All Angles Episode 5 - Stewardship: Influencing the Change towards Net Zero

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  • 41 mins 10 secs
How can investors best influence positive, long-term change at companies? In Episode 5 of the All Angles podcast, Vishal Hindocha and Fran Jahn-Madell discuss the importance of active engagement, share why they're setting ambitious net zero targets and discuss the critical focus on measuring investment impact.

This material is intended for investment professional use only.
Channel: MFS Investment Management

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Vish Hindocha: Hello, and welcome to the All Angles podcast, where we look to unpack the wonderful world of ESG investing, one conversation at a time.

Disclosure: The views expressed are those of the speaker and are subject to change at any time. These views are for informational purposes only and should not be relied upon as a recommendation to purchase any security, or as the solicitation or investment advice from the advisor. No forecast can be guaranteed. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Vish Hindocha: Today, I am thrilled to be joined by Fran Jahn-Madell, who has over 20 years of experience in ESG, so a stalwart, and is the Director of Stewardship at MFS. In this conversation, after we learn a little bit more about Fran and her background, we deep dive into stewardship, what it means and what some of the emerging trends are today, specifically in the context of the net zero transition, which is an area that MFS has been focusing on for a little while. We are on the cusp of declaring our public targets through the Net Zero Asset Managers initiative. This is a really fascinating theme and topic, and as Fran and I will discuss, this is one that I'm sure we will be talking about for many years to come.

Don't forget that you can subscribe to the All Angles podcast through Spotify, Apple, or wherever you like to get your podcasts from. If you have any questions that you would like us to cover in this introduction, please do get in touch by emailing [email protected]. We would love to hear from you.

Vish Hindocha: Fran, welcome to the podcast.

Fran Jahn-Madell: Hello.

Vish Hindocha: Fran, we're going to start, as we always do, with a little bit of background on you, just so we can frame where your comments are coming from. Please, give us a potted history of how you got here.

Fran Jahn-Madell: Okay. Brilliant. Well, I grew up behind the Iron Curtain, which is also known as Eastern Germany, a beautiful part of Eastern Germany, very, very close to historical Weimar, which a lot of people know because of inflation, but it definitely has much more to give. In terms of my background, how I ended up in sustainability was that my childhood always made me look at different angles, as this podcast is trying to allude to, and perspectives. I grew up in communism. When I was 11, my country changed to, really, a Wild West capitalism, I suppose, which I looked at, and the reunification of Germany really left out quite a lot of the environmental and social aspects when forming the new constitution of Germany. So, that really made me ponder for quite some time.

When I was 18, I started studying theology and found my North Star in my professor, who was at the time Chair of Moral Theology, and really a pioneer in trying to understand what ethical and moral responsibilities companies have. We put together, as a group, a first methodology of how to assess companies' environmental, social, and at the time, cultural dimension that we wanted to understand better, and how we can compare companies in different sectors, in different markets, without forgetting what cultural heritage each company has. The cultural dimension has gotten lost a little bit, I suppose, in favor of governance, but more and more, it's coming back as a dimension that we are considering in our voting and ESG integration decisions.

I suppose that was the first part of my life, and in my master's thesis, I compared ESG research providers across Europe and the northern hemisphere, which is now very, very different, but it enabled me to join IRIS at the time, an ESG research house in London. I worked there for 10 years, now they're part of Moody's, everything consolidates. That's how I made my way into London. I then worked for Ruffer, an active, absolute return-focused investment manager in London, as their head of responsible investment, and then MFS came along and here I am.

Vish Hindocha: We stole you away. Well, we're very glad that you're here, as we will talk about in terms of the importance of work that you're focused on. Now, you may have answered this already in terms of thinking about growing up in Eastern Germany. I studied economics at university and there was a, I think, half a module on inflation where the lead title was "Beware the Weimar Republic." I'm glad to hear that there's a lot more to Weimar than just thinking about inflation. Inflation, obviously extremely topical today.

What is your why? You've talked about where you began and the thesis that you've been operating from, thinking about culture, thinking about how corporates can act on climate change or on other issues, the responsibilities that they have. What motivates you to do what you do every day? Before we get into what it is you're actually doing on a week by week basis.

Fran Jahn-Madell: Well, I suppose it's affecting change that you see suboptimal performance at a corporate level. That was also something I got from my professor in moral theology, how important shareholders are to hold companies accountable. I suppose, over the last 20 years, when I started out that accountability was used more and more by shareholders and really started to increase post-great financial crisis, where shareholders felt, "Maybe we look more closely how boards are being held accountable, what externalities they are not currently dealing with, like environmental pollution, climate change, and also what other stakeholders companies should be consulting on."

Like employees, for example, they are very important at German supervisory and board level. What other stakeholders are there that lead for the  company to perform better over time? That was always really my main "why," why I love working in ESG.

It's extremely... There's a great variety every day. No day is different and really important topics that have challenged the whole world over the last 20 years, like climate change, where we, all of a sudden, have gone from 50 climate-related laws, maybe, in around 2000 to 2,500 climate-related laws over the last couple of years. They are massive risks for our clients, so we put that into context in terms of how we engage with companies, how we assess companies, what our conviction levels on these companies are, and these issues.

Vish Hindocha: Thanks, Fran. ESG is obviously such in the zeitgeist of today, in terms of everyone's talking about sustainability, and I'd love to ask you the question on, you think about the early 2000s and where we were and those 50 laws. Now, we are inundated with new legislation seemingly every single day and lots of pressure from every corner - consumers, companies, asset owners, savers, investment managers, regulators, governments around the world. Just taking that 20-year perspective, is there a way that you would characterize where we are today in the trajectory of history? Because for a lot of people listening, this feels very new, but again, this is a field that you've been interested in for over 20 years now. So big question, how would you think about where we are today relative to the last 20 years? Is this natural evolution? Are we seeing step change, in your eye, in the engagements that you're having with companies?

Fran Jahn-Madell: Absolutely. I suppose at the beginning, when I studied theology, it was very much aligning ethical and moral values with investment decision-making. My professor, for example, he drove around all of Germany and speaking for religious orders, churches to invest their money with the values they otherwise apply in giving out grants. If they're giving out grants to support children, why had they not included, for example, child labor in their investment decision-making process. He took a lot of time to align values with investment decision, whereas I suppose over the last 10 years, recent opportunity has become much more of a focus, where shareholders appreciate that environmental and social and governance risks are financial risks to their portfolios, and that they should be taken into consideration by understanding how environmental laws have expanded, what they do to companies, how governments are evolving much faster in terms of setting new laws.

It has really propelled the responsible investment market, which was perceived relatively niche 20 years ago, into mainstream investment. Yeah, the demand has really gone up to understand how to price these risks in. I don't think they have been priced in everywhere yet, and there's much more to come with carbon taxes and carbon emissions still being probably miscounted in some companies, but it's definitely increased by much better disclosure on these data points. Social issues are still not as much in focus as environmental quantitative data, but we are getting there.

Vish Hindocha: Good. Always the optimist. That's what I always appreciate in our conversations. I want to get into climate and you mentioned some of the issues, but before I do, just specifically to stewardship and engagement, how would you characterize your approach to that, firstly, but how do you think that's evolved over the last few years?

I think some of our listeners will be very familiar with this idea, that I always talk about stewardship as the central plank, really, of our approach to sustainability. We think that we have to act as responsible stewards of capital, so it has to be central, but it is, again, one of the frontiers of sustainability that's, to my eye at least, evolved the most rapidly in the last few years. Would you agree with that? How would you characterize how you think about stewardship and engagement, and how that changed over the recent history?

Fran Jahn-Madell: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Again, going back to 20 years ago, in our discussions at the university, the "best-in-class" approach was really favored the most because people, members of our group, felt that it would incentivize an ethical, moral competition within a sector, where the best, the leader in the group in terms of sustainability would drag the laggards along, and they would join the leaders at the top. I think that is still prevalent for some of the ethical investors in the world, and therefore often, laggards are being excluded in this "best-in-class" approach. I really changed my mind on that around 2006, where I wrote my first academic paper on the engagement approach, because I thought it actually disincentivized laggards because they just thought, "Well, they will always be at the bottom of the pack. We may as well just stay the bad boys of the group and reap the rewards."

For me, it really turned out that creating a positive dialogue and connecting different stakeholders so that think tanks, non-governmental organizations, as well as government, as well as asset owners, corporations, and shareholders, investment managers with one another and understand how to drive each one's agenda forward by reducing risks that companies have by not understanding the topics that, for example, asset owners are focusing on. It's really interesting. I had a tour of oil country in Houston a few years ago, and I went with a fundamental analyst, and they were much more interested in picking my brain than picking his brain at the time because they knew that they had much bigger knowledge gaps in area of sustainability, in the area of ESG research providers, and they wanted to talk.

It really showed that closing that loop of different market participants was really important to them. I think if one strikes that dialogue in a constructive - Vish's favorite word - dialogue, that would reap the best rewards. Yeah, engagement for me, and it's still difficult in some markets because there are perceived antitrust issues if that happens, but I think having that dialogue with companies is really important. I suppose the next step will be that there is more collaboration in the industry with different asset owners, as well as investment managers that are speaking similar languages, that we increase that over time.

Vish  Hindocha: I agree. Fascinating, firstly, that companies you're finding are much more open to that dialogue, or seeking out that dialogue, actually, in your example. I agree, we can speculate on the future of stewardship, but we're already seeing so much stronger collaboration across the capital market structure and the value chain, which I think is driving really interesting and meaningful change, because we're able to work with one voice towards a long-term outcome.

Maybe Fran, if we can pivot a little bit towards thinking about a specific use case of stewardship and one in which MFS, certainly, is putting a stake in the ground around, is thinking about net zero and climate transition. Maybe, if you could just briefly describe how MFS is thinking about approaching The Net Zero Asset Managers initiative, became a signatory in July, and why? What underpins the approach that we've taken? What are some of the core principles, in your mind, that we are really thinking about when we are thinking about how do we articulate how we're going to have an investment process that is aligned to the net zero transition?

Fran Jahn-Madell: When MFS joined The Net Zero Asset Manager initiative, I wasn't here yet. I inherited NZAM and creating the methodology with a huge degree of passion that was already at MFS, which really set the bar very high. I suppose that's really mirrored in what NZAM wants to achieve, is achieve something that is very hard, is going to stretch everyone in the industry, and we wanted to join along. So, we had many discussions around whether we should align our portfolios, what the best number in terms of committing our assets under management is. We decided that we wanted to commit ourselves to something that, for MFS, is stretching enough and is also going to change the dial with regard to the overall investment industry, as well as reduce the risk for our clients and our portfolios overall.

We rethought how to add up portfolios by starting again and thinking, "Actually, we have a wonderful research platform, why don't we do that according to asset classes, and then think which asset class might be more problematic to decarbonize at this moment in time?"

There are still methodological problems with regards to certain derivatives in our portfolios, but we felt comfortable and confident that we could commit all of our listed equities within the 90% of our assets under management, we committed our listed equities as well as our corporate fixed income. We are planning to also add our sovereigns and municipal bonds over time, but we are less confident on the current methodologies that are available for those two fixed income classes, so we will wait and see how that develops until 2025, and then add them to the mix.

The way we want to decarbonize the asset classes that we have committed is through engagement. We haven't submitted a specific greenhouse gas emission reduction target. We will of course monitor that, but we are hoping that through the engagement with issuers in our portfolios, that we can achieve a greenhouse gas reduction within the real economy by guiding them, and by encouraging them to submit climate transition plans, robust and rigorous climate transition plans, that are aligned with science-based targets and on a 1.5 degree pathway and aligned with, of course, the Paris Agreement, which is the global goal that we are all trying to work towards.

Vish Hindocha: Great. Ambitious and rigorous is what I'm hearing. What was interesting to me, in my seat, as we're working through that is how quickly we got to this idea that if it's real here, then it has to permeate the platform, which means we start at 100% and peel back, as you said, are there asset classes where today we don't have the same level of conviction in terms of committing to a pathway? In terms of how do you engage with a sovereign, be they developed or emerging market, for example, or what is the right pathway for those? Whereas actually, there is pretty good best practice established for some of the other asset classes. That's already, 90+% of our AUM, so that's where we're going to begin, which is really interesting.

I mean, that sets your team, the stewardship team, an incredibly ambitious agenda. What does that look like, in terms of what an engagement agenda will be from MFS, in terms of achieving that? Thinking about the 90% of assets, and the interim, and the long-term goals that you've just laid out, what is the team currently thinking about? I know this is a current work in progress, but how are you thinking about that now?

Fran Jahn-Madell: We want to be smart. I suppose that is our first objective, by dividing companies according to risk and maturity to MFS, to risk to the company, for our reputational risks, and we have tiered companies and issues according to higher risk, medium risk, and low risk. Also, in terms of, where does a company or an issuer stand? How much progress have they already made without our engagement? We want to be smart. We don't want to double our work. We want to collaborate with the industry, like Climate Action 100+ is one of those collaborative bodies that we are working together with, and we also want to be mindful, as I said before, about methodologies that haven't been created. We will leave certain sectors for a little while and start with sectors where there is already an established framework.

The first couple of sectors that we are looking at are the power utility sector, the capital good sector, and we will phase in the IT sector at the end of the year, primarily because our methodology will be based on the work that the Science-Based Targets initiative is undertaking, and the net zero investment framework that the IIGCC, the Institutional Investor Group on Climate Change, has developed. So, we really want to understand how different sectors are aligning themselves with the 1.5 degree pathway that we need to be on. By 2030, we would like to see our portfolio companies to be aligning with the 1.5 degree pathway, and we will encourage them to be aligned with that over time. There can potentially be quite a large delta between the targets they are setting. There are often technologies as part of those targets that are not fully functioning yet, or there is regulation in place that this allows certain activities like carbon offsets that might not actually lower temperature over time.

We will monitor some companies that have already put targets out, and we will engage with companies that haven't got targets in place yet. If a company is slow in engagement, we are very positive on deploying our escalation mechanisms that we have in our toolbox, such as vote at AGMs. We have already presented in this voting season which we are in the middle of, we have presented statements at AGMs where we're encouraging the boards to make progress, for example, to align with the net zero benchmark that Climate Action 100+ group has developed. So, we put these statements at AGMs. We will, in the future, vote against chairmen on boards, or even more people on the board, if we feel there's a lack of progress, but it shouldn't be understood as a combative but rather as a strategic move that we are undertaking. So far, the boards where we have presented statements at AGM really value the direction that gives them internally, because it is a lever for a company, if they see a large group of shareholders to demand certain actions, which they need to get by internally as well.

Vish Hindocha: Absolutely. As you think about what it means to be an owner, or a shareholder, and providing that clarity of direction, and as you said before, one of my favorite words around this whole arena is the word of "constructivism." I think people walk around with this idea that you can either be an activist in this space or completely asleep at the switch, passive, outsource it to somebody else. More and more people are waking up to this idea that actually, for long-term owners, people that actually take an ownership mentality to the things that they invest in, you can be long-term constructive in that dialogue.

Actually, again, there's been a lot of work done on this academically, that those shareholders typically have a lot of saliency. It's not necessarily size that always counts in some of these engagements, but actually the long-term ownership, the quality of engagement that you're having with management can be determined by multiple factors, not just the size of our holding, even though MFS has the luxury of being often a very large shareholder in the things that we choose to invest in. I'm glad you touched on escalation in that way. I know that's a question that we often get. One thing that, again, it’s interesting, a question that I've got, I know that you've got is, why haven't we committed to portfolio decarbonization targets?

The way that I choose to articulate that and Fran, this is your chance to correct me, or tell me a better way to think about it is, to boil it down to its essence is, I think we have a belief that the real economy has to lead and our portfolio statistics will follow. To us, the reverse of that, which is where I think a lot of people are moving to, which is if we manage to our portfolio statistics, then somehow that magically translates to the real economy. We have less belief in that latter model. To us, we think if we can, as you said, use our voice, use our power to engage and get real emissions down in the global economy, then our portfolios will decarbonize by themselves and those metrics will be an outcome rather than necessarily targeting them, which could actually create a whole heap of unintended consequences or perverse incentives. Is there a different way that you think about that problem, or are there other elements that you would add to that? Because that's one area where I think we believe something that's slightly different to the broad marketplace today.

Fran Jahn-Madell: I totally agree. I think, in general, we will have to keep an eye on the greenhouse gas emissions within our portfolios. If we see there's no real economy change within the companies, we will have to rethink whether we need to tighten our strategy, but maybe I could give you another example from the past that's not climate related, but that really brought home why companies need that internal push and those levers, and where unintended consequences have been really detrimental to outcomes of responsible investment. I talked to a tobacco company a while ago, and they had a very nice sustainability social report out over 20 years and were still struggling to come to grips with child labor within their supply chain. My first question was, "I see you have published your 20th social report this year. Why is child-labor-free supply chain still five years out?"

The response from the head of sustainability, which I thought at first was quite combative, was, "There aren't enough responsible investors that talk to us because we are a bad company." Then I said to her, "Okay, if you have a wish list of questions that you would like investors to ask, what would that be?"

And she said, "For me, really, to get enough leverage internally, I would like to do human rights impact assessments." Again, it shows where some unintended consequences of responsible investors, blanket excluding certain sectors, whether that is for the tobacco industry or for other investors, the fossil fuel industry, because of climate change impacts, it really has unintended consequences to what we can achieve in the real economy.

For climate change, it's the same. We really need to impact the dirty end of the spectrum in order to decarbonize the world globally. One of the really positive examples there was, we encouraged a steel company to join the Energy Transition Commission, which is a body where all hard-to-abate sectors are coming to together, and they are discussing the areas where there are currently no solutions that they need in order to decarbonize shipping, to decarbonize aviation, to decarbonize fossil fuels, automotive industry. For that steel company, it was a eureka moment, a turnaround moment, where they are now lobbying government and really trying to connect the dots that are needed to be connected in order to stay at 1.5 degrees, which some believe is already out of scope at this moment in time.

Vish Hindocha: Yeah, it's fascinating. Again, so much to think about. The tobacco example, thinking about what responsible owners can do and the power that they have in simply asking the right questions, as you point out, or how we engage in the hard to abate, or impossible-today-to-abate sectors, but ones that we're still reliant on in terms of concrete, steel, aviation, shipping, et cetera. Incredibly important. If I was to ask you this question, what's the most important or critical thing you think all investors need to be focused on right now?

Fran Jahn-Madell: I think it's probably impact. Whatever area you think to engage on is that we are trying to understand, and then report what impact we've made over time. There has been a lot of positive engagement, a lot of positive chats, but what impact do we make? There still needs to be lots of academic background on this issue, but I suppose breaking down an engagement plan into chunks that are manageable and then reporting on how much progress has been made on, say, each individual milestone over time. It's understanding what timeframe has the investor given themselves to engage on this topic, and then integrating it into our investment decision-making. Whether that is our conviction level, being challenged by the lack of feedback we've got from an issuer, or whether there is potential disinvestment of a specific stock because our conviction level has gone down so far, and then recording that and understanding what that does to our overall thinking within the firm. Yeah. I think that is the most important area that will lead to our asset owners trusting investment managers more, which I suppose was eroded in the great financial crisis.

Vish Hindocha: I agree. You've wrapped a lot into impact. Time horizon is absolutely vital, and there's a lot of confusion on this, because again, I hope you agree, but constructive engagement takes time. The last time I change anyone's mind on anything, whether at work or at home, it took a long period of time, and very rarely did I win by shouting louder than the other person. Often, it's deep empathy, understanding, working constructively with them, moving through some of those issues and finding a win-win scenario, which again, very rarely happens within one quarter or one meeting.

Fran Jahn-Madell: Yeah.

Vish Hindocha: I think here at MFS, we have almost the luxury of time horizon that many of, to be honest, our clients or intermediaries don't seem to have. They want to see "results" or impact almost immediately. Then, you talked about measurement and trust right at the end, which I love because there's so much greenwashing in our industry today.

Again, a personal view is, I'd love your take on this, I think we have to be really careful on the agency that we claim on the impact that we create. I think there's a lot of noise in terms of people ascribing some of their activity to achieving specific SDGs, or achieving certain outcomes at companies even where MFS is a large shareholder, we are just one stakeholder of many that are driving this change. We've historically been very conservative in terms of not wanting to over claim our agency. Do you think we need to rethink that, or do you think that will change? Those dynamics are going to change in the future, in terms of people demanding more transparency on the impact that we are seeking to drive and create through the work that you are doing and the platform is doing?

Fran Jahn-Madell: I agree. We definitely have to be careful on the agency. Just because we have engaged with company X, Y, and Z on a certain climate issue doesn't mean we have moved the dial, but I suppose communicating what we've engaged on in detail, what timeframe we've given a company, and what escalation mechanisms we consider to deploy if certain milestones haven't been achieved, I think that already shows quite a good degree of where we are expecting impact to happen, whether that's been done by us individually or by a collaborative group that we've joined, or by somebody completely different. I really like the idea of the nudge theory. If we are nudging companies, whether that is us or others, in a consistent fashion, in the same language, then hopefully that last butterfly will enable the company to find that change.

Vish Hindocha: Flap its wings and we'll see some tornadoes.

Fran Jahn-Madell: Yeah.

Vish Hindocha: Fran, to pivot again and ask you some questions a little bit about you, as we wrap up here. Thank you so much for your time. When I think about outside of MFS, what do you like to devote your time to?

Fran Jahn-Madell: Well, I have kids. Two girls. They eat up most of my outside MFS time, which I really love. They are very sporty, play football. On a Sunday, I'm often to be found next to football pitch, which is fun. I love nature. I love art. My youngest, she's enamored with Frida Kahlo, the Mexican artist, and we've just been to Paris to see the Musée d'Orsay, where she also loves the Degas Ballerina. I'm trying to pass on love for other things outside school and academics to them. So, art, travel, and sport, I suppose.

Vish Hindocha: Excellent. Are you a good painter and drawer?

Fran Jahn-Madell: Yeah, I would fancy my chances.

Vish Hindocha: Okay. I often think your whiteboard is a work of art whenever I come to your office. We've exchanged books before. I'd love to ask you, what's the book, article, or piece of literature that you've shared or recommended the most?

Fran Jahn-Madell: My favorite book for the last 25 years, and I've been trying to find a new one, has been Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain. It's a really wonderful book, and absolutely current at the moment as well. It describes Hans Castorp, who is the protagonist in the story. Thomas Mann is also, he won the Literature Nobel Prize, just to give him another plug. He's in a tuberculosis hospital in the Swiss Alps and watches the First World War, or the rise of the First World War unfold. He discusses absolutely everything in this book, from radicalism to nationalism, love, music, so quite a lot of the late-19th century music gets played in the book. You constantly, while reading, hear different music.

 But the most interesting part of the book I find is the time, how time plays out. He stays longer and longer, and I never experienced, and I love reading, I never experienced such a physical aspect of a book on myself. You just want time to slow down, which, working in investment management, is really quite a luxury to make time slow down and take that escape into the Swiss Alps.

Vish Hindocha: Definitely. What a great recommendation. What's the kindest thing anyone's done for you?

Fran Jahn-Madell: Well, I suppose when I was 15, I was a really, really big Rolling Stones fan at that time. I saved up all of my pocket money to buy one record every other month, but I was in the record shop every day of the months to look at the records that I potentially wanted to buy.

There was this shop assistant, who must have known me for a very long time, who one day tapped my shoulder and said, "I've changed my record collection into a CD collection," which I'm sure he is really quite cross with himself about and gave me about 25 records. Rolling Stones records, very, very old ones, which are wonderful. I never knew his name. I've never spoken to him again, and he was just a very, very nice person.

Vish Hindocha: Wow, what a generous thing to do. You still don't have those records today?

Fran Jahn-Madell: Yes, absolutely. I treasure them.

Vish Hindocha: That's amazing. Excellent.

Fran Jahn-Madell: If he hears me, thank you very much.

Vish Hindocha: Yeah. Through the magic of media, then he's listening. Well done. Fran, what one message do you think is really important to leave with our listeners?

Fran Jahn-Madell: Small change can affect large change over time, if you are patient and you believe in what you want to change.

Vish Hindocha: Beautiful. Thank you so much, Fran.

Fran Jahn-Madell: Thank you, Vish.

Vish Hindocha: Thank you for listening to today's episode. Hopefully, you are left with a better idea of what NZAM is and why it's so important for investment managers to set ambitious and robust targets to meet the 2050 climate goals of the Paris Accord. Hopefully, you're also left with a better idea of the nuances of stewardship and engagement, the way that we do that with companies, the processes involved, and how we look to influence positive, long-term change at the companies we own.

Now, remember, you can subscribe to All Angles through Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and wherever you choose to get your podcast from. We really want to hear from you, so if you have any questions or topics that you would like us to cover, please get in touch by emailing us at [email protected]. Thanks again for listening.



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