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Green investment taxonomy could curb 'astonishing' inconsistency — US regulator

The U.S. may need to create its own classification system to encourage investment funds to take a standardized approach to environmental, social and governance criteria, according to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission's Robert Jackson Jr.

"It may be time for us to develop that type of taxonomy," Jackson, an SEC commissioner, said at a conference on sustainable finance in Paris.

"When we look through the data for ESG funds we come away candidly astonished that we see such inconsistency of practice."

He said different funds may view their fiduciary obligations to investors differently, and that it is not necessarily true that "one size fits all." But ordinary investors would likely be very surprised to find they had put their money in an ESG fund that votes "yes" on shareholder proposals less than half the time, he said.

A recent Financial Times report cited SEC filings showing that ESG funds have frequently voted against ESG proposals made by investors.

Shareholder push

Much of the push toward sustainable investing in the U.S. is coming from shareholder proposals, Jackson said, but he questioned whether these proposals are actually responding to increasing investor demand for companies to adhere to ESG criteria.

"Many of the proposals have similar, if not, identical language — a sort of 'one size fits all' approach to various sets of industries and companies," he said. Feedback from investors on whether they need more precise information would be welcome, he said.

"My strong sense is — and the data do suggest — that the more specific and precise the proposal is with respect to the company, its shareholders and the industry, the more likely it is draw support from the shareholder body and, more importantly, the more likely it is to induce company action whether it is disclosure or changes in the boardroom," Jackson said.

Shareholder proposals get more attention in the boardroom now than they did a few years ago, and more money is moving to ESG in the U.S., he said.

But he stressed that ESG funds had to practice what they preach.

"ESG funds engage in a wide range of ownership and voting activity that may surprise many people," he said. "What worries me about that ... is the degree to which investors who are putting money in a fund sold to them on the basis of ESG are getting what they bargained for."

The likelihood of an ESG fund supporting a shareholder proposal is "no better than a coin flip," he said.

Disclosure rules

Jackson said there would need to be a discussion about who exactly would lead the creation of a potential taxonomy.

The EU has developed its own classification system for green investments, designed to help investors understand what constitutes an environmentally friendly investment and stop companies making investments sound more sustainable than they actually are, or "greenwashing."

It recently published a set of recommendations for the taxonomy, which will likely become EU law later in 2019 or in 2020. One of the ambitions of the taxonomy is to encourage global take-up.

Meanwhile the SEC recently proposed new rules, which are now out for public consultation, requiring company disclosure on how they manage their employees, but they do not include environmental matters, he said.

The proposals are principles-based, which would leave it up to companies to decide how important specific issues were to investors, he said, adding that the SEC needed feedback from investors on whether this particular approach would help them to do their work.