Clare Brook, founding partner at WHEB Listed Equities, reflects on a recent shareholder engagement conference in France.
Friday February 14 was a propitious day to hold a conference about engagement in Paris. Although this conference focused on company engagement, as in how shareholders can use their influence as owners of companies to encourage management to be more responsible and responsive, rather than the more romantic type of engagement which one usually associates with Valentine’s Day.
The idea for the conference came about last June when Bertrand Fournier, president of the Forum d’Investissement Responsable (FIR, the French version of UKSIF) threw down the gauntlet to the responsible investment community in the UK saying that we were, in his view, leading the way in engagement practices, and that we should come and explain to French investors how we had got there and what they needed to do to catch up.
We at WHEB were happy to accept that challenge. In collaboration with Gregoire Cousté, executive director of FIR, and Xavier Desmadryl, global head of environmental, social and governance (ESG) research at HSBC, my colleague Seb Beloe and I devised a formula for the conference, which came to be nicknamed ‘l’entente cordiale’. And so it came into being, held at HSBC’s offices on the Champs Elysées on a rather cold and drizzly Valentine’s Day morning.
Any passing diplomat would have been gratified to witness equal numbers of French and English speakers on the podium: Marine de Bazelaire, HSBC France’s director of sustainable development, gave a welcoming address in French, followed by Simon Howard, chief executive of UKSIF, and Pierre-Henri Leroy, CEO of Proxinvest, giving introductory talks in English and French respectively. The panel, consisting of Seb Beloe from WHEB, Yo Takatsuki from F&C, Natacha Dimitrijevic from Hermes and Philippe Desfossés from ERAFP, was divided equally between anglo and francophones, while Hugh Wheelan, who was chairing the conference, gave a tour de force, alternating between French and English with great panache.
As the discussions unfolded, the entente was indeed very much cordiale, with far more agreement than discord from both sides of the Channel.
All the speakers addressed the importance of engagement: why it is necessary, and how it improves company performance and thus returns. Simon Howard alluded to “plenty of evidence” showing that the financial performance of companies is improved if their ESG is better, and that it makes sense for investors interested in maximising returns to ensure that management is doing as much as possible to promote ESG performance. Pierre-Henri Leroy pointed out that shareholders are the true owners of companies, and that they should make their voices heard; Philippe Defossés argued persuasively that successful engagement can reduce volatility and anticipate risk, using BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster as a potent example.
Engagement was also cited as a way of combating the trend of short-termism, which Natacha Dimitrijevic described as “a problem everywhere”. Yo Takatsuki commented that the reaction of politicians and the media to events such as Deepwater Horizon, Fukushima or the financial crisis tends to be short-term and extreme; and while they then move on to the next crisis or news story, investors are able to take a longer term view and work with a company or series of companies to resolve the issue and improve things for the future. Seb Beloe described engagement a key part of the investment process, and that through engaging with company management one can get a much better sense of the true quality of that management. Meanwhile, Philippe Desfossés said that long-term investors who engage with companies better serve the interests of all shareholders.
A point of debate came around the issue of whether engagement achieves more if it is carried out behind closed doors or in public. Howard argued that the general public is not being made aware that engagement is happening on its behalf, and that if progress is to be made, then those carrying out engagement should trumpet it; they should let regulators and the government know that this is going on so that more can be done to encourage it. But Desfossés countered that making engagement public would be a “recipe for disaster”, that successful engagement is a dialogue, not a confrontation. Others suggested that perhaps there are two stages to engagement: the stage that takes place behind closed doors in a spirit of collaboration or constructive criticism, but then, if the management remains wilfully unresponsive, a second stage of public engagement could be brought in as a powerful weapon to force change through.
In conclusion, the consensus was that engagement has come a long way, whether in the UK, France or elsewhere in the world generally. There is more being achieved in terms of supportive legislation, such as the Stewardship Code, and in collaboration between investors over issues such as unburnable carbon. But engagement is still carried out patchily and there is much more that can be achieved. With some of the best practitioners in Europe represented at the conference, the hope is that these discussions will not only spur them on to take a bolder stance, but encourage others to follow in their footsteps. As to the entente cordiale between the French and the English, this really does seem to be “the start of a beautiful friendship”.
Clare Brook is founding partner at WHEB Listed Equities.
2017 Was the Most Expensive Year Ever for U.S. Natural Disaster Damage
Devastating natural disasters dominated last year’s headlines and made many wonder how the affected areas could ever recover. According to data from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the storms and other weather events that caused the destruction were extremely costly.
Specifically, the natural disasters recorded last year caused so much damage that the associated losses made 2017 the most expensive year on record in the 38-year history of keeping such data. The following are several reasons that 2017 made headlines for this notorious distinction.
Over a Dozen Events With Losses Totalling More Than $1 Billion Each
The NOAA reports that in total, the recorded losses equaled $306 billion, which is $90 billion more than the amount associated with 2005, the previous record holder. One of the primary reasons the dollar amount climbed so high last year is that 16 individual events cost more than $1 billion each.
Global Warming Contributed to Hurricane Harvey
Hurricane Harvey, one of two Category-4 hurricanes that made landfall in 2017, was a particularly expensive natural disaster. Nearly 800,000 people needed assistance after the storm. Hurricane Harvey alone cost $125 billion, with some estimates even higher than that. So far, the only hurricane more expensive than Harvey was Katrina.
Before Hurricane Harvey hit, scientists speculated climate change could make it worse. They discussed how rising ocean temperatures make hurricanes more intense, and warmer atmospheres have higher amounts of water vapor, causing larger rainfall totals.
Since then, a new study published in “Environmental Research Letters” confirmed climate change was indeed a factor that gave Hurricane Harvey more power. It found environmental conditions associated with global warming made the storm more severe and increase the likelihood of similar events.
That same study also compared today’s storms with ones from 1900. It found that compared to those earlier weather phenomena, Hurricane Harvey’s rainfall was 15 percent more intense and three times as likely to happen now versus in 1900.
Warming oceans are one of the contributing factors. Specifically, the ocean’s surface temperature associated with the region where Hurricane Harvey quickly transformed from a tropical storm into a Category 4 hurricane has become about 1 degree Fahrenheit warmer over the past few decades.
Michael Mann, a climatologist from Penn State University, believes that due to a relationship known as the Clausius-Clapeyron equation, there was about 3-5 percent more moisture in the air, which caused more rain. To complicate matters even more, global warming made sea levels rise by more than 6 inches in the Houston area over the past few decades. Mann also believes global warming caused the stationery summer weather patterns that made Hurricane Harvey stop moving and saturate the area with rain. Mann clarifies although global warming didn’t cause Hurricane Harvey as a whole, it exacerbated several factors of the storm.
Also, statistics collected by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from 1901-2015 found the precipitation levels in the contiguous 48 states had gone up by 0.17 inches per decade. The EPA notes the increase is expected because rainfall totals tend to go up as the Earth’s surface temperatures rise and additional evaporation occurs.
The EPA’s measurements about surface temperature indicate for the same timespan mentioned above for precipitation, the temperatures have gotten 0.14 Fahrenheit hotter per decade. Also, although the global surface temperature went up by 0.15 Fahrenheit during the same period, the temperature rise has been faster in the United States compared to the rest of the world since the 1970s.
Severe Storms Cause a Loss of Productivity
Many people don’t immediately think of one important factor when discussing the aftermath of natural disasters: the adverse impact on productivity. Businesses and members of the workforce in Houston, Miami and other cities hit by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma suffered losses that may total between $150-200 billion when both damage and sacrificed productivity are accounted for, according to estimates from Moody’s Analytics.
Some workers who decide to leave their homes before storms arrive delay returning after the immediate danger has passed. As a result of their absences, a labor-force shortage may occur. News sources posted stories highlighting that the Houston area might not have enough construction workers to handle necessary rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Harvey.
It’s not hard to imagine the impact heavy storms could have on business operations. However, companies that offer goods to help people prepare for hurricanes and similar disasters often find the market wants what they provide. While watching the paths of current storms, people tend to recall storms that took place years ago and see them as reminders to get prepared for what could happen.
Longer and More Disastrous Wildfires Require More Resources to Fight
The wildfires that ripped through millions of acres in the western region of the United States this year also made substantial contributions to the 2017 disaster-related expenses. The U.S. Forest Service, which is within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, reported 2017 as its costliest year ever and saw total expenditures exceeding $2 billion.
The agency anticipates the costs will grow, especially when they take past data into account. In 1995, the U.S. Forest Service spent 16 percent of its annual budget for wildfire-fighting costs, but in 2015, the amount ballooned to 52 percent. The sheer number of wildfires last year didn’t help matters either. Between January 1 and November 24 last year, 54,858 fires broke out.
2017: Among the Three Hottest Years Recorded
People cause the majority of wildfires, but climate change acts as another notable contributor. In addition to affecting hurricane intensity, rising temperatures help fires spread and make them harder to extinguish.
Data collected by the National Interagency Fire Center and published by the EPA highlighted a correlation between the largest wildfires and the warmest years on record. The extent of damage caused by wildfires has gotten worse since the 1980s, but became particularly severe starting in 2000 during a period characterized by some of the warmest years the U.S. ever recorded.
Things haven’t changed for the better, either. In mid-December of 2017, the World Meteorological Organization released a statement announcing the year would likely end as one of the three warmest years ever recorded. A notable finding since the group looks at global land and ocean temperature, not just statistics associated with the United States.
Not all the most financially impactful weather events in 2017 were hurricanes and wildfires. Some of the other issues that cost over $1 billion included a hailstorm in Colorado, tornados in several regions of the U.S. and substantial flooding throughout Missouri and Arkansas.
Although numerous factors gave these natural disasters momentum, scientists know climate change was a defining force — a reality that should worry just about everyone.
How to be More eco-Responsible in 2018
Nowadays, more and more people are talking about being more eco-responsible. There is a constant growth of information regarding the importance of being aware of ecological issues and the methods of using eco-friendly necessities on daily basis.
Have you been considering becoming more eco-responsible after the New Year? If so, here are some useful tips that could help you make the difference in the following year:
1. Energy – produce it, save it
If you’re building a house or planning to expand your living space, think before deciding on the final square footage. Maybe you don’t really need that much space. Unnecessary square footage will force you to spend more building materials, but it will also result in having to use extra heating, air-conditioning, and electricity in it.
It’s even better if you seek professional help to reduce energy consumption. An energy audit can provide you some great piece of advice on how to save on your energy bills.
While buying appliances such as a refrigerator or a dishwasher, make sure they have “Energy Star” label on, as it means they are energy-efficient.
Regarding the production of energy, you can power your home with renewable energy. The most common way is to install rooftop solar panels. They can be used for producing electricity, as well as heat for the house. If powering the whole home is a big step for you, try with solar oven then – they trap the sunlight in order to heat food! Solar air conditioning is another interesting thing to try out – instead of providing you with heat, it cools your house!
2. Don’t be just another tourist
Think about the environment, as well your own enjoyment – try not to travel too far, as most forms of transport contribute to the climate change. Choose the most environmentally friendly means of transport that you can, as well as environmentally friendly accommodation. If you can go to a destination that is being recommended as an eco-travel destination – even better! Interesting countries such as Zambia, Vietnam or Nicaragua are among these destinations that are famous for its sustainability efforts.
3. Let your beauty be also eco-friendly
We all want to look beautiful. Unfortunately, sometimes (or very often) it comes with a price. Cruelty-free cosmetics are making its way on the world market but be careful with the labels – just because it says a product hasn’t been tested on animals, it doesn’t mean that some of the product’s ingredients haven’t been tested on some poor animal.
To be sure which companies definitely stay away from the cruel testing on animals, check PETA Bunny list of cosmetic companies just to make sure which ones are truly and completely cruelty-free.
It’s also important if a brand uses toxic ingredients. Brands such as Tata Harper Skincare or Dr Bronner’s use only organic ingredients and biodegradable packaging, as well as being cruelty-free. Of course, this list is longer, so you’ll have to do some online research.
4. Know thy recycling
People often make mistakes while wanting to do something good for the environment. For example, plastic grocery bags, take-out containers, paper coffee cups and shredded paper cannot be recycled in your curb for many reasons, so don’t throw them into recycling bins. The same applies to pizza boxes, household glass, ceramics, and pottery – whether they are contaminated by grease or difficult to recycle, they just can’t go through the usual recycling process.
People usually forget to do is to rinse plastic and metal containers – they always have some residue, so be thorough. Also, bottle caps are allowed, too, so don’t separate them from the bottles. However, yard waste isn’t recyclable, so any yard waste or junk you are unsure of – just contact rubbish removal services instead of piling it up in public containers or in your own yard.
5. Fashion can be both eco-friendly and cool
Believe it or not, there are actually places where you can buy clothes that are eco-friendly, sustainable, as well as ethical. And they look cool, too! Companies like Everlane are very transparent about where their clothes are manufactured and how the price is set. PACT is another great company that uses non-GMO, organic cotton and non-toxic dyes for their clothing, while simultaneously using renewable energy factories. Soko is a company that uses natural and recycled materials in making their clothes and jewelry.
All in all
The truth is – being eco-responsible can be done in many ways. There are tons of small things we could change when it comes to our habits that would make a positive influence on the environment. The point is to start doing research on things that can be done by every person and it can start with the only thing that person has the control of – their own household.
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