Monday 30 October 2023

Real ESG

If you care about corporate social impact, start measuring consumer surplus. 

From the NBER:

An Economic View of Corporate Social Impact

Hunt Allcott, Giovanni Montanari, Bora Ozaltun & Brandon Tan


ISSUE DATE October 2023

The growing discussions of impact investing and stakeholder capitalism have increased interest in measuring companies' social impact. We conceptualize corporate social impact as the welfare loss that would be caused by a firm's exit. To illustrate, we quantify the social impacts of 74 firms in 12 industries using a new survey measuring consumer and worker substitution patterns combined with models of product and labor markets. We find that consumer surplus is the primary component of social impact (dwarfing profits, worker surplus, and externalities), suggesting that consumer impacts deserve more attention from impact investors. Existing ESG and social impact ratings are essentially unrelated to our economically grounded measures.

Meanwhile, the Financial Times provides an excellent synopsis of the other version of corporate ESG.

Born in sanctimony, nurtured with hypocrisy and sold with sophistry, ESG grew unchallenged for a decade, but it is now facing a mountain of troubles, almost all of them of its own making.

The problems of investing with an environmental, social and governance framework start with assessing what it measures, which has changed over time and reflects its revisionist history.

ESG started as a measure of goodness, built around a UN document enunciating the principles for responsible investing, with significant establishment buy-in. As the selling of ESG to investors ramped up, its salespeople recognised that goodness had limited selling power. So they switched gears, arguing that ESG was an instrument for delivering higher returns without concurrent risk.

That case worked well through much of the last decade, mostly because of ESG investors’ abhorrence of fossil fuels and embrace of technology firms, but the Russian invasion of Ukraine changed the calculus. As sector funds underperformed, advocates moved on to claim that higher ESG scores lead to less risk and lower costs of capital. Perhaps because both risk claims are questionable, they now contend that ESG’s primary purpose is disclosure about material issues.

It serves ESG advocates to keep the definition amorphous, since, like the socialists of the 20th century whose response to every socialist failure was that their ideas had never been properly implemented, the defence against every ESG critique is that it is incorrectly defined or implemented. The truth is that ESG scores today measure everything — consequently, they measure nothing.

Consumer surplus is more reliable. 

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