Theories about ESG investing

This is some serious inside baseball. But it IS October:

If your basic theory of ESG investing is “we will avoid bad-ESG stocks in order to drive up the cost of capital of bad-ESG things,” it seems to be working:

Years of awful returns and pressure from clients to exit from the oil-and-gas business have left fewer and smaller firms able to take advantage of rising prices and help boost production. The unwillingness of some banks to make energy loans has compounded the challenges to boosting energy supplies.

Those left are moving to increase production, but they are relatively small players who won’t be able to make a significant impact on output. Investors are steering capital away from fossil fuels and toward companies that rank high in environmental, social and governance, or ESG, measures.

“Oil-and-gas has seen the worst returns of any sector over the past five years; the returns are volatile and investors feel ESG pressures,” says Wil VanLoh, who runs Quantum Energy Partners, which manages $18 billion, making it one of the few remaining big energy private-equity funds. “There’s been a huge retreat in available capital.”

That’s from Matt Levine’s Bloomberg daily newsletter, talking game about the game. But the idea that ESG investing is maturing, as he says, is an interesting one. If companies and the courts are no longer going to just line up on the side of fiduciary responsibilities as a way to protect shareholders – and hence, the companies that may continue to pollute and spew for profit – that’s at least a change.

Image: Abraham Lincoln: Baseball Theme Currier & Ives Cartoon, 1860.

Swarms at the trough

The once-in-a-generation opportunity to repair and rebuild infrastructure across the country is also a once-in-a-not-soon-enough siren call to private equity to interrupt, disrupt and corrupt:

Legislation with the size and scope of the $4 trillion “Build Back Better” agenda is like a Bat-Signal for lobbyists, urging them to swarm Capitol Hill without delay. Literally thousands of companies, organizations, and trade groups have lobbied on one or more of the bills in this package. But one industry’s representatives keep showing up over and over again, whether in formal lobbying sessions in Congress or more informal meetings: private equity.

“At every point, private equity lines up at the trough,” said one observer close to the discussions. “There’s just somebody in every fucking meeting.”

Private equity lobbyists have multiple interests in the bills being discussed. They obviously want to keep any tax increases away from their industries, and successfully fought to keep tax hikes out of the $550 billion bipartisan infrastructure bill, which is slated for a House vote on September 27. Those tax hikes got shifted to the reconciliation package known in Washington as the Build Back Better Act, and private equity has kept up the pressure there.

But the industry has another reason to be involved in the reconciliation bill. The blueprint includes hundreds of billions of dollars in investments to expand home and community-based services for elderly and disabled people under Medicaid (initially set at $400 billion over ten years), and to provide subsidies for high-quality child care programs (set at $225 billion). Private equity happens to be deeply invested in both of these industries, with dozens of home care and child care companies in their portfolios.

So, people should just be aware. Like accounting gimmicks from the political opposition and in the media that will make $3.5T over ten years sound like too much in an +$20T per year country (narrator: it’s Not), also be advised about all the beaks dipping toward the puddle as it gets sliced and diced. Let’s not get distracted about who is doing what – or why they might be whining about it.

Like we say, a country that can drop a small SUV on Mars from a helicopter and watch it drive around in real time can afford to fix any problem – except where stupidity and corruption won’t allow it.

The Arrogance of Power

With apologies to the accusers working hard to hold their abusers to account, the impacts of human activity on global warming are taking center stage this week:

The world’s leading climate scientists on Monday delivered their starkest warning yet about the deepening climate emergency, with some of the changes already set in motion thought to be “irreversible” for centuries to come.

A highly anticipated report by the U.N.’s climate panel warns that limiting global warming to close to 1.5 degrees Celsius or even 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels “will be beyond reach” in the next two decades without immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

To be sure, the 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold is a crucial global target because beyond this level, so-called tipping points become more likely. Tipping points refer to an irreversible change in the climate system, locking in further global heating.
At 2 degrees Celsius of global warming, the report says heat extremes would often reach critical tolerance thresholds for agriculture and health.

U.N. Secretary-General, António Guterres described the report as “a code red for humanity.”

“The alarm bells are deafening, and the evidence is irrefutable: greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel burning and deforestation are choking our planet and putting billions of people at immediate risk,” Guterres said.

Every previous supposed estimate had been watered down to re-assure the consensus that all of this was far enough away in time not to worry about. A little tweak here or there was all that was needed, and no time soon. Well guess what? It’s no time – soon. What are we doing and how much more can we do must be the only questions. The Earth will change and re-establish some equilibrium, and humans may or may not be a part of that. We don’t seem to understand that last part, and we’re warning ourselves that we are running out of time.

Image: A couple rides a pedal boat as smoke from nearby forest fires hangs over the city of Yakutsk, in the republic of Sakha, Siberia, on July 27, 2021.
DIMITAR DILKOFF | AFP | Getty Images

Calls coming from inside the House

May 26 – already an annual celebration chez Green – got another star on its sidewalk this year when a Dutch court case and corporate board meeting became a dessert topping that’s also a floor polish:

It started in the morning, when news came in from the Netherlands that a Dutch court ruled in a case against Shell, ordering the oil giant to cut emissions 45% by 2030 in line with the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. The case had been brought by activists, led by Milieudefensie, the Dutch branch of Friends of the Earth. Organizers ultimately signed up 17,000 co-plaintiffs to the case and mobilized hundreds of thousands more to support the effort.

While the ruling will surely be appealed, and doesn’t go nearly far enough to address Shell’s decades of human rights and climate abuses, it’s a monumental win. It will also help validate what many have dismissed as a long shot legal strategy to hold polluters accountable for their climate crimes. I remember back in Paris in 2015 when we hosted a mock tribunal for ExxonMobil in a warehouse far from the official UN Climate Talks. To see an actual court hold Shell accountable today felt like watching our fantasies play out in real time.

The same could be said for what happened this afternoon at the ExxonMobil shareholder meeting, where an outside effort succeeded in replacing at least two of Exxon’s board of directors with candidates dedicated to decarbonizing the company. I’m honestly skeptical that a few new board members can radically reform a corporation that has long been one of the greatest barriers to climate action, but it’s still a stunning rebuke. The vote was effectively a referendum on Exxon’s business model of “drill, baby, drill,” to which investors said, “thanks, but no thanks.”

A similar thing happened (same day) with a shareholder revolt at Chevron – not overturning any policies just yet but worried about the optics of the dirty work. Some media, cough NPR cough, puzzle over this with a ‘what does it mean?’ contrariness, looking for a way to defend even the energy companies’ rights and status quo. And not to get too Cassandra about this but the dust is settling a bit differently. When the most intractable, no one to blame, just-business energy providers can be re-directed from inside, a lot more becomes possible. Money does have uses. Keep up the pressure.

Don’t Look at This

Years ago, I worked construction. Mainly residential stuff but several projects were connected to renovations of a downtown business. The address had(has) a courtyard with large steel gates and several times we had to do some welding on said gates in proximity to pedestrians passing on the sidewalk. During these occasions, we would station one of the guitar players laborers next to the action with a sign telling curious passersby something like, ‘Welding, Don’t look!’ Invariably, said passers would look directly at the sparkling blinding arc.

Nutso Trumpers have spooked politicians in D.C. today, saying they were returning for Trump’s inauguration and return to power. Trump himself has still been saying he won the election and is the real Preznit. Meanwhile, the government has done not so much about anything that happened on 1/6. Dallying about legislative fixes, allowing elected hucksters to read fantasies into the record, hold-up nominations, water down bills and glad-hand insurrectionists.

They are traitors. They broke more than norms. Come out smoking. Grab Hawley by the scruff of his IV neck and let him know his Jeff Davis-abetting will not be tolerated starting last Tuesday. Push the new Voting Rights Act. Put Harriet Tubman on the 20. Make DC and PR states. Get. In. Their. Faces.
The whole shebang remains on the cliff edge. Don’t look.

Planetary quandary as nomenclature

If you can get beyond the extraordinary and expected CEO worship, there are worthy bags to unpack on the subject of Capitalism struggling with the language of climate change:

Confusing climate terminology has become commonplace among governments, and in some cases can even understate more far-reaching goals. Kelly Levin at the World Resources Institute found that many European countries say their goal is carbon neutrality, but digging in the documents reveals the target covers all greenhouse gases. California, which would be the world’s fifth-largest economy if it were a country, makes the same mistake.

“These are growing pains, as we translate the science into what it means for business and society,” said Ateli Iyalla, managing director of North America for CDP, a group advocating emission disclosures. “It’s important to use the right language and get the terminology right to send the right signals to the marketplace.”

Suspicion of implied deliberate obfuscation is warranted, so caveat lector always. A fixation on the marketplace, kicking the can as far out as it can be painlessly imagined deserves skepticism. But this struggle is admitting a chief flaw of capitalism, as a system seeking to right itself when solutions beg its very existence. As a system ideology, capitalism will not be able to completely reconcile its culpability without a commensurately profitable framing, it’s just an impossibility, a sine qua non of the entire, roll-up-your-pants, build-the-deck-higher mentality in the face of literal and figurative rising seas.

We can be interested in this struggle as an intellectual, artistic matter, yet parsing its ongoing circulation throughout financial systems and wealth management strategies it must be seen as an altogether different sort of reckoning: signal-sending, profit-guarding and bottom-line-feeding. Until mass audiences awaken to lead with solutions – changes in mindset, how we live and and move about, big finance will continue to lead from behind. It’s all they really know how to do, reinforcing an atmosphere in which it is highly incumbent on all to compare its track record with any new directions they are offering.

Image info

Good for Business

According to a non-profit that runs a global disclosure system for investors, companies, municipalities and even regions, companies taking strong climate action rose 46% just in 2020. Those rated highly by the nonprofit for their climate disclosures gained 5% more in the stock market than their peers over the past seven years.

And yet, the Nature Conservancy has gone old-school Papal, selling indulgences to companies to absolve them of their climate sins:

The Nature Conservancy recruits landowners and enrolls its own well-protected properties in carbon-offset projects, which generate credits that give big companies an inexpensive way to claim large emissions reductions. In these transactions, each metric ton of reduced emissions is represented by a financial instrument known as a carbon offset. The corporations buy the offsets, with the money flowing to the landowners and the Conservancy. The corporate buyers then use those credits to subtract an equivalent amount of emissions from their own ledgers.
The market for these credits is booming, according to BloombergNEF, a clean-energy research group. In the first 10 months of this year, companies used more than 55.1 million carbon credits to offset their emissions (equivalent to the pollution from 12 million cars), a 28% increase from the same period in 2019. While some of these credits are paying for projects that are truly reducing emissions, an unknown number represent inflated claims.
Few have jumped into this growing market with as much zeal as the Nature Conservancy, which was founded 69 years ago by a small group of ecologists seeking to preserve the last unspoiled lands in the U.S. In the seven decades since, the nonprofit in Arlington, Va., has grown into an environmental juggernaut, protecting more than 125 million acres. Last year its revenue was $932 million, which eclipsed the combined budgets of the country’s next three largest environmental nonprofits.

“For the credits to be real, the payment needs to induce the environmental benefit,” says Danny Cullenward, a lecturer at Stanford and policy director at CarbonPlan, a nonprofit that analyzes climate solutions. If the Conservancy is enrolling landowners who had no intention of cutting their trees, he adds, “they’re engaged in the business of creating fake carbon offsets.”

Barbara Haya, research fellow at the University of California at Berkeley, has studied these types of carbon projects for almost two decades. “We just don’t have time for false offsets that take credit for reductions that were already happening anyway,” she says.

Trees are extraordinarily important, but selling protected forests multiple times as carbon offsets is a phony practice. The wordplay around potential de-forestation and the urgency of doing more about a burning planet create a perfect field for corporate skullduggery. An environmental ledger, per se, that allows for continual stacking on both sides does little other than perpetuate the tried-and-false bottom-line thinking by corporations. They/we are going to actually have to do the hard stuff – slow boats, sun-powered planes, more density, more trains – to reduce net emissions. Real reductions, not carbon deals. Carbon offsets may once have been an easy way toward ‘doing’ something about climate change, but it is time to move away from them.

For I can raise no money by vile means*

Nobody has more contempt for Republican voters than professional Republicans:

The Trump campaign has been unrelenting in recent days with its all-caps, bold font, exclamation-point-ridden fundraising appeals: “THE DEMOCRATS WANT TO STEAL THIS ELECTION!” “We can’t allow the Left-wing MOB to undermine our election.”

They urge supporters to make donations to President Donald Trump’s election integrity defense, to ensure he has the “resources” he needs to keep the election from being “stolen.”

In the fine print of the fundraising blasts, it lays out that 60 percent of the contributions will first go to the new PAC, up to the maximum contribution of $5,000. The remaining 40 percent goes to the RNC up to the maximum $35,500. If that first 60 percent of the donation exceeds $5,000 the remnants go to the campaign’s “recount account”; if the 40 percent exceeds the $35,500 RNC maximum, only then does it go to the RNC’s legal defense fund.

That story was three weeks ago. By now they have raised more than $170m and it’s difficult to characterize as anything other than a nice haul. It can also be a struggle to sympathize with the donors, as it has always been:

The new NRA disclosures appear to constitute a formal admission of financial mismanagement, which the gun group had denied under months of mounting pressure. In August, following a lengthy investigation, Letitia James, the Attorney General of New York, filed a civil suit seeking to dissolve the organization, alleging the NRA had grown rotten from “a culture of self-dealing, mismanagement, and negligent oversight.” To James’s mind, LaPierre’s repayment represents a drop in the bucket. She told the Post that the $300,000 is “just a fraction of the millions he personally profited from,” and she accused LaPierre and his deputies of having raided “NRA coffers to fund lavish lifestyles that included private jets, pricey vacations, expensive meals and no-show contracts.” The Wall Street Journal recently reported that LaPierre is being investigated by the IRS for “possible criminal tax fraud related to his personal taxes.” LaPierre declined to comment to the Post.

We might call this Green brutality, because nothing reveals the vulnerable like the willingness to sell their fears back to them.

* For I can raise no money by vile means.
By heaven, I had rather coin my heart
And drop my blood for drachmas

Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act IV, Scene III

Never having to say you’re sorry

bull's eye view photo

For Wall Street, that’s what it means apparently. Torn over whether a Biden win brings joy or misery. Really.

Those with the rosier outlook point to Biden’s mostly pro-business inner circle, his significant campaign contributions from the financial industry and his longtime support of credit card companies located in his home state of Delaware. Plus, a Biden victory would likely be driven by U.S. voters seeking change because they believe the country is a mess. Wall Street thinks it has a strong argument to make that reining in lenders would be a fatal mistake when unemployment is sky-high and the economy remains ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic.

The enthusiasm, however, is tempered by fears over how much sway Biden will give progressives and their firebrand leaders, including Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. That’s especially true when it comes to picking appointees to run the powerful agencies that police banks and securities firms, jobs that the activists are mobilizing to fill with industry critics. At a minimum, progressives want to ensure that the days are long over when Democrats appointed officials like Robert Rubin, Timothy Geithner and Lawrence Summers, who is a key Biden adviser.

The stakes for Wall Street couldn’t be higher. Centrist regulators would be less likely to overturn rule rollbacks approved under Trump that have saved financial firms tens of billions of dollars. Progressive agency heads, on the other hand, could pursue what the C-suite calls the “shame and investigation agenda.” Policies like taxes on trading, curbs on executive pay and even breaking up behemoth banks would be back on the table.

To wonder whether ‘Wall Street’ has some understanding of our current morass, much less the words ‘joy’ or ‘ misery,’ is to weep. Of course they do. Always check the business press if you’re wondering at all about the soul of a consumer society. Mantra for post-2016 world: it’s always worse than you think.

Image: Replica golden calf. Subtlety is NOT their strong point.

Wasn’t Just Orwell

Bertolt Brecht:

Under Ni-En’s [Stalin’s] leadership industry was being constructed without exploiters and agriculture collectively organized in Su [the Soviet Union]. But the associations [parties] outside Su decayed. It was not the members who elected the secretaries, but the secretaries who elected the members. The political line was decreed by Su and the secretaries paid by Su. When mistakes were made, those who pointed them out were punished, but those who committed them remained in office. Thus they were soon no longer the best, merely the most compliant… Those in authority in Su no longer learned any facts, because the secretaries no longer reported anything that might not be welcome.

Me-ti, the Book of Twists and Turns.