companies with proxy access policies grew from 1% to 65% from 2013 to 2017, so activity on this front has slowed as a result of having fewer targets to engage.  This is a win!

In many ways, while what has been accomplished is important, why investors are pushing for change is more interesting. 82% of managers report client demand as a factor, while three quarters cite risk and return separately.  This means that your voice as a client can make a difference!  By joining with the larger community of actively engaged investors, you can become a part of a community that is creating grassroots change within the financial services industry at large.

When it comes to Risk and Return, we agree that long term investors should be considering Environmental, Social and Governance data in their process, as our investing thesis is based on the premise that using this data can expose risks to the long term prospects of companies we own in our portfolios.  All investing involves risk, and our job is to manage that risk.  We believe that ESG can be one more tool in the risk manager’s toolkit to help understand and manage risk, and we’re glad to see that this opinion is shared more broadly.

The data still has some problems, however.  Looking at the types of assets that are incorporating ESG, by far the largest segment is “uncategorized money manager assets”, which is a term that’s exactly as vague as it sounds.  While Mutual Funds, ETFs, Closed End Funds, Alternatives, and Community Investment Institutions all issue a Prospectus which discloses how they use this data (and we spend a LOT of time reading these documents to verify that our partners have policies in place that our clients want to see), the Uncategorized segment is largely self-reported, through a box on the Principles for Responsible Investing reports that says the managers are looking at the data, but not how they use it.  You can view our PRI Transparency report here.  We welcome your feedback!

All in all, this trends report marks a HUGE step forward for the industry, but a lot of work remains to be done. Additional highlights of the report include:

  • Higher support for Environmental and Social proposals:  The proportion of shareholder proposals on social and environmental proposals that receive high levels of support has been trending upward.
  • Equal pay:  Several companies have agreed to report on—and correct—gender pay differentials in response to shareholder resolutions.
  • Engagement:  Behind the scenes, engagement is increasing:  88 money managers, with $9.1 trillion in AUM, reported that they engage in dialogue with companies, up from 61 money managers, with $6.1 trillion in AUM, in 2016.

Additional information on this report can be obtained by contacting us, or  US | SIF: The Forum for Sustainable & Responsible Investment at info@ussif.org or (202) 872-5361. The trends report website is www.ussif.org/trends and they can be found on twitter: @US_SIF   |   #USSIFtrends2018