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SEC Investor Advisory Committee Panel on ESG – Data, Disclosure and Materiality

Last Thursday, the SEC’s Investor Advisory Committee (IAC) held an open meeting, which included a session to discuss investor use of environmental, social and governance (ESG) data in their investment and capital allocation decisions. During this session, the IAC heard insights from and asked questions of a panel consisting primarily of ESG-focused investors, as well as one academic. The panelists represented investment management firms Neuberger Berman, AllianceBerstein, State Street Global Advisors and Calvert Research and Management, as well as Columbia University’s program in sustainability management.

SEC Chairman’s Written Comments

SEC Chairman Clayton was not in attendance, though he submitted written remarks to the IAC, expressing his views on the matters to be considered at the meeting.
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Next SEC Investor Advisory Group Meeting–How Are Investors Using ESG Data?

Earlier this week, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) announced that its Investor Advisory Committee (IAC) will be holding a meeting on Thursday, November 7, 2019, at 9:30 a.m. E.T. The agenda includes a morning discussion on whether and how investors use environmental, social and governance (ESG) data in their investment and capital allocation decisions. The agenda and press release provide no further details on the session topic other than the panelist list provided below.

Brief Backdrop

SEC Chairman Clayton has raised a similar question at prior IAC meetings on human capital management (HCM) as the one posed for the November 7, 2019 meeting.
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SEC Commissioners Testify Before House Financial Services Committee on ESG, Proxy and Other Topics

On Tuesday, September 24, 2019, SEC Chairman Jay Clayton, along with Commissioners Jackson, Lee, Peirce and Roisman, testified before the House Financial Services Committee (Committee) in a hearing titled “Oversight of the Securities and Exchange Commission, Wall Street’s Cop on the Block.” Chairwoman Maxine Waters observed that the last time all the SEC Commissioners had been before the Committee was over a decade ago, in 2007.

The SEC submitted written remarks that begin with the agency’s “tripartite mission—to protect investors, maintain fair, orderly and efficient markets and facilitate capital formation . . . .” The remarks describe the agency’s strategic plan and highlight the 2019 initiatives in the following areas: (1) enforcement and compliance; (2) market developments and risks; (3) regulatory and policy agenda; and (4) investor education.
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ISS Ratings and Data Now Available on Open:FactSet Marketplace

ISS ESG, the responsible investment arm of ISS, is now offering its ESG data on FactSet’s Open:FactSet Marketplace. ISS ESG is the umbrella entity that consists of ISS-ethix, which focuses on responsible investment issues and related screens, ISS-climate, which provides climate data, analytics and services to financial market participants and ISS-oekom, which provides ESG research and ratings, including ISS’s Governance QualityScore and E&S Disclosure QualityScore.  Open:FactSet Marketplace is a platform offering aggregated data and analytics from various data providers to provide a single point of access for asset managers and other investment professionals.  FactSet, which owns Open:FactSet, reportedly has approximately 100,000 users, but it is unclear how many of these subscribe to its Open:FactSet Marketplace offering.
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ESG in the US: Current State of Play and Key Considerations for Issuers

Davis Polk recently contributed a chapter to The International Comparative Legal Guide: Corporate Governance 2019 titled ESG in the US: Current State of Play and Key Considerations for Issuers. With the growing importance of environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues to public companies and their investors, this chapter aims to provide insights on the current ESG landscape – from the voting policies and ESG investing platforms of top asset managers to the dizzying array of ESG disclosure regimes and third-party raters.

Read the Full Chapter >
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U.S. House Financial Services Committee Hearing on ESG Disclosure

In a House Financial Services Committee hearing yesterday, committee members debated the merits of five draft bills that would require public companies to disclose information on several environmental, social and governance, or ESG, topics including climate change risk, political expenditures and human rights risk. Hosted by the Subcommittee on Investor Protection, Entrepreneurship and Capital Markets, the hearing included witnesses representing CalPERS, Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), Ceres, Decatur Capital Management, an investment management firm, and Patomak Global Partners, a consulting firm for which former SEC Commissioner Paul Atkins serves as CEO.

Mandatory or Voluntary Disclosure? The committee memorandum prepared by the majority staff prior to the hearing stated that “investors have increasingly been demanding more and better disclosure of ESG information from public companies.” The target for improving this disclosure has been the SEC, which received an October 2018 petition from a coalition of investment managers, public pension funds and non-profit organizations requesting that the agency develop a robust ESG disclosure framework.
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Principles for Responsible Banking Gain Support of First Large U.S. Bank

Last week, Citi announced its support of the Principles for Responsible Banking (the Principles), joining a list of banks from around the world that have committed to becoming signatories. The Principles were developed by a group of 28 banks, jointly representing more than $17 trillion in assets, on behalf of the wider United Nations Environment Programme Initiative (UNEP FI). Citi has been a member of UNEP FI, a partnership between UNEP and the global financial sector, since 1997 and has undertaken several initiatives related to sustainability in the recent past.

So far, the majority of endorsers of the Principles are non-U.S.
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Investor Letter Campaign Calls for More Equity Pay Transparency

An announcement issued today states that an institutional investor group representing over $1.6 trillion in assets under management has launched a letter campaign calling for companies to provide more disclosure on workplace equity policies and practices relating to gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and other federally protected classes. The signatories believe that this type of information is material to investors and seek “more accurate assessments of the scope and depth of a company’s programs, its performance relative to peers, and improvement trends over time.”

The letter, referred to as the Investor Statement, references studies on the benefits of a diverse workplace, including findings by Equileap, an organization that specializes in providing data and insights on gender equality.
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CFTC Holds a Public Meeting to Address Climate-Related Financial Risks

The Commodity Futures Trading Commission’s (CFTC) Market Risk Advisory Committee (MRAC) held a public meeting yesterday focusing on climate-related financial risks. The meeting featured presentations by regulators, market participants and academics.

Opening Statements

CFTC Commissioner Rostin Behnam, the sponsor of MRAC, stressed the economic costs of natural disasters in his opening remarks, also noting that climate change affects several parts of the U.S. economy. CFTC Chairman J. Christopher Giancarlo emphasized in his opening remarks that the CFTC supports the work of MRAC and all five of the Commission’s advisory committees, including looking at climate change and other externalities like Brexit and new asset classes such as cryptocurrency.
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Potential Legislation on HCM Reporting and Stock Buybacks

Earlier in the week, a subcommittee of the House Financial Services Committee held a hearing on four draft bills that, if enacted, would impact corporate reporting, and more. Proponents of these bills contend that the disclosure will “provide more information to help investors make decisions based on long-term economic growth.”

What Were the Topics?

1. Mandatory HCM Reporting. Representative Cynthia Axne (D. Iowa) introduced a draft bill to amend the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (Exchange Act) to require issuers to disclose information about human capital management (HCM) in annual reports on topics such as demographics, compensation, composition, skills, culture, health, safety, and productivity.
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State Street’s New ESG Scoring Tool – Companies and ESG Raters Take Note

Introduction. Earlier this week, we learned that State Street Global Advisors, or SSGA, has created and is currently applying its new Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) platform, known as “R-Factor,” to better inform its investment, engagement, voting, and other decisions regarding any given company. SSGA says that it built R-Factor, its own scoring system, because it believes that the current ESG reporting and scoring landscape lacks standardization and transparency. Moreover, SSGA found that differing methodologies used by the current ESG raters can lead to a variance in company scores. These differences can be critical as asset owners and investment managers seek consistent, comparable and material ESG-related information for their investment analyses.
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Leading ESG Standard-Setters Release How-To Guide for Implementing TCFD’s Climate Risk Disclosure Recommendations

On May 1, 2019, the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) and the Climate Disclosure Standards Board (CDSB) jointly released a how-to implementation guide for implementing the disclosure recommendations of the Financial Stability Board’s Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosure (TCFD).  TCFD released its final recommendations in June 2017, and as of this post’s writing, 643 organizations have publicly expressed support.  Despite this level of support, companies have lacked, according to the CEO of The SASB Foundation, Madelyn Antoncic, a clear understanding on how to put the recommendations into practice.  It is for this reason that CDSB and SASB teamed up to develop a series of practical TCFD-focused resources, of which the implementation guide is the first.
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IFC Launches Framework for Impact Investing with Commitments by 60 Global Investors

On April 12, 2019, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), a World Bank Group, officially launched their Operating Principles for Impact Management (the Principles).  As of the official launch date, 60 global investors have committed to the Principles.  The first adopters range from large asset managers, private funds to non-profit investment firms.  The focus of the Principles is on impact investing, a term that IFC defines as “investments made into companies or organizations with the intent to contribute to measurable positive social or environmental impact, alongside a financial return.”  IFC adapted this definition from GIIN and notes that impact investing focuses on more than just avoiding harm or managing environmental, social and governance (ESG) risks; it aims to utilize investing’s ability to positively impact society by “choosing and managing investments to generate positive impact while also avoiding harm.”  This focus seemingly goes beyond the UN initiated Principles of Responsible Investing or UN PRI, which were tailored to the idea of responsible investing – investing with the goal of incorporating ESG factors into decisions in order to manage risk and generate long-term returns.
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Recent Executive Order on Energy Infrastructure and Economic Growth – ESG Disclosure and Proxy Voting Implications

President Trump’s Executive Order yesterday on energy infrastructure and economic growth contained an unexpected Section 5 entitled “Environment, Social and Governance Issues; Proxy Firms and Financing Energy Projects Through the United States Capital Markets.”  While the section does not directly address environmental, social and governance (ESG) disclosure, it restates the definition of materiality from the U.S. Supreme Court case, TSC Industries, Inc. v. Northway, Inc., and reiterates a company’s fiduciary duties to its shareholders to strive to maximize shareholder return, consistent with the long-term growth of the company.  This order comes on the heels of last week’s U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs hearing on ESG Principles in Investing and the Role of Asset Managers, Proxy Advisors and Other Intermediaries, as well as ongoing activity at the U.S.
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Will the SEC Adopt Additional Human Capital Management Disclosure Requirements?

IAC Meeting.  Last week, the Investor Advisory Committee (IAC or Committee) to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) voted to ask the SEC to further investigate and evaluate whether public companies should be required to disclose information related to human capital management (HCM), in other words, how companies manage workplace relationships including training, talent development and retention.

Over the last few decades, as the US economy has increasingly become based on technology and services, certain investors have expressed more interest in HCM disclosure. 
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State Street Updates Voting Guidelines and Engagement Protocol

State Street Global Advisors, or SSGA, updated and released earlier this week its Global Proxy Voting and Engagement Principles and Proxy Voting and Engagement Guidelines – North America (US & Canada). SSGA has created a new set of global policies dedicated to what companies can expect when engaging with SSGA on environmental and social matters and how SSGA intends to approach voting on sustainability-related proposals.

In addition, SSGA recently published its latest general issuer engagement protocol (as distinguished from guidelines dedicated to a specific engagement topic) informing its investee companies what to expect when engaging with the asset manager. These guidelines include important information such as where to direct an email requesting an engagement and what information to include.
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The SEC on ESG Disclosure – Latest Developments

At the 18th Annual Institute on Securities Regulation in Europe last week, SEC Director Bill Hinman spoke about the benefits of the SEC’s current, flexible approach to environmental, social and governance (ESG) disclosure for public companies. He noted that current disclosure requirements are largely principles-based and “apply in areas where the disclosure topics may be complex, associated with uncertain risks and rapidly evolving.” Such an adaptable principles-based disclosure regime, Director Hinman posited, is well suited for addressing often complex, risk-laden and rapidly evolving ESG topics, including how companies consider climate change risks, labor practices or board diversity in their decision-making.
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EU Proposes Legislation to Establish Low-Carbon Financial Market Benchmarks

Last week the European Parliament and European Union (EU) member states reached a tentative agreement on proposed legislation that would set standards for low-carbon benchmarks in the EU. In financial markets, a benchmark is essentially an index, or a standard or measure pegged to the value of a “basket” of underlying equities, bonds or other assets or prices, that is used for a variety of investment purposes, such as evaluating the performance of a security, mutual fund, or other investment. Many in the investing community rely on low-carbon benchmarks to create investment products, to measure the performance of investments and for asset allocation strategies.
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PRI to Require Reporting on Climate Change Risks

Last week, the UN Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI), the largest investor network focused on sustainable investing, challenged its over 2,250 signatories to step up their financial reporting when it announced that, beginning in 2020, all signatories will be required to report on climate change risks. PRI requires signatories, which include international asset owners, investment managers, and service providers that collectively manage over $83 trillion in assets, to report various environmental, social, and governance (ESG) metrics on an annual basis. PRI currently requests voluntary reporting on four indicators of climate risks: governance, strategy, risk management, and metrics and targets. Beginning in 2020, as part of their efforts to improve ESG-related disclosure, PRI plans to make risk indicators on both climate-related governance and strategy mandatory to report but voluntary to disclose.
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Growing Pressure from Investors Is Resulting in Increased Climate Change Related Commitments by Some Public Companies

We’ve written previously about Climate Action 100+, an investor led group representing over $32 trillion in assets under management, and its campaign against 161 or so of the largest publicly traded companies seeking to have these companies improve their greenhouse gas emitting practices.

Climate Action 100+ has experienced recent successes in its engagement efforts with a few companies, the details of which are available on its website.  In particular, a few companies have agreed to increased public reporting of their climate change strategies and, most notably, to adopt executive compensation metrics tied to greenhouse gas reduction targets. Recently, the group issued a report describing what it believes the steel industry should do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and related public disclosure of those efforts.
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Credit Ratings Agencies Increasing their Focus on ESG Risks

Fitch Ratings announced on Monday that it has launched a new integrated scoring system that shows how environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors, such as climate change, human rights and labor issues, impact individual credit rating decisions.

Its ESG Relevance Scores are sector-based and entity-specific. Fitch has started with over 1,400 non-financial corporate ratings, which it is initially making publicly available at www.fitchratings.com/site/esg.  In contrast to other third-party ESG ratings available in the market today, Fitch states that these scores do not reflect judgments as to whether an entity has positive or negative ESG practices, but rather discloses how an environmental, social and/or governance issue specific to the entity influences its current credit rating. 
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Nearly All S&P 500 Companies Provide Sustainability Reporting

With funding from the Investor Responsibility Research Institute (IRR), the Sustainable Investment Institute (Si2) reviewed the current state of companies’ sustainability reporting and found that although most S&P companies gave sustainability information, they followed a wide range of practices.  The websites of 92% of S&P 500 companies included disclosure on sustainability, but only 395 companies (78%) issued reports.  Within those reports, 357 companies provide environmental metrics and 320, social data.  Other findings include:

Most reports can be downloaded, although companies often provide dynamic website information.  Discrete reports in downloadable time-bound form were favored by 68% of companies, updated annually by 93% of those companies, while 9% of companies overall offered web-only information that could change at any time. 
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California Imposes Climate Risk Disclosure Requirements on the U.S.’s Two Largest Pension Funds

Citing concerns of climate change’s impact on the financial sector, California passed SB 964 last week requiring the country’s two biggest pension funds to publicly disclose and analyze their climate-related investment risks. Under the new law, The California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) and California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS) must review and report “climate related financial risks” that are “material” to the stability of their public market portfolios. Such “climate-related financial risks” include “intense storms, rising sea levels, higher global temperatures, economic damages from carbon emissions, and other financial and transition risks due to public policies to address climate change, shifting consumer attitudes, changing economics of traditional carbon-intense industries.” SB 964’s obligations, which will take effect on January 1, 2020 and continue every three years until 2035, also require the funds to report on their alignment to the Paris climate agreement, California climate policy goals, and any long-term climate-related financial risks.
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Investors Petition the SEC to Develop ESG Reporting Requirements

A group of investors representing more than $5 trillion in assets under management petitioned the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission on October 1, 2018 to develop a comprehensive framework that would require public companies to disclose environmental, social and governance (ESG) aspects relating to their operations.  Petitioners include CalPERS, the New York State Comptroller and the U.N. Principles for Responsible Investment.  The 19-page petition, available here, cites increasing demands by certain investors for information to better understand the long-term performance and risk management strategies of public companies. The petition notes that the voluntary “sustainability reports” that some companies have produced in response to these demands are insufficient and instead, an SEC-mandated comprehensive framework for clearer, more consistent and more fulsome, reliable and decision-useful ESG disclosure (above and beyond existing SEC disclosure requirements) would meet this demand. 
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