Is ESG Investing is the Most Egregious Sh*t Going?

It’s Monday, the start of a shiny new week.

I hope you had a wonderful weekend.  It was bright and sunny here in Cebu, with a few downpours to break up the monotony.  I popped out of bed this morning, ready to rock and roll.

Today, I write about ESG Investing.

Let’s open it with a trip down memory lane.

My Joisey Youth and the Unswimmable Hudson River

My uncle used to take my cousin and me out on Saturdays quite often during my childhood.  It was a fun time.  My uncle was young, athletic, and so much fun to roughhouse with.

Occasionally, we’d head to the Palisades, along the Hudson River directly across from Manhattan.  There we could climb, hike, and run around with impunity.

One day, my uncle was wistfully reminiscing about how he used to swim in the river as a youngster with his brother.  Ah, the good old days.  They even fished there!  And actually ate the fish!

You may wonder why that’s so shocking, especially if you’re not from the Northeast.  But by the time my cousin and I were running alongside the Hudson in the mid-1980s, it was disgustingly polluted.  Honestly, it smelled like Venice on a muggy day or the Meadowlands garbage dump… every time you drive past it.

As a boy – and I think our expectations are inadvertently complicit in this – I thought that all rivers running through cities were flowing disgusting sludge.  It made sense to me.  You run water past industry, and some of the industry runs into the water.

I’m reminded of Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive who, upon seeing the Chicago River dyed green for St. Patrick’s Day, asked, “Can’t they dye it blue the rest of the year?”

David Walliams, a UK television star, was hospitalized with giardiasis after swimming the 140-mile length of the River Thames in London.  Giardiasis is an infection caused by a parasite laying eggs in your intestines which multiply daily.  Yuck!

But when I visited Sydney Harbour (yes, with “u”), where the water is crystal blue and there’s not an ounce of pollution to be seen, smelt, or touched, it proved to me clean city rivers could exist.

That led me back to this question: how did the Hudson River get so filthy?

G f*cking E and Jack f*cking Welch, that’s how.

The Worst CEO Ever

Back in 2009, Porter Stansberry was pilloried for writing, “Today the stock market values GE at $171 billion. In fact, the common stock – every single share – is not worth one penny. Plan accordingly.”

He was absolutely correct, of course.  Investors are still trying to clean up Jack Welch’s mess.  This, from a man who was regularly lionized on CNBC.  (No prizes for guessing what the first “C” really stands for.)

By all accounts, he was an abusive, awful SOB of a CEO who just “beat the numbers” better than anyone else.

“GE – led by Jack Welch – played and perfected that game as well as anyone, though it ultimately blew up in the company’s face,” said Bill Fleckenstein.

What’s my beef with Jack?  Well…

From the EPA website:

Polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, were widely used as a fire preventive and insulator in the manufacture of electrical devices, like transformers and capacitors, because of their ability to withstand exceptionally high temperatures. During a 30-year period ending in 1977, when EPA banned the production of PCBs, it is estimated that approximately 1.3 million pounds of PCBs were discharged into the Hudson River from two General Electric (GE) capacitor manufacturing plants located in the towns of Fort Edward and Hudson Falls, New York. Once PCBs entered the river, they were deposited and mixed with the sediments at many locations on the river bottom and at some locations along the shoreline in the floodplain.

“But Sean, Jack was CEO from 1981.  This isn’t his fault!”

From the Albany Times-Union (the local newspaper):

Welch became personally involved in the company’s battle with regulators over PCBs years before he took over the company. He has recounted an incident from December of 1975, when he learned that the state Department of Environmental Conservation was holding a hearing on GE’s pollution of the Hudson River, and drove to Albany from his office in Pittsfield, Mass. He said he sat incognito in the back of the hearing room, growing concerned as he watched a GE-hired biologist “coming unglued” as he appeared before regulators.

“He lacked credibility,” Welch said in his deposition.

As a result, Welch took over leadership of the PCB battle. Months later, in the spring of 1976, Welch negotiated a settlement with the state of New York that released GE from state liability for the PCB pollution.

The deal called for GE to pay $3 million for monitoring the river’s PCB pollution, and $1 million for research.

So, yes, it was Jack Welch’s fault.  And he fought for the rest of his days as CEO against the cleanup.

Why am I writing all this?  Because I want to “steel man” the ESG argument.  Steelmanning is the opposite of strawmanning.  Peter Thiel coined the term to mean arguing against your opponent’s best, and not weakest, arguments.  That is, offer your opponents the best possible way to present their case.

Perhaps you can feel my visceral disdain for Jack Welch coming through this piece.  Or my thinly veiled rage that the 200-mile stretch of the Hudson from Fort Edward to the Battery in New York City is a goddamn Superfund site.

And that’s good.  Because despite all I’ve written above, I’m against this new investing fad called ESG investing.

What is ESG Investing?

ESG investing stands for Environmental, Social, and Governance investing.  It’s the new rage among those in the investment industry having a hard time generating alpha.

From the CFA Institute:

ESG stands for Environmental, Social, and Governance. Investors are increasingly applying these non-financial factors as part of their analysis process to identify material risks and growth opportunities. ESG metrics are not commonly part of mandatory financial reporting, though companies are increasingly making disclosures in their annual report or in a standalone sustainability report. Numerous institutions, such as the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB), the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), and the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) are working to form standards and define materiality to facilitate incorporation of these factors into the investment process.

Now before you take any of this personally, let me say this: If you’ve lost a loved one to lung cancer because they smoked 12 packs a day for 50 years, I completely understand why you’d hate Big Tobacco and would never invest in one of those companies.

If your uncle was a drunken mess and you hate alcohol companies, I get it.  If you’re obese and wouldn’t invest in MCD despite eating it three times a week… ok.

In his book Socialism, Ludwig von Mises, the great Austrian economist, wrote:

If a man drinks wine and not water I cannot say he is acting irrationally. At most I can say that in his place I would not do so. But his pursuit of happiness is his own business, not mine.

Socially responsible investing, impact investing, and conscious capitalism are variants of ESG.  But they’re not as rigorously defined.  And I like that.  You make your choices.  I make mine.

The main concern I have about ESG is mission creep.

Who decides what’s ESG and what’s not?

Luckily, we don’t have an “ESG Council” or some such nonsense yet.  But there are some guidelines.  I’ll use the CFA Institute’s to illustrate:

Most of these are pretty common sense.  But what if there’s a disagreement between money managers over which companies should be included in an index and which shouldn’t?

There’s a lot of capital at stake when it comes to those disagreements.

Of course, it leads to the age-old question: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (Who watches the watchmen?)

“But Sean, you’re conflating personal choice with industrial dumping!”

Not really.  That dumping was a criminal activity that still hasn’t been prosecuted.  The State failed, as usual.  They watched it happen for 20 years, for crying out loud.

“Right!  Now private investors can do the regulating.”

Fund managers gather assets from private investors and wield a power far greater than the sum of those private investors.  That’s what I’m not happy about.

This UK Fund Manager Gets ESG Right

You may not have heard of Terry Smith, but he’s an excellent fund manager from the UK.

When asked about ESG, he replied:

There are several problems with factoring ESG into stock selection. One is that so many ESG approaches look at many of the most obvious factors, such as carbon footprint, hazardous waste, use of water, use of plastic, sources of energy, etc, but fail to take into account the fundamental and financial viability of the business. We think you should also look at things such as innovation, product development, revenue growth, and return on capital. There is not much point in having a business that scores highly on conventional ESG factors, but that fails financially or in terms of its products or service.

Another problem I would suggest is a mindless box-ticking approach. The mantra of ‘comply or explain’ too often gets transmuted into ‘just comply’. Take Philip Morris (US: PM), for example. We think it is making a major contribution to the welfare of smokers with its Reduced Risk Product, but we daren’t include it in our sustainable fund as it will just be met by people hissing ‘It’s a tobacco company’. Yes, it is, but maybe it’s also part of the solution to conventional smoking. It would be more productive to have a real debate.

There it is in a nutshell.  If you’re wondering how good Smith is, here’s his track record.  (The dates are the British way around so that last 04/11/2020 is November 4, 2020, and not April 11, 2020.)

To sum it up, I’m not a fan of ESG.  It’s just another label to slap on an investment product to impress people who probably don’t even invest.

But that doesn’t mean companies should act unethically, illegally, or even immorally.  It’s bastards like Jack Welch that ruin places literally or, even, figuratively.  Feel free to withhold your capital from them.

I leave you with this joke about young lovers, perhaps due to Jack’s dumping:

“I want you to kiss me in a smelly place.”

“How about Joisey?”

Toodle pip!

All the best,

— Sean

You May Also Be Interested In:

Craziness By The Numbers

Right now is the most confusing time I have ever lived through in my 73 years on this earth. I’m sure a lot of people are feeling the same way. At first glance financial struggles appear to be the fault of coronavirus. And that may be why some lost their job or why some 401ks have tanked. But what’s the real underlying issue here?

Sean Ring

Around the World in 22 Years with Sean Ring

Okay, let's take it from the top.

Joisey!

For something I did in a past life, I was born in New Jersey. I haven’t figured out what that was yet. Joking aside, I loved growing up in Hasbrouck Heights. It was a fun town.

I was...

View More By Sean Ring