Watching the ESG Watchmen

Investment advisors that adopt the label ESG present themselves as arbiters of corporate behavior. They claim to identify which companies are serious about environmental, social and governance goals and thus deserve to be included in high-minded portfolios.

But who watches the watchmen? Who determines when the ESG gatekeepers have gone astray? The answer turns out not to be Ron DeSantis and Republican Attorneys General who have been attacking what they see as wokeness in the business world. Instead, it is the traditional cop on the financial beat—the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The SEC recently brought charges against a subsidiary of Deutsche Bank for misleading investors by exaggerating the extent to which it actually applied ESG principles in its stock recommendations. DWS Investment Management Americas Inc. (DWS), according to the SEC, “failed to adequately implement certain provisions of its global ESG integration policy” and “failed to adopt and implement policies and procedures reasonably designed to ensure that its public statements about the ESG integrated products were accurate.”

DWS, which agreed to settle the charges by paying $25 million in penalties, was also accused of failing to develop an adequate program to make sure its mutual funds were not being used for money laundering. The accusations against DWS essentially came down to deception and negligence.

It is, of course, ironic that a firm whose mission is to monitor the behavior of other companies was found to have serious deficiencies in its own conduct. Yet the real lesson of the DWS case is that the E in ESG does not stand for “ethical.”

This becomes abundantly clear when we look at the track record of many ESG investment advisors as well as the companies that score well in ESG ratings. DWS stands out in this regard. Its parent Deutsche Bank is the ninth most heavily penalized parent company in Violation Tracker with nearly $20 billion in fines and settlements in the United States since 2000.

The bank has, for example, paid out enormous sums in multiple cases involving offenses such as manipulation of interest rate benchmarks, facilitation of fraudulent tax shelters, deception of investors in the sale of what turned out to be toxic securities, and violation of anti-money-laundering laws. The latter included a $425 million settlement with the New York Department of Financial Services of allegations its Moscow, London and New York offices participated in a mirror trading scheme that laundered $10 billion out of Russia.

Despite this record, Deutsche Bank scores pretty high in some ESG rankings. The same combination of heavy regulatory penalties and high ratings can be seen with other investment firms such as Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley as well as companies in many other industries. Even fossil fuel culprits such as Chevron and Occidental Petroleum get relatively high ESG scores.

All this is further evidence that the real problem with much of the ESG movement is not that it goes too far, but rather that it is often used as a smokescreen to hide all manner of corporate misconduct by those claiming to promote virtue.