As discussed in this PubCo post, we’ve lately been witnessing a profusion of state and local legislation targeting companies that express public positions or adopt policies on sociopolitical issues or conduct their businesses in a manner disfavored by the government in power. Bloomberg observes that, while “companies usually faced mainly reputational damage for their social actions, politicians are increasingly eager to craft legislation that can be used as a cudgel against businesses that don’t share their social views.” And many of these state actions are aimed, not just at expressed political positions, but rather at environmental and social measures that companies may view as strictly responsive to investor or employee concerns, shareholder proposals, current or anticipated governmental regulation, identified business risks or even business opportunities. These laws are presumably detrimental to the targeted companies, but are there any adverse consequences for the state or locality adopting this legislation and its citizens? To better understand the phenomenon and its impact on financial market outcomes, this paper from authors at the University of Pennsylvania and the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago looked at the impact of one example of this type of legislation—a law recently adopted in Texas that blocks banks from government contracts in the state if the banks restrict funding to oil and gas companies or gun manufacturers. The authors concluded that the Texas legislation has had, and is expected to continue to have, a “large negative impact on the ability for local governments to access external finance. Our results suggest that if economies around the world that are heavily reliant on fossil fuels attempt to undo ESG policies by imposing restrictions on the financial sector, local borrowers are likely to face significant adverse consequences such as decreased credit access and poor financial markets outcomes.”
While a recent survey of CEOs (discussed in this PubCo post yesterday) showed increasingly favorable reactions to ESG and its potential impact—transforming ESG “from a nice-to-have to integral to long-term financial success”— what about CFOs? According to this survey of CFOs from CNBC, they’re just not all that into it. Granted, this survey of CFOs was minuscule compared to the KPMG survey of CEOs—actually, compared to any survey. But the results were strikingly different. CNBC labeled it an “ESG backlash.”
KPMG has recently posted its 2022 CEO Outlook. With inflation raging and a possible recession looming, KPMG found that CEOs were “ready and prepared to weather current geopolitical and economic challenges while still anticipating long-term global growth.” According to the survey, confidence in economic growth over the next three years has risen to 71%. Of particular interest were the survey results related to ESG. According to KPMG, “ESG has gone from a nice-to-have to integral to long-term financial success.” But will a potential recession curtail their enthusiasm?
Over the past several years of political discord, many CEOs have felt the need to voice their views on important political, environmental and social issues. For example, after the murder of George Floyd and resulting national protests, many of the country’s largest corporations expressed solidarity and pledged support for racial justice. After January 6, a number of companies announced that their corporate PACs had suspended—temporarily or permanently—their contributions to one or both political parties or to lawmakers who objected to certification of the presidential election. Historically, companies have faced reputational risk for taking—or not taking—positions on some political, environmental or social issues, which can certainly impair a company’s social capital and, in some cases, its performance. These types of risks can be more nebulous and unpredictable than traditional operating or financial risks—and the extent of potential damage may be more difficult to gauge. As if it weren’t hard enough for companies to figure out whether and how to respond to social crises, now, another potent ingredient has been stirred into the mix: the actions of state and local governments—wielding the levers of government—to enact legislation or take executive action that targets companies that express public positions on sociopolitical issues or conduct their businesses in a manner disfavored by the government in power. As described by Bloomberg, while “companies usually faced mainly reputational damage for their social actions, politicians are increasingly eager to craft legislation that can be used as a cudgel against businesses that don’t share their social views.” And many of these actions are aimed, not just at expressed political positions, but rather at environmental and social measures that companies may view as strictly responsive to investor or employee concerns, shareholder proposals, current or anticipated governmental regulation, identified business risks or even business opportunities. How will these legislative trends affect the difficult corporate balancing act?