Myth-busting will help accelerate ESG retreat
In recent years the ESG movement, which holds that corporate managers and investors should consider environmental, social and governance issues to benefit various “stakeholders”—in contrast to the more conventional view that the responsibility of business is to increase its profits for the benefit of its shareholders—has gathered force. Despite considerable evidence of ESG retrenching, it remains in wide currency. However, many points made in its favour are not supported by evidence. It’s important to separate myths from reality.
The Fraser Institute’s ESG essay series is a good resource. In one essay, Steven Globerman reviews the research on ESG scores and investor returns and finds that the claim made by many ESG promoters—that companies with higher ESG scores produce higher investor returns—lacks supporting evidence.
In another essay, 2013 Economics Nobelist Eugene F. Fama notes that competitive market forces better address corporate governance issues than externally imposed top-down structures. Many environmental and social problems too are better handled by bottom-up market forces than top-down initiatives, particularly from government.
Additional essays refute other ESG fallacies including that the ESG movement is the result of widespread demand from individual investors, consumers and workers (in fact, it’s primarily a top-down initiative of elites including government); that regulation-imposed ESG mandates improve corporate governance (they actually make it worse); and that business profit-maximization is harmful to stakeholders other than shareholders (in reality, businesses focusing on profits is generally good for their consumers, employees and suppliers). The entire series is worth reading.
Also worth reading is an article in the Financial Analysts Journal by Alex Edmans, a professor of finance at London Business School, which identifies and refutes 10 common ESG myths including the myth that a focus on shareholder value is harmful because maximizing shareholder value promotes an inefficient focus by management on short-term profit maximization. As Edmans explains, “Finance 101 teaches us that shareholder value is an inherently long-term concept. It is the present value of all future cash flows, from now until the end of time.”
To the extent that financial markets are efficient, expected future profits and losses are reflected in company share prices today, so even if corporate managers care only about today’s stock price, they will still try to maximize long-term value.
Edmans also takes aim at the claim that ESG stocks earn higher returns, again appealing to Finance 10. If ESG actually enhances a company’s shareholder value and this is known, it will be reflected in today’s stock price, so investors who buy the stock shouldn’t expect superior returns. “Feel-good” stocks should actually be expected to generate lower returns because if investors like holding certain stocks for non-financial reasons and dislike holding others, they’ll demand higher returns on the disfavoured stocks than the feel-good ones.
Various other myths include that “more ESG is always better” (in fact, ESG “exhibits diminishing returns and trade-offs exist,” Edmans writes) and that people improve ESG performance by paying for it (if people pay for improvements in some areas, it will cause companies to underweight other ESG dimensions). The final myth often promoted by ESG advocates and refuted in Edmans’s article is that regulation is justified because the market is imperfect. The blindingly obvious counterpoint—government is also imperfect.
ESG may be popular, but careful reading on the topic reveals that many points made in its favour are not supported by evidence. That may be one reason the ESG tide, at least in some places, is retreating.
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