ESG research criticism illustration with detective picture from Mariana Anatoneag from Pixabay

ESG research criticism? Researchpost #156

ESG research criticism: 13x new research on e-commerce, petrochemical and corruption problems, good and average sustainable performance, high transition risks, EU Taxonomy, Greenium, climate disaster effects, good investment constraints and private equity benchmarks (# shows SSRN full paper downloads as of Dec. 14th, 2023)

Social and ecological research (ESG research criticism)

Brown e-commerce: Product flows and GHG emissions associated with consumer returns in the EU by Rotem Roichman, Tamar Makov, Benjamin Sprecher, Vered Blass, and Tamar Meshulam as of Dec. 6th, 2023 (#5):“Building on a unique dataset covering over 630k returned apparel items in the EU … Our results indicate that 22%-44% of returned products never reach another consumer. Moreover, GHG emissions associated with the production and distribution of unused returns can be 2-14 times higher than post-return transport, packaging, and processing emissions combined“ (abstract).

US financed European petrochemicals: Toxic Footprints Europe by Planet Tracker as of December 2023: “Petrochemicals, which provide feedstocks for numerous products embedded in the global economy, carry a significant environmental footprint. One of the most important is toxic emissions. The financial market appears largely unconcerned by toxic emissions. This could be for several reasons: • perhaps because they are viewed as an unpriced pollutant or investors’ focus remains on carbon rather than other discharges or for those monitoring the plastic industry the spotlight is on plastic waste rather than toxic releases. In the Trilateral Chemical Region of Europe – an area consisting of Flanders (Belgium), North Rhine-Westphalia (Germany), Planet Tracker identified 1,093 facilities …. These facilities have released and transferred 125 million tonnes of chemicals since 2010 resulting in an estimated 24,640 years of healthy life being lost and 57 billion fractions of species being potentially affected. … BASF and Solvay are the most toxic polluters in the region, appearing in the top 5 of all four metrics analysed (physical releases, ecotoxicity, human toxicity and RSEI hazard).  The financiers behind these toxic footprints are led by BlackRock (5.4% of total investments by equity market value), Vanguard (5.2%) and JPMorgan Chase (3.6%). In terms of debt financing, Citigroup leads with 6.4% of total 10-year capital underwriting (including equity, loans and bonds), followed closely by JPMorgan Chase (6.3%) and Bank of America (5.2%)“ (p. 3).

Corruption Kills: Global Evidence from Natural Disasters by Serhan Cevik and João Tovar Jalles from the International Monetary Fund as of Nov. 2nd, 2023 (#12): “… we use a large panel of 135 countries over a long period spanning from 1980 to 2020 … The empirical analysis provides convincing evidence that widespread corruption increases the number of disaster-related deaths … the difference between the least and most corrupt countries in our sample implies a sixfold increase in the number of deaths per population caused by natural disaster in a given year. Our results show that this impact is stronger in developing countries than in advanced economies, highlighting the critical relationship between economic development and institutional capacity in strengthening good governance and combating corruption“ (p. 11/12).

Investment ESG research criticsm

Complex sustainability: Sustainability of financial institutions, firms, and investing by Bram van der Kroft as of Dec. 7th, 2023 (#22): “… financial institutions will take on additional risk in ways unpriced by regulators when facing financial constraints. Throughout the paper, we provide evidence that this additional risk-taking harms society as banks and insurance corporations acquire precisely those assets most affected in economic downturns” (p. 194) … “we find for over four thousand listed firms in 77 countries, as two-thirds of firms substantively improve their sustainable performance when institutional pressure is imprecise and increases, while one-third of firms are forced to start symbolically responding” (p. 196) … “One critical assumption underlining .. sustainable performance advances is that socially responsible investors can accurately identify sustainable firms. In practice, we show that these investors rely on inaccurate estimates of sustainable performance and accidentally “tilt the wrong firms” (p. 196) … “First, we find that MSCI IVA, FTSE, S&P, Sustainalytics, and Refinitiv ESG ratings do not reflect the sustainable performance of firms but solely capture their forward-looking sustainable aspirations. On average, these aspirations do not materialize up to 15 years in the future” (p. 84). …“Using unique identification in the real estate market and property-level sustainable performance information, we find that successful socially responsible engagement improves the sustainable performance of firms”(p. 196). My comment regarding the already published ESG rating criticism: Not all rating agencies work in the criticized way. My main ESG ratings supplier shifted its focuses to actual from planned sustainability (see my Researchpost #90 as of July 5th, 2022 relating to this paper: Tilting the Wrong Firms? How Inflated ESG Ratings Negate Socially Responsible Investing under Information Asymmetries).

ESG research criticism (1)? Comment and Replication: The Impact of Corporate Sustainability on Organizational Processes and Performance by Andrew A. King as of Dec. 7th, 2023 (#186): “Do High Sustainability companies have better financial performance than their Low Sustainability counterparts? An extremely influential publication in Management Science, “The Impact of Corporate Sustainability on Organizational Processes and Performance”, claims that they do. … after reviewing the report, I conclude that its critical findings are unjustified by its own evidence: its main method appears unworkable, a key finding is miscalculated, important results are uninterpretable, and the sample is biased by survival and selection. … Despite considering estimates from thousands of models, I find no reliable evidence for the proposed link between sustainability and financial performance” (abstract). My comment: If there is no negative effect of sustainability on performance, shouldn’t all investors invest 100% sustainably

ESG research criticism (2)? Does Corporate Social Responsibility Increase Access to Finance? A Commentary on Cheng, Ioannou, and Serafeim (2014) by Andrew A. King as of Dec. 12th, 2023 (#7): “Does Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) facilitate access to finance? An extremely influential article claims that it does … I show that its research method precludes any insight on either access to finance or its connection to CSR. … I correct the original study by substituting more suitable measures and conducting further analysis. Contrary to the original report, I find no robust evidence for a link between CSR and access to finance” (abstract).

High transition risk: The pricing of climate transition risk in Europe’s equity market by Philippe Loyson, Rianne Luijendijk, and Sweder van Wijnbergen as of Aug. 22nd, 2023 (#46): “We assessed the effect of carbon intensity (tCO2/$M) on relative stock returns of clean versus polluting firms using a panel data set consisting of 1555 European companies over the period 2005-2019. We did not find empirical evidence that carbon risk is being priced in a diversified European equity portfolio, implying that investors do not seem to be aware of or at least do not require a risk premium for the risk they bear by investing in polluting companies“ (p. 32). My comment: Apparently, at least until 2019, there has not been enough sustainable investment to have a carbon risk impact

Green indicator confusion: Stronger Together: Exploring the EU Taxonomy as a Tool for Transition Planning by and CDP as of Dec. 5th, 2023: „We find that out of the 1,700 NFRD (Sö: EU’s Non-Financial Reporting Directive) companies that published EU Taxonomy reports this year, around 600 identified their revenues and spending as part of their transition plans, and approximately 300 have validated science-based targets, both of which correlate to higher taxonomy alignment overall. There is a large dispersion of eligibility across companies within similar sectors which suggests that individual companies are involved in a variety of economic activities. This influences the low correlation between corporate GHG emissions and Taxonomy eligibility and alignment, as non-eligibility can be the result of exposure to either very high-impact or very low-impact economic activities. We observe that higher taxonomy alignment does not necessarily lead to lower carbon intensity when comparing companies within sectors. It is important to highlight that the largest source of corporate emissions might not always be well reflected in revenue shares” (p. 38). My comment: My experience is that the huge part of Scope 3 CO2 emissions and almost all non-CO2 emissions like methane are still seriously neglected by many corporations and investors

Greenium: Actions Speak Louder Than Words: The Effects of Green Commitment in the Corporate Bond Market by Peter Pope, Yang Wang, and Hui Xu as of Nov. 22nd, 2023 (#64): “This paper studies the effects of green bond issuance on the yield spreads of other conventional bonds from the same issuers. A traditional view of new bond issuance suggests that new bonds (whether green or brown) will increase secondary market bond yields if higher leverage increases default risk and dilutes creditors’ claim over assets. However, we find that the issuance of green bonds reduces conventional bond yield spreads by 8 basis points in secondary markets, on average. The effect is long-lasting (beyond two years) … An event study shows that the “bond” attribute of the green bonds still increases the yield spreads of outstanding conventional bonds by 1 basis point. It is the “green” attribute that lowers the yield spreads and ultimately dominates the net effects. … we show that socially responsible investors increase their demand for, and hold more, conventional bonds in their portfolios following the issuance of green bonds … we show that shareholders submit fewer environment-related proposals following green bond issuance. … Finally, our analysis highlights that green bonds give rise to positive real effects, though such effects are confined to the issuer“ (p. 42/43).

Costly values? Perceived Corporate Values by Stefano Pegoraro, Antonino Emanuele Rizzo, and Rafael Zambrana as of Dec. 4th, 2023 (#54): “…. analyzing the revealed preferences of values-oriented investors through their portfolio holdings … Using this measure of perceived corporate values, we show that values-oriented investors consider current and forward-looking information about corporate misconduct and controversies in their investment decisions. We also show that values-oriented investors sacrifice financial performance to align their portfolios with companies exhibiting better corporate values and lower legal risk” (p. 24). My comment: According to traditional investment theories, lower (ESG or other) risk should lead to lower returns. Any complaints about that?

Some investor impact: Propagation of climate disasters through ownership networks by Matthew Gustafson, Ai He, Ugur Lel, and Zhongling (Danny) Qin as of Dec. 5th, 2023 (#127): “We find that climate-change related disasters increase institutional investors’ awareness of climate change issues and accordingly these investors engage with the unaffected firms in their portfolios to influence corporate climate policies. In particular, we observe that such institutional investors vote in greater support of climate-related shareholder proposals at unaffected firms only after getting hit by climate change disasters in their portfolios and compared to other institutional investors. … In the long-run, firm-level GHG emissions and energy usage cumulatively decline at the same time as the unaffected firms adopt specific governance mechanisms such as linking their executive pay policies to GHG emission reductions, suggesting that changes in governance mechanisms potentially incentivize firms to internalize some of the negative externalities from their activities. … our results are more pronounced in brown industries“ (p. 26). My comment: When changing executive pay, negative effects have to be mitigated, see Wrong ESG bonus math?

Other investment research

Good constraints: Performance Attribution for Portfolio Constraints by Andrew W. Lo and Ruixun Zhang as of Nov. 1st, 2023 (#57): “While it is commonly believed that constraints can only decrease the expected utility of a portfolio, we show that this is only true when they are treated as static. … our methodology can be applied to common examples of constraints including the level of a particular characteristic, such as ESG scores, and exclusion constraints, such as divesting from sin stocks and energy stocks. Our results show that these constraints do not necessarily decrease the expected utility and returns of the portfolio, and can even contribute positively to portfolio performance when information contained in the constraints is sufficiently positively correlated with asset returns“ (p. 42). My comment: Traditional investment constraints are typically used to reduce risks. Looking at a actively managed funds, that does not always work as expected. Maybe responsible investment constraints are better than traditional ones?

PE Benchmark-Magic: Benchmarking Private Equity Portfolios: Evidence from Pension Funds by Niklas Augustin, Matteo Binfarè, and  Elyas D. Fermand as of Oct. 31st, 2023 (#245): “We document significant heterogeneity in the benchmarks used for US public pension fund private equity (PE) portfolios. … We show that general (Soe: investment) consultant turnover predicts changes in PE benchmarks. … we find that public pension funds only beat their PE benchmarks about 50% of the time, that they tend to use public market benchmark indices that underperform private market benchmark indices, and that their benchmarks have become easier to beat over the last 20 years“ (abstract).


Advert for German investors

Sponsor my research by investing in and/or recommending my global small/midcap mutual fund (SFDR Art. 9). The fund focuses on social SDGs and uses separate E, S and G best-in-universe minimum ratings and broad shareholder engagement with currently 26 of 30 companiesFutureVest Equity Sustainable Development Goals R – DE000A2P37T6 – A2P37T or Noch eine Fondsboutique? – Responsible Investment Research Blog (