The ills of the world economy and the frequency of crises may in part emanate from a loss of the sense of direction. With economic policy rules increasingly undermined at the level of countries and international organizations, the resulting loss of an anchor resulted in a rising frequency of economic crisis episodes. Instead of the weakening norms and top-down conditionality of international organizations a new set of rules and standards is starting to propagate throughout the global economy from the micro-level of the corporate and financial world. This new moral code is epitomized in the ESG (environment, social, governance) framework, with the propagation of ESG principles taking place across all key segments of the global economy.
The buy-side is witnessing a growing volume of assets under management that is tracking ESG principles by 2020 the value of global assets employing environmental, social and governance data to deliver investment decisions has almost doubled over four years, and more than tripled over eight years, to $40.5 trillion. Sell-side research is actively advancing ESG products in the corporate research space as well as in evaluating the macroeconomic implications of the use of ESG standards. The largest corporates are starting to compete in the ESG space, with a rising importance attached to corporate ESG ratings. At the country level governments are actively elaborating the national ESG strategies and evaluating the risks and the opportunities harboured in the rising global presence of the ESG agenda.
For corporates the importance of complying with ESG principles is driven increasingly by the rising share of ESG-driven investments, most notably among the largest institutional investors. According to PwC, ESG funds are set to hold more assets under management than their non-ESG counterparts by 2025, with ESG funds’ market share projected to rise to 57% in 2025, compared with the current 15%. In effect, companies not complying with ESG norms deprive themselves of a rising share of the global investment pool, which may impart negative implications for the companies market capitalization.
There may be also notable implications for countries and companies in terms of borrowing costs depending on the resilience and susceptibility to environmental factors as climate change. According to the estimates of the IMF, an increase of 10 percentage points in climate change vulnerability is associated with an increase of over 150 basis points in long-term government bond spreads of emerging markets and developing economies, while an improvement of 10 percentage points in climate change resilience is associated with a decrease of 37.5 basis points in bond spreads.
Importantly, there are notable regional variations in perceptions and regulatory regimes governing ESG factors as revealed by a Blackrock survey of 425 investors in 27 countries with nearly $25trn in assets under management. For more than half of the respondents in EMEA (51%), the top reason for adopting sustainable strategies was because it is the right thing to do, while just 37 per cent of respondents in the region said mitigating investment risk was a key consideration. At the same time in the Americas, mitigating risk is the second highest driver of adoption (49 per cent), followed by better risk-adjusted performance (45%) and mandate from board or management (45%).
The positive aspect of the ESG agenda is that it broadens the time-horizons of the world economy, including its financial and the real sectors, and allows for longer term risks and vulnerabilities to be incorporated into the current decision-making.
The Covid crisis was the bell toll that greatly underscored the importance of such a re-calibration of the time-horizons in economic strategies away from the excessive short-termism of the pre-Covid era. There is also the greater emphasis on sustainability as the core principle that aligns the operation of the corporate and financial markets with the broader global agenda as reflected in the UN development goals.
On the other hand, the transition towards the ESG principles also involves risks that have to do with the significant differentiation across countries in terms of values and preparedness to incorporate ESG standards. Developing economies, most notably those with a sizeable share of the mineral resource sectors in their economies, will likely find it more challenging to compete with advanced economies in the speed of ESG transformation indeed with respect to environmental standards there is the risk of green protectionism being employed against developing countries. Another risk may be the use of ESG norms as the new universal rules-based framework that separates rather than unites the global community.
In the end, just as the apocalyptic predictions regarding the coming of the WTO membership for Russia have proven to be unfounded so the ESG challenge may well turn out to be a factor of creative change rather than destruction. In many respects the ESG value code aligns well with the crucial exigencies facing Russia’s economy the need for longer time horizons in economic policy-making and investing as well as greater emphasis on environmental standards and social issues. For Russia’s financial realm this is an important element related to the development of deeper and less speculative markets, more emphasis being placed on education and support for the fledgling class of retail investors, and greater transparency and higher governance standards in the corporate world.
From our partner RIAC