What is it and how has it taken the world by storm?
Written by: Jonas Tan
Monday, September 26, 2022
Following the Bank of England’s largest interest-rate hike in 27 years (1), it comes as no surprise that investors around the world are watching global financial markets with nervous anticipation. “With the worst yet to come”, US Economist Stephen Roach ominously forewarns that the global economy will likely sink into a heavy recession (2). Therefore, it is during this turbulent period that investors look to stability and the presence of a long-lasting future in the ventures they place their savings in. Investors of today are now turning their attention to Sustainable Finance.
This article will first elaborate on its definition and origin, then highlight the factors propelling its relevance, before concluding with the current situation along with an insight as to how the road ahead looks like.
What is Sustainable Finance?
Once considered as a ‘niche area’, Sustainable Finance is broadly defined as the incorporation of Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) considerations in one’s financial decisions, with the intention of making long-term stable investments in sustainable ventures (3). These financial decisions can range from direct investments in green energy projects such as the Hornsea One offshore wind turbine farm, to buying shares of a company who has publicly pledged a lower carbon footprint.
First introduced in 1992 at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, also known as the Rio Earth Summit (4), the concept of sustainable finance seemed largely ambitious to say the least. In the decade known for its “relative peace and prosperity” (5) as well as fast-growing technological advances, a decision to shift away from externalising costs could be mistaken for insanity. However, despite this being an uphill battle, this conference sparked the conversation between world leaders to refocus their efforts on revamping the private finance sector in order to achieve sustainable development. With them being the vanguard of change, the financial sector has seen tremendous modernisation since then.
Road to relevance
Setting aside personal morality and social responsibility, the question to be explored is this: Why are institutional investors of today incorporating ESG metrics into their capital allocation and stewardship? (6) For the purposes of this article, I will specifically explore environmental motivations.
To begin with, it is crucial to highlight a subtle but powerful pressure coming from the Task Force for Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD). In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, this 31-member task force was founded by the Financial Stability Board (FSB) in an effort to promote international financial stability. Its members are made up of influential individuals from across the G20, representing international corporations like Bloomberg, BNP Paribas and Blackrock, just to name a few (7). With its main objective being the monitoring of the societal impact an organisation has on the climate, the TCFD developed a regulatory information disclosure framework which recommends the usage by companies as a method of transparency for climate-related risks (8). This organising committee believes that with clearer and more consistent outflow of disclosure, investors and the free market alike would be more informed about channelling their resources into sustainable and long-term business models.
The four pillars of TCFD’s disclosure matrix are: Governance, strategy, risk management and metrics and targets. Within these four sectors are eleven further guidelines, which in summary, provide investors a clear image of a business’s thought-process and also allow businesses to further their own understanding when it comes to climate-related risks and opportunities (9).
Since its inception, what began as a voluntary recommendation has quickly evolved to mandatory disclosure frameworks in multiple jurisdictions around the world. This includes the European Union, Singapore and many more in the foreseeable future, such as the United Kingdom who have already agreed to align with the TCFD by the year 2025 (10). The large-scale success of this manifested in the immense and growing pressure on businesses to do their due diligence or risk being heavily penalised in the near future.
A change in investor appetite
Following the widespread adoption of this framework, the pressure shifts to the investors. Institutional investors like Vanguard have been quick to adapt, adding ESG products into their assets under management (AUM). At the current rate, it is predicted that the total valuation of ESG AUMs will likely reach 53 trillion dollars and surpass the one-third mark of all global AUMs (11). This change can be attributed to the following:
First, the misconception that companies who place emphasis on ESG-centric issues are not as profitable, has been debunked (12). As aforementioned, ESG considerations to the majority of society seemed to be a niche area which was too far-fetched and complex to bother with. This, in conjunction with the standard capitalist business model glorifying the externalisation of cost, contributed to the widespread belief that ESG issues are seemingly not as important in the commercial world. Today however, there is a mountain of irrefutable evidence which point to companies who consider ESG criteria as “safer and more stable bets” (13). Technological research and consulting giant Gartner, posits that companies with more ESG disclosure provides a great insight to what risks a company may possibly face and how it has undertaken action to mitigate them (14). From an investor’s perspective, this highlights supply chain reliability, a reduction of compliance burden, and the boost in corporate reputation (15). All of which point to these companies being in effect actually more risk resilient and able to mitigate weather-related complications or state intervention. In the long run, investors have the belief that their company will see improvements in their stock performance and outperform its competitors.
Furthermore, this belief is strengthened by the ubiquity of information arising from the TCFD’s prominence (16). The ease of access to this information has served its intended purpose, shining a spotlight on the roles that businesses have on the environment. It sends a clear message to everyone, emphasising the pivotal role that the private sector will play in the world’s race to prevent catastrophic climate damage and global warming (17). Additionally, It has also become ironically apparent that despite companies being the main source of the problem, they are also the crucial difference maker needed to view tangible change. Whilst government officiating bodies may develop innovative policies in an attempt to curb environmental damage, it is ultimately up to the individual company to adopt these changes to deliver a positive impact. As such, investors have further reason to believe that companies who acknowledge these urgent issues will be the ones who will be able to ride out this tumultuous financial wave and be the final few standing. Eventually, these are the companies who will reap the higher returns for themselves as well as their long-term shareholders.
As a result, the demand for disclosure is sure to increase exponentially and make a “flood today look like a trickle in the coming years” (18). With greater media attention and awareness, the ball returns back into the companies’ court and thus begins this positive chain reaction once more.
Current Situation & Conclusion
Unfortunately, whilst institutional investors are able to see the upsize to sustainable investing, it remains as an afterthought for the retail investor. According to a 2022 US survey done, it suggests that the common investor would still prioritise current investment performance over ESG factors. Disappointingly, only 35% of these investors research the environmental record of climate-related disclosure before choosing to pull the plug and buy into the stock exchange (19).
Nonetheless, it is without a doubt that the realm of sustainable finance has taken the world by storm and will only continue its rise to prominence in the coming years ahead. In the current era where the world has bonded together to save ourselves from irreversible damage to our ecosystem, this seems like the most logical way forward. Thankfully for the future population, the push given by the TCFD has set in motion a beneficial ‘centripetal force’, where institutional investors & companies are driven by one another for greater transparency on climate-related issues. Very soon enough, an ESG matrix will be a factor that all investors simply cannot ignore.