Villains or visionaries? Why hedge funds love ‘greenwash’

Teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg.

Tens of trillions of global investment dollars are pouring into companies touting robust environmental, social and governance (ESG) credentials. Now short-sellers spy an opportunity.

Such hedge funds, often cast as villains of the piece because they bet against share prices, scent a profit from company valuations they believe are unduly inflated by ESG promises or which they say ignore risks that threaten to undermine the company’s prospects.

The fact short-sellers, who look to exploit information gaps, are targeting the ESG sphere underlines the complexities facing investors in accurately gauging companies’ sustainability credentials. Teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg last week spoke of CEOs masking inaction with “creative Public Relations (PR)”.

Against a backdrop of growing public and political concerns about climate change and economic inequality, companies are under increasing pressure to show they are taking greater responsibility for how they generate their profits.

SEE ALSO :Thunberg, Trump to offer competing visions at climate-focused Davos

Investments defined as “sustainable” account for more than a quarter of all assets under management globally, according to the Global Sustainable Investment Alliance.

About Sh3,100 trillion  ($31 trillion) has been invested, buoyed by analyst reports that show companies with strong ESG narratives outperform their peers.

Some short-sellers, including Carson Block of Muddy Waters, Josh Strauss of Appleseed Capital and Chad Slater of Morphic Asset Management, argue share prices can be bolstered by corporate misrepresentation about sustainability, or so-called “greenwashing”.

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“Greenwashing is absolutely rampant now,” says Slater, whose fund bets on both rising and falling share prices. If companies fail to engage with long-term investors, he sees a red flag. “From the short side, it’s quite interesting.”

Analytics companies that provide corporate ESG ratings use a combination of company disclosures, news sources and qualitative analysis of third-party data. They are a major source of information for investors, but it is not an exact science.

SEE ALSO :Prince Harry 'falls victim to Russian hoax call pretending to be Greta Thunberg'

Hedge funds have various strategies for selecting targets, often focusing on those they think show both ESG and more traditional financial or operational weakness. A high ESG rating can attract short interest.

A Reuters analysis of data from financial information company Refinitiv and national regulators in Britain, France, Germany, Spain and Italy shows the five firms in each country with the best ESG scores collectively were being shorted more than those with the worst scores.

The short positions against the companies deemed to have the best ESG credentials were 50 per cent greater in size than those placed against the worst-performers.

ESG data providers compile ratings based on a slew of measures ranging from energy usage to board gender make-up, salary gap data and the scale of negative press reports on the company from newspapers across the world. Refinitiv, part-owned by the parent company of Reuters News, factors in more than 400 ESG measures for each company, taken from a range of sources including company reports, regulatory filings, NGO websites and news articles.

A key problem, though, is scant regulations governing what ESG measures and risks companies must disclose and their patchy nature, said Diederik Timmer, executive vice president of client relations at Sustainalytics, a major ESG data provider.

SEE ALSO :Greta Thunberg urges activists to avoid mass climate protests

“When things go well, companies report quite well on those, when things don’t go so well it gets awfully quiet,” he added.

Some policymakers, largely in Europe, are pushing for standardised disclosures to help investors better gauge the risks, something that will leave less wriggle room for companies and make scores even more reliable.

Two leading global asset managers interviewed by Reuters, who manage nearly $1 trillion in assets but declined to be identified, said they had tested their portfolios using various data providers and found the correlation between ESG ratings to be so low, they are building their own ranking system.

Peter Hafez, chief data scientist at RavenPack, which helps hedge funds analyse data to get a trading edge, agreed. “There’s no perfect ESG rating out there,” he said.

The influence of news flows on investor sentiment was underlined by a Deutsche Bank study published in September that mapped 1,600 stocks and millions of company announcements and climate-related media reports over two decades.

SEE ALSO :Coronavirus prompts Thunberg to move climate rallies online

It found companies that had a greater proportion of positive announcements and press over the preceding 12 months outperformed the MSCI World Index by 1.4 per cent a year, on average, while those with more negative news underperformed by 0.3 per cent.

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