10:40 AM – Friday, June 2, 2023
In recent years, major banks have come under intense criticism for their business practices. We know them more today for misdeeds than merits. Their lapses have become lead stories in the mainstream media and ready-made content for C-SPAN hearings.
We’ve seen epic failures by First Republic, Signature Bank and Silicon Valley Bank; 19 state AGs alleging discrimination by Chase Bank against conservative and religious groups, and Wells Fargo paying millions to settle class action and CFPB claims for their fake account debacle.
These events have left deep fault lines in banks’ reputations, going from beneficent to black hat in recent years.
Contrary to these popular notions, banks play a critical and consequential role in society. They facilitate the flow of needed funds, provide a reservoir of investment dollars, and foster economic progress, production and profit. From the mom-and-pop store down the street to the mega cap corporation downtown, business relies on banks and banks rely on business. They bring capital to commerce and anchor our economy. It is the way of the world.
But that very role is now being challenged. As dark as the banks’ past problems are, they pale in comparison to what is on the horizon. The future for many banks is inextricably tied to their policies and practices on climate, energy and the environment. And that portends more risk than reward.
We are entering a new era of environmental enmity. A time when environmental exhortations supersede almost anything else. A time when impolitic words, deeds or decisions by financial institutions have outsized social consequences. And the least imprecision on climate or the environment could imperil positive economic performance.
In the pervasive context of climate change, environmental activists are working to penalize banks for doing their core business – lending money. Well-funded initiatives and worldwide campaigns have adroitly linked greenhouse gas to green eyeshades, and have cast banks, insurers and their investors as subjects of societal scorn.
The broad umbrella of “greenwashing” has allowed aggressive plaintiffs lawyers and activists to sue companies for fraud and deception in their environmental marketing claims.
In May 2022, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) fined BNY Mellon Investment Advisor for misstatements on environmental disclosures.
In November 2022, the SEC fined Goldman Sachs Investment Advisor $4 million for failing to follow its policies and procedures on ESG investments.
In October 2022, the U.K.’s Advertising Authority banned HSBC from advertising certain investments claiming they could mislead consumers.
And German prosecutors raided the offices of Deutsche Bank and its asset manager DWS as part of an investigation for environmental misstatements.
Globally, the cumulative number of climate change related cases has more than doubled since 2015, now totaling over 2,000. One quarter of these were filed in the last two years alone.
But tactics have been shifting in recent years. Class-action lawsuits, proxy battles, shareholder actions and intensive media campaigns are now quite common.
Environmental enmity has been extended from oil and gas companies to banks, insurers and financial institutions. The most recent trend sees banks being sued for financing oil, gas and coal projects that emit high levels of greenhouse gas. There are also cases against food and agriculture, transport, plastics and other companies. All based on yet-unproven legal theories of climate change liability.
Activists have sought to dictate the terms and conditions of environmental responsibility for years. But financial institutions are right to push back on such overreach. Frivolous, headline-seeking litigation against banks for lawfully lending money is antithetical to international norms of commerce and is patently anti-capitalist. There is nothing inherently wrong or illegal about the production, sale and distribution of coal, oil and natural gas.
By following the money, they have embraced the international sanctions script that penalizes any direct or remote connection to fossil fuel. It is a well-worn playbook drawn from successful crusades against Big Pharma and tobacco. Demonizing banks is easy after all, because only economists and other bankers will rally to their defense.
In trying to shift the tenor from sustainable to sinister, activists miss the larger point. Financial institutions have embraced environmental sustainability in a big way just on their own terms, committing billions to reduce their credit exposure to oil and gas and comply with international conventions like the Paris accord.
Most major banks made commitments as part of the Net Zero Banking Alliance (NZBA), the flagship climate initiative intended to accelerate climate target setting and common practice under the Principles for Responsible Banking and the Race to Zero. Convened by the U.N. Environment Programme Finance Initiative, it is an industry-led effort that “brings together a global group of banks, currently representing over 40% of global banking assets, which are committed to aligning their lending and investment portfolios with net-zero emissions by 2050.”
JP Morgan Chase has committed nearly $3 trillion to advance sustainable development and climate change.
Wells Fargo has committed to deploy $500 billion in sustainable finance over the next 10 years.
Citigroup has committed $1 trillion in sustainable finance by 2030.
Bank of America has committed $1 trillion by 2030 to accelerate the transition to a low-carbon, sustainable economy.
These are not insignificant sums of money and the commitment behind them should not be dismissed as meaningless or merely the cost of business.
To be sure, the predecessor institutions of many of today’s banks have a checkered historical past, financing the slave trade, illegal arms and other nefarious acts during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Many helped fund plantations in the American colonies and the West Indies, offering loans with enslaved people as collateral and profiting from their sale.
More recently, banks in the U.S. and Europe were complicit in the dispossession of Native American lands during the westward expansion of the United States in the 19th century. And during the 20th century, some banks played a role in the financial activities of the Nazi regime during World War II.
In recent years, banks have engaged in redlining, discriminatory lending, fraud and other illegalities. When discovered, they have issued mea culpas and made amends for their actions, including targeted investments in disadvantaged communities, outsized philanthropy and remedial lending efforts. They have accepted corporate responsibility with chastened hands, and we should see fit to accept them warts and all.
Whatever moral transgressions banks have committed over the years – and there have been many – financing fossil fuels is not one of them.
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