Facebook should be dropped by sustainable funds, Nordea says

Unusual move for a fund manager to publicly call out a big tech firm over governance or privacy concerns

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 June, 2018, 10:13am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 June, 2018, 10:19am

Facebook Inc. should be excluded from the holdings of money managers serious about ethical investing, says the head of sustainable funds at the biggest Nordic bank.

Sasja Beslik, who oversees sustainable finance within Nordea Bank AB’s US$370 billion asset management unit, decided this week to divest holdings of the social networking giant. The move was provoked by what he characterised as an “unresponsive” approach by Facebook to Nordea’s queries on how the Cambridge Analytica scandal was being handled.

“A company of this size with this type of risk related to their business should have been far more responsive and proactive in the way they respond to investor requirements,” Beslik said. Not “a single serious sustainable fund in the world” should have a holding in Facebook, he added, citing the lack of feedback and Nordea’s own investigation.

While so-called socially responsible investing has become one the fastest growing segments of the money-management industry, it’s practitioners have typically focused on industries that pose a threat to the environment or public health, from coal to guns to tobacco. It’s far less common for a fund manager to publicly call out a big tech firm over governance or privacy concerns.

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Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg publicly apologised for his company’s shortcomings and answered questions from US and European lawmakers after it emerged in March that the data of as many as 87 million users may have been misused by Cambridge Analytica. While shares in Menlo Park, California-based Facebook fell more than 10 per cent the month the scandal broke, they’ve since more than erased those losses.

Facebook didn’t immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.

Beslik says it can sometimes be financially painful in the short term to “walk the talk” in sustainable investing. But even if it hurts, “that is the entire point. No pain, no gain.”

He is made controversial calls in the past, even once banning the fund from adding Nordea’s own shares amid a tax avoidance probe. Beslik’s approach differs from many sustainable investing peers who say it’s better to engage with companies and seek to influence their behaviour than divest. That method is fine, but only up to a point, Beslik says.

“Investors can decide to sell the stock or engage,” said Richard Jones, co-founder of Cambridge Sustainable Investment Partners, a British firm that advises investors. “It’s a judgment based on where the protection of privacy data ranks within each investment mandate and whether Facebook has a plan to address it.”

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Investments that take into account environmental, social or governance factors have been growing by 12 per cent annually, according to Pictet Asset Management. It’s become increasingly routine to take such matters into account, so much so that by the end of this year half of all global assets under management will incorporate ESG considerations, the firm said in a report released earlier this year.

Still, a working document published in May by the European Commission found there aren’t enough “regulatory incentives” for funds to “disclose to their clients in a transparent way how they integrate” factors relating to ESG matters “in their investment decision/advisory process.” It also pointed to the lack of a “systematic, coherent” and “harmonised” framework for sustainable investing.

“It’s nice to be sustainable as long as it doesn’t hurt,” Beslik said. “When it hurts, no one is sustainable. That is a joke.”

Beslik’s decision to divest Facebook follows a March announcement that his Nordea unit was putting the stock in “quarantine.” In May, 0.06 per cent of total holdings in Nordea’s sustainable funds were in Facebook, according to Beslik.