As each passing day unfolds with new stories of the mounting human tragedy in Ukraine, western governments have in turn responded with an increasing array of sanctions and punitive economic measures against the Russian economy. But what is the role of the concerned investor in this catastrophe?
Residing as we do in an era in which sustainable investing has gone mainstream, the answer might seem obvious. Divestment, or at least discontinuation of further purchase, of Russian companies (already required in most cases by sanctions anyway), is an easy one. An analysis of average portfolio exposure to Russian securities on the Envestnet platform showed less than a 1 percent allocation even before the invasion of Ukraine drove the values of those holdings dramatically down.
Another obvious measure: engagement with multi-national corporations doing business in Russia. Day by day we see more and more companies self-selecting on this front, opting out of the country altogether or dramatically downsizing operations. The politics of controversy are unforgiving. Companies loathe to take action after the annexation of Crimea in 2014 have moved fast this time around. But many would argue that the majority of the Russian populace is not to blame for this disaster and digging through the nuances of disengagement and its impacts can be a time-consuming process, particularly when what you are looking for is immediate influence.
To have a meaningful impact in this situation, sustainable investors must surely confront the only real leverage point that matters here: Russia’s revenue from fossil fuel production. But to do so means meeting head on some difficult realities.
While routinely lumped together, environmental, social, and governance (“ESG”) concerns never necessarily led to the same conclusions about corporate sustainability. Companies that provide electric cars are not necessarily all well governed. And transitioning to newer, currently more expensive renewable technologies always risked an unfair burden on poorer peoples and economies. ESG investing done for the sake of risk reduction or return enhancement would resolve those conflicts by seeking to identify the greater value, not values, at stake for the investor. From a responsibility standpoint, many countries and companies have admirably worked toward an approach that fairly balances these considerations.
But the bloodshed in Ukraine presents us with a starker discrepancy, wherein the E (environmental) and S (social) could appear to be in direct conflict. By disincentivizing the production of oil and gas, well-intentioned efforts to move forward on the environment have arguably empowered the worst actors among us from a social standpoint. Clearly Vladimir Putin is not concerned about the brownness of his fuel production.
Putin knows full well the leverage he has over Europe in particular, via energy supply. We were well into the destruction of Ukraine before the United States, far more energy self-sufficient than Europe, finally made oil part of the sanctions against Russia. Europe, which has significantly outpaced the United States on clean energy regulations, faces a far greater dependence on Russian fuel. Thus, they will continue to fund a regime that is actively destroying a neighboring country as they work out the balance of securing near term energy requirements with climate goals.
I would posit that there are two sustainable approaches to consciously address these issues.
The first is investing into renewable technologies. It is our belief that it will take many years for renewables to challenge fossil fuels for predominance, but if you believe this tech will eventually get us to energy independence, you are looking to get in now. And there is some dubious good news: the skyrocketing price of oil above $100 a barrel has actually reduced the so-called green premium, or additional cost of producing renewable energy as opposed to using traditional fossil fuel-based methods. Investments in renewables serves both environmental and long-term social goods by making us less dependent on foreign regimes for our energy needs. But it will be a massive and costly transition, requiring sustained investments in retrofitting buildings, electrifying home heating and transportation, upending our agricultural system, increasing focus on green hydrogen and a very fast buildout of low-carbon energy sources among other things.
The second approach is one that recognizes that incumbent energy companies have a primary role to play in our collective energy transition. In recent years, sustainable investors have increasingly used their sway to curb the “drill baby drill” mantra that preceded this crisis, eliminating the energy sector altogether from their holdings and, oftentimes, labeling sustainable investments holding any such companies as greenwashers. But we will not so easily turn off our dependence on fossil fuels. The promise of engagement as opposed to divestment was highlighted last year when the activist investor firm Engine No. 1 replaced two directors on Exxon Mobil’s board. Transitioning to clean energy independence will be a decades long effort. It may involve supporting North American oil production as we simultaneously seek other means to wean ourselves. Engine No. 1 founder Christopher James recently argued as much in an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal.
Finding good ESG fund managers that are doing the hard work of identifying the forward thinking from the forward talking is not easy. We recommend a multi-factor framework for assessing managers, considering their governance and policies, the integration of ESG directly into the investment process as opposed to being considered in a sidecar fashion, reporting on impact and engagement on ESG issues.
As sustainable investing gains sway, we have witnessed a backlash among some who would argue that such considerations are best left to government regulations. I would argue quite the opposite. Investors interested in stakeholder economics have a part to play and, indeed, in many cases may be better situated than governments to drive results. The dire situation in Ukraine lays this reality bare.
Lawmakers are far from any consensus on how to act with respect to a sustainable future. Indeed, even basic steps such as providing $300 billion in tax credits for wind, solar and nuclear energy producers are bogged down in the partisan wrangling over Build Back Better. And as of this writing, 21 state governments, flush with cash from pulled forward earnings, are looking at reducing gas taxes to offset the impact of higher prices at the pump. Yet by the swift actions taken against Russia, effectively stranding many of their assets, we have seen that governments can move decisively when they want to. Effective movement on sustainable issues is best addressed by both the public and private sector.
Investors appalled by the situation in Ukraine and uncertain how to respond have options. Prudent and well-researched investments in renewable technologies can be a way to participate in the opportunity for lasting energy independence. On the other side of the spectrum, working with the forward-thinking energy incumbents that so many ESG investors eschew, acknowledges the realities of energy in our economy while also recognizing the need for a swift and equitable transition.
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