Broadening Activism Among Institutional Investor Classes on ESG Issues - Here to Stay, Says Proxy Advisor CEO

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Broadening Activism Among Institutional Investor Classes on ESG Issues - Here to Stay, Says Proxy Advisor CEO

G&A's SustainabilityHighlights (3.8.2017)
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Monday, August 7, 2017 - 12:00pm

"Operating under the radar" -- that is, various categories of institutional investors getting active in the "investor activist" game?  Bruce Goldfarb, CEO of Okapi Partners, describes a sea change that he sees that is underway, the trend in how large institutions are approaching in the [investor] push for corporate change.  The lens is the annual corporate proxy season and the many campaigns therein, including the 2017 campaign.  Okapi is one of the influential proxy advisors for both investor and companies, working on some 48 campaigns during 2017.

What did the firm's leader see as patterns?  Well, for starters, large mutual fund advisories and ETF complexes (like Vanguard, Fidelity, BlackRock, State Street) -- these organizations with many trillions' of dollars in corporate holdings in their portfolios, "...have become increasingly intent on holding public company boards and management teams accountable in higher ESG standards," CEO Goldfarb notes in our Top Story (published on the digital Forbes Investing platform).

As many of us well know, the first iteration of ESG was about the "G" -- for several decades, the focus was on corporate governance issues.  (Such as: investors pushing for separation of Chair and CEO, the often described example of a popular campaign in the G space).  Over time, the emphasis on environmental and social issues ("E” and “S") broadened the approach to the familiar ESG measurements because the E and S issues are tied to share performance and confidence (or lack of) in management.

The CEO in the interview points out that a climate change proposal at ExxonMobil recently was passed by a wide margin (investors supported the demand that the company publish an annual assessment of the impact of global warming policies) while a decade ago a push by investors in proxy campaigning to separate chair and CEO positions and a few environmental proposals failed by a very large margin.  Things are a-changin' in the proxy arena.

In 2017, there have been (so far) 430 resolutions filed that address "S" and "E" issues, compared to 370 a year earlier.  Investors, says CEO Goldfarb, see the connection between ESG policies and stock performance more clearly now.

In our conversations with corporate managers (at all size enterprises) it is clear that the managers want to press the Investing Case upward to their bosses in the C-suite and board room.  Why should we make the investment in a sustainability effort, the question often goes, and the answer is that among other things, corporate performance and a scorecard of sorts on top management has a proxy, too -- that is, the ESG performance of the enterprise! 

This is just the introduction of G&A's Sustainability Highlights newsletter this week.Click here to view the full issue.

Keywords: Media & Communications | Corporate Citizenship | Corporate Social Responsibility | ESG | G&A | G&A Institute | GRI | Governance & Accountability Institute | SRI | SWF | Sovereign Wealth Funds