Woke Inc and the Corruption of Capitalism

I have been reading the book Woke, Inc. by Vivek Ramaswamy. It’s not a very good book in my opinion so I will not do a detailed review but it does highlight how corporate profits are being diverted to social causes, good and bad, in the USA. It enables directors of public companies to espouse their favourite causes and signal their virtues while shareholders pay the cost of this munificence.

This largesse is also spreading to the UK. Recently Shell UK announced that “British Cycling has signed a long-term partnership that will bring wide-ranging support and investment from Shell UK as a new Official Partner. The agreement starts this month and runs to the end of 2030. This new partnership will see a shared commitment to; supporting Great Britain’s cyclists and para-cyclists through the sharing of world-class innovation and expertise; accelerating British Cycling’s path to net zero…..”. David Bunch, Shell UK Country Chair, said:  “The partnership reflects the shared ambitions of Shell UK and British Cycling to get to net zero in the UK as well as encouraging low and zero-carbon forms of transport such as cycling and electric vehicles”.

Some cyclists promptly accused the company of “greenwashing”, i.e. offsetting their oil/gas pollution by pretending that their profits are going to good causes. But as a shareholder in Shell I object to them redirecting their profits which should go to shareholders to other purposes. Particularly when the clear objective seems to be to reduce consumption of the company’s products.

But companies are now also interfering in politics. So Paypal has been closing the accounts of people and organisations that hold dissident political views. They even closed the account of a UK group that campaigns for free speech. They closed the account without warning, and companies such as Facebook and Twitter have been censoring users who espouse unpopular political views.  

The author of the aforementioned book has even launched two ETFs that explicitly aim to pressure companies to drop efforts to diversify their workforces and their focus on climate change according to an article in the FT. That’s contrary to the stance of many institutional investors such as Blackrock. Ramaswamy says: “In reality, companies like Blackrock, and in particular their leaders, are using social causes as a way of assuming their place in a moral pantheon. And in the process, they’re quietly dropping hints to consumers to take the bait and make purchasing decisions on the basis of moral quality rather than product attributes alone…. Woke consumerism is born when woke companies prey on the insecurities and vulnerabilities of their customers…..”.

Ramaswamy argues that capitalism is being corrupted and companies are abusing their public trust.

Businesses have now gone far beyond the promotion of the interests of stakeholders as well as shareholders (reference Section 172 of the Companies Act). Racing cyclists (the main focus of British Cycling) are hardly a stakeholder in Shell.

Yes they are “greenwashing” and they should not be wasting my money on such trivia.

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson  )

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Is ESG Mania Out of Hand?

This week the mania for Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) issues in companies appeared to get totally out of hand. ESG is a ragbag of policies that companies like to support to show how socially aware they are and are in keeping with the times and the mood of the public. Here are a couple of examples of this mania:

A report by Cliff Weight on the Tesco AGM noted this response to a question: “Are you plainly making a token gesture to climate change? Answer. We have >350 people working on these issues. We are very conscious of our responsibilities”. What exactly can these 350 people be working on? It seems a ridiculously high figure even allowing for the fact that Tesco has about 2,700 stores in the UK. The cost of 350 people must be high and these people are simply an unproductive overhead which all good businesses try to minimise. They are not adding to sales or making the business more efficient.

I also read the Annual Report of Speedy Hire – all 212 pages of it printed on heavy paper to add to our postman’s load. For a company that is in the business of hiring out tools and equipment they found it necessary to spend 2 pages on ESG issues and how they are reducing carbon emissions by converting to electric or hybrid vehicles. Their new “innovation centre” depot in Milton Keynes is powered by 670 solar panels and is also “home to a wellbeing and wildflower garden, an 18-metre living wall and beehives made from repurposed hard hats”.

The Report also says: “Speedy has long been committed to sustainable growth and recognises the increasing stakeholder focus on climate change and the related environmental, social and governance considerations within its business. A new Sustainability Committee of the Board has been established to assist the Board in its oversight of the Company’s ESG strategy and support the Board on all sustainability matters. This will include supporting the Board’s ongoing evaluation of environmental risks and our reporting under the Taskforce for Climate Related Financial Disclosures”. So that’s more unproductive effort to divert the attention of management.

These are typical examples of what every Annual Report of public companies now contain with companies keen to demonstrate that they are in the vanguard of a social revolution. But does it really help to improve the returns to shareholders?

A report in the FT suggests there is some reaction against this mania with an article headlined “Shareholders back away from green petitions in US proxy voting season”. The article suggests shareholder resolutions on ESG issues are being defeated, particularly those that impose prescriptions on management although there is more support for improved reporting.

Perhaps if we are heading into a recession as some people believe, we may see a reduction in this needless expenditure of money and management time on unproductive issues.

Note that I hold no shares in Tesco or Speed Hire at the present time.

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson  )

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Crown Place VCT AGM Report and AIC Survey of ESG Interest

I attended the Crown Place VCT (CRWN) Annual General Meeting today via the Hopin platform. This worked well with no technical hitches.

I have held the shares in this company for a very long time. It was one of those VCTs with a difficult history originally when it was formed from three Murray VCTs. After Albion took over management it has had a good track record. Total return in the last 5 years has been 14.0%, 14.6%, 11.2%, -0.6% and 15.9% last year.

Emil Gigov, representing the manager, gave a useful presentation. Like some other VCTs I hold, it has been focussing on late on software, fintech and digital health companies which now comprise 77% of the portfolio (excluding cash) and has been selling off its asset-based investments such as care homes. It is holding a large amount of cash in the portfolio (35% of assets) and this raised a question from the audience. Why so much cash? Answer was primarily because they need to keep that to exploit future opportunities, particularly follow-on investments to existing holdings.

I asked a question which I submitted in writing during the meeting which was: “What do you think of the Chancellors announcement that all listed companies will have to state how they expect to achieve net zero, enforced by regulation?”. But I did not get an answer.

All resolutions were passed with over 90% of support. In summary there seemed to be no contentious issues at this VCT and charges are reasonable (although raised to 2.6% of assets last year due to a big performance fee).

Note that an interesting aspect on the question I posed was revealed in a survey that the AIC has published of private investors. This is what it said: “When asked what was important to them in choosing an investment, respondents ranked ESG as the least important of five factors. Among all respondents, the most important consideration was an investment’s performance record, followed by fees and charges, the fund manager’s reputation, and the asset management company’s reputation.

But one female respondent aged 59 said: ‘In my personal life I do give consideration to these things, I drive an electric car, I have a plant-based diet, I definitely have quite strong feelings about that – but hand on heart when it has come to my investments, the first thing I would look at is returns.’

ESG is more important to women than men, and more important to investors under 45 than those over 45”.

The AIC don’t give the actual numbers who responded so as investors tend to be male and over 45 perhaps this affected the outcome. Such investors are less likely to adopt extreme life styles I suggest.

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson  )

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Climate Related Bureaucracy to be Imposed by the FCA

It’s summer holiday time, so what better time to issue public consultations of which there are a spate of late? Is this because the authors wish to clear their desks before the holidays, or because they hope to get more or fewer responses at this time of year?

Anyway here are some comments on the first one I have looked at which is a consultation from the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) on “Enhancing climate-related disclosures by asset managers……(CP21/17).”.

The changes proposed to the FCA Handbook which will apply to all asset managers, life insurers and pension providers aims to tackle the “climate challenge” by providing more information on climate-related risks.

But there will be substantial costs imposed with no obvious benefits. For example, asset managers are expected to incur implementation costs of £202 million with on-going annual costs of £116 million. What are the benefits? This is what the consultation report says: “We do not consider that it is reasonably practicable to quantify the benefits of our proposals. We have therefore not sought to quantify the benefits to the market of addressing the identified harms”. In essence they are saying that there is no obvious cost/benefit justification.

But they do argue that “the estimated costs of compliance are small relative to total assets under management of in-scope asset managers and asset owners. Total one-off and ongoing costs represent 0.002% and 0.001% of total assets under management for asset managers and asset owners, respectively”. They may be small figures but bureaucracy tends to grow over time.

How will such disclosures make any difference to climate? Won’t it just become a virtue signalling exercise by asset managers?

I have posted the following response to the consultation. I suggest readers say something similar:

“I have not answered the individual questions posed because I consider the imposition of the need for asset managers and others to produce climate related disclosures will be a costly exercise with no benefits. There are significant costs being imposed with no clear benefit to the investors in the assets covered. It’s just adding more bureaucracy to an already high level of regulation which will deter new entrants to financial markets and reduce competition. It is adding costs to investors with no benefit.

The FCA seems to barely have the resources to police and enforce the existing regulations in the FCA Handbook so adding more superfluous regulations is pointless. It is not at all clear how new ESG regulations will improve the returns to investors”.

Reference: CP21/17 Consultation Paper: https://www.fca.org.uk/publications/consultation-papers/cp-21-17-climate-related-disclosures-asset-managers-life-insurers-regulated-pensions

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson  )

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