Why Conservatives Hate ESG Investing and Wall Street Loves It




It’s an open secret that Wall Street firms love to capitalize on any new trend regardless of whether it has merit or makes sense.

Crypto is an excellent example of an investing fad with no substance but is embraced because it attracts new money.

But when it comes to ethical investing, Wall Street has no problem putting on its white hat and saying it has a long history of ethical investing that perfectly complements a huge new trend.

So, it is no surprise that Wall Street marketers would jump on the environmental, social, and governance (ESG) bandwagon as soon as it became the wildly popular $40 trillion global investment magnet.

To do this, Wall Street firms had to essentially lie or fake their commitments to the critical ESG principles and just insist to their investors that they were conducting due diligence investigations of the companies contained in their ESG portfolios and making sure they adhered to some degree, to ESG practices.

Big mistake.

In their haste to claim the high moral ground that ESG requires, investors essentially trusted some of the biggest names on Wall Street to become ethical investors overnight.

Another big mistake.

ESG, also known in its earlier iterations, dating back to the late 1970s, as “social investing,” meant that companies had to follow some ethical, environmental, pro-consumer, and anti-discrimination guidelines and then put them into practice.

In the early days, social investing focused on pushing companies doing business in South Africa to resist that nation’s apartheid policies. This meant companies followed the lead of the Jane Addams Hull House pension board and the Sullivan Principles, the anti-discrimination rules named after the Rev. Leon Sullivan, a civil rights leader and a member of the General Motors Pension Fund board of trustees.

Corporate and investment pressure produced results, and the early days of social investing marked a major victory in reforming apartheid practices in South Africa.

Flash forward almost 50 years, and social investing has morphed into a multi-trillion-dollar investment program funded by well-meaning investors who trusted their investment firms to actually follow ESG guidelines in the funds they were selling as ESG funds.

Another big mistake.

It seems that the billion-dollar investment and mutual funds companies that offered, sold, and managed ESG funds had no or little idea about the ESG practices being followed in the companies they were investing in.

This is no surprise. Wall Street is faster to launch extensive marketing campaigns to match the competition and catch a new trend, such as crypto, than to do the due diligence to investigate what is behind the good motives inherent in ESG investing.

If the Wall Street firms attract a few hundred million in new assets using a near-fake marketing message, it’s no big deal. The ethical side of the business (as it is) is vastly subordinated to the asset-gathering process.

Enter the SEC

Now that it has become more evident that Wall Street firms have been faking their ESG due diligence, the activist SEC has now entered the picture and will hopefully bring some enforcement actions against the big investment firms that knowingly sold naive investors products that were not even close to being ESG-compliant.

In May 2022, the SEC proposed amendments to rules and reporting forms “to promote consistent, comparable, and reliable information for investors concerning funds’ and advisers’ incorporation of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors.” This is a small step, but it should also be accompanied by some penalties for firms that knowingly deceived investors.

However, that false advertising is only part of the ESG story.

Conservatives Target ESG

The unprecedented global corporate activism sparked by the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 marked a turning point in ESG investing.

ESG investing has about $40 trillion in assets under management worldwide, but to social and economic conservatives, ESG investing poses a significant threat to the unchallenged authority of corporations.

This is why the rapid decision by significant corporations worldwide to suspend business operations with Russia marked the largest concerted corporate protest focused on a single cause ever organized. It was also a massive milestone for ESG investing.

To date, some 600 corporations have suspended operations with Russia. But, while public opinion has overwhelmingly supported this new level of corporate activism, cultural and economic conservatives have condemned the Russian sanctions as a violation of corporate responsibilities that endangers corporate goals and violates the workings of free-market capitalism.

This is nothing new.  As early as the 1970s, right-wingers have rung the bell that capitalism is under attack. In the famous 1971 memo to the conservative U.S. Chamber of Commerce by Lewis Powell (later a Supreme Court judge), the Californian said the free enterprise system was under attack from liberal arts departments at college campuses, the New Left, television, Ralph Nader, the clergy, books, and intellectual journals. Looking back, Powell provided the fuel to start the culture wars that have become the daily fodder for the right wing.

Powell wrote the Memo to the head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s top lobbyist for the largest US corporations.  He chose this group because these substantial multinational corporations were natural allies for Republicans. Powell knew that big business was always going to work with the Republicans.

Today, with ESG investing challenging the status quo, big businesses may have a new force to contend with.

Conservatives Fear ESG As A Paradigm Shift

Right-wing think tanks now equate ESG with a major shift in corporate management and ownership. In an article in the right-wing publication Imprimis, from Hillsdale College (December 2021), Michael Rectenwald traces ESG to “stakeholder capitalism” that emerged in the early 1970s (at about the same time as the rise of social investing) and then to the “Great Reset,” a term that appeared in 201 after the 2008 mortgage crisis.

In his version of the story, the “Great Reset” is a process where stakeholder capitalism (aka ESG) confronts the free market system and corporate control to advance “increased government intervention in the economy.”  This theory also involves COVID and climate change, but Rectenwald also said it will lead to “corporate socialism” and what an Italian philosopher, Giorgio Agamben, calls “communist capitalism.”

ESG advocates have probably never heard of this, but it is a powerful theme in right-wing renditions of ESG. In Rectenwald’s telling, “stakeholder capitalism involves behavioral modification of corporations to benefit not shareholders, but stakeholders.”  If this sounds familiar, it should; it echoes Milton Friedman. But there is more. The Great Reset means more state control, more immigration, more printing of money, higher taxes, job losses due to vaccine mandates, and more state control due to the Fourth Industrial Revolution.  And all this includes ESG investing as a significant problem.

Back to the Reality of ESG Today

While the “great Reset” may or may not unfold, the current focus of ESG opponents has been on the corporations that have disengaged from doing business with Russia. This means ESG investing has become the focal point for pro-free marketers, cultural conservatives, economic conservatives, and anti-ESG opponents.

Today, conservatives oppose ESG investing for four reasons:

  • ESG policies detract corporations from their primary goal of making the most significant profits possible;
  • ESG gives shareholders too much influence over guiding corporate policies outside of direct business operations;
  • ESG is a threat to traditional corporate and political power.
  • ESG is incompatible with free-market capitalism and conventional economic theory.

The anti-ESG movement is powerful because it combines cultural and economic conservatives. By definition, ESG seeks to advance issues related to environmentalism, workplace diversity, corporate transparency, and the belief that corporations have a societal obligation that extends past geographical boundaries and how business practices will impact future generations.

In almost every area of ESG policies, these goals are challenged by cultural and economic conservatives. For instance, on the financial side, economist Milton Friedman, in a famous New York Times op-ed on Sept. 13, 1970, “The Social Responsibility of Business Is To Increase Its Profits,” argued that asking corporations to pursue social responsibilities beyond profit was akin to preaching socialism. This meant that corporations had to include expenses, such as protecting the environment or advocating for affordable housing, as activities that would interfere with market processes.

Under traditional economic theory, environmental pollution was considered a financial “externality” or an issue unrelated to business operations. Externalities are external costs to a neutral third party that arise due to the action effect of another party’s activity. According to the Corporate Finance Institute, externalities especially include environmental items such as air, water, and wildlife that have poorly defined property rights.

Traditionally, corporations never paid for the costs of their environmental pollution unless the courts, and later, public opinion, forced them to act.

On the cultural side, conservatives “generally criticize corporate social and political engagement because of the sorts of causes corporations have tended to support as of late. These include issues, such as environmentalism, racial equality, and LGBTQ rights, which are on the other side of the culture war,” according to Abraham A. Singer, Director, Center for Applied Research at the Loyola Rule of Law Institute, Loyola University, Chicago.

Photo: Travel Channel

In a recent example, Florida Republican Governor Ron DeSantis Singer said DeSantis”didn’t seem to take issue with Disney being politically involved, but it deigned to criticize his legislative and social agenda. Had Disney, say, criticized CRT or mask mandates, I doubt cultural conservatives would have an issue with it (whereas free-market conservatives who have a moral commitment to Friedman’s sort of claims might).”

From Russia’s Invasion to the Magic Kingdom

At the economic level, conservatives opposed to ESG investing frequently invoke the names of conservative economists, such as Friedrich Hayek, the Austrian-British academic who advocated classic liberalism, and free-marketer Milton Friedman. Both taught at the University of Chicago, and they established the role of corporations in a free market economy. Milton Friedman famously said of Corporate Social Responsibility (the term used earlier for ESG investing) back in 1970, “a corporation’s responsibility is to make as much money for the stockholders as possible.”

Friedman was elevated to corporate economist superstar status because he theorized about the links between a competitive, free market, private enterprise, and capitalist system as the critical ingredients of freedom.

But Friedman certainly has his critics. One critic,  Robert Ashford,  specified the shortcomings in Friedman’s understanding of private property and economics. This criticism included how they distorted his free-market model: “it created economic power in a plutocracy, perpetuated chronic underemployment of labor and capital, and suppressed the freedom of most people.”

Liberal economist Karl Polanyi also criticized extreme free marketers for their belief that the ascent of the markets could “lead to the end of politics.” In an article, Dan Pearson called this “a destructive fiction,” which was proven because self-adjusting markets failed to address economic inequality.

More Free-Market Critics of ESG

Another strong critic of Friedman was Nico Vorster, who specifically addressed the tension between the unbridled pursuit of maximum corporate profits and any social responsibility. In his book, “An Ethical Critique of Milton Friedman’s Doctrine on Economics and Freedom,” Vorster took issue with Friedman’s amoral position that “the very foundation of a free society as the acceptance by corporate individuals of a social responsibility other than to make as much money for their stockholders as possible.”

Vorster went on to say that corporate executives “are not civil servants and have no right under their contract to act on their preferences, to make discretionary decisions or to expend resources of the firm to achieve social goals that cannot be directly related to profits. Any social action would require a business manager to spend money rightfully the property of employees and even customers.”

Friedman also advocated that as long as corporations pay a tax, “there is no justification for permitting deductions for contributions to charitable and educational institutions.” This narrow band of thinking even extended to the environment.

Photo: New York Times

As Vorst said, “Friedman’s separation of economics and ethics also has severe consequences for the relationship between the economy and the environment. Environmental degradation is, according to Friedman, acceptable insofar as the benefits exceed the costs to the people involved.”

Friedman did not live long enough to see the impact of environmental destruction or the vast corporate tax loopholes created by lobbyists. If he did, he may have tempered his belief that corporate taxes would pay the bill for destroying the environment. Still, he would never have considered labor issues and corporate transparency.

The decision by corporations worldwide marks a new milestone in ESG history. Today, ESG investing continues to become more popular worldwide. However, its popularity is vigorously opposed by people who believe ESG values threaten capitalism. Today, conservatives believe capitalism is being threatened; it is not. However, it is undoubtedly being modified by many of its corporations.




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Chuck Epstein has managed marketing communications and public relations departments for major global financial institutions and participated in the launch of industry-changing financial products. He also has written by-lined articles for over 50 publications, five books and served as editor and publisher of nation’s first newsletter on the topic of using the PC for personal investing and trading. (“Investing Online, 1994-1999). He also is a marketing consultant, writer and speaker on topics related to investor protection and opportunities in the very dynamic cannabis industry. He has held senior-level marketing, PR and communications positions at the New York Futures Exchange, Chicago Mercantile Exchange, Lind-Waldock, Zacks Investment Research, Russell Investments and Principal Financial. He has won national awards from the Mutual Fund Education Alliance (MFEA) and his web site, www.mutualfundreform.com, was named best small blog in 2009 by the Society of American Business Editors and Writers (SABEW).


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