Moody’s “General Principles for Assessing Environmental, Social and Governance Risks” relate to issues which may have greater downside risk than upside potential for rated issuers. The introduction of these principles is perceived by many issuers as an additional pressure that weighs on them in order to prove their sustainable management. This pressure is unsettling, especially since eco-activists seem uncessantly to come up with new ideas about what additional requirements companies should meet. However, Moody’s methodology shows what rational consideration is all about.
As an example, a company with a track record of health and safety violations may face litigation risks that pressure its operating income, whereas another company that demonstrates outstanding health and safety practices may not see a comparable credit benefit.
Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) considerations are not always negative; they can be credit strengths. A company or government that has outstandingly strong governance is more likely to have a management culture of 360-degree risk assessment and informed decision-making, which support long-term creditworthiness. Due to the relatively low incidence of ESG strengths that are meaningful to credit profiles, they are also more likely to be considered in other rating considerations outside of a scorecard, but there are exceptions. An example is the business profiles and cash flow stability of renewable energy developers. They may benefit from supportive government policies.
The term ESG refers to a broad range of qualitative and quantitative considerations that relate to the sustainability of an organization and to the broader impact on society of its businesses, investments and activities. Examples include a company’s carbon footprint, or the accountability of a company’s management or a nation’s government.
The criteria used by ESG rating agencies vary widely. Investors as well as issuers complain about the different assessments. In particular, there are no standards by which the correctness of ESG ratings can be objectively checked. The arguments ultimately remain tautological: If arms production is deemed unethical, then companies receive a poor ESG rating if they manufacture weapons. The “performance” of the ratings of an ESG rating agency is good if it has correctly identified companies that manufacture weapons. But whether the underlying dogma is correct is not discussed.
The classification of ESG considerations across financial markets is imprecise, due largely to the multiple and diverse objectives of various stakeholders. Ethical judgments differ massively, even if they have common roots, as in the case of the three world-leading religions of Abraham. Leading credit rating agencies like Moody’s therefore do not get involved in the moral discussion. Instead, they are focused on the aspects of ESG that can have a material impact on the credit quality of an issuer.
Several institutions, notably the Principles for Responsible Investment and the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board, have sought to establish voluntary definitions for ESG, but at this point there is no single set of ESG definitions or metrics that is comprehensive, verifiable and universally accepted. It is not just Jewish, Muslim and Christian approaches that differ. There are thousands of differences among Christians alone. Arbitrary definitions of human rights, fundamental rights, etc. are the result. Legal definitions are therefore only the result of political negotiation or enforcement processes in a political trial of strength and should not be confused with something scientifically observable in nature.
Therefore, the definition of ESG issues is also dynamic because what society classifies as acceptable evolves over time, resulting from new information (e.g., the impact of carbon dioxide emissions) or changing perceptions (e.g., what constitutes privacy). The only way for serious credit rating agencies is therefore to provide transparency into their assessment of ESG risks and benefits by developping an ESG classification nomenclature that includes
- components (E, S and G) and, for each component,
- categories and
- subcategories of the ESG considerations that rating analysts view as most likely to have credit implications across sectors.
“For the E component, the categories are the same for public- and private sector issuers,” writes Moody’s in its updated cross-sector methodology, “and for S and G components, there are different categories for public and private sector issuers.” The materiality, time horizon and credit impact of ESG risks vary widely. Issuers’ fundamental credit strengths or vulnerabilities can mitigate or exacerbate ESG credit impacts. In some cases, ESG-related benefits can be a credit strength. ESG considerations may inform forward-looking metrics or scenario analyses, or they may be incorporated qualitatively.
Given this background, a credit rating agency should seek to incorporate all material credit considerations, including ESG issues, into ratings and to take the most forward-looking perspective that visibility into these risks and related mitigants permits. An ESG rating methodology should only discuss the general principles underpinning the analysis of current and developing ESG risks that can affect credit quality for issuers and transactions in all sectors, because only defaults can be statistically recorded and counted and can thus prove the objectivity of the standards. In this way, credit rating agencies secure the trust of investors who expect rating analysts to provide clear assessments of default probabilities. Moody’s “General Principles for Assessing Environmental, Social and Governance Risks” delivers an example of this approach to ESG considerations.