The author describes how and why the world’s best “business value investors” have long incorporated environmental, social, and governance (ESG) considerations into their investment decision-making.
As the main source of value in companies has increasingly shifted from tangible to intangible assets, many followers of Graham & Dodd have delivered exceptional investment results by taking an “earnings- power” approach to identifying high-quality businesses—businesses with enduring competitive advantages that are sustained through significant ongoing investment in their core capabilities and, increasingly, their important non-investor “stakeholders.”
While the ESG framework may be relatively new, it can be thought of as providing a lens through which to view the age-old issue of “quality.” Graham & Dodd’s 1934 classic guide to investing, Security Analysis, and Phil Fisher’s 1958 bestseller, Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits, both identify a number of areas of analysis that would today be characterized as ESG. Regardless of whether they use the labels “E,” “S,” and “G,” investors who make judgments about earnings power and sustainable competitive advantage are routinely incorporating ESG considerations into their decision-making.
The challenge of assessing a company’s sustainable competitive advantage requires analysis based on concepts such as customer franchise value, as well as intangibles like brands and intellectual property. For corporate managers communicating ESG priorities, and for investors analyzing ESG issues, the key is to focus on their relevance to the business. In this sense, corporate reporting on sustainability issues should be viewed as analogous to and an integral part of financial reporting, with a management focus on materiality and relevance (while avoiding a “promotional” approach) that is critical to credibility.
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