One of the UN Sustainable Development Goals is about reducing inequality among and within countries. The UN SDGs are a high-level framework of 17 goals that the world can achieve by 2030. They are useful as a way of understanding your firm’s social impact and identifying how to change your operating model to reduce any adverse effects or enhance any positive ones.
ESG risk and reducing inequality may seem entirely unrelated. However, there are ever-increasing community and employee expectations when it comes to issues such as executive compensation, wage growth, sharing in productivity increases, and managing rising living costs.
The detailed sub-goals of Goal 10 are really about the developing world, and not the relative poverty issues in developed countries. Many countries cannot afford social protection policies and legislation that richer countries can. Some richer countries place high tariffs on goods exported from poorer countries which makes it more difficult for people in these countries to trade their way to higher living standards.
An example of the ESG risk in this space is the cost of migrant remittances. Hundreds of millions globally send billions every year back to relatives in their home country. Often, there are high fees associated with this and many global financial institutions have encountered a lot of issues ensuring AML/CTF compliance in this space.
Goal 10.C is quite sad – reducing the cost of remittances to no more than 3% by 2030 and eliminating remittance channels that cost more than 5% in transaction costs. The rise of startups in developed countries that enable you to send money overseas at wholesale FX rates when poor people are charged enormous premiums is definitely in the social risk category.
Product management and pricing decisions around FX or overseas transfers will be even more complicated over the next decade than they already are. It’s certainly an area that is being disrupted by firms with better technology and customer experience than the banks. People who are moving between developed countries or paying less for their overseas holiday shopping and dining out capture much of this benefit in reduced costs.
When researching this particular UN SDG, the issue of technology startups in developed countries coming up with great ways to solve problems that only work in developed countries became quite clear. Many amazing innovations will only work if you have a passport from an OECD country. There are still enormous increases in transaction monitoring capability required to change negative screening for entire countries that some financial institutions still feel the need to do because their technology is decades behind Silicon Valley.
The strength of the focus on risk and compliance over the past decade has led many boards to authorise investment in their technology platforms. But merely spending hundreds of millions of dollars on technology isn’t necessarily enough.
How many ESG risks are hiding in the legacy technology ecosystems of major financial institutions around the world? A target operating model for a risk function includes more than just the implementation of transaction monitoring software. The people, processes and systems all need to work to clear principles and deliver the right outcomes for a broad group of stakeholders.
The irony of the enormous spend on risk and compliance technology, particularly regarding regulatory and legislative compliance, is that it has provided many large firms with the right model for how they might need to prioritise investment in climate change risk reduction.
The problem for the customer experience is that if you already have a poor customer experience that will cost $X to fix, and now your bank needs to spend a further $X on more risk and compliance programmes of work, then very soon you start running into a point where the duplication of all of these technology investments across different companies becomes redundant.
The role of a board is to provide governance to an organisation, and this includes making tradeoffs between Project 1 and Project 2. The problem is that many of the loudest voices criticising their every move on ESG risk don’t exactly appreciate the concept of constrained resources. For many financial services firms, they will face a point where they need to consider their entire current operating model and seriously rethink their purpose and strategy.
What is the link between this and the central problem of reducing inequality among countries and within them? Well, previously, a firm could make tradeoffs inside its operating model transformation that included plays like outsourcing or radical restructuring. Now, every person with a Twitter account could set off a backlash for something as random as invoice payment times for SMEs.
The reporting on this issue in Australia has been great because nothing could demonstrate more clearly to a board and senior executives that the operational-level decisions inside their operating model are now fair game. ESG risks must now be fully understood and considered at the customer interaction level and the supplier interaction level.
A board that wants to obtain an independent assessment of its ESG risk and current operating model should consider what social license to operate means in the 2020s. A higher proportion of people will increasingly demand more and more of the private sector.
Unlike politicians, CEOs face the market test. Many are already far advanced in changing their firm’s way of doing business to differentiate themselves from competitors. Higher enterprise value is likely to accrue to firms that have low ESG risk relative to other investment opportunities. Protecting access to finance at all should now be a consideration of boards – one serious enough ESG controversy could see lines of credit cut, investment banks no longer willing to work with you on a debt issue, or even suspension from trading on an exchange.
The level of seriousness boards and senior executives have to take these issues is quite clear. They are skating on thin ice in a real-time communication world. Independent assessment of the ESG risks they face and the steps to take to mitigate, reduce, or eliminate them will be a top focus for 2020 and beyond.
Large transformation projects that have already started may require even larger investments or potentially cancellation and writedowns. The business strategy of a large financial institution is also facing severe risk in an ultra-low interest rate environment. A pandemic related recession could be on the cards in many countries.
When interest rates go down, eventually there is no choice but for net interest margins to go down. The subsequent pressure on high bank operating expense ratios increases ESG risk even further due to the short-term earnings pressure from many shareholders. What a fascinating era!