The ESG Mirage
Bloomberg Businessweek|December 13, 2021
Sustainable investing is mostly about sustaining profits. MSCI, the largest ESG rating company, doesn’t even try to measure the impact of a corporation on the Earth and its people
Cam Simpson, Akshat Rathi, and Saijel Kishan

For more than two decades, MSCI Inc. was a bland Wall Street company that made its money by arranging stocks into indexes for other companies that sell investments. Looking for ways into Asian tech? MSCI has indexes by country, sector, and market capitalization. Thinking about the implications of demographic shifts? Try the Ageing Society Opportunities Index. MSCI’s clients turn these indexes into portfolios or financial products for investors worldwide. BlackRock Inc., the world’s biggest asset manager, with $10 trillion under management, is MSCI’s biggest customer.

Sales have historically been good, but no one was ever going to include MSCI itself in an index of sexy stocks. Then Henry Fernandez, the only chairman and chief executive officer MSCI has ever had, saw it was time for a change. In a presentation in February 2019 for the analysts who rate MSCI’s stock, he said the company’s data products, the source of its profits, were just “a means to an end.” The actual mission of the company, he said, “is to help global investors build better portfolios for a better world.”

Fernandez was borrowing the language from an idealistic movement that originated with a couple of fringe money managers in the 1980s. Yesterday’s heterodoxy is today’s Wall Street sales cliché. Investment firms have been capturing trillions of dollars from retail investors, pension funds, and others with promises that the stocks and bonds of big companies can yield tidy returns while also helping to save the planet or make life better for its people. The sale of these investments is now the fastest-growing segment of the global financial-services industry, thanks to marketing built on dire warnings about the climate crisis, wide-scale social unrest, and the pandemic.

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.

Even when they’re not in opposition to the goal of a better world, it’s hard to see how the upgrade factors cited in the majority of MSCI’s reports contribute to that goal. In 51 upgrades, MSCI highlighted the adoption of policies involving ethics and corporate behavior—which includes bans on things that are already crimes, such as money laundering and bribery. Companies also got upgraded for employment practices such as conducting an annual employee survey that might reduce turnover (cited in 35 reports); adopting data protection policies, including at companies for which data or software is the entire business (23); and adopting board-of-director practices that are deemed to better protect shareholder value (25). MSCI cited these factors in 71% of the upgrades examined. Beneath an opaque system that investors believe is built to make a better world is one that instead sanctifies and rewards the most rudimentary business practices.

Criteria such as these explain why almost 90% of the stocks in the S&P 500 have wound up in ESG funds built with MSCI’s ratings. What does sustainable mean if it applies to almost every company in a representative sample of the U.S. economy?

One thing it’s meant for MSCI and its leader: a more than fourfold increase in its share price since the start of 2019, when Fernandez introduced his “better world” rebranding. Through his own holdings, that’s likely made him the first billionaire created by the ESG business.

No matter how big a company’s greenhouse gas emissions are, they might not even count in MSCI’s ESG rating

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