Taylor: Allowable, still unwise: Values investing category known as ESG has its ups and downs

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The most common values-investing category, one that has exploded in popularity in recent years, is known as ESG, which is short for environmental, social and governance.

Because I’m a grumpy old person when it comes to investing, I’ve never met an ESG fund I liked. The costs are too high, or the social filter too diffuse, or the performance too weak, or I just don’t believe it works either as an investment strategy or an expression of my values.

That basic grumpiness hasn’t changed, but this spring I’ve had some new thoughts about values-based investing.

Let’s start with what should have been a bombshell in March but went barely noticed by the investing public. In USA Today, contributor Tariq Fancy wrote an opinion piece with the provocative headline “Financial world greenwashing the public with deadly distraction in sustainable investing practices.”

He wrote: “In truth, sustainable investing boils down to little more than marketing hype, PR spin and disingenuous promises from the investment community.”

Those are some fighting words. Why is he so down on ESG investing?

Oh, I’m sorry. Did I forget to mention who Tariq Fancy is? He’s former chief investment officer of Sustainable Investing at BlackRock. BlackRock is the largest asset manager in the world, with $8.7 trillion in assets. It’s made its name in recent years as the highest profile investment company in the push toward ESG investing.

In other words, Fancy is not some mildly informed crank popping off in a weekly business column. Ahem. He was the main guy at the biggest firm doing the thing itself on the largest scale. And he’s saying it’s garbage. I can’t really figure out why this wasn’t a bigger deal.

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His message is that investment firms are engaging in marketing hype with ESG funds but not moving nearly fast enough to address climate change. He also argues that the hype is dangerous because ESG has no real-world impact. Anyway, I think this messenger and message deserve more attention. If you are convinced ESG is a great and effective thing to do, I guess I would ask how you know better than Tariq Fancy.

But there have been some other developments.

Traditional ESG investing tends to be associated with left-of-center politics. Lately, that’s mostly because of a preference for renewable energy over fossil fuels, which is often interpreted as a political preference. ESG funds sometimes include pro-union policies, social goals such as fair trade or governance issues such as pay inequality, all of which tend to be embraced by the current-day left rather than the current-day right.

In reaction to that, the Trump administration last fall set out to forbid ESG funds as investment options within traditional workplace retirement plans through a Department of Labor ruling.

Specifically, the ruling requires “plan fiduciaries to select investments and investment courses of action based solely on financial considerations relevant to the risk-adjusted economic value of particular investment or investment course of action.”

Translation: Only financial, not social or ethical criteria, may be applied to retirement account options. Hence, no ESG. Which, taken at face value, is how I personally approach investing. But it’s clear, at least to me, that the Trump administration was acting on an anti-left agenda with the ruling.

Somewhat as expected, President Biden’s Department of Labor announced in March it will not enforce the ban on ESG investing within workplace retirement accounts.

We’ve also learned recently that conservative-leaning investors have new options and opportunities to express their own values and political views. The Wall Street Journal reported this month on the growth of right-of-center funds launched by allies of the Trump administration.

Andy Puzder is a businessman who was nominated as Trump’s secretary of labor but withdrew after questions arose about employing an undocumented housekeeper. He serves on the advisory board of 2ndVote Advisers LLC. It recently launched right-leaning exchange traded funds, which he describes as “an investment option for unwoke investors.”

In April, American Conservative Values ETF dropped Delta and Coca-Cola from its approved investment list after both issued corporate statements in opposition to Georgia’s new voting laws.

A third fund highlighted in the Wall Street Journal specifically seeks anti-abortion themed investments and pro-Second Amendment investments.

There’s a delightfully dumb irony in Trump allies creating their own right-of-center investment funds in light of that administration’s moves in November. But first, I should answer your question about whether it’s a better idea to invest in right-of-center funds: Candidly, they strike me as garbage-y as traditional ESG funds.

But, oh, the irony.

For conservatives like Puzder — the labor secretary nominee who would no doubt have been responsible for trying to ban ESG in the Trump administration — to pitch right-of-center social-values investing instead is just goofy.

Everyone should be welcome to express their values through their investments. It shouldn’t be illegal. With the new Department of Labor guidance, it remains allowable. It also remains unwise.

Michael Taylor is a columnist for the San Antonio Express-News and author of “The Financial Rules for New College Graduates.”

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