Things have been rough lately for those high-minded asset management services promoting ESG investment practices. The Right is dragging ethical investment into its culture war, accusing the ESG world of promoting “woke capitalism.” In a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, former Vice President Mike Pence went so far as to state that “the next Republican president and GOP Congress should work to end the use of ESG principles nationwide.”
Unfortunately, the ESG world has left itself vulnerable to such attacks. Its criteria for deciding which corporations deserve a seal of approval are often less than rigorous and may be based on unverified data produced by the companies themselves.
The problems of ESG have reached the point that the Securities and Exchange Commission recently proposed rules that would impose stricter disclosure standards on ethical investment funds and require them to meet somewhat stricter criteria in order to use ESG or related terms in the name of the fund.
Yet perhaps the biggest embarrassment for the ESG world just occurred in Germany, where dozens of agents from the Frankfurt public prosecutor’s office and the financial regulatory agency BaFin raided the offices of Deutsche Bank and its asset management subsidiary DWS. In the wake of that action, the chief executive of DWS resigned.
The investigators were reported to be seeking evidence that DWS defrauded clients by exaggerating the extent to which its green investment products were actually based on sustainable practices. In other words, the Deutsche Bank subsidiary appears to be under criminal investigation for engaging in greenwashing. The case is said to be related to a probe that the SEC has reportedly been conducting of the matter—though without any dramatic raids.
Without pre-judging the outcome of the investigation, I find it difficult to believe that DWS is innocent. After all, it is part of a corporation with a long history of engaging in misconduct. As shown in Violation Tracker, it has racked up more than $18 billion in fines and settlements for cases involving the sale of toxic securities, manipulation of interest rate benchmarks, promotion of fraudulent tax shelters, violations of anti-money-laundering laws, foreign bribery, and more. This is all on top of Deutsche Bank’s questionable business dealings with Donald Trump and Jeffrey Epstein.
I’ve always found it odd that a bank with a reputation such as this could put itself forth as a practitioner of ethical investing. Yet that is a big part of the problem with ESG. Rap sheets such as that of Deutsche Bank are often ignored, and companies are deemed worthy based on some specific practice that is far from representative of its overall behavior.
The Deutsche Bank case is not the only example of an ESG investment adviser being held to account. Recently, the SEC charged BNY Mellon Investment Adviser for misstatements and omissions concerning the ESG criteria used in some of its mutual funds. The company agreed to pay $1.5 million to resolve the matter.
Cases such as these signal that the ethical investing world is going to have to get a lot more ethical—and rigorous—if it is going to survive.