Jan 8, 2013

Socially Responsible Investment

What if one equity research firm was to send to a company it covers a questionnaire asking specifically for nonpublic information. This would be done in order to provide its clients with a “more accurate picture” of the company that what is achievable through public disclosure. How would the company react? And how would the compliance department of the research firm react?

You think no one would do that? Think again. It is done every year for a significant number of companies among the most respected one. It is done every year by research firm that publish report about the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) of issuers. It is to a certain extend ironic that these questionnaires will all circle around corporate governance and compliance issues. In order to fill them, you need to break one basic rule of corporate governance: Equal treatment of shareholders.

I realized this was the case, following changes at the GRESB (www.GRESB.com), a real estate CSR benchmarking non-profit group.  We have been submitting data to the GRESB for the last two years (Our latest answers can be found here http://aox.ag/UzTCzV). What I, and probably a number of other companies initially overlooked, is that the GRESB is not only a benchmarking tool. In actual fact the data we would submit to GRESB would be re-used by GRESB, and fed into (paid?) research, that would be provided to selected investors.

My first reaction was to write the GRESB management a letter explaining that I did not felt that this was appropriate. However, before drafting such a letter I have done some research about how other do it. The most prominent of theses research firm (as they provide the research for Footsie4Good) is EIRIS (www.EIRIS.org). Much to my surprise, they actually openly and specifically mention that they would ask companies for non-public information. The headline on the company survey page reads as follow: “The EIRIS survey is a way for us to get the information that our clients require that is not already publicly available.” http://www.eiris.org/companies/eiris_survey.html

You might argue that this kind of information is not relevant for the investment decision. However, it seems important enough for AXA, BlackRock, and a number of other high profile investor to pay to get access to this information. It is also interesting to see that this information will then be available (against payment) on websites like www.CSRhub.com

Another high profile CSR adviser SAM (which deal with the Dow Jones sustainability index) is less explicit about the nature of the information it asks companies to report on. The website mentions that : "The annual assessment is based on an online questionnaire supported by extensive company documentation" http://www.sam-group.com/en/sustainability-insight/sam-corporate-sustainability-assessment.jsp

Anyway, this does not seem to have been caught up by any regulator, which tends to demonstrate that non-financial information is not considered as critical by regulators.

From today on, alstria will publish on its website the full extent of the questionnaire that we fill up to these kind of research firms, in order to make sure everyone have access to the same level of information. I will also still ask GRESB what their position on the topic is. It might as well be that I have it all wrong. 

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