Latest Stewardship Activity: September

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In case there were any doubts about the increasing focus on responsible investment, the PRI in Person, was attended this year by more than 1,600 delegates – making it the largest responsible investment conference to date

Market Developments

PRI in Person 2019

In case there were any doubts about the increasing focus on responsible investment, the PRI in Person, the leading global conference on the subject, was attended this year by more than 1,600 delegates – making it the largest responsible investment conference to date. The number of signatories to the PRI also continues to rise and now is above 2,300 (there were only 600 when we first signed in 2009).

A key theme of the conference was regulation. Extensive policy and regulatory developments have been taking place across many jurisdictions – most notably in Europe where the Shareholders Rights Directive II, the European Sustainable Finance Action Plan and the upcoming revisions to the UK Stewardship Code all feature prominently. A common theme of these is a focus on outcomes – the ‘so what’ of active ownership and engagement – essentially asking for greater disclosure from asset managers of their activities.

An age of urgent transition

The PRI conference took place under the banner of ‘Responsible investment in an age of urgent transition’. One important part of this transition is clearly the move to a lower-carbon economy – a key element of the target to achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. Current trajectories for this transition remain far out of line with the ambition set at the Paris Climate Conference back in 2015 of a ‘less-than-two-degree pathway’ (keeping the global temperature rise this century well below 2ºC above pre-industrial levels). To get there, we will require significant changes in behaviours and policy.

The PRI has just updated its Inevitable Policy Response, which looks at what is required to get close to achieving this ambition. It expects a sharp and disruptive policy response in the early to mid-2020s, which will have consequences for financial assets.

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Consequently, there is also a focus on understanding the extent to which the financial system is incorporating this. From 2020, the PRI reporting framework will require asset managers to report on a number of climate-change factors (aligned with the Task Force for Climate-related Financial Disclosures [TCFD] framework). It is also worth noting that almost a third of PRI signatories referred to the SDGs in their reporting, and the goals feature increasingly in discussions with clients around engagement and impact.

Active ownership

A related feature of the conference was the focus on active ownership, looking at both collaborative and private engagement as well as voting. Active ownership is increasingly coming under the banner of stewardship at the PRI and reflecting this, the committee that I serve on (the ESG Engagement Committee), is being repurposed as the Stewardship Committee, with the aim of overseeing these activities. The PRI reporting and assessment framework will also move to reflect this in measuring the quality and effectiveness of outcomes and how to address the ‘freerider’ problem (investors who benefit from the shift to active engagement without any of the associated costs).

GPIF, the Japanese pension fund, talked about its approach, with ESG integration and engagement as key elements of manager assessments, and engagements alone accounting for up to 30% overall. GPIF firstly verifies that outcomes are being pursued (and away from the focus on policies); the pension fund evaluates how the asset manager is structured (for example its own corporate governance and approach to remuneration) and then looks at how engagements are screened or prioritised. In addition, GPIF is also prepared to pay for stewardship – recently employing two local asset managers with additional fees based on stewardship, requiring them to provide KPIs for engagements and monitor progress.

Data and corporate reporting

A third feature of the conference was data and corporate-reporting frameworks. The proliferation of frameworks, standards and service providers – with their attendant questionnaires and inconsistent data sets – has created a significant burden for the corporate sector. There is a move to try to coalesce around some of the standards.

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The ‘backbone’ consists of the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), effectively the non-financial ‘data’ for corporate reporting, and the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB), which has the remit of commentary and reporting around materiality.

There was also an interesting observation from the UN Global Compact (UNGC). This initiative has set out ten principles focused on responsible business practices. The UNGC has a signatory base of more than 10,000 companies, but it questioned the reliability of data offered by service providers. As an example, most data providers use the ten principles of the GC and then look for compliance of these principles as a starting point for identifying sustainability. However, the UNGC itself does not have a framework for accurately assessing this, so these decisions should be treated with caution.

On a related topic, there was a significant level of comment about the influence of the large service providers (that is, MSCI and Sustainalytics) and the potential need for regulation – this is an area worth watching.

Action on modern slavery

The conference ended on a sober note with a focus on modern slavery and human rights, noting that 1 in 185 people (some 40 million) are currently trapped in modern slavery, 70% of whom are women. Two moving presentations were featured from individuals who had escaped slavery and have helped shine a light on some of the practices. They noted that the key driver is money, hence there was a focus from the PRI on the role of financial services in addressing the issue. With a greater focus on this by clients, this will be an area to look at in more detail.

Climate change – IPCC Oceans and Cryosphere

The UN Climate Action Summit took place in New York towards the end of September. A number of reports were released to coincide with the summit, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report on The Oceans and Cryosphere and Climate Change. The report highlights that the ice sheets are melting at an increasing rate, which in turn worsens the pace of sea-level rises and affects various ecosystems more acutely. It also makes extreme sea-level events more likely, potentially becoming annual events by 2050 (from once in a century now).

The report suggests the impact on indigenous and coastal communities is large and any delay in acting may limit the ability for adaptation. The oceans form an incredibly important role as a buffer against how hot land temperatures get, with the report finding there is high confidence that oceans have taken up ‘90% of the excess heat in the climate system’ but that it is also virtually certain that the oceans are warming unabated. Warming oceans clearly have a profound impact on marine life and ecosystems.

In the context of this third report (following on from Land and the special 1.5-degree report), the PRI Inevitable Policy Response document takes on greater significance.

Martin Currie

Governance and Sustainability Ratings

We have been working over the last year to establish a proprietary Governance and Sustainability assessment of the companies that we are investing in. We already take a respected position on ESG/Governance and Sustainability, but equally we continue to be ambitious in how we are evolving our approach – innovation is key to retaining a leading position in this important field. Clients, competitors and gatekeepers are also recognising the benefits of a robust and integrated approach to ESG/ Governance and Sustainability, and data availability is improving.

One aspect of our work is the analytical framework and how we express our ESG/Governance and Sustainability views. All our work on ESG/Governance and Sustainability is focused ultimately on the economic success of the underlying business – essentially understanding how these factors may influence the ability of the company to generate sustainable returns (over the long term).

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Developing our analytical framework further enhances our overall process and puts us in a position to more consistently identify risks, opportunities, and areas for engagement. One consistent way to express these measures is through a ratings structure that enables us to condense our work into easy-to-use analytical information.

The rating is composed of two parts:

Governance

Recognising the different governance frameworks across the globe and our clients’ international portfolios, we take a ‘principles-based’ – as opposed to a ‘rules-based’ – approach. This provides the opportunity to assess governance in the context of individual company circumstances and identify any particular areas of weakness. Our focus is on board quality, management quality, remuneration, capital allocation and culture.

Sustainability

This is an assessment of the extent to which the company has integrated sustainability into its business model and strategy. In referring to sustainability, we think about it in economic terms – what might impact the ability of a company to generate long-term sustainable returns? Our focus is therefore on what is potentially material to the business – relevant environmental risks and social risks – and common factors including climate change, human capital, cyber security and tax.

The framework for our analysis and ratings is set out in a series of consistent areas that we focus on and questions that we ask. This framework allows us to leverage our deep knowledge of the companies and our understanding of the context of the underlying companies. The analytical framework helps to identify risks, opportunities and areas for engagement.

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The resulting ratings from each team are based on an informed judgement of the extent to which the companies demonstrate strong practice or face potential risks in the various aspects of governance and sustainability. A consistent approach within each team, combined with deep company knowledge, is making Martin Currie a leader and innovator in this field.

Engagement

In Australia, we engaged with boards at Telstra and Insurance Australia Group (IAG).

With Telstra, we held discussions with the board chair focusing on board skills and diversity, as well as staff wellbeing during the transformation strategy. Telstra has appointed two new directors who bring the right skills and diversity to the board and help mitigate risks during the largest transformation of the company. Telstra has also implemented significant governance measures to ensure good mental health and wellbeing of staff during the four-year transformation strategy.

The discussion with IAG focused on the duties of directors to various stakeholders – where the company views its duties to be to the firm, and a range of stakeholders, including shareholders. The key lessons learned from the Royal Commission included not to own small add-on businesses which are not fully integrated into the main corporate culture and compliance. Finally, in terms of climate change, IAG has a dedicated climate-change team analysing changes in climate and the consequences for insurance-underwriting risk.

In the US we met Booking.com, where our conversation focused on its approach to data security (a major threat) and how it manages and mitigates this potential risk. It was encouraging to see ownership here residing with senior management and the board. We also discussed its approach to remuneration and how this could be improved – notably a broadening of the metrics used and a clearer articulation of the limits (cap) around short-term metrics.

In Hong Kong, we engaged with Guangdong Investment to better understand how EGS metrics are incorporated into executive compensation – notably how it is measured and linked to remuneration. In addition, we wanted to understand board-level responsibility for ESG and the KPIs used, as well as what the company has learned from the sustainability reporting process, where the issue appears to be more around disclosure than activities.

Upcoming activity

October's activity includes attending the Global Ethical Finance conference in Edinburgh. Also, as the AGM season approaches in Australia, there is likely to be more engagement with companies held in this market. We may also see the release of the updated Stewardship Code in the UK.


Important information

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