By Nir Kossovsky and Denise Williamee, Steel City Re
As the trend towards ESG investment and a low-carbon economy continues, banks are being backed into a reputational corner. Law firms specializing in representing the expanding pool of litigious shareholders are salivating.
On one hand, banks understand the inherent financial risks and challenges involved with making a wholesale move towards a low-carbon economy. The transition to a greener corporate world can’t happen overnight; as long as “brown” assets continue to be profitable, those in bank leadership positions have to balance their green aspirations with their responsibility to shareholders.
On the other hand, while not renewing loans on existing coal mines or fracking sites may improve a bank’s carbon disclosures, it could have social and financial ramifications that disappoint other stakeholders—i.e., causing people to lose their jobs. Still, financial institutions are experiencing pressure from all sides—from ESG investors to social license holders – to divest the fossil fuel industry and adopt drastic “green financing” practices now.
To alleviate these pressures, banks are pledging greener financing initiatives. Almost every large global bank has made some sort of commitment. Goldman Sachs, for example, announced they would spend $750 billion on sustainable finance over the next decade. Bank of America pledged $300 billion.
Bank boards and executives likely don’t fully appreciate the reputational risks posed by the aspirational statements they’re making. They are making promises and raising expectations without the operational or governance systems in place to ensure those expectations will actually be met. Overpromising and increasing the risk of angering and disappointing stakeholders is the very definition of reputational risk.
Banks are in a unique position: integral to every aspect of our economy, well-known brands that work hard to build and retain the trust of their customers and the general public while operating in an environment of intense scrutiny by politicians and regulators at every level of government. Satisfying all the stakeholders calling for greener policies while fulfilling their responsibility to their shareholders is a demanding balancing act fraught with risk. The Business Roundtable pledge, led by JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, and elevating employees, communities, and the environment as stakeholders, was an attempt to strike that balance. Already, though, that pledge is being dismissed by politicians like Senator Elizabeth Warren, who characterized it as an “empty publicity stunt.”
The price of missing expectations is costly, and bank executives and board members could find themselves in a legal hot seat. Federal securities lawsuit filings alleging reputation harm from missed expectations are up 60% over last year, the third year of a rising trend.
This trend stems from SEC regulation S-K that calls for more human capital disclosures, and the Caremark decision that sets the bar for most securities litigation and makes board oversight of mission-critical corporate operations a test of the duty of loyalty. Other cases, like In Re Signet, have made ESG-like pronouncements—historically “immaterial corporate puffery”—now potentially material in the securities arena.
For example, directors’ duty of loyalty were successfully questioned in alleged failures of innovation (In Re Clovis Oncology, Inc., board failure to protect the firm’s reputation for pharmacologic innovation); safety (Marchand v. Blue Bell Creameries, board failure to protect the company’s reputation for food safety); and environmental sustainability (Inter-Marketing Group USA, Inc. v. Armstrong, board failure to protect the firm’s reputation for oil pipeline-related environmental protection).
In other words, aspirational pledges are now being considered by courts with the full weight of a material public disclosure. As wealth managers chase ESG-informed investing and capital markets chase ‘green underwriting’, the plaintiff’s bar chases boards and executives making pledges that appear to be no more than aspirational marketing.
The only way to strike a balance and mitigate these risks is through a robust Enterprise Risk Management (ERM) strategy that’s centered around understanding who your key stakeholders are, what their interests are, and ultimately, what their expectations are. Coincidentally, it is also one of the three key behaviors the world’s largest asset management firm, Blackrock, is demanding of all investee companies in 2021 thus communicating the type of authenticity to its slogan “beyond investing,” that BP failed to accomplish with similar sloganeering a decade ago.
Banks need to create a central intelligence unit with board level oversight to comb through every aspect of the organization to identify stakeholder interests, potential risks and/or exposures. Pledges and communications should be informed by a rigorous and honest self-assessment of the institution’s public filings and operational capacity. Overpromising is costly. ESG pledges must be rooted in achievable goals that a bank’s leadership are confident their institutions can reasonably execute on an operational level. Banks also need to consider transferring or financing risks using the broad range of conventional and parametric insurance products currently available.
Enterprise risk management, when executed properly, will fulfill ESG commitments, reassure stakeholder groups and give marketers, counsel, and investment as well as government relations professionals an authentic story to tell about strong corporate governance. ERM focused on reputational intelligence will provide confidence to ESG funds, institutional investors, bond raters, and government officials alike.
The popularity of ESG investment and chasing ESG ratings is not going to go away, and stakeholder pressures will continue to mount. Investors doubled the size of the ESG sector this year, putting $27.4 billion into ETFs traded in U.S. markets. According to a recent survey conducted by Bank of America relating to ‘Gen Z’—which is just entering the workforce—80% take ESG into account when making their investment decisions.
Bank leadership that is striving to attain the correct balance between stakeholders and shareholders need to lean more into the “governance” portion of the ESG equation; pledges backed by enterprise risk management are the strongest pledges you can make.
Wall Street Week Ahead: Investors weigh new stock leadership as broader market wobbles
By Lewis Krauskopf
NEW YORK (Reuters) – A shakeup in stocks accelerated by the past week’s surge in Treasury yields has investors weighing how far a recent leadership rotation in the U.S. equity market can run, and its implications for the broader S&P 500 index.
Moves this week further spurred a shift that has seen months-long outperformance for energy, financial and other shares expected to benefit from an economic recovery, while a climb in Treasury yields weighed on the technology stocks that have led markets higher for years.
The two-track market left the benchmark S&P 500 down for the week, and sparked questions about whether it could sustain gains going forward if the tech and growth stocks that account for the biggest weights in the index struggle.
So far this year, the S&P 500, which gives more influence to stocks with larger market values, is up 1.5%, while a version of the index that weights stocks equally is up 5%.
“That just tells us the gains are less narrow, more companies are participating, and I think that’s healthy,” said James Ragan, director of wealth management research at D.A. Davidson.
The focus on market leadership comes as investors are weighing whether the S&P 500 is due for a significant pullback after a 70% run since March, with the rise in long-dormant yields the latest sign of trouble for equities as it means bonds are more serious investment competition. The yield on the 10-year U.S. Treasury note this week jumped to a one-year peak of 1.6% before pulling back.
Economic improvement will be in focus in the coming weeks, including the monthly U.S. jobs report due next Friday, as will the country’s ability to ensure widespread coronavirus vaccinations, especially as new variants emerge.
Tech and momentum stocks helped drive returns in 2020 “when everyone was locked down and all they had was their computer,” said Jack Ablin, chief investment officer at Cresset Capital Management. “Now it seems with the vaccines, the stimulus and the prospect of reopening that we are looking out toward a recovery phase.”
The shift in the market this week is building on one that was fueled in early November, when Pfizer’s breakthrough COVID-19 vaccine news generated broad bets on an economic rebound in 2021.
Among the moves since that point: the S&P 500 financial and energy sectors are up 29% and 65%, respectively, against a nearly 9% rise for the benchmark index and 7% rise for the tech sector. The Russell 1000 value index has gained 16.5% against a 4.3% climb for its growth counterpart, while the smallcap Russell 2000 is up 34%.
“You definitely are seeing the reopening trade that has pretty much come alive here,” said Gary Bradshaw, portfolio manager of Hodges Capital Management.
Despite the gains, there remains “plenty of room for the reflation trade to run from a valuation perspective,” Lori Calvasina, head of U.S. equity strategy at RBC Capital Markets, said in a report this week. RBC is “overweight” the financials, materials and energy sectors.
Rising rates tend to be favorable for more cyclical sectors, David Lefkowitz, head of Americas equities at UBS Global Wealth Management, said in a note, with financials, energy, industrials and materials showing the strongest positive correlations among sectors with 10-year Treasury yields.
Still, how long the market’s reopening trade lasts remains to be seen. Investors may be reluctant to stray from tech and growth stocks, especially with many of the companies expected to put up strong profits for years.
Any setbacks with the economy or with efforts to quell the coronavirus could revive the stay-at-home stocks that thrived for most of 2020.
And with a GameStop-fueled retail-trading frenzy taking hold this year, banks and other stocks in the reopening trade may fail to draw the same attention from amateur investors as stocks such as Tesla, said Rick Meckler, partner at Cherry Lane Investments.
“There isn’t the pizzazz to those stocks,” Meckler said. “There rarely is a potential for stocks to make the kind of moves that big tech growth stocks have made.”
(Reporting by Lewis Krauskopf; editing by Richard Pullin)
Exclusive: European officials urge World Bank to exclude fossil-fuel investments
By Kate Abnett and Andrea Shalal
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Senior officials from Europe have urged the World Bank’s management to expand its climate change strategy to exclude investments in oil- and coal-related projects around the world, and gradually phase out investment in natural gas projects, according to three sources familiar with the matter.
In the six-page letter dated Wednesday, World Bank executive directors representing major European shareholder countries and Canada, welcomed moves by the Bank to ensure its lending supports efforts to reduce carbon emissions.
But they urged the Bank – the biggest provider of climate finance to the developing world – to go even further.
“We … think the Bank should now go further and also exclude all coal- and oil-related investments, and further outline a policy on gradually phasing out gas power generation to only invest in gas in exceptional circumstances,” the European officials wrote in the letter, excerpts of which were seen by Reuters.
The officials took note of the World Bank’s $620 million investment in a multibillion-dollar liquified natural gas project in Mozambique approved by the Bank’s board in January, but did not call for its cancellation, one of the sources said.
The World Bank confirmed receipt of the letter but did not disclose all its contents. It noted that the World Bank and its sister organizations had provided $83 billion for climate action over the past five years.
“Many of the initiatives called for in the letter from our shareholders are already planned or in discussion for our draft Climate Change Action Plan for 2021-2025, which management is working to finalize in the coming month,” the Bank told Reuters in an emailed statement.
The Bank’s first climate action plan began in fiscal year 2016.
The United States, the largest shareholder in the World Bank, this month rejoined the 2015 Paris climate accord, and has vowed to move multilateral institutions and U.S. public lending institutions toward “climate-aligned investments and away from high-carbon investments.”
World Bank President David Malpass told finance officials from the Group of 20 economies on Friday that the Bank would make record investments in climate change mitigation and adaptation for a second consecutive year in 2021.
“Inequality, poverty, and climate change will be the defining issues of our age,” Malpass told the officials. “It is time to think big and act big in finding solutions,”
He said it was also launching new reviews to integrate climate into all its country diagnostics and strategies, a step initiated before the letter from the European officials, said one of the sources.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal in Washington and Kate Abnett in Brussels; Additional reporting by Valerie Volcovici in Washington; Editing by Matthew Lewis)
GameStop rally fizzles; shares still register 151% weekly gain
By Aaron Saldanha and David Randall
(Reuters) – GameStop Corp closed 6% lower on Friday as an early rally fizzled but the stock finished the week 151% higher in a renewed surge that left analysts puzzled.
The video game retailer’s shares closed at $101.74 after retreating from a session high of $142.90. The weekly rocket ride higher came despite a broader market selloff that sent the benchmark S&P 500 <.SPX> down 2.5% over the same time.
Analysts have struggled to find a clear explanation, and some were skeptical the rally would have legs.
“You might be able to make some quick trading money and it could be a lot of money, but in the end, it’s the greater fool theory,” said Eric Diton, president and managing director at The Wealth Alliance in New York. The theory refers to buying stocks that are over-valued, anticipating a “greater fool” will buy them later at a higher price.
Analysts mostly ruled out a short squeeze like the one that fueled GameStop’s rally in January, when individual investors using Robinhood and other apps punished hedge funds that had bet against the stock, forcing them to unwind short positions. Many GameStop buyers took their cues from online investment forums on Reddit and elsewhere.
Short interest accounted for 28.4% of the float on Thursday, compared with a peak of 142% in early January, according to S3 Partners.
Options market activity in GameStop, which has returned to the top of the list in a social media-driven retail trading frenzy, suggested investors were betting on higher prices, higher volatility, or both.
Refinitiv data showed retail investors have been buying deep out-of-the-money call options, which have contract prices to buy far higher than the current stock price.
Many of those option contracts were set to expire on Friday, meaning handsome gains for those who bet on a further rise in GameStop’s stock price.
Call options, profitable for holders if GameStop shares hit $200 and $800 this week, have been particularly heavily traded, the data showed. GameStop’s stock traded this week as high as $184.54 on Thursday, far below the $483 intraday high it hit in January.
“The actors are looking to take advantage of everything they can to maximize their impact and the timing is important,” said David Trainer, chief executive officer of investment research firm New Constructs. “The options expiration will contribute to their strategy on how to push the stock as much as they can and maximize their profits.”
Bots on major social media websites have been hyping GameStop and other “meme stocks,” although the extent to which they influenced prices was unclear, according to analysis by Massachusetts-based cyber security company PiiQ Media.
The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) on Friday suspended trading in 15 companies because of “questionable trading and social media activity.” GameStop was not among them.
The 15 companies were in addition to six stocks it recently suspended due to suspicious social media activity.
Robinhood said it has received inquiries from regulators about temporary trading curbs it imposed during a wild rally in shorted stocks earlier this year.
Other Reddit favorites were also lower on Friday, with cinema operator AMC Entertainment down 3.4%, headphone maker Koss off 22.4% and marijuana company Sundial Growers down 2.9%.
(Reporting by Aaron Saldanha in Bengaluru; additional reporting by Caroline Valetkevitch in New York, and Devik Jain and Sruthi Shankar; Writing by David Randall; Editing by Alden Bentley, Shinjini Ganguli, Anil D’Silva, Dan Grebler and David Gregorio)
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