Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Professor Damodaran: "Sounding good or Doing good? A Skeptical Look at ESG"

note: reposted with no changes just because it is so good.
Original post:

Absolutely first rate.  Seriously, you don't see many academics (vs practitioners) address the topic this bluntly:
....The Bottom Line
In many circles, ESG is being marketed as not only good for society, but good for companies and for investors. In my view,  the hype regarding ESG has vastly outrun the reality of both what it is, and what it can deliver, and the buzzwords are not helpful. That is the reason I have tried to under use words like sustainability and resilience, two standouts in the ESG advocates lexicon, in writing this post. I believe that the potential to make money on ESG for consultants, bankers and investment managers has made at least some of them cheerleaders for the concept, with claims of the payoffs based on research that is ambiguous and inconclusive, if not outright inconsistent. The evidence as I see it is nuanced, and can be summarized as follows:
  • There is a weak link between ESG and operating performance (growth and profitability), and while some firms benefit from being good, many do not. Telling firms that being socially responsible will deliver higher growth, profits and value is false advertising. The evidence is stronger that bad firms get punished, either with higher funding costs or with a greater incidence of disasters and shocks. ESG advocates are on much stronger ground telling companies not to be bad, than telling companies to be good. In short, expensive gestures by publicly traded companies to make themselves look “good” are futile, both in terms of improving performance and delivering returns.....
....MUCH, MUCH MORE (scroll down)

From the good Professor's personal blog, Musings on Markets, September 21:
In my time in corporate finance and valuation, I have seen many "new and revolutionary" ideas emerge, each one marketed as the solution to all of the problems that businesses face. Most of the time, these ideas start by repackaging an existing concept or measure and adding a couple of proprietary tweaks that are less improvement and more noise, then get acronyms, before being sold relentlessly. With each one, the magic fades once the limitations come to the surface, as they inevitably do, but not before consultants and bankers have been enriched. So, forgive me for being a cynic when it comes to the latest entrant in this game, where ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance), a measure of the environment and social impact of companies, has become one of the fastest growing movements in business and investing, and this time, the sales pitch is wider and deeper. Companies that improve their social goodness standing will not only become more profitable and valuable over time, we are told, but they will also advance society's best interests, thus resolving one of the fundamental conflicts of private enterprise, while also enriching investors. This week, the ESG debate has come back to take main stage, for three reasons. 
  • It is the fiftieth anniversary of one of the most influential opinion pieces in media history, where Milton Friedman argued that the focus of a company should be profitability, not social good. There have been many retrospectives published in the last week, with the primary intent of showing how far the business world has moved away from Friedman's views. 
  • There were multiple news stories about how "good" companies, with goodness measured on the social scale, have done better during the COVID crisis, and how much money was flowing into ESG funds, with some suggesting that the crisis could be a tipping point for companies and investors, who were on the fence about the added benefits of being socially conscious. 
  • In a more long standing story line, the establishment seems to have bought into ESG consciousness, with business leaders in the Conference Board signing on to a "stakeholder interest" statement last year and institutional investors shifting more money into ESG funds.
In the interests of openness, I took issue with the Conference Board last year on stakeholder interests, and I start from a position of skepticism, when presented with "new" ways of business thinking. If the debate about ESG had been about facts, data and common sense, and ESG had won, I would gladly incorporate that thinking into my views on corporate finance, investing and valuation. But that has not been the case, at least so far, simply because ESG has been posited by its advocates as good, and any dissent from the party line on ESG (that it is good for companies, investors and society) is viewed as a sign of moral deficiency. At the risk of sounding being labeled a troglodyte (I kind of like that label), I will argue that many fundamental questions about ESG have remained unanswered or have been answered sloppily, and that it is in its proponents' best interests to stop overplaying the morality card, and to have an honest discussion about whether ESG is a net good for companies, investors and society.

Measures of Goodness
    We have spent decades measuring financial performance and output at companies, either at the operating level, as revenues, profits or capital invested, or at the investor level, as market cap and returns. Any attempts to measure environment and social goodness face two challenges. 
  • The first is that much of social impact is qualitative, and developing a numerical value for that impact is difficult to do. 
  • The second is even trickier, which is that there is little consensus on what social impacts to measure, and the weights to assign to them.  
If your counter is that there are multiple services now that measure ESG at companies, you are right, but the lack of clarity and consensus results in the companies being ranked very differently by different services. This shows up in low correlations across the ESG services on ESG scores, as indicated by this study:
Correlations across six ESG data providers

This low correlation often occurs even on high profile companies, as shown in a comprehensive analysis of ESG investing by Dimson, Marsh and Staunton, as part of their global investment returns update:...

As we have been pointing out for years, Dimson, Marsh and Staunton are not the hot new boy band:

Dimson Marsh and Staunton 482 x 271 pixels

But their annual compendium for Credit Suisse is one of the very few publications I would presume to call "must-read":
Global Investment Returns Yearbook 2020 - Credit Suisse

We also have quite a few posts on their individual papers where we can compare academe with lived experience:
 Prof. Dimson: "New research reveals that wine outperformed art, stamps and bonds throughout the 20th century"
Dimson et al: "The impact of aging on wine prices and the performance of wine as a long-term investment"
Are collectibles good long-term investments? "The Investment Performance of Emotional Assets"
Alternative Investments With Liquidity: "Fine Wines, Best Value"
That Dimson (pictured right) is such a cut-up, here's his mini-bio at Cambridge:
....Elroy Dimson chairs the Centre for Endowment Asset Management at Cambridge Judge Business School, and is Emeritus Professor of Finance at London Business School. He chairs the Policy Board and the Academic Advisory Board of FTSE Russell and is an Advisory Council member for Financial Analysts Journal. He is a member of the Financial Economists Roundtable and of the European Corporate Governance Institute. He is a Fellow or Honorary Fellow of CFA UK, the Institute of Actuaries, the Royal Historical Society, the Risk Institute at Ohio State University, and Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge.
Professor Dimson’s books include Triumph of the Optimists and the Global Investment Returns Yearbook (with Paul Marsh and Mike Staunton), Endowment Asset Management (with Shanta Acharya), and Financial Market History (with David Chambers). Recent publications are on active ownership (Review of Financial Studies), real assets (Journal of Financial Economics), financial history (Journal of Financial and Quantitative Analysis), endowment strategy (Financial Analysts Journal), long-horizon investing (five book chapters), with case studies on manager selection and on stocks for the long run (both Harvard Business School). His PhD is from London Business School....
...So much more

Although Cambridge doesn't mention it Dimson was also chair of the Strategy Council of the world's largest Sovereign Wealth Fund, the Norwegian Government Pension Fund Global.

For the rest of the crew's links and for all our links to Prof. Damodaran use the 'search blog' box top left.