SEC Issues Risk Alert on ESG Investments

By Bill Reilly and Jeff Wilk

Miniature airplane model over a blooming meadow.

In January 2021 the SEC began taking an enhanced approach to Environmental Social and Governance (“ESG”) investing. Since then, the SEC has issued no less than five announcements addressing a range of issues including reviews of public company disclosure of ESG issues, adding ESG reviews to their 2021 Examination Priorities and the creation of a task force to review, among others, issuers of ESG disclosures and compliance issues relating to investment advisors’ and funds’ ESG strategies.

On April 9, 2021, the SEC’s Division of Examinations issued a risk alert for ESG investing in response to heightened demand by investors for investment products and financial services that incorporate ESG factors. The risk alert was based upon observations from recent exams of investment advisors, registered investment companies and private funds offering ESG products and services.

The alert focused on three areas:

Examinations of Investment Advisors and Funds will focus on the accuracy of disclosing ESG investing approaches including:

  • a review of portfolio management practices
  • performance advertising and marketing
  • compliance programs; specifically whether the firm has adequate policies and procedures to address oversight and review of ESG investing practices and disclosures

Firms made potentially misleading statements referencing ESG investing processes and representations made in written disclosures. Other issues included:

  • portfolio management practices inconsistent with disclosures about ESG approaches
  • controls inadequate to maintain, monitor, and update clients’ ESG-related investing guidelines, mandates, and restrictions, and disclosures and marketing were inconsistent with the firm’s practices
  • compliance programs not adequately addressing relevant ESG issues, such as lacking policies and procedures addressing their ESG investing analyses, decision-making processes, or compliance review and oversight

Effective Practices included:

  • Disclosures that were clear, precise and tailored to firms’ specific approaches to ESG investing, and which aligned with the firms’ actual practices
  • Simple and clear disclosures regarding the firms’ approaches to ESG investing, such as the use of unaffiliated advisors to conduct the underlying ESG analysis and allocating client assets among ESG-oriented mutual funds managed by those unaffiliated advisors
  • Explanations regarding how investments were evaluated, such as using goals established under global ESG frameworks
  • Policies and procedures that addressed ESG investing and covered key aspects of the firms’ relevant practices, such as requiring specific documentation to be completed at various stages of the investment process (g., research, due diligence, selection, and monitoring).

One other observation indicated that compliance programs were less effective when compliance personnel had limited knowledge of ESG issues. Therefore, training should be a priority for firms operating in this area.

This risk alert provides a clear message that firms actively engaged in ESG-related activities and those who don’t know enough about ESG to determine whether they are required to develop and implement policies and procedures should enhance and/or develop effective policies and procedures.

Oyster Consulting can help firms view the opportunities and risks associated with ESG-related investment strategies from a strategic and compliance standpoint, including creating or updating existing firm policies and proceduresOyster Solutions software can turn your Compliance Program into actionable, customized workflows that help you assess and manage risks, automate compliance tasks and provide reporting, all on one platform.

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About The Author
Photo of Bill Reilly

Bill Reilly

Bill Reilly is a respected financial services professional with over 35 years of consulting and regulatory experience. Bill leverages his industry expertise and relationships with state and federal regulators and self-regulatory organizations to guide broker-dealers, investment advisers and law firms providing legal representation through both proactive and reactive regulatory processes and compliance issues.