Max M. Schanzenbach & Robert H. Sitkoff, Comment Letter of Professors Max M. Schanzenbach and Robert H. Sitkoff on the Department of Labor’s Proposed Rulemaking on Financial Factors in Selecting Plan Investments (Harv. Pub. L. Working Paper No. 20-24, Nw. L. & Econ. Research Paper No. 20-12, July 30, 2020).
Abstract: In June of 2020, the Department of Labor proposed a rule-making on financial factors in selecting ERISA plan investments (“Proposal”), in particular environmental, social, and governance factors (“ESG”). In general, we are supportive of the Proposal’s central purpose of subjecting ESG investing to the same fiduciary principles of loyalty and prudence that are applicable to any type or kind of investment. We do, however, have some criticisms. Our basic point is that the law neither favors nor disfavors ESG investing. Any investment decision by an ERISA trustee or other fiduciary — whether in the context of a direct investment, shareholder engagement (including proxy voting), or menu construction, and whether reliant on ESG factors or otherwise — is subject to the same fiduciary principles embodied in the duties of loyalty and prudence. Our chief criticisms, therefore, reflect instances in which the Proposal differentiates or could be construed as differentiating ESG investing from other types or kinds of investment strategies. First, the Proposal and accompanying commentary could be read to suggest that all manner of ESG investing is inherently suspect, presumably on fiduciary loyalty grounds, and therefore that ESG investing by an ERISA trustee or other fiduciary is always subject to enhanced scrutiny that requires extra process relative to other types of kinds of investment strategies. Such a position is inconsistent with law and sound policy. To be sure, an ERISA trustee or other fiduciary violates the duty of loyalty if she uses ESG factors to provide benefits for third parties (what we call “collateral benefits ESG”). However, use of ESG factors in pursuit of enhanced risk-adjusted returns (what we call “risk-return ESG”) is not suspect under the duty of loyalty. Instead, risk-return ESG is analyzed under the duty of prudence, which applies in the same manner to risk-return ESG as to any other type or kind of investment strategy. Departure from neutral application of fiduciary principles also requires drawing distinctions between ESG investing and other investing, a definitional morass that would create uncertainty and invite litigation. Second, portions of the commentary are unclear or phrased in a manner that could be construed as taking positions, such as with respect to active versus passive investing, that are not consistent with neutral application of the principles of fiduciary investment law. The commentary is also notable for not addressing certain other relevant matters, such as the use of ESG factors in shareholder engagement (sometimes called “stewardship” or “active shareholding”). We identify material instances of such language or omissions and urge appropriate clarification, particularly regarding the “tiebreaker” rule for purportedly economically equivalent investments. This comment letter is largely but not entirely based on “Reconciling Fiduciary Duty and Social Conscience: The Law and Economics of ESG Investing by a Trustee,” 72 Stanford Law Review 381 (2020), https://ssrn.com/abstract=3244665.