Asset Management: Failing To Articulate Its Social Purpose ?
‘Responsible investment’ is not a new concept. Across Europe, nearly 80% of some 239 European asset managers claim to be responsible investors, according to a recent study of those ranked among the largest 400 managers worldwide. But look for evidence that they have a purpose that is connected with societal impact and the figure is a mere 2%, according to a study behind a new index.
Is an embattled industry keen on differentiation looking hard at meeting growing investor demand for sustainability and a focus on ESG issues now considered mainstream, or is it merely riding a branding hype? It’s a question asked by the H&K Responsible Investment Brand Index, claiming to be the first of its kind, and launched at a time when the critical issue of trust in financial services bubbles up across the globe once again.
Committing to be responsible investors for many asset managers has been as easy as signing the Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI), suggests the report. Its authors, Jean-Francois Hirschel and Markus Kramer, come from different angles to this theme. Mr Hirschel is the founder and CEO of H-IDEAS, a company which aims to help re-establish that doggedly elusive trust in the financial world. Mr Kramer is a partner at Brand Affairs, a consultancy specialising in brand building and strategic positioning.
When the branding gurus start talking about ‘societal impact’ you know that the words of Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, the world’s largest money management firm in that famous letter to CEOs, continue to resonate across the globe.
The report takes Mr Fink’s words a step further, looking to discover the “brand architecture of responsible investment”, and finding little evidence. Only 13 companies in their index “have a clearly articulate purpose, of which only three truly connect to a greater societal impact.”
The index focuses on European headquartered Asset Managers and compounds the analysis of all 239 European Asset Managers listed in the Investment & Pensions Europe Top 400 ranking as of December 31, 2017. At the heart of its analysis lies a differentiation between “commitment” to responsible investment and “brand” - which its authors say analyses to what extent sustainable development lies at the very heart of a company’s identity.
The arrival of this index comes at an interesting time in the United Kingdom.
In a speech at a stewardship and governance conference in London held by The Investment Association - the trade body representing UK investment managers - last week , Alex Chisholm, Permanent Secretary at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) inevitably focused on the issue of trust, when talking about better corporate governance.
He quoted Greg Clark, MP who is UK Business Secretary: “As Greg Clark said when he first launched the Industrial Strategy: We have a worldwide reputation for fair dealing, but also examples of behaviour that tarnish the good name of business. This is no time to lower our sights or our standards. This country will never win a race to the bottom.”
Mr Chisholm went on to say: “ I know that the majority of UK companies and their investors share this view. Yet, according to Edelman’s latest Global Trust Barometer, trust in UK business declined from 45% to 43% last year, putting us even further below the current global average of 52%.”
Now add in a #Brexit factor. There is bound to be one, when it comes to the business focus on better corporate governance. But at the time of writing, I have nothing more to say on that.
In terms of what we know to be true, ESG investments continue to rise. Between 2010 and 2016 in Europe alone 64% of people have increased their allocation to sustainable investments, says the report.
So is there just a disconnect and a delay for Europe’s asset management firms to get properly on board ?
It depends how seriously you take all the talk of ‘social impact’ when it comes to the managing of money. Because, going back to Larry Fink and BlackRock, there is the reality of reaction to everyday events, and everyday lost opportunity.
It’s always going to be a slow burn making a positive and igniting connection between ‘social impact’ and money. But this index is a good start to connecting the dots between hype and action - or at least taking the halo off having signed up to being a “responsible investor” unless you put your money where your mouth is.