ESG Disclosure on the Horizon for Financial Institutions

Over the last several years, investors, regulators and other stakeholders have sought an increase of environmental, social and governance (ESG) disclosures by public companies.

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has taken a cautious approach to developing uniform ESG disclosure requirements, but made a series of public statements and took preliminary steps this year indicating that it may soon enhance its climate-related disclosure requirements for all public companies, including financial institutions. To that end, the SEC’s spring 2021 agenda included four ESG-related rulemakings in the proposed rule stage, noting October 2021 for a climate-related disclosure proposed rule. The SEC is also sifting through an array of comments on its March 15 solicitation of input on how the Commission should fashion new climate disclosure requirements.

Recent speeches by Chair Gary Gensler and Commissioners Allison Herren Lee and Elad Roisman highlight some of the key elements of disclosure likely under consideration by the staff, as well as their personal priorities in this area. Commissioner Lee has asserted that the SEC has full rulemaking authority to require any disclosures in the public interest and for the protection of investors. She noted that an issue also having a social or political concern or component does not foreclose its materiality. Commissioner Lee has also commented on the disclosure of gender and diversity data and on boards’ roles in considering ESG matters.

Commissioner Roisman has noted that standardized ESG disclosures are very difficult to craft and that some ESG data is inherently imprecise, relies on continually evolving assumptions and can be calculated in multiple different ways. Commissioner Roisman has advocated for the SEC to tailor disclosure requirements, and phase in and extend the implementation period for ESG disclosures. Meanwhile, Chair Gensler has also asked the SEC staff to look at potential requirements for registrants that have made forward-looking climate commitments, the factors that should underlie the claims of funds marketing themselves as “sustainable, green, or ‘ESG’” and fund-naming conventions, and enhancements to transparency to improve diversity and inclusion practices within the asset management industry.

Significance for Financial Institutions
In the financial services industry, the risks associated with climate change encompass more than merely operational risk. They can include physical risk, transition risk, enterprise risk, regulatory risk, internal control risk and valuation risk. Financial institutions will need to consider how their climate risk disclosures harmonize with their enterprise risk management, internal controls and valuation methodologies. Further, they will need to have internal controls around the gathering of such valuation inputs, data and assumptions. Financial institutions therefore should consider how changes to the ESG disclosure requirements affect, and are consistent with, other aspects of their overall corporate governance.

Likewise, financial institutions should also consider how human capital disclosures align with enterprise risk management. Registrants will not only need to ensure that the collection of quantitative diversity data results in accurate disclosure, but also how diversity disclosures might affect reputational risk and whether any corporate governance changes may be needed to mitigate those concerns.

We recommend that financial institutions consider the following:

  • Expect to include a risk factor addressing climate change risks, and for the robustness and scope of that risk factor to increase.
  • Consider disclosing how to achieve goals set by public pledges, as well as whether the mechanisms to measure progress against such goals are in place.
  • Expect ESG disclosure requirements to become more prescriptive and for quantitative ESG disclosures to become more sophisticated. Prepare to identify the appropriate sources of information in a manner subject to customary internal controls.
  • Establish a strong corporate governance framework to evaluate ESG risks throughout your organization, including how your board will engage with such risks.
  • Incorporate ESG disclosures into disclosure controls and procedures.
  • Consider whether and how to align executive compensation with relevant ESG metrics and other strategic goals.

Why ESG Will Include Consumer Metrics

Imagine a local manufacturer, beloved as an employer and a pillar of the community. The company uses 100% renewable energy and carefully manages its supply chain to be environmentally conscious. The manufacturer has a diverse group of employees, upper managers and board. It pays well and provides health benefits. It might be considered a star when it comes to environmental, social and governance (ESG) parameters.

Now imagine news breaks: Its product causes some customers to develop cancer, an outcome the company ignored for years. How did a good corporate citizen not care about this? You could say this was a governance failure. Everyone would agree that it was a trust-busting event for customers.

ESG, at its root, is about looking at the overall impact of a company. The most profound impact of banks is the impact of banking products. Most bank products are built for use in a perfect world with perfect compliance, but perfect compliance is hard for some people. Noncompliance disproportionately affects the most vulnerable customers ⎯ people living paycheck-to-paycheck and managing their money with little margin to spare. That isn’t to say that these individuals are all under or near the poverty line: Fully 18% of people who earn more than $100,000 say they live paycheck to paycheck, according to a survey of 8,000 U.S. workers by global advisory firm Willis Towers Watson. There is growing recognition that bank products need to reflect the realities of more and more Americans.

Years ago, Columbus, Ohio-based Huntington Bancshares started working on better overdraft solutions for customers whose financial lives were far from perfect. Currently, the $123 billion regional bank will not charge for overdrafts under $50 if a customer automatically deposits their paycheck. If the customer overdrafts $50 or more, the bank sends them an alert to correct it within 24 hours.

Likewise, Pittsburgh-based PNC Financial Services Group recently announced a new feature that gives PNC Virtual Wallet customers 24 hours to cure an overdraft without having to pay a fee.  If not corrected, an overdraft amounts to a maximum of $36 per day.

“With this new tool, we’re able to shift away from the industry’s widely used overdraft approach, which we believe is unsustainable,” said William Demchak, chairman and CEO of the $474 billion bank, in a statement. The statement alone reframes what sustainability means for banking.

The banks that become ESG leaders will create products that improve the long-term financial health of their retail and small businesses customers. To do so, some financial institutions are asking their customers to measure their current financial realities in order to provide better solutions.

For example, Credit Human, a $3.2 billion credit union in San Antonio, is putting financial health front and center both in their branches and digitally. Their onboarding process directs individuals to a financial health analysis supported by FinHealthCheck, a data tool that helps banks and credit unions measure the financial health of customers and the potential outcomes of the products they offer. The goal of Credit Human is to improve the financial health of their customers and eventually make it a part of the overall measurement of the product’s performance.

Measurement alone will not build better bank products. But it will provide banks and credit union executives with critical information to align their products with customer well being. With the implementation of overdraft avoidance programs such as PNC’s Low Cash Mode, the bank expects to help its customers avoid approximately $125 million to $150 million in overdraft fees annually. PNC benefits its bottom line by driving more customers to its Virtual Wallet, nabbing merchant fee income and creating customer loyalty in the process. PNC’s move makes it clear that they believe promoting the long-term financial health of their customers promotes the long-term financial health of the company.

Banks need to avoid appearing to care about ESG, while failing to care about customers. The banks that include customer financial health in their ESG measurement will survive, thrive and become the true ESG stars.

ESG: Walk Before You Run

Covid-19 and last year’s protests over racial injustice added to the mounting pressure corporations face to make progress on environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues — but banks may be further ahead than they believe.

“ESG took on a life of its own in 2020,” says Gayle Appelbaum, a partner at the consulting firm McLagan. Institutional investors have slowly turned up the heat on corporate America, along with community groups, proxy firms and ratings agencies, and regulators such as the Securities and Exchange Commission, which now mandates a human capital management disclosure in annual reports. Customers want to know where companies stand. Prospective employees want to know if a company shares their values. And President Joe Biden’s administration promises to focus more on social and environmental issues.

Big banks like Bank of America Corp. and JPMorgan Chase & Co. have been responding to these pressures, but now ESG is trending down through the industry. With the right approach, banks may find that these practices actually improve their operations. However, smaller community and regional banks can’t — and probably shouldn’t — merely copy the ESG practices of their larger brethren. “People have to think about what’s appropriate for their bank, given [its] size and location,” says Appelbaum. “What are they already doing that they could expand and beef up?”

That means banks shouldn’t feel pressured to go big or go home when it comes to ESG. Begin with the basics: Has your bank reduced waste by encouraging paperless statements? How many hours do employees spend volunteering in the community? “When you sit down and talk to bankers about this, it’s interesting to see [their] eyes open,” says Brandon Koeser, senior manager and financial services senior analyst at the consulting firm RSM. The pandemic shed light on how banks support their employees and communities. “The reality is, so much of what they’re doing is part of ESG.”

Robin Ferracone, CEO of the consultancy Farient Advisors, tells companies to think of ESG as a journey, one that keeps strategy at its core. “You need to walk before you run. If you try to bite [it] all off at once, you can get overwhelmed,” she says. Organizations should prioritize what’s important to their strategy and stakeholders. ESG objectives should be monitored, revisited and adjusted along the way.

Stakeholders are watching. Glacier Bancorp CEO Randall Chesler was surprised to learn just how closely in a conversation with one of the bank’s large investors two years ago.

“One of our investors asked us, ‘Have you looked at this? We see your score isn’t very good; are you aware of that? What are you going to do about it?’ And that was the first time that we started to dig into it and realized that we were being scored by ISS,” says Chesler. (Institutional Shareholder Services provides an ESG rating on companies, countries and bonds to inform investors.)

It turned out that $18.5 billion Glacier was doing a lot, particularly around the social and governance aspects of ESG. The Kalispell, Montana-based bank just wasn’t telling its story. This is a common ESG gap for community and regional banks.

Glacier worked with consultants to develop a program and put together a community and social responsibility report, which is available in the investor relations section of its website, along with other governance documents such as its code of ethics. This provided the right level of information to lift Glacier’s score. “Our benchmark was, we want to be at our peer-level scoring on ESG,” says Chesler. “[We] ended up actually better. And we continue to watch our scores.”

“Community banks have the social and governance aspects covered better than many industries because [banks are] heavily regulated,” says Joe Scott, a managing director at Kroll Bond Rating Agency. Where they likely lag, he says, is around the environment; most are just beginning to assess these risks to their business. And it’s important that banks get this right as stakeholders increasingly focus on ESG. “We’re hearing that, beyond equity and debt investors, larger depositors — particularly corporate depositors, institutional depositors, state treasurers’ officers [and] others like that — are incorporating ESG into their considerations on who they place large deposits with. That could be a theme over time— other kinds of stakeholders factoring in ESG more and more.”

Key Compensation Issues in a Turbulent Market

As compensation committee chair, Susan knew 2020 was going to be an important year for the bank.

The compensation and governance committee had taken on the topic of environmental, social and governance (ESG) for the coming year. They had conducted an audit and knew where their gaps were; Susan knew it was going take time to address all the shortfalls. Fortunately, the bank was performing well, the stock was moving in the right direction and they had just approved the 2020 incentive plans. All in all, she was looking forward to the year as she put her finished notes on the February committee meeting.

Two months later, Susan had longed for the “good old days” of February. With the speed and forcefulness that Covid-19 impacted the country, states and areas the bank served, February seemed like a lifetime ago. The bank had implemented the credit loss standard at the end of March — due to the impact of the unemployment assumptions, the CECL provision effectively wiped out the 2020 profitability. This was on top of the non-branch employees working from home, and the bank doing whatever it could to serve its customers through the Paycheck Protection Program.

Does this sound familiar to your bank? The whirlwind of 2020 has brought a focus on a number of issues, not the least of which is executive compensation. Specifically, how are your bank’s plans fairing in light of such monumental volatility? We will briefly review annual and long-term performance plans as well as a construct for how to evaluate these programs.

The degree to which a bank’s annual and long-term incentive (LTI) plans have been impacted by Covid-19 hinge primarily on two factors. First, how much are the plans based upon GAAP bottom-line profitability? Second, and primarily for LTI plans, how much are the performance-based goals based upon absolute versus relative performance?

In reviewing annual incentive plans, approximately 90% of banks use bottom-line earnings in their annual scorecards. For approximately 50% of firms, the bottom-line metrics represent a majority of their goals for their annual incentive plans. These banks’ 2020 scorecards are at risk; they are evaluating how to address their annual plan for 2020. Do they change their goals? Do they utilize a discretionary overlay? And what are the disclosure implications if they are public?

There is a similar story playing out for long-term incentive plans — with a twist. The question for LTI plans is how much are performance-based goals based upon absolute versus peer relative profitability metrics? Two banks can have the same size with the same performance, and one bank’s LTI plan can be fine and the other may have three years of LTI grants at risk of not vesting, due to their performance goals all being based on an absolute basis. In the banking industry, slightly more than 60% of firms use absolute goals in their LTI plans and therefore have a very real issue on their hands, given the overall impact of Covid-19.

Firms that are impacted by absolute goals for their LTI plans have to navigate a myriad level of accounting and SEC disclosure issues. At the same time, they have to address disclosure to ensure that institutional investors both understand and hopefully support any contemplated changes. Everyone needs to be “eyes wide open” with respect to any potential changes being contemplated.

As firms evaluate any potential changes to their executive performance plans, they need to focus on principles, process and patience. How do any potential changes reconcile to changes for the entire staff on compensation? How are the executives setting the tone with their compensation changes that will be disclosed, at least for public companies? How are they utilizing a “two touch” process with the compensation committee to ensure time for proper review and discourse? Are there any ESG concerns or implications, given its growing importance?

Firms will need patience to see the “big picture” with respect to any changes that are done for 2020 and what that may mean for 2021 compensation.