Shareholder Engagement Produces Few Results, Says Activist Investor

windmill farm

Shelley Alpern, Director of Social Research & Advocacy at Clean Yield Asset Management, penned a piece on Monday weighing in on fossil fuel advocacy among institutional investors.

Most institutional investors have declined calls to divest from fossil fuel assets, citing their fiduciary duties as a major reason.

Instead, many have opted to use their clout as major shareholders to actively engage with companies.

But Alpern is skeptical of this tactic.

Alpern writes:

Institutional investors and asset owners owe it to themselves to understand when engagement works and when it doesn’t.

On the whole, shareholder engagement has an admirable track record. Its practitioners can take credit for many achievements: increased disclosure of corporate political spending; reduced waste, pollution and water usage; greening supply chains; broad adoption of inclusive nondiscrimination policies; and greater diversity on corporate boards. Not to mention the anti-apartheid campaigns of the 1980s.

Engagement succeeds when we can make a persuasive case that change will enhance shareholder value, reduce business or reputation risk, or both. Ethical imperatives rarely carry the day on their own.

Engagement will fail when a company with flawed policies or practices perceives them to be unalterable. As engagement with tobacco companies demonstrated, it also will not work when the goal is to change the core business model of a company.

She then looks at the track record of shareholder engagement with fossil fuel companies:

It’s been 23 years since the first climate change proposal was filed at a fossil fuel company. Using conservative estimates based on records kept by the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, at least 150 such proposals have been filed at fossil fuel companies since, and at least 650 climate proposals and dialogues on climate change have taken place at non-fossil fuel companies.

Space limitations preclude a detailed inquiry into these engagements, so let’s take a snapshot look at the most recent efforts and where things stand as of right now.

In late 2013, 77 institutional investors with more than $3 trillion in assets called on 45 companies to assess the potential for operational assets to lose value if carbon regulations become stricter and if competition from renewables takes market share.

Most coal and electric power companies didn’t provide the written responses requested. Most oil and gas companies did respond, but none acknowledged the existential threat to their activities or the need to scale them back. As former SEC Commissioner Bevis Longstreth observed, ExxonMobil not only denied that any of its reserves could become stranded, but also stated that it is “confident that future reserves, which it intends to discover and develop in quantities at least equal to current proved reserves, will also be unrestricted by government action.” With this report, Longstreth concluded, “ExxonMobil has thrown down the gauntlet after slapping it hard across the collective face of humanity.”

Two successive waves of “carbon asset risk” shareholder proposals followed this initiative, but have done nothing to budge the denialist positions held by their targets.

Read the entire piece here.


Photo by penagate via Flickr CC

As Demand for Green Bonds Grows, So Does Desire for Transparency


There is growing demand for environmentally friendly investments, and as a result, “green bonds” have become an increasingly popular investment vehicle.

For proof, look no further than CalSTRS, which increased its purchases of “green bonds” by 300 percent in 2014.

But with increased popularity comes increased demands for transparency: what exactly qualifies as a “green” investment?

From Institutional Investor:

With green bonds’ rising prominence comes a need for a single set of clear and science-based criteria for what constitutes “green.” Nuclear power is low carbon, but some would balk at calling it green. And the coal industry would like investors to count fitting a coal-fired power plant with technology to reduce carbon emissions as a clean energy project, although fossil fuel consumption is hardly carbon neutral.

“When you get into the corporate space, you’re dealing with a large number of companies, and transparency is not always as good,” says Colin Purdie, head of global investment-grade credit at London-based asset management firm Aviva Investors.

None of this means Aviva wouldn’t invest in a bond because it doesn’t qualify as “green.” It just means the firm wouldn’t call it that. And therein lies the conundrum. A lot of these bonds would hit investors’ desks even without the green label. If the market is to grow into the large liquid powerhouse its proponents want, it needs a significant roster of corporate issuers to issue green bonds.

Also at issue are third-party verifications proving that issuers are spending funds on the environmentally friendly projects the bonds were designed to finance. This has begun to happen already. More than half of the green bonds issued in 2014 included an independent second opinion on their environmental credentials, from watchdogs such as the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo and Vigeo in Paris, according to data from the Climate Bonds Initiative.


“I think the biggest concern right now is trying to grow the market and getting more issuers to issue bonds,” says Catherine DiSalvo, investment officer at the California State Teachers’ Retirement System. “We do support third-party verifications. The only problem is that it adds to the expense of issuing a green bond.”

Read the whole piece on green bonds here.


Photo by  penagate via Flickr CC License

How Should Investors Manage Climate Change Risk?

windmill field

CalPERS is measuring the carbon footprint of its portfolio. CalSTRS is helping to fund a study on the market impact of climate change.

For the first time, institutional investors are beginning to wonder: How will climate change impact the value of our investments?

Howard Covington of Cambridge University and Raj Thamotheram of the Network for Sustainable Financial Markets tackled that question in a recent paper, titled How Should Investors Manage Climate Change Risk, in the most recent issue of the Rotman International Journal of Pension Management. From the paper:

The consequences of high warming, if we collectively go along this path, will emerge in the second half of this century; they are therefore remote in investment terms….Capital markets anticipate the future rather well, which suggests that investment values may respond strongly over this time scale as views on the most likely path begin to crystallize. Technologies for producing and storing electrical energy from renewable fuel sources, for energy-efficient housing and offices, and for reducing or capturing and disposing of greenhouse gas emissions from industrial processes are moving along rapidly. In important areas, costs are falling quickly. Given appropriate and moderate policy nudges and continuing economic and social stability, it is overwhelmingly likely that the global economy will substantially decarbonize during this century.

If…an emissions peak in the 2020s becomes a plausible prospect, investment values for fossil fuels, electrical utilities, and renewable energy (among others) will react strongly. The value of many fossil fuel investment projects will turn negative as assets lose their economic value and become stranded; companies and countries will face significant write-downs, with clear consequences for financial asset prices.

As the authors note, we don’t know exactly how the earth will eventually react to greenhouse gasses. Different responses will have different implications for the global economy. From the paper:

If we are unlucky, and the climate’s response comes out at the upper end of the range while emissions go on climbing, the likelihood of the global economy’s potentially heading toward rolling collapse will significantly increase. A run of extreme weather events in the 2020s, particularly events that lead to sharp increases in prices for staple crops or inundate prominent cities, might then focus the attention of the capital markets on the consequences. A broad adjustment of asset values might then follow as investors try to assess in detail the likely winners and losers from the prospect of an increasingly turbulent global social, economic, and political future.

We are not suggesting that this kind of outcome is unavoidable, or even that it is the most likely. We are merely noting that the chance of events’ unfolding in this way over the next 10 to 15 years is significant, that it will rise sharply in the absence of a robust climate deal next year, and that long-term investors need to factor this into their investment analysis and strategy.

If these scenarios correctly capture the likely outcomes, then we have reached a turning point for the global economy. For the past 150 years, the exploitation of fossil fuels has generated enormous value for investors, both directly and by enabling global industrialization and growth; but it is now rational to anticipate that continued and increasing emissions from fossil fuel use might, over several decades, lead to the destruction of investment value on a global scale. Moreover, capital markets may adjust to this possibility on a relatively short time scale.

So how should institutional investors respond?

Broadly speaking, there are three main ways that investors can help. The first is to raise the cost of capital for companies or projects that will increase greenhouse emissions. The second is to lower the cost of capital for companies or projects that will reduce greenhouse emissions. The third is to use their influence to encourage legislators and regulators to take action to accelerate the transition from a high- to a low-emissions economy.

Formally adopting a policy of divesting from the fossil fuel sector can be helpful with the first of these, provided that the reasons for doing so are made public, so that other investors are encouraged to consider their own positions. Alternatively, active investors might take significant shareholdings in fossil fuel companies, so as to exert a material strategic influence to prevent investments that encourage long-term value destruction.

Supporting investments in renewable energy sources and related sectors is particularly effective where the potential exists to disrupt traditional industries. Tesla Motors is a case in point, since the potential for rapid growth of electric vehicles could transform the auto industry. Through the related development of high-performance, low-cost battery packs, it may also transform both the domestic use of solar power and the electrical utility business.

There is little time left for legislators to agree on the terms for orderly cooperative action to reduce emissions. Investors concerned about long-term value should act now to encourage the adoption of mechanisms to ensure an early peak and rapid decline in greenhouse missions. By the end of 2015, the chance for this kind of action will have largely passed.

The above excerpts represent only a portion of the insights the paper has to offer. The rest of the article can be read here [subscription required].


Photo by Penagate via Flickr CC

Could Climate Change Deplete Your Pension?


If oil, gas and coal companies were to face serious financial difficulty, the average person might anticipate the annoyance of a higher heating bill, or having to cough up more cash to fill up at the gas station.

They probably don’t think about their pension—but maybe they should.

Earlier this year, members of the British Parliament sent out a clear warning to the Bank of England and the country’s pension funds: watch out for the carbon bubble.

The “carbon bubble”? Here’s a quick explanation from the Guardian:

The idea of a carbon bubble – meaning that the true costs of carbon dioxide in intensifying climate change are not taken into account in a company’s stock market valuation – has been gaining currency in recent years, but this is the first time that MPs have addressed the question head-on.

Much of the world’s fossil fuel resource will have to be left unburned if the world is to avoid dangerous levels of global warming, the environmental audit committee warned.

To many, it probably sounds like a silly term. But its potential implications are serious enough that many in the UK are starting to worry about its effect on the global economy, and that includes pension funds—UK pension funds are particularly exposed to fossil fuel-based assets, as some estimates say 20 to 30 percent of the funds’ assets are allocated toward investments that would be seriously harmed by the burst of the “carbon bubble”.

But some experts say pension funds in the US should be worrying about this, too, because it’s a global issue. From The Ecologist:

If the impetus to prevent further climate change reaches the point where measures such as a global carbon tax are agreed, for example, then those fossil fuel reserves that have contributed to the heady share price performance of oil, gas and coal companies will become ‘unburnable’ or ‘stranded’ in the ground.

But even if we continue business as usual, value could begin to unravel.

Because to continue with business as usual would require an ever increasing amount of capital expenditure by the industry to explore territories previously off limits – the Arctic, for example and the Canadian Tar Sands – tapping these new resources, quite apart from being a bad idea environmentally, is hugely expensive.

Dividends – the payments earned by shareholders as a reward for keeping their shares, have come under increasing pressure as companies have had to spend their money on more exploratory drilling rather than rewarding shareholders.

So some shareholders are already feeling the impact and rather than see their dividends further eroded, might prefer to sell their shares in favour of a more rewarding dividend stock.

Some don’t have the stomach for all those hypotheticals. But it’s hard to deny the policy shifts in recent years leading us towards a lower-carbon world. That includes regulation in the US, Europe and China that cuts down emissions and encourages clean energy.

That trend doesn’t look to be reversing itself in the near future, and those policies are most likely to hurt the industries most reliant on fossil fuels.

There’ve been calls in the US for public pension funds to decrease their exposure to those industries. From the Financial Times:

US pension funds have ignored calls from city councils and mayors to divest from carbon-intensive companies, despite concern about the long-term viability of their business models.

At least 25 cities in the US have passed resolutions calling on pension fund boards to divest from fossil fuel holdings, according to figures from, a group that campaigns for investors to ditch their fossil fuel stocks.

Three Californian cities, Richmond, Berkeley and Oakland, urged Calpers, one of the largest US pension schemes, with $288bn of assets, and which manages their funds, to divest from fossil fuels. Calpers has ignored their request.

Calpers said: “The issue has been brought to our attention. [We] believe engagement is the best course of action.”

Pension fund experts point out that it is difficult to pull out of illiquid fossil fuel investments, or carbon intensive stocks that are undervalued, provide stable dividends or are better positioned for legislative change.

CalPERS isn’t the only fund that doesn’t want to divest. Not a single public fund has commited to divesting from carbon-reliant companies.

To some, CalPERS’ policy of “engagement” rather than divestment probably sounds like a cop-out. But some experts think the policy could be effective.

“With divestment you are not solving the problem necessarily, you are just not part of it.” Said George Serafeim, associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. “With engagement you are trying to solve the problem by engaging with companies to improve their energy efficiency, but you are still part of the mix.”

Photo: Paul Falardeau via Flickr CC License