JPMorgan product reveals Wall Street’s shifting views on ESG

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A new ESG product that JPMorgan Chase & Co is about to start offering clients shows how rapidly perceptions are changing about the investment strategy.

JPMorgan, the biggest US bank, has teamed up with software firm Datamaran to develop a data-analysis tool for clients to gauge not just the environmental, social and governance risks facing portfolio companies, but also the ESG risks that such assets pose to the world around them. While the concept — known as double materiality — is already built into EU ESG regulations, it has yet to make inroads in the US.

Double materiality is “the only way to think about ESG in a way that is both forward-looking and comprehensive,” said Jean Xavier Hecker, the Paris-based co-head of EMEA ESG research at JPMorgan and the architect behind the new tool called ESG Discovery.

“If you limit your views to things that are currently financially material, by definition you are going to miss the ones that are soon going to become financially material,” he said in an interview. “You also risk losing sight of sustainability.”

How widely double materiality should be applied remains the subject of intense debate. In the US, prominent members of the Republican Party have argued that ESG already goes too far in bringing progressive politics into investing decisions, and have started penalising banks and asset managers that embrace ESG. At the other end of the debate, ESG has been criticised for not doing enough to cut greenhouse gas emissions or fight inequality.

But with key members of the financial industry such as JPMorgan building double materiality into their palette of ESG products, the concept appears to be expanding its foothold. And the Global Reporting Initiative, which is working closely with the International Sustainability Standards Board on its upcoming rules on ESG risk disclosure, says businesses and investors across jurisdictions should expect to have to adapt to a world in which double materiality will count.

“Looking at financial materiality alone would produce incomplete ESG information that doesn’t reflect the risk/reward of the potential investment over the long-term,” Hecker said.

The tool now available to JPMorgan clients will use artificial intelligence to compile data from corporate disclosures, regulations and online media. It won’t provide an ESG rating or score, and will instead focus on unpacking individual ESG drivers. The idea is to centralise Datamaran’s AI tools and the ESG analysis of JPMorgan’s researchers in one place.

Sophie Warrick, co-head of global ESG research at JPMorgan, said the goal is to let clients see the underlying data.

“There are huge numbers of AI ESG platforms. In theory they often look great, but when you go under the hood and see what’s driving the key-word analysis and so on, it’s often not as sophisticated as you hoped,” she said in an interview. “Investors have concerns about amalgamating a broad set of considerations into a single ESG outcome. ESG is much more complex than that.”

The finance industry is ramping up its output of ESG analysis products, as investors struggle to navigate their way through the seemingly endless data points. On Wednesday, Morningstar Inc. released a tool, Investable World, that it says will help users cut through the noise. The product, among other things, is intended to help clarify the gaps between ESG and sustainable investing.

“Some companies that have their revenue strongly aligned with positive societal impact metrics may face a lot of outward-in ESG risk,” said Adam Fleck, director of equity ESG research at Morningstar.

The spread of double materiality within the ESG universe, meanwhile, may pose a challenge to a cornerstone of the industry, namely ESG ratings providers. Many of these still only measure the financial risks that ESG factors pose to the issuers they rank, and not their impact on the environment.

“Being ‘backward looking’ is a common criticism of ESG ratings,” Hecker said. “A focus on double materiality is a business necessity for investors.”

Some ESG score providers within the ratings industry have started responding to investor demand for a broader assessment of ESG. For example, Sustainable Fitch just launched a leveraged finance ESG scoring system that offers an independent view of an issuer’s overall ESG impact.

Expanding the definition of ESG in the current political climate isn’t without risks. Wall Street has this year come under direct attack from the GOP, with prominent members of the party accusing firms such as BlackRock Inc. of peddling “woke” investment strategies.

For JPMorgan’s Hecker, ESG is no more political than other forms of financial analysis. A focus on double materiality, meanwhile, can help prove its real-world impact to doubters.

“Every type of investment strategy has political considerations,” he said. “The history of accounting is rooted in politics.”

© 2022 Bloomberg

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