In an article titled “The ESG Mirage,” Bloomberg Businessweek discovers that ESG is complicated. As we have consistently pointed out, the interest in and need for ESG data is greatly in excess of the capacity to provide it and the result has been opportunistic and cynical exploitation of that gap. We note that ESG data are often accused of not being related to financial risk and return and here accused of being too connected to investment returns, the very question MSCI’s clients are asking.
No single company is more critical to Wall Street’s new profit engine than MSCI, which dominates a foundational yet unregulated piece of the business: producing ratings on corporate “environmental, social, and governance” practices. BlackRock and other investment salesmen use these ESG ratings, as they’re called, to justify a “sustainable” label on stock and bond funds. For a significant number of investors, it’s a powerful attraction.
Yet there’s virtually no connection between MSCI’s “better world” marketing and its methodology. That’s because the ratings don’t measure a company’s impact on the Earth and society. In fact, they gauge the opposite: the potential impact of the world on the company and its shareholders. MSCI doesn’t dispute this characterization. It defends its methodology as the most financially relevant for the companies it rates.
This critical feature of the ESG system, which flips the very notion of sustainable investing on its head for many investors, can be seen repeatedly in thousands of pages of MSCI’s rating reports. Bloomberg Businessweek analyzed every ESG rating upgrade that MSCI awarded to companies in the S&P 500 from January 2020 through June of this year, as a record amount of cash flowed into ESG funds. In all, the review included 155 S&P 500 companies and their upgrades.
The most striking feature of the system is how rarely a company’s record on climate change seems to get in the way of its climb up the ESG ladder—or even to factor at all. McDonald’s Corp., one of the world’s largest beef purchasers, generated more greenhouse gas emissions in 2019 than Portugal or Hungary, because of the company’s supply chain. McDonald’s produced 54 million tons of emissions that year, an increase of about 7% in four years. Yet on April 23, MSCI gave McDonald’s a ratings upgrade, citing the company’s environmental practices. MSCI did this after dropping carbon emissions from any consideration in the calculation of McDonald’s rating. Why? Because MSCI determined that climate change neither poses a risk nor offers “opportunities” to the company’s bottom line.
MSCI then recalculated McDonald’s environmental score to give it credit for mitigating “risks associated with packaging material and waste” relative to its peers. That included McDonald’s installation of recycling bins at an unspecified number of locations in France and the U.K.—countries where the company faces potential sanctions or regulations if it doesn’t recycle. In this assessment, as in all others, MSCI was looking only at whether environmental issues had the potential to harm the company. Any mitigation of risks to the planet was incidental. McDonald’s declined to comment on its ESG rating from MSCI.
This approach often yields a kind of doublespeak within the pages of a rating report. An upgrade based on a chemical company’s “water stress” score, for example, doesn’t involve measuring the company’s impact on the water supplies of the communities where it makes chemicals. Rather, it measures whether the communities have enough water to sustain their factories. This applies even if MSCI’s analysts find little evidence the company is trying to restrict discharges into local water systems.