Investors as Stewards of the Commons?

In our first article from the (JACF Spring/Summer issue) George Serafeim makes the case that business generally, not just government, should assume responsibility for social and environmental problems. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) formally recognize the role of the private sector in addressing some of the world’s most pressing environmental and social challenges. What started as a corporate social responsibility movement now a focuses on integrating positive social impact into the core mission of the organization.

Encouragingly, studies document that improving firm performance on business-relevant ESG issues has a positive association with future financial performance. Investors can enable better societal outcomes by exercising ‘voice’ and voting rights in corporate governance.

He acknowledges that competitive businesses face a “commons” or “free-rider” problem where a defector avoids the full cost of his actions. Overcoming this problem requires legally sanctioned collaboration between business enterprises and large institutional shareholders, particularly pension funds. He also acknowledges that the corporate level free-rider problem has a counterpart that at the investor level. Investor engagement with companies involves resources, money and time. It is no simple matter to justify increased costs in the context of asset managers that compete on the basis of low management fees, such as index funds.

Collaboration between companies can mitigate some of these free riding problems. Large institutional investors with long time horizons and significant common ownership across different companies may have the best opportunities for collaboration. But, smaller activist funds and retail investors also have an important role in pushing large institutional investors to engage. While it is unlikely that investors will be able to solve all of the pressing societal problems, progress can be made.

Authored by George Serafeim, Harvard Business School