Fossil fuels and other environmentally or socially reproachable investments have been dumped by investors adopting a kindlier sort of capitalism. One flipside is obvious: the growth of funds focused on environmental, social and governance factors. ESG funds, which pulled in more than $80bn in the third quarter, stood at $1.2tn at end-September, according to Morningstar. Less headline grabbing is the small but growing reverse trend of targets carrying the can for investors’ questionable funding decisions.
Two very different cases in point: SoftBank, the world’s biggest technology fund, and Nordic plant-based milk producer Oatly. SoftBank’s Vision Fund counts Saudi Arabia as its biggest investor. That put it firmly in the spotlight following the grisly killing of columnist Jamal Khashoggi and subsequent furore over the involvement of the Saudi government. But while its share price fell, start-ups like Gympass did not balk at its money.
Oatly is much smaller: a recent stake sale valued it at $2bn. But it raised customer hackles over the participation of Blackstone, the private equity firm. Blackstone was reported to have a stake in Hidrovias, a Brazilian company accused of pushing deforestation in the Amazon. Blackstone has denied the latter while Oatly says its own deal is more “nuanced”. A big backer should help steer more people towards its non-dairy products.
Expect the issue to come into sharper focus on two counts. One is political, already in evidence from Washington’s move to nix US investment in Chinese companies it alleges are linked to the military. That has had wider ramifications, with index providers ditching the companies.
The second is social. Coronavirus has exacerbated social divides and protests have honed a new sense of justice. Customers and employees are boycotting goods manufactured by Uighurs incarcerated in camps in China or, in the case of tech companies like Google, voicing grievances. Companies that toe unpalatable political lines — HSBC or Standard Chartered, say, which both backed Beijing’s heavy-handed security law in Hong Kong — can expect similar scrutiny. ESG is fast shaping up to be a two-way street.