The Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI) has asked investors to share their experience of annual general meetings (AGMs) this year and how they think they could be improved.

The coronavirus pandemic had “shaken up” this year’s AGM season due to restrictions on in-person gatherings, PRI staff members wrote in a blog post on the organisation’s website.

They said that hybrid AGMs – a physical meeting that meets the minimum number of participants to be quorate while allowing virtual participation by investors – seemed to be a good solution but that it was important that arrangements allow investors to have a meaningful interaction with companies.

“[O]therwise the entire purpose of the AGM is undermined,” wrote PRI stewardship team members Chloe Horne, Rosie Farr, and Tom Barron.

While many meetings had run smoothly this proxy voting season, “some investors have been left feeling frustrated by technical barriers to participating”, they wrote.

For example, often not all investors were granted access to participate virtually in the meetings in real time, with in some cases even proponents of shareholder resolutions having been asked to submit a written statement instead.

“Even when investors can participate and ask questions, there have been reports of the online system being abused to escape questioning,” the PRI staff members wrote. “Investors have expressed their concerns when multiple questions are summarised by management to suit their agenda – which doesn’t allow investors to specifically scrutinise companies as they would typically like to.”

Investors interested in exchanging about their AGM and engagement experiences during the COVID-19 crisis are being invited to participate in a discussion forum on the PRI’s collaboration platform.

Sustainalytics bets on transition bonds

Sustainalytics has launched a transition bond second-party opinion service for corporate issuers in high-emitting industries wanting to issue bonds to finance projects supporting their decarbonisation.

According to the ESG research, data and ratings provider, the service will allow these companies “to signal to investors the credibility of their transition strategy and potentially be able to access capital from the sustainable finance market”.

Investors can access the second-party opinions to make more informed decisions about transition-focussed investments, it added.

Transition bonds are being promoted as instruments that could support meeting climate change goals by helping companies in energy-intensive industries fund sustainability improvements where the green bond market may not be suitable for them. Some capital market participants have concerns that transition bonds might increase the risk of companies hiding behind incremental improvements.

Sustainalytics said that “given market demand”, its service would initially focus on companies in the natural gas and steel industries, but that it would be rolled out over to companies in sectors including marine shipping, aviation, cement and aluminium.

“Transition finance is helping to incentivise the allocation of capital toward the development of low-carbon solutions,” said Kevin Ranney, director of sustainable finance solutions at Sustainalytics. ”We look forward to working with underwriters and new corporate issuers to accelerate transition finance activities in the market globally.”

Methodist churches dump BP, Total 

The Central Finance Board (CFB) of the Methodist Church in Great Britain has sold its holdings in BP and Total on climate change grounds, excluded 10 other fossil fuel companies, and put four on watch.

The divestments and exclusions are the result of new CFB analysis of 15 fossil fuel companies to respond to a request from Methodist churches. A body called the joint advisory committee on the ethics of investment (JACEI), which advises the CFB, was asked to look at the extent to which the business investment plans of oil and gas companies were aligned with temperature rises being kept to below 2°C above pre-industrial levels.

According to a statement from the CFB, BP and Total “rated amber” in the assessment, partly due to their current output and the carbon emissions assessment. ARC Resources, a small holding in the CFB overseas fund, was also sold.

The CFB’s remaining fossil fuel holdings – in Repsol, Eni, Royal Dutch Shell and Equinor – remain under review, with the CFB pressed to engage further with them.

According to a CFB statement, the church fund had put them “on notice that it is looking for more radical change from them soon to address the climate emergency”.

The CFB and Epworth Investment Management, a wholly-owned CFB subsidiary that provides investment services to other churches and charities, have combined assets under management of around £1.2bn, with £15m and just over £2m having been held in BP and Total, respectively.

“When the ethical concerns are material and change is too slow or not forthcoming, we will divest”

Stephen Beer, CFB chief investment officer

“We engage extensively and in detail to encourage companies to change, which is not so effective after we sell a holding,” said Stephen Beer, CFB chief investment officer.

He added: “Nevertheless, when the ethical concerns are material and change is too slow or not forthcoming, we will divest. That is what we have done with our BP and Total holdings.

“Oil and gas companies have been making new commitments on emissions this year, but while welcome they are still too little too late,” he said. “Big changes are required. The Paris Agreement dates from 2015 so they have had long enough and patience is wearing thin.”

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