This topic is gaining momentum because of the European Commission’s Sustainable Finance Action Plan and associated regulatory changes.
One of the new requirements is that asset managers must incorporate sustainability risks in their risk management and reporting as of August 2022. This means that these risks must be measured, assessed and mitigated. However, this is not an easy task due to a lack of uniformity in risk management approaches and lagging data quality.
This prompted AF Advisors and Zanders to organize a round-table session on the subject. The large session turnout showed the importance of managing sustainability risks for the asset management sector. Parties that manage a total of no less than EUR 2.5 trillion in assets joined the session, including a broad selection of the largest asset managers active in the Netherlands. This attendance led to good, in-depth discussions. The discussion was preceded and inspired by a presentation from one of the expertized asset managers in the field of sustainability on how they mitigate, assess and monitor sustainability risks. Two hours of lively discussion is difficult to summarize but we would like to share a few interesting takeaways. Note that these takeaways do not necessarily represent the views of all the participants, though are merely an overview of the topics that were discussed.
Financial risk management departments increasingly in the lead
While a few years ago, sustainability risks and the management of these risks were still the task of responsible investing teams in many organizations, this task is increasingly being taken up by financial risk managing departments as these are increasingly capable to quantify sustainability risks. This shift leads to new techniques and new requirements for data. Where previously exclusions were an important method for many parties, an integrated portfolio approach is emerging.
Lack of uniformity in the assessment of sustainability risks
The two main problems in managing sustainability risks are a lack of uniformity in approaches and a limited data quality or availability. Limited data quality is a well-known topic, especially for alternative asset classes. Specialized data vendors will be required to address these issues.
Important to realize, however, is that sustainability risk is such a broad and young concept that it is open to many interpretations. This means that the way in which sustainability risks are assessed can still differ considerably between parties. The benefit is that the different approaches help to speed up the evolvement of this new area. In the longer term it is expected that the assessments converge to a best market practice. Until then, there will be little standardization and different use of terminology. This is especially problematic in a multi-client environment with varying clients’ needs. Enforced communication by the regulator can therefore lead to outcomes that are hard to compare and interpret for clients. Listing definitions used and an explanation of the methodologies used is vital in communication on sustainability risks to clients.
ESG risk ratings are most popular concept despite drawbacks
The most frequently mentioned way in which sustainability risks are monitored is by means of environmental, social and governance (ESG) risk ratings. For example, by comparing a portfolio’s ESG scores with the scores of a corresponding benchmark and by limiting deviations. By using these ratings, environmental, social and governance factors are included. The major drawback of this approach is that it is partly backward-looking. Participants agreed, due to the long horizon over which most risks materialize, traditional (backward-looking) risk models may not be the most suited.
Most forward-looking data is available for climate risks. In addition to the use of ESG scores, a climate risk methodology is therefore desirable.
Not only European legislation matters
Next to European regulation, it is also important to consider emerging global initiatives and other regulation and reporting frameworks. US regulations such as US SDR can impact organizations and the approaches to sustainability risks to some extent. Global initiatives such as TCFD and TNFD are likely to influence and affect organizations’ risk management processes as well. Potential overlap must be analyzed so that an asset managers can face the challenges efficiently.
Sustainability risks can be defined and monitored at various levels of an organization. Portfolio managers should take them into account in the selection of investments. Second line monitoring and independent assessments must be in place. It is important to realize that this is not a topic that only affects the investment and risk management teams. The legislation explicitly places responsibility for managing sustainability risks on the board level and requires internal reporting, controls and sufficient internal knowledge of the topic.
Sustainability risk management is an important topic that asset managers will need to be working on in the coming years. It is expected that this field will evolve over time, it was even referred to as a ‘journey’. The deadline of MiFID, AIFMD and UCITS in August 2022 – date on which amendments of these regulations to incorporate sustainability risks come into effect – is an important first regulatory milestone but will certainly not be the last. With the organization of the round table, we hope to have assisted parties in getting a better understanding of the topic and to have contributed to their journey.