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Not the time for deviation on ESG standards

Although interest in ESG (environment, social, governance) investing has been gathering momentum for several years now, Covid-19 has accelerated this trend exponentially. Data released by Morgan Stanley shows issuance of social and sustainable bonds topped $32 billion in April 2020, a monthly total surpassing that of green bonds for the first time ever. The market share grab by social bond issuers has been extraordinary, but it is reflective of a wider shift into ESG by investment managers.

The rise of ESG has been organic, fuelled by institutional clients becoming more aware about societal and environmental issues, and who in turn are demanding asset managers plough more resources into ESG investing. It has also been regulatory-led. The EU’s Sustainable Finance Action Plan is widely seen as being a trailblazer on ESG. Assuming deadlines are met, the European Commission has said it wants financial institutions – including fund managers – to be compliant with the new rules by 2021. 

The Brexit effect

Although the UK has said repeatedly that it does not intend to deviate from EU regulations following the Brexit transition, the government has yet to publish comprehensive legislation on sustainable finance, something which could result in ESG requirements coming into force later in the UK than in the EU. A senior official from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) also said the extent of the UK’s application of EU directives and regulations – such as the adoption of sustainable finance disclosure rules – would be conditional on the ease of market access following the Brexit transition.

A handful of industry associations are beginning to sound the alarm. The UK Sustainable Investment and Finance Association (UKSIF), a body that represents financial institutions with assets totalling more than £7 trillion, implored the Treasury to outline its regulatory approach on sustainable investing. This comes amid fears the UK is at risk of undermining its reputation as an ESG leader in financial services. Moreover, asset managers with cross border operations have warned they could face added costs if the UK develops ESG regulation that does not correspond with the EU’s rules. 

Standards correspond with success

The Treasury’s plans are not yet known , but it has said that more information about its ESG disclosure regime will be released in due course. The issue of the UK arbitraging with the EU is worrying, particularly on ESG standards. Right now, ESG standards are a mess, mainly because so many bodies and associations (albeit good-intentioned) have developed their own, customised standards. In addition, different regulators are pursuing their own ESG regimes, further complicating the process.  All of these conflicting rules are going to prove incredibly confusing for global investors. 

A failure to develop harmonised, sensible and easy to understand standards will undermine regulatory efforts to stamp out green-washing and ESG mis-selling, an issue which is likely to become more prevalent moving forward. It is vital that regulators and industry bodies communicate with each to create common standards to preserve the integrity of the rapidly-growing ESG market.