How can the obstacles to responsible investing be overcome? Despite some encouraging inroads made by the responsible investing (RI) community, significant barriers remain, says Darlene Himick, assistant professor at the Telfer School of Management, who recently considered RI with a focus on pension plan sponsors. She and Sophie Audousset-Coulier of Concordia University analyzed the practices of evaluating and monitoring asset performance among 60 public pension funds in Canada to determine how they may enable, or interfere with, the adoption and implementation of responsible investing. The work aligns with Himick’s affiliation with Shareholder Association for Research and Education, an organization that facilitates pension fund responsible investing through practices such as proxy voting and shareholder activism.

The integration of environmental, social and governance (ESG) principles in investment analysis has been the subject of increasing focus for the financial industry and governments. By virtue of their economic clout, large, institutional investors have been viewed as a priority target for responsible investment. (The Caisse de dépôt, for example, has identified the economic development of Quebec – and sustainable development – as among its key policy pillars, and recently announced an agreement with the Government of Quebec to carry out public infrastructure projects in the province).

On the other hand, while pension funds have increasingly turned their minds to responsible investing, many commentators have expressed surprise that pension funds have not been drivers of even greater change than has been witnessed.

Barriers and Opportunities

In their study just published in the top-rated Journal of Business Ethics, Himick and her colleague used empirical data that has so far been ignored in the academic research: the statements of investment policies and procedures adopted by pension funds. Their study analyzes the ways responsible investing is framed to fit with the existing beliefs and practices.

It is misleading to view responsible investing as “on the rise” solely on the basis of volume of RI assets managed, the researchers contend, without considering what happens to those assets once they have been placed. “This notion [of assets under management] is only partly informative, and our study considered the practices by which the investment managers are evaluated, and through which the investments are structured, to determine where the barriers for meaningful responsible investing implementation occur.”

Particularly problematic is the context into which RI must fit, one strongly influenced by the “short-termism” which characterizes pension-fund governance practices, heavily influenced by monitoring and compliance. The majority of the funds under study followed the aim of tightly benchmarking on a quarterly basis, in order to meet particular risk and return objectives. This context, as a ‘frame’ into which RI practices must fit, makes it harder for investment managers to adopt long-term horizons or introduce tools such as shareholder activism and targeted investment.

Himick concludes: “If the investment managers are evaluated on criteria that constrain their abilities to introduce RI-favourable practices we will continue to experience this puzzle of having achieved apparent success through growth in the RI industry, but lack of success in making meaningful change.” A way forward would include recognizing such barriers, and working carefully and slowly to align the financial frame already in place with different frames that RI approaches can take. 
Access the full paper here.

Access the full paper here.