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ESG as an Artifact of ZIRP

Founding myths tend to be mired in obscurity, and like many other investment trends, the roots of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) philosophies are unclear. 

The founding of the World Economic Forum is one origin. Stakeholder theory is another of ESG’s clear antecedents, especially as formalized in R. Edward Freeman’s 1984 book Strategic Management: A Stakeholder Approach. In 2004, the World Bank report “Who Cares Wins: Connecting Financial Markets to a Changing World” is another contender, providing as it did guidelines for firms to integrate ESG practices into their daily operations. And the publication of the reporting framework United Nations Principles for Responsible Investing in April 2006 (the most recent version of which can be found here) was another.

Wherever it began, ESG clearly hit its stride within the last five to ten years. Those were heady times, at least economically speaking, first characterized by zero interest rate policies (ZIRP) and then, during the pandemic, by massively expansionary monetary and fiscal programs. Yet in the last two years or so, the prevailing economic circumstances have changed considerably. Inflation at four-decade highs is battering firms by raising the cost of doing business. It is also negatively impacting corporate revenues, as consumers retrench by cutting back on expenditures. 

Nowhere are these effects more evident than in shareholder land, where the fourth-quarter 2022 S&P 500 earnings season is just about over. “Earnings quality” is an evaluation of the soundness of current corporate earnings and, consequently, how well they are likely to predict future earnings. For the past year, and certainly for the last quarter, the quality of earnings has been abysmal. One particular element – “accruals,” or cashless earnings – are their highest reported level ever, according to UBS. In that same report, we find the somewhat shocking revelation that nearly one in three Russell 3000 index constituents is unprofitable. 

For those and other reasons, a theme in many of the fourth-quarter corporate earnings reports has been cost-cutting: Disney, Newscorp, eBay, Boeing, Alphabet, Dell, General Motors, and a handful of investment banks are all eliminating jobs and slashing unnecessary expenses. And although firms regularly write-off the value of certain assets and goodwill, that process accelerates during recessions. Firms are additionally contending with the highest interest rates they’ve faced since 2007, and in some cases back to 2001. A substantial amount of corporate debt assumed at lower interest rates is now more costly to service. 

Dividend payments, typically considered sacrosanct during all but the most severe financial straits, are being targeted for savings. February 24th in Fortune:

Intel, the world’s largest maker of computer processors, this week slashed its dividend payment to the lowest level in 16 years in an effort to preserve cash and help turn around its business. Hanesbrands Inc., a century-old apparel maker, earlier this month eliminated the quarterly dividend it started paying nearly a decade ago. VF Corp., which owns Vans, The North Face, and other brands, also cut its dividend in recent weeks as it works to reduce its debt burden … Retailers in particular face declining profits, as persistent inflation also erodes consumers’ willingness to spend. So far this year, as many as 17 companies in the Dow Jones US Total Stock Index cut their dividends, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. 

All of this suggests two things. 

First, if large firms are doing everything they can to reduce unnecessary overhead, feel-good initiatives and other corporate baubles are likely to face the chopping block – even if quietly. ESG observance is a costly trinket, bringing as it does compliance costs, legal costs, measurement costs, and opportunity costs. The reporting requirements associated with upholding ESG standards are high, and rising. In 2022, two studies attempted to estimate those costs:

Corporate Issuers are currently spending an average of more than $675,000 per year on climate-related disclosures, and institutional investors are spending nearly $1.4 million on average to collect, analyze and report climate data, according to a new survey released by the SustainAbility Institute by ERM … The survey gathered data from 39 corporate issuers from across multiple U.S. sectors, with a market cap range of under $1 billion to over $200 billion, and 35 institutional investors representing a total of $7.2 trillion of AUM … The SEC has released its own estimates for complying with its proposed rules, predicting first year costs at $640,000, and annual ongoing costs for issuers at $530,000. The study explored the specific elements covered by the SEC requirements, and found that issuers on average spend $533,000 on these, in line with the SEC estimates. Elements not included in the SEC requirements included costs related to proxy responses to climate-related shareholder proposals, and costs for activities including developing and reporting on low-carbon transition plans, and for stakeholder engagement and government relations.

Difficulty measuring costs means difficulty budgeting for them. Another recent report commented:

Although it is inherently difficult to assess the costs [of ESG], it is fair to anticipate significant costs for ambitious ESG goals. In an article in The Economist, a specific cost estimate was made in relation to offset a company’s entire carbon footprint. This was estimated to cost about 0.4 percent of annual revenues. This could already be a huge component for many companies, but it is only one aspect of merely one ESG factor. 

Yet that comment concludes with the kind of assurance that flows effortlessly from consultants well-positioned to, frankly, make a lot of money off of ESG compliance: “However, there is no real choice. The climate certainly cannot wait.” Given the recent backlash against ESG, whether driven by ideology or accounting, it’s clear that there is a real choice, and that choice is being invoked with increasing frequency throughout the commercial world. 

Second, the recent explosion of ESG adoption may have been in the spirit, if not embodying a strictly theoretical manifestation, of malinvestment as predicted by Austrian Business Cycle Theory (ABCT). Without engaging in a lengthy discussion of ABCT, artificially low interest rates (interest rates set by policymakers instead of markets) undercut the natural rate of interest generate signals and mislead entrepreneurs and business managers. Many years of negligible interest rates, indeed negative real rates, have given rise to bubble-like firms, projects, and I would argue, by extension, business concepts. The latter, which include but are not limited to ESG, seem feasible and arguably essential when the money spigots are open. When interest rates normalize and sobriety re-obtains, cost structures reassert themselves. It’s back to the business of business. 

Gone are the salad days of easy money, and with it the schmaltzy wishlists of niceties which a decade of monetary expansion permitted activists to blithely force upon corporate executives. In the face of rising interest rates, an uncertain path for inflation, budget-constrained consumers and rapidly deteriorating corporate earnings, shareholders are likely to take a closer look at how and where their money is being spent than they have in some time. Although it is unlikely to disappear completely, the ESG fad is probably past the crest of its popularity. It’s time again for firms to focus, singularly and completely, on the inestimable task of making money. 

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