In my time in corporate finance and valuation, I have seen many “new and revolutionary” ideas emerge, each one marketed as the solution to all of the problems that businesses face. Most of the time, these ideas start by repackaging an existing concept or measure and adding a couple of proprietary tweaks that are less improvement and more noise, then get acronyms, before being sold relentlessly. With each one, the magic fades once the limitations come to the surface, as they inevitably do, but not before consultants and bankers have been enriched. So, forgive me for being a cynic when it comes to the latest entrant in this game, where ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance), a measure of the environment and social impact of companies, has become one of the fastest growing movements in business and investing, and this time, the sales pitch is wider and deeper.
Companies that improve their social goodness standing will not only become more profitable and valuable over time, we are told, but they will also advance society’s best interests, thus resolving one of the fundamental conflicts of private enterprise, while also enriching investors. This week, the ESG debate has come back to take main stage, for three reasons.
– It is the fiftieth anniversary of one of the most influential opinion pieces in media history, where Milton Friedman argued that the focus of a company should be profitability, not social good. There have been many retrospectives published in the last week, with the primary intent of showing how far the business world has moved away from Friedman’s views.
– There were multiple news stories about how “good” companies, with goodness measured on the social scale, have done better during the COVID crisis, and how much money was flowing into ESG funds, with some suggesting that the crisis could be a tipping point for companies and investors, who were on the fence about the added benefits of being socially conscious.
– In a more long standing story line, the establishment seems to have bought into ESG consciousness, with business leaders in the Conference Board signing on to a “stakeholder interest” statement last year and institutional investors shifting more money into ESG funds.
In the interests of openness, I took issue with the Conference Board last year on stakeholder interests, and I start from a position of skepticism, when presented with “new” ways of business thinking. If the debate about ESG had been about facts, data and common sense, and ESG had won, I would gladly incorporate that thinking into my views on corporate finance, investing and valuation. But that has not been the case, at least so far, simply because ESG has been posited by its advocates as good, and any dissent from the party line on ESG (that it is good for companies, investors and society) is viewed as a sign of moral deficiency. At the risk of sounding being labeled a troglodyte (I kind of like that label), I will argue that many fundamental questions about ESG have remained unanswered or have been answered sloppily, and that it is in its proponents’ best interests to stop overplaying the morality card, and to have an honest discussion about whether ESG is a net good for companies, investors and society.
Measures of Goodness
We have spent decades measuring financial performance and output at companies, either at the operating level, as revenues, profits or capital invested, or at the investor level, as market cap and returns. Any attempts to measure environment and social goodness face two challenges.
– The first is that much of social impact is qualitative, and developing a numerical value for that impact is difficult to do.
– The second is even trickier, which is that there is little consensus on what social impacts to measure, and the weights to assign to them.
If your counter is that there are multiple services now that measure ESG at companies, you are right, but the lack of clarity and consensus results in the companies being ranked very differently by different services. This shows up in low correlations across the ESG services on ESG scores, as indicated by this study:
|Correlations across six ESG data providers|
This low correlation often occurs even on high profile companies, as shown in a comprehensive analysis of ESG investing by Dimson, Marsh and Staunton, as part of their global investment returns update:
|Source: CS Global Investment Returns Yearbook 2020, Dimson, Marsh and Staunton|