ESG in Action

August 2021

The ESG managers we have selected each have distinctive approaches to sustainable investing but all aim for strong financial returns while simultaneously seeking positive environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) outcomes. After researching this space for a number of years and speaking with numerous managers, we are firmly convinced that consistent, thoughtful corporate engagement plays a defining role in the outcomes ESG investors are able to achieve.

In this piece, we spotlight examples of engagement, sourced from managers we follow and invest with, that focus on efforts to improve corporate diversity, pay equity, and inclusion. These issues typically fall into the S, or Social, category of ESG factors or into the G, or Governance, category if they pertain to diversity and inclusion on corporate boards. All the managers we highlight have long histories of engagement around fair employment issues.

Calvert

Beginning in the summer of 2020, Calvert began reaching out to companies among the largest 100 holdings in the Calvert U.S. Large Cap Responsible Index fund (CISIX) that were not already publishing their EEO-1 reports. Companies submit an annual EEO-1 report (privately) to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that details the gender and racial diversity of their workforces by job classification, but very few companies disclose this publicly. Only 18 of the top 100 index companies had been publishing this data. Obtaining this information is an important first step to pushing for a more inclusive corporate world. It will allow engagement specialists like Calvert to judge and then identify where to focus their shareholder advocacy to make the biggest impact. One of the companies Calvert began engaging with was Charter Communications. At first, Charter responded by simply directing the Calvert team to their corporate sustainability report (which did not provide the necessary level of detail). Calvert subsequently filed a shareholder resolution and is pursuing greater dialogue with the company. But Calvert and the other shareholders and organizations working alongside them have already had success with other index companies. By January 2021, 32 additional companies in the top 100 agreed to publish their EEO-1 reports. Half of the top 100 are now disclosing this data.

Pax

Pax, advisor to the Pax U.S. Sustainable Economy fund (PWGIX) shared an example of engagement that also highlights how at-times the final resort is to sell the security. With Oracle, a company lacking pay equity policies and disclosure, Pax first tried direct dialogue. They were unsuccessful in establishing a conversation. The fact that Oracle wouldn’t respond should concern any shareholder. Pax eventually filed a shareholder proposal on the topic, something they view as a last resort. They filed four times, the last one of which received 38% support. Excluding founder Larry Ellison’s large block of shares, the majority of independent shareholders supported Pax’s proposal. But after a lack of progress, Pax sold the holding.

Pax says this is definitely the exception these days. Most companies are willing to engage and work with them. For example, several years ago, Pax identified T-Mobile, a holding in the fund, as a laggard in terms of its board’s gender diversity. The company also didn’t have any public disclosure around board diversity. Previously, there was only one woman on the board; Pax will vote against any board slate that does not include at least three women. Pax voted against the board nominees but followed up by engaging with the company. After some discussion with investor relations, T-Mobile’s internal policies on board diversity seemed satisfactory. But after a couple of years, Pax saw no additional disclosure. They escalated their efforts by filing a shareholder proposal requesting that T-Mobile adopt a board-diversity policy that ensured women and minorities would be included in board member candidate pools. T-Mobile responded positively by amending their governance documents and Pax withdrew their proposal. T-Mobile recently announced their second female director. This is one of Pax’s long-term objectives: to increase diversity across the fund’s holdings.

RBC

The RBC Emerging Markets Equity (REEIX) team has prioritized workforce diversity as a key issue for them as they engage with current and prospective fund holdings. One example they shared in our recent interaction was Mondi, a South African paper and packaging group that fits the fund’s Green Infrastructure portfolio theme. RBC previously engaged with the company on board and workplace diversity, specifically to increase the number of women in each group. They track and rate each engagement effort across the portfolio and Mondi’s response is rated as positive. It includes an explicit focus on diversity by the CEO. One effort Mondi has undertaken is to analyze each of its plants and set one of their diverse plants (in Austria, with 20 nationalities and a female managing director) as an example to improve other plants.

—Litman Gregory Investment Team

 

Note: For discretionary use by investment professionals. This document is provided by Litman Gregory Asset Management, LLC (“Litman Gregory”) for informational purposes only and no statement is to be construed as a solicitation or offer to buy or sell a security, or the rendering of personalized investment advice. There is no agreement or understanding that Litman Gregory will provide individual advice to any investor or advisory client in receipt of this document. Certain information constitutes “forward-looking statements” and due to various risks and uncertainties actual events or results may differ from those projected. Some information contained in this report may be derived from sources that we believe to be reliable; however, we do not guarantee the accuracy or timeliness of such information. Past performance may not be indicative of future results and there can be no assurance the views and opinions expressed herein will come to pass. Investing involves risk, including the potential loss of principal. Any reference to a market index is included for illustrative purposes only, as an index is not a security in which an investment can be made. Indexes are unmanaged vehicles that do not account for the deduction of fees and expenses generally associated with investable products. Returns shown for individual securities holdings are calculated on a gross and unrealized basis and do not account for the deduction of LGAM’s management fees, which would adversely impact net results. A list of all recommendations made by LGAM within the immediately preceding one year is available upon request at no charge. For additional information about Litman Gregory, please consult the Firm’s Form ADV disclosure documents, the most recent versions of which are available on the SEC’s Investment Adviser Public Disclosure website (adviserinfo.sec.gov) and may otherwise be made available upon written request.

We Look for Managers Advancing the “ESG Ball”

BlackRock’s former head of sustainability came out with an op-ed article recently that was highly critical of the financial industry’s environmental, social, and governance (ESG) initiatives. He voiced concerns about greenwashing among asset managers and even questioned the effectiveness of ESG. Over the years we have spent researching the space, we have grappled with the same issues. We have admittedly had a love-hate relationship with ESG. At times we have been sympathetic to the comments made by the former BlackRock employee. I even recall a time when I said that if climate change is running a five-minute mile, then ESG is walking a 20-minute mile. The point I was trying to make is there seems to be a duration mismatch between the urgency of some of the problems at hand and the actual impact of the solutions in the marketplace. It also related to the disconnect we see between investor expectations and what ESG or sustainable investing can realistically deliver.

As skeptical as we have been, we fully support the initiative, and we’re not letting “perfect get in the way of good.” So, I want to be clear about our stance. At the end of the day, ESG is a label, and a label by itself is not enough for us. Seemingly on a daily basis at this point we continue to discuss ESG efforts with a lot of firms that are starting to incorporate ESG or are increasing their ESG effort, which is interesting and nice to see. But in most cases, we would not hold them out as being “enough” for us, at least not yet given where they are in their ESG integration.

Our approach is to sift through and find what we think are the best ESG options, those doing great company-level analysis and effecting positive change. To that point, if you think about the ESG space as a distribution curve, the entire curve is moving to the right. The space is evolving. We’re working on making sure we can stay as far to the right of that curve as we can, which again, is a moving target. I feel strongly that our approach of continuing to find firms that are authentic and intentional about advancing the ESG ball is where the value-add is today in the mutual fund space. To be clear, I do think a number of the funds and firms we have approved or recommend have met our demanding requirements and are making a measurable positive impact, specifically through the engagement process.

Looking ahead, we continue to think that the distinction between ESG and non-ESG is going to compress due to regulatory changes and other factors. As I mentioned, virtually every firm we talk to is incorporating ESG into the investment process. We are starting to consider whether some high-conviction funds that are not necessarily designated as sustainable or ESG by prospectus or mandate could make it into our ESG lineup and stand side by side with funds with formal ESG mandates in terms of sustainability or impact.

In terms of investment options, we are moving into high gear on a new fund that we will hopefully share shortly. And we’re also exploring ways to illustrate the differences between the ESG funds we follow, whether it’s their areas of focus or differences in approach.

One final point is that we continue to be agnostic about whether a firm is ESG or not; an ESG strategy should not be reserved for an ESG model. If we believe an ESG fund is solid based on our due diligence, it should be able to find its way into our models if the conviction is there. That’s how we’ve been thinking about it. This is not new. Perhaps eventually we could see convergence progress to the point where there is no distinction between an ESG and a non-ESG portfolio implementation. Time will tell.

—Jack Chee, Sr. Research Analyst, Litman Gregory

 

Note: These materials are intended for the use of investment professionals only and may contain information that is not suitable for all investors. This presentation is provided by Litman Gregory Asset Management, LLC (“Litman Gregory”) for informational purposes only and no statement is to be construed as a solicitation or offer to buy or sell a security, or the rendering of personalized investment advice. There is no agreement or understanding that Litman Gregory will provide individual advice to any investor or advisory client in receipt of this document. Certain information constitutes “forward-looking statements” and due to various risks and uncertainties actual events or results may differ from those projected. Some information contained in this report may be derived from sources that we believe to be reliable; however, we do not guarantee the accuracy or timeliness of such information. Past performance may not be indicative of future results and there can be no assurance the views and opinions expressed herein will come to pass. Investing involves risk, including the potential loss of principal. Any reference to a market index is included for illustrative purposes only, as an index is not a security in which an investment can be made. Indexes are unmanaged vehicles that do not account for the deduction of fees and expenses generally associated with investable products. A complete list of LGAM’s investment recommendations for the prior 12 months is available upon written request. For additional information about Litman Gregory, please consult the Firm’s Form ADV disclosure documents, the most recent versions of which are available on the SEC’s Investment Adviser Public Disclosure website (adviserinfo.sec.gov) and may otherwise be made available upon written request.

A Sustainable Investing Lexicon

From its origin in socially responsible and values-based strategies, sustainable investing today offers a broad universe of options that help pair investment goals with positive outcomes for society and the planet. With more tools than ever to support our clients in building sustainability into their investments, we want to share our thinking on this evolving space. A good place to start is simply defining terms. In this post, we describe how Litman Gregory classifies and views four types of sustainable investing.

A-Sustainable-Investing-Lexicon-Litman-Gregory-Portfolio-Strategies