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Is ESG a fad or a value creator? What do you think?
ESG – fad or value creator?
ESG has become the latest corporate “must have”. Rating agencies and consultancies are developing ESG scores for clients, using a variety of algorithms. But as the MIT “Aggregate Confusion” project found, companies could be in the top 5% on one ESG rating algorithm and the bottom 20% on another. And reputable firms like Shell find their ratings to be A from one rating agency and C+ from another. A recent issue of the Financial Times’s Responsible Investing supplement, FTfm, notes that “a lack of definitions and data is a sizeable obstacle to sustainable (ESG) investing”.
Many more organisations – from the EU to the World Economic Forum and others – are trying to provide a converged set of definitions and algorithms for ESG scores.
Our question is what are the resulting ESG scores useful for? Even if a definition is agreed, and the push to provide ESG data is achieved. Does a focus on improving ESG factors create value? Are there other tools that increase value better?
We start with clear and causal evidence from analysis of US firms that imposing long-term incentives on executives — in the form of long-term executive compensation — improves business performance. Long-term executive compensation includes restricted stocks, restricted stock options, and long-term incentive plans. Firms that adopted long-term compensation experienced a significant increase in their stock price. This stock price increase foreshadowed an increase in operating profits that materialised after two years. The reasons for these improvements in performance were that firms made more investments in R&D and stakeholder engagement, particularly in employees and the natural environment.
It is not clear whether adding explicit long term incentives for executives would have such a significant effect in cultures outside the USA.
The same authors looked at the implications of integrating environmental and social performance criteria in executive compensation, again in US firms. They found that this does mitigate corporate short-termism and improves business performance: firms experience a significant increase in firm value, which foreshadows an increase in long-term operating profits. The findings suggest that integration of environmental and social criteria directs management’s attention to stakeholders that are less immediately salient but financially material to the firm in the long run.
From another direction: in 2007 Ethisphere started gathering and collating non-financial data alongside the financial results of those it judged most ethical. The 2021 Ethics Index was a list of 135 publicly-traded companies, the “World’s Most Ethical Companies”. Scoring of companies is based on the Ethics and Compliance Program, explores the culture of ethics, Corporate Citizenship and Responsibility, Governance, and Leadership and Reputation. Ethisphere looks for companies to integrate ethics and values with corporate strategy; for organisations that encourage employees to speak up; for decisions to be transparent; to exercise social responsibility by looking for innovative ways to make a difference; and includes the safety of employees, equity, inclusion and social justice. It finds that the companies in their Index outperformed a comparable index of large cap companies over the past five calendar years.
The research discussed above suggests that:
1. Value is created when the executive team have long term compensation packages. Data on this is normally in the public domain and does not need extensive consultancy or data collection.
2. Long term compensation packages seem to lead to more innovation, social responsibility, emphasis on the environment and employees, and also to value creation. Some of these activities might be picked up by the Social Impact and Governance factors in ESG scores.
3. A focus on issues which are not sector specific, relating to the ethical culture and behaviour of the firm, seems to lead to long term value of the firm. We have not found any data relating ethical culture and behaviour to long term executive compensation, though intuitively they might be expected to be correlated.
These three conclusions seem to span all private sector firms. They could also apply to the public sector, though they are not designed for that.
We then started to think specifically about the Environmental Impact factors of ESG. The focus on carbon zero and reduction in fossil fuel usage has become centre stage. Many new measures of environmental impact have been introduced, often sector specific. So, for instance in the oil and gas sector, the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) allows firms to align their strategies against targets set by international agreements. In data centres, the drive is to use low energy processor chips. In firms in the construction industry, reducing emissions is dependent on the replacement of diesel by electric vehicles to excavate and to move earth and materials, and on finding alternatives to concrete. So firms’ Environmental Impact are very dependent on sector specifics, and would seem to be measurable separately from SG scores.
Bringing these trains of thought together to answer the question – if (when) ESG definitions and data collection were in place, would the resulting ESG scores help firms to create value?
The above analysis suggests that an organisational focus on improving ESG scores could lead to longer term executive orientation, and hence to some of the benefits highlighted above. It also suggests that the environmental aspect of ESG is usefully separated out from the social and governance factors. A focus on SG plus ethics, employee culture and social behaviour through long term executive orientation could have a more direct effect on value creation.
Maybe the famous quotation from General Eisenhower “plans are useless, but planning is essential” helps to explain what we seem to be observing with ESG. So, ESG scores are a fad, the value creation comes from the process of creating them.
Gill Ringland and Patricia Lustig
This article was first published in the Pamphleteers blog of 4 June 2021.
 Environmental impact, Social impact, Governance