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ESG standards: No silver platter of harmonised data

ESG standards: No silver platter of harmonised data

A desire for standardisation of ESG data may be folly, according to Bruno Bertocci, head of sustainable equities at UBS Wealth Management.

Bertocci opines that ESG data should be viewed in the same way as traditional financial data that institutions have been analysing for decades, with little demand for complete consensus and standardisation.

He believes just as two people can look at the same set of financial data and reach a different conclusion, so too could vastly differing judgements be formed over ESG data.

The emphasis therefore should purely be on supplying data that is sufficiently functional for asset managers, wealth managers, fund managers to make independent, informed decisions.

Reasonable expectations

Bertocci was speaking as part of the ‘ESG Standards: the best path forward’ webinar, organised by Reuters.

The webinar was seeking to address how to “bring ESG from ‘conversation’ to ‘action’” and to what extent a joined-up approach between investors, companies and policy makers can be achieved.

Many believe this relies on standardisng ESG-related data, through entities such as SASB and ISO, to attain full transparency of how companies operate, which sectors present the highest risks and so on.

However, just as there has always been huge variance in the way in which financial data is analysed, it is unlikely that standardisation would be possible when it comes to ESG performance.

“If you’re looking for consistency, you’re not going to get it,” Bertocci says.

“You’ve never had it before, and I don’t think it’s a reasonable expectation.”

An alternative approach then may be to treat ESG in the same way as traditional financial data, where a variety of opinions and evaluations are expected, and asset or fund managers are trusted to use their sensible judgement with their clients’ money.

They will use a variety of tools offered by different companies which vary in the way they present data, and asset managers decide for themselves which they find to be the most effective based on proven track record, proven process and so on.

Some will use the ratings provided by Moody’s, others will swear by Bloomberg analysis.

“The way to look at this is the same way you would look at Wall Street analysts opining on a stock: some will say ‘buy’, some will say ‘hold’, some will say ‘sell’,” Bertocci says.

“People should look at ESG ratings the same way. Half the time different agencies will disagree with each other, and that’s totally fine. That’s the way the market works: opinions will differ, and results will vary.”

Complexities and trade-offs

If the investment industry is happy to expect and accept a variety of conclusions when it comes to the financial performance of companies, stocks and funds, why are they concerned about standardisation and consensus in ESG?

It will be argued on the one hand that this is because ESG performance is in its relative infancy and financial services companies are still getting to grips with the data they are being presented with.

On the other hand, it may be an indication of the lack of confidence asset managers have in their ability to interpret data and make decisions related to ESG performance, given how nebulous an area it proves to be.

For example, a financial institution may be assessing whether to invest in an agricultural company that farms and distributes food produce at economies of scale to make it affordable for the world’s poorest countries in Africa or South America.

Such a company would tick a lot of sustainable boxes, but lenders or asset managers may be perturbed by the carbon footprint of the company’s farming practices. Would this concern supersede the opportunities to alleviate hunger, fight poverty, promote greater health and well-being, and give children greater access to quality education?

Financial professionals would be forgiven for not knowing which side of this trade-off to come down on, and so would request some form of standardised data as a backstop to their decisions.

Bertocci suggests that asset managers seem to want a holistic picture of companies’ ESG performance presented to them in data form “on a platter”, which they are not going to get, due to the aforementioned complexities.

Not only is it incredibly complex, it is probably not even necessary. End investors may not have any desire to get into the weeds of how the ESG rating of a particular asset have been reached.

They simply want to see that a reasoned decision has been made by the professionals whose advice and guidance they are paying for.

Comments: (2)

David Tiessen
David Tiessen - Arterran Renewables - Kelowna 20 July, 2020, 13:10Be the first to give this comment the thumbs up 0 likes

The article proposes not a problem witrh the harmonization of data but a harmonization on the judgement of said data ~ green or not; investable or not. There is no way around this: 2 different humans may never come to the exact same consensus on every metric of a company to come out with the same 'score' nor will the algo's they code. 

But they should be close and I see no issue. Carbon footprints subtract, worthy causes are plus and an ESG average will be the result. What's wrong with that?

Richard Peers
Richard Peers - ResponsibleRisk Ltd - London 20 July, 2020, 15:43Be the first to give this comment the thumbs up 0 likes

Thanks David I tend to agree with Bruno  but maybe the key world is harmonisation.  Acapella singers are not standardised but in harmony.  Each brings their unique strength within a taxonomy and the listener can appreciate all the vocal qualities but maybe tune into one.  To torture the metaphor further, perhaps we need to know the provenance of the singer before allowing them on stage.