How investors can mobilize against climate change

The First Bank of the United States

Had the U.S. presidential election gone a different route, the first 100 days of the new administration likely would have included a conference to design a World War II-scale mobilization to confront climate change. Instead, the national climate change conversation centers on whether the United States will pull out of the Paris Agreement and whether we have missed the window to keep the planet’s warming below 2 degrees Celsius.

While elections have consequences, this does not have to be one of them. Long-term investors at home and abroad are sitting on trillions of assets under management. Trillions more are sitting in negative or zero-coupon securities. Instead of resolving to play defense, investors need to go on the offense. It’s time to begin to shape the 21st century economy ourselves — by investing in the long term.

To change investment strategy and preserve their fiduciary obligations, long-term investors will have to rethink their underperforming, at-risk portfolios and embrace a new kind of active investing — Strategic Impact Investing. We’ve done this before and come out stronger for it.

Between Sept. 1, 1939, when Germany crossed the Polish frontier, and Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Washington refused to recognize the existential threat posed by the Axis powers and failed to prepare for a war that was inevitable. But while the Capitol slept, industry was busy, implementing a two-part design that enabled President Franklin Roosevelt to declare America the "great arsenal of democracy" in 1940, well before Congress would declare war.

That design was a one-two punch of industry and finance to convert production from peacetime to wartime using a financing mechanism funded at first by allied arms purchases. The CEO of General Motors, Bill Knudsen, stepped down to lead the industrial retooling and Bernard Baruch, the Wall Street financier, sorted the capital.

Today we can meet the threat of climate change using a similar approach. This time, instead of allied demand for arms and materiel, a sustainable economy can be built on historic demand for new walkable urban places, for regenerative agriculture and for the new material palette from which to build that future. Because that demand is already present in the markets, formation of a new industrial ecosystem is straightforward, with business models from old-economy incumbents such as Ford, Walmart, and Shell, among others, adapting rapidly to keep pace with new economy natives such as Tesla, Whole Foods and NextEra Energy.

The key question for investors is the design of the financing system. Businesses large and small will respond rapidly to investor dollars that are structured with the right incentives — and restrictions. Asset owners and managers just need to develop, deploy and coordinate a four-level investment plan. Here is the broad framework:

  1. Fixed income investors build the foundation of the new economy.
  2. Venture impact capital floods the field with new, aligned business models.
  3. Equity portfolios rebalance toward companies aligned with the new industrial ecosystem.
  4. All suppliers conform to sustainability accountability standards, such as Sustainability Accounting Standards Board or Global Reporting Initiative.

Here’s how it works. Fifty-one percent of Americans want a walkable lifestyle, according to the latest National Association of Realtors study, yet only 1 percent of metropolitan land is walkable. Fixed-income investors need to replace the dollars the new administration has vowed to withhold from light rail and streetcars and build the foundations of the new American Dream. That means financing new rail systems, new mortgages and other infrastructure, which are all good assets to hold in long-term accounts.

Those are the investments with the best economic multipliers. So, as America puts high volumes of low-cost capital to work, people will go back to work, find their dream home and start spending again — but now on a sustainable foundation.

And that’s where venture impact capital comes in: What are the new business models we need to build a post-suburban America?

As those entrepreneurs scale up, our equity investment universe will regain health, providing investors with higher, yet still sustainable, growth rates that the nation needs. Now, long-term equity investors, who have been urging a shift to long-term, sustainable growth for years (most notably BlackRock CEO Larry Fink), finally will get what they’ve been calling for.

It’s hard, but it’s not rocket science. The critical piece to understand is that business-as-usual is no longer possible for the long-term investor, and these challenges are beyond the reach of monetary policy. The gap in obligations is too big to be filled by any recovery of the 20th-century economy, and climate change will disrupt and destroy too many assets at home and abroad.

For Europe, Japan and China, this is all obvious. Even Saudi Arabia is restructuring its Public Investment Fund to pursue a similar strategy.

It is clear that just as in 1940, we don’t need long-term investors to be part of the solution; we need them to lead the solution. And we cannot waste another moment.

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