UN PRB Insights: The Cost of Deliverance

The Cost of Deliverance

The UK PRBs are meant to align banks with the SDGs and the Paris Climate Agreement through a single framework that “embeds sustainability at the strategic, portfolio and transactional levels and across all business areas” (UNEP FI). The principles make goal setting a priority, steering the focus towards high impact issues consistent with each particular organization’s materiality map and encouraging reporting that integrates the impact on all stakeholders. It goes further, something rarely done in initiatives like these, to declare it will delist a signatory if it does not step up. UNEP FI will need to bravely follow through with this threat for the UK PRBs to deliver past the semantics.

The UN PRBs are not perfect, but they are a desperately needed paradigm shift that will see a more innovative approach to a weary and disconnected financial system. Some of the enormous challenges include “being transparent on the scale of your contribution to targets”. Unless more work like the science-based targets initiative is done in a wider range of areas than climate change, other hair-raising issues will tend to fall off the agenda. In addition, sustainable impact takes often years to bear fruit complicating matters. The implied costs of integrating sustainability into the heart of each bank and the skillset of each banker, and spending yet more on technology after a booster year of tech spend is concerning. Who will eventually foot the bill? Banks will need to provide confidence especially to its skeptical retail customers that they won’t.

Banks have already had their share of margin erosions over the last ten years. Costs are still 25% above 2008 levels. Litigation expenses peaked to $137bn in 2014. They are now falling in line with legacy conduct improvements but that signals the expected peak of related restructuring costs (EY Global Banking Outlook 2018). Banks are also spending more on technology transformation and cybersecurity. Other risks such as reputational and conduct remain high as is “improving culture” and remaining relevant in an increasingly regulated environment with market uncertainties and socio-political differences not seen before, certainly not by the generations that make up the armies of bankers in suits today, all infringe on optimal performance of these institutions. So how will they cope with the additional pressure that embracing the UN PRBs will come with in the short term?

Banks will also need to do further stress testing against a wide range of scenarios to understand the impact of embracing sustainability goals within the organizational or business context and the greater marketplace and external forces that will result from potential wide spread adoption on their financial performance and hence their credit ratings. The impact of change on the health of their corporate clients across sectors will need to be considered as well. For example, high greenhouse gas emitters can be found in not only the energy, steel or cement sectors but also the glass, agriculture, real estate, transportation and glass sectors. Stricter environmental standards can lead to higher operating costs, which in turn can impact a client’s probability of default and hence a bank’s non-performing loan ratio, in contrary to the lower default risk UNEP FI seems to suggest.

Following the UN PRBs will require not only a change in the types of services and products offered by banks, but – if implemented in its holistic glory – drastic reformation of a bank’s belief system, its purpose of existence, its brand and communication strategy, its day to day operations, its client base, its risk management system and its approach to remunerating its people amongst other things. This is incredibly brilliant given the potential extinction of the world as we know it that we face today, but equally daunting. Everyone in the ecosystem - governments, NGOs, institutions, service providers, and community leaders - will need to help banks that are willing to work towards these reforms get there. We must see ourselves as stakeholders now and not victims.


UN PRB Insights: The Early Adopters

The Early Adopters

It has taken 12 turbulent years of uncertainty in the financial industry to get the sell-side to align with the buy-side which has embraced the UN PRIs. It now appears the balance could indeed shift IF the UN PRBs actually work, given their alignment with the SDGs and the Paris Agreement unlike the former which takes a softer dated ESG position. A strong signal will be if we have a few champion banks announce bold targets at the formal launch of the UN PRBs in May 2019. This is very likely given that many banks involved in the drafting of the UN PRBs have been actively implementing new standards of practice that align with the principles already.

Take SocGen for instance. Just four years ago (2015) SocGen was actively increasing its exposure to coal-based projects e.g. 770 MW coal fired power station project that would increase capacity by 80,000 tonnes in the Dominican Republic. Only a year later it announced that it would phase out its outstanding loans to the coal industry to less than 20% of its power production portfolio by 2020. BNP Paribas has taken similar measures and stepped it up with restrictions on some parts of O&G financing in addition to coal.

There are a myriad of banks in the founding group that are at very different points of their sustainability journey. This is very promising to see, as it reflects some level of initiative not seen before by an industry that has an inertia to positive change until regulation dictates otherwise. Take the case of Barclays, which continues to witness great friction with stakeholders. From activist investors (Ed Bramson’s Sherborne) and a CEO fined by the FCA for lack of diligence to protests by People&Planet at its AGM against the financing of the Kinder Morgan Pipeline in Canada. All of this happened last year. As a founding member of the UN PRBs, what can we expect from Barclays this year?

We could go through the list with a fine-tooth comb, but the point here is not to shine a torch on negative impact but to highlight a joint initiative that could lead to a lot more positive impact from an industry that continues to struggle with its past. The UN PRBs could catalyze systemic change that is long overdue. It is the first set of principles launched that takes a deep and holistic approach to sustainability integration into a major industry that has impact on all the rest of them. This could have a positive ripple effect on the entire economy, especially if the majority of global banks that continue to finance projects in laggard sectors that drag their heals towards sustainable practices sign up and deliver.

One such mass are the North American banks. Neither a Canadian nor a US Bank has participated in developing the UN PRBs. Just look into one arena as a litmus test: the financing of extreme fossil fuel power at “top companies” by banks over the three years from 2015 to 2017. The top 10 that made the league table (Banking on Climate Change 2018) are primarily Chinese and North American institutions: CCB, RBC, JPMChase, ICBC, Bank of China, TD, HSBC, ABC, Citigroup, and BoA. It is hopeful on the other hand to see a Chinese bank, namely ICBC that ranks forth on the league table, participate in the UN PRB initiative.

The UN PRBs not only link deliverables to the global goals but also to “other relevant national, regional or international frameworks”. Without a relevant national framework in every country around the world, the scope is limited. Brazil, for example, champions this notion. In 2014, the Central Bank of Brazil (BCB) published a mandatory Resolution 4,327 for financial institutions to have social and environmental responsibility policies. Lobbying with local governments and policymakers around the world will be essential to see more countries do the same. Rabobank is another strong role model, actively voicing its views of the role of government in sustainable finance. In its June 2018 position paper, for example, it talks about coordinating policies at the EU level and suggests “targeted - and temporary/ evolving – subsidies, such as for green loans, for green deposits”. Financial incentives will most certainly help Banks generate more positive impact.

Therefore to maximise the impact of the UN PRBs, the world will need a lot more than 28 signatures. It will need dedication, courage, and resources from all early adopters, crafters, and endorsers to summon the masses into the UN PRBs and pressure national and local government bodies to issue and revise policies, incentives and legislations to augment it.


UN PRB Insights: The Spirit of Responsibility

The Spirit of Responsibility

The UN PRBs, unlike the UN PRIs and more like the SDGs, are expressed with proper and specific nouns first before any statement such as “we will…”. This gives it universal gravitas, and freedom to be applied in every way possible and every way that becomes possible. Given this property, the UN PRBs are relatively ageless to the UN PRIs. Here are the principles briefly reintroduced with their expansive character supported by extracts from the principles documentation issued publicly so far.

We find that a major challenge will be to understand metrics and apply frameworks and collect data that are not only standardized and normalized across banks for better assessment but also equally weighted on each SDG. Much of the supporting information provided by the UNEP FI so far is climate change heavy and cannot granulate completely how to quantify the principles’ universal and multifaceted character.

  1. Principle 1 (Alignment) beyond alignment with global goals attempts to ensure improvement continues indefinitely by recommending that targets should “exceed mere alignment with the SDGs, the Paris Climate Agreement and other relevant national, regional or international frameworks.” There are standards such as the yet to be released ISO14097 relating to climate change that will be necessary for signatories to make progress addressing issues adverse to the SDGs embedded in their business practices.
  2. Principle 2 (Impact) encourages growth into new sectors or client segments to increase positive impact as well as invest in technology and innovation for better outcomes. Banks will need to think about forward looking scenario-based assessments of risks and opportunities. Again an approach and methodology to do this in the area of climate change is provided by the Task Force on Climate related Financial Disclosure (TCFD). The PI Impact Radar can help identify impact across the greater sustainability spectrum. Banks are encouraged to “provide remediation for adverse impacts, which the enterprise has caused or contributed to.”
  3. Principle 3 (Clients & Customers) suggests mapping clients by sector to identify their impacts on the SDGs and to play a role to support their management. It covers the integration of sustainability questions in onboarding and know your customer procedures and creating a “race to the top among clients” by giving incentives to the sustainable ones. Again the use of technology is encouraged to innovate and offer better suited products to a better understood client base in line with the global goals.
  4. Principle 4 (Stakeholders) highlights the need to build relationships across the supply chain, contractual (e.g. employees and suppliers) and non-contractual (e.g. trade unions and governments), in different dosages to enable a bank to “deliver more that it could by working on its own”. It also calls for signatories to “proactively advocate for sustainable regulations and frameworks.” and to address “affected” stakeholders defined as those affected by a bank’s indirect impacts (e.g. wildlife) via NGOs. Once again, the use of technology for engagement is advocated.
  5. Principle 5 (Governance and Target Setting) is more like two principles in one. The first being governance and culture, suggesting sustainability be shifted to the core of governance. Staff should integrate this into daily work practices, decisions and reward schemes and senior management need to communicate the company’s vision and mission in tune with its sustainability targets. The second being target setting, highlighting the need to set ambitious targets in line with one or more goals at a timescale in sync with that of the goals or, even better, earlier.
  6. Principle 6 (Transparency and Accountability) draws on the need for accountability for a bank’s actions and its positive or negative impact on the global goals. 14 months after signing and annually after that, members will need to include UN PRB implementation data in their public reporting. It refers to frameworks that can be used, giving evidence that a guidance on assessing climate related risk will be released in May 2019. There will be two methods by which an external review process could be conducted: third party assurance or a defined scope review. The latter being where an accredited review partner only uses public information to assess whether a set of criteria are met by the bank.

UN PRB Insights: UN PRIs Pass the Baton

UN PRIs Pass the Baton

On 26th November 2018 28 banks from 20 countries came together as the founding members of the UN Principles for Responsible Banking (UN PRBs). In this historic move, despite a diversity in culture, beliefs and systems, these financial institutions, representing $17 trillion in total assets, showed a common interest to align business with society's goals.

The UN PRBs, launched in draft format by UN Environment Finance Initiative (UNEP FI) at its global round table in Paris, offers the first comprehensive framework on the integration of sustainability through every function of a bank. It comes twelve years after the UN Principles for Responsible Investment was launched with 20 signatories representing $2 trillion in 2006, which has now grown to 1750 signatories with $70trillion in AUM. The global banking industry is at least twice that much in size ($134 trillion, 2016, MarketLine). It is very interesting to see this sector dislodge from its inertia and pave the way to far greater positive change than defined in the UN PRIs.

The six principles are presented below alongside the UN PRIs for comparison.

Perhaps the UN PRIs need to be updated to reflect the SDGs now. Currently, it is limited to ESG issues prime to the period when it was launched but which represent a minor area covered by the SDGs. It’s marginally effective if one part of the industry is dancing to a different tune.

Having said that, the responsible investor movement is more mature than the responsible banking movement in a greater sense. It took inspiration from the lives lost in the 2008 financial crisis, the rise of the environmental and socially conscious newer generations with growing affluence and the track record of faith-based investors since as far back as the 1600s.

It is the less mature responsible banking movement that needs a push. The UN PRBs tackle the industry’s consciousness. If implemented well, we could see greater alignment between banks and investors whether the UN PRIs are updated or not. This could unlock significantly more capital towards SDG-linked investment opportunities and the four Ps: people; planet; prosperity; peace.

During their consultation period open until May 2019, we will post insights on the UN PRBs regularly.