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BlackRock’s 2020 Investment Stewardship Report: Hits Record Level for Firm in Engagements and Director Accountability

BlackRock released its Investment Stewardship 2020 Annual Report. The report provides an overview of the asset manager’s engagements, views and voting statistics related to the 12-month period ended June 30, 2020. The report, which is double the length of last year’s, describes how the asset manager prioritized engagements with its portfolio companies, reaching the firm’s highest levels. In addition, the report indicates that the firm held more directors accountable this proxy season than it has in any other.

Key Takeaways.

Adaptation/Resilience. BlackRock predicts more engagements and voting proposals will center on corporate risks, such as climate change, social and racial equity, and demographic and technological changes.
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Vanguard Spotlights Climate Change and Diversity as Priorities in its Latest Stewardship Report

Vanguard announced the publishing of its Investment Stewardship 2020 Annual Report.  The report shares the highlights of the asset manager’s engagements with its portfolio companies, observations and voting statistics relating to the 12-month period ended June 30, 2020. The firm’s key focus areas are primarily climate change and diversity.

Vanguard believes environmental, social and governmental (ESG) matters came into sharper focus during the 2020 proxy season because of certain events and circumstances, including the COVID-19 pandemic, economic uncertainty, escalating climate risks and historic social justice movements. Vanguard wants to know how boards plan to preserve long-term relevance.

Engagement Data.
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Key Sustainability Standard Setters Converge to Promote Consistency in Corporate Sustainability Reporting

Five framework- and standard-setting institutions announced a joint statement on September 11, 2020 reflecting their collaborative vision to develop a comprehensive global corporate reporting system for disclosing sustainability topics such as climate change, biodiversity, wages and skills. The participants include the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), CDP (formerly the Carbon Disclosure Project), Climate Disclosure Standards Board (CDSB), International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC) and Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB).

Relevance to Companies.  The overarching purpose of the new system is to reduce the reporting burden on companies while improving the completeness, consistency and comparability of sustainability data available for decision-making. The participants’ plan is that companies who choose to disclose sustainability topics need to collect data only once.
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BlackRock Releases Its 2020 Public Company Engagement Priorities

While managing COVID-19 related risks and impacts may be the current priority for many public companies, BlackRock provided a reminder yesterday that environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues will form a core part of its engagement strategy this proxy season.  Publishing its investment stewardship team’s public company engagement priorities for 2020 (Priorities), BlackRock stressed, among other things, that it intends to hold board directors accountable for demonstrating “material progress” on ESG-related disclosures and practices.

BlackRock’s 2020 Investment Stewardship Engagement Priorities

The Priorities place an enhanced focus on sustainability-related issues and disclosures. Moreover, the Priorities articulate key performance indicators against which the asset manager will track companies’ progress and identify those directors whom it will hold responsible for demonstrating progress on these issues. 
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SEC Chairman Releases Statement on Proposed Changes to Financial Reporting and Discusses Climate-Related Disclosure

Today, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC” or “Commission”) voted to propose amendments to certain financial disclosure requirements under Regulation S-K, specifically those requirements related to Management’s Discussion and Analysis of Financial Condition and Results of Operations (MD&A).  In addition to these proposed amendments, the SEC issued guidance for registrants to consider when using metrics and key performance indicators in their MD&A disclosures.  The press release announcing these developments explains that the proposals are part of an overarching effort by the SEC to improve and “modernize” the disclosure regime for the benefit of both investors and issuers.

SEC Chairman Jay Clayton issued a statement in support of the proposed amendments and related guidance, a statement that largely focuses on a topic that the Chairman himself notes is “not the particular focus of today’s Commission action” – environmental and climate-related disclosures.
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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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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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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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TCFD Releases Second Status Report on the Adoption of Its Climate-Related Disclosure Recommendations

The Financial Stability Board’s Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures, commonly referred to as the TCFD, issued its second status report on June 5, 2019. This report, which follows its first status report in September 2018, states that the TCFD sees signs of progress in companies’ implementation of its recommendations on climate-related disclosures. Michael Bloomberg, TCFD Chair, commented that the TCFD is encouraged by the continued growth in the number of companies whose disclosures are aligning with its recommendations.

Nonetheless, the TCFD expressed in the report its concern that not enough companies are disclosing information on their climate-related risks or seeing the importance of incorporating climate-related information in their current business decisions.
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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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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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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.”
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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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FSB’s Task Force for Climate Disclosure to Release Updated List of Supporters

The Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (“TCFD”), an entity formed by the Financial Sustainability Board (“FSB”) focused on how climate change impacts the finances of global corporations, will publish its latest list of supporters on September 26, 2018.  The current list of over 300 supporters, includes major financial institutions, corporations, central banks and national governments, and is available here.  Corporations have been cautious in the past to sign on as supporters, but in an August 8, 2018 webinar, the TCFD stated that there is no current monetary or other commitment attendant to becoming a supporter, and no formal timeline to start disclosing against the TCFD’s disclosure principles.  
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Two Recent Climate Change Disclosure Initiatives Affecting Banks and Greenhouse Gas Emitting Companies

Sixteen banks from four continents commit to furthering the Financial Stability Board’s Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosure push for improved climate risk disclosure.  In addition, Climate Action 100+ invigorates its push on 161 large companies with either high greenhouse gas emissions or the potential to impact clean energy to improve their climate change disclosures and governance.  More details as follows:

16 Banks From Four Continents Commit to TCFD Pilot Project

Sixteen banks (Australia and New Zealand Banking Group (ANZ), Barclays, Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria (BBVA), BNP Paribas, Bradesco, Citi, DNB, Itaú Unibanco, National Australia Bank, Rabobank, Royal Bank of Canada, Santander, Société Générale, Standard Chartered, TD Bank Group and UBS) have joined a United Nations Environment Programme – Finance Initiative pilot project to help banks disclose their climate related financial risks in line with the recommendations of the Financial Stability Board’s Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (“TCFD”).
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