The economic destruction wrought by the coronavirus pandemic has been severe and global. More than 10 million Americans lost their jobs and applied for unemployment benefits in March. The International Monetary Fund’s Kristalina Georgieva characterized the emerging economic downturn as “way worse than the global financial crisis” of 2008-2009. Firms big and small must do anything they can to stay afloat in this environment.
That may mean curtains for trendy investing strategies and corporate governance theories that flourished when times were good.
There’s an activist subset of the corporate finance world that has little to do with traditional business activities like manufacturing and marketing and is instead focused on tracking greenhouse gas reductions, gender equality, and social justice. The policies they pressure corporations to adopt are referred to as “environmental, social, and governance” standards, or ESG. Similar campaigns were popularized under the banner of “corporate social responsibility” and “socially responsible investing.”
What they have in common is a tangential relationship, at best, to operating a profitable company. In today’s business world, large companies must serve many masters, known as stakeholders, with actual shareholders often considered an afterthought, despite the law saying otherwise. Companies are expected to respond to a laundry list of demands from environmentalists, labor unions, and other activists and modify their operations accordingly, while third-party investment advisory agencies rate them according to advocacy-driven scorecards.
But tolerance for politically motivated investing may now wear thin for companies and investors. ESG-focused investing is a relatively new phenomenon that expanded over the last decade or so, during America’s longest continuous economic expansion. It has never known a time of deep recession. Will a post-pandemic CEO sign up to higher electricity prices so that her company can get a gold star from a “sustainability” advocacy group? Will she send her HR staff to expensive management conferences to learn the latest cultural sensitivity strategies? Will she pay twice as much an ounce for fair-trade certified raw materials like molybdenum?
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