On snoopers and deniers: two groups of folk in the news this week

Herve Falciani and Edward Snowden did the right thing. Despite contractual undertakings given to their employers – respectively HSBC Geneva and the US National Security Agency – not to disclose any information they came to know of in their jobs, when they saw something (a) of major importance, (b) that was morally repugnant and (c) unambiguously wrong, they leaked the information to the outside world. And as a direct result of these two leaks, the world is being improved in at least two ways. The fight against tax evasion (and devilishly clever avoidance), a growing problem for government revenues in many countries, has thereby been assisted; and technology groups are being forced to show much greater attention to customer data privacy protection from over-prying government eyes. Perhaps it is an exaggeration to call whistleblowers “heroes”, but their courage deserves our respect and policies should seek to prudently motivate such acts.

A direct result of the Snowden revelations is yesterday’s news that Microsoft will be the first US tech company to set up a Germany-based data centre for its EU clients which it does not possess the keys to (by giving full authority over these centres to Deutsche Telecom, which is not subject to US government data requests). This is an important initiative that will put welcome pressure on the US and EU governments to think harder about better solutions to data privacy than they have in the past – whilst still being consistent with having efficient ways to track criminals and terrorists. The previous “safe harbour provisions” which allowed for mass US surveillance, and which the EU recently tore up, are being renegotiated currently. This Microsoft move will help focus the negotiators’ minds: for if they fail, a balkanised internet beckons, with higher costs and impediments for small businesses trying to go cross-border.

And of what relevance is this to Vietnam? Well, consider Elcom (ELC VN). Nobody with a halfway-decent conscience can buy this stock, because of the substantial chunk of its business potentially devoted to helping the one-party state spy on its people. Such concerns are a lot less prevalent as yet among Vietnamese than Germans, but Vietnamese attitudes on this will gravitate towards German over time, certainly not the other way around. Elcom is a clear ESG (environmental, social, and governance criteria) fail. It should drive its business model in other directions if it is serious about ever escaping small-cap-land.

Now, the deniers – meaning of course the chief deniers of our age, the climate change ones. This week the US has clarified that the coming Paris conference cannot result in a binding treaty, because if it did, the US would have to put it up for congressional approval, which it rationally fears wouldn’t be forthcoming. One sympathises with the Obama administration here, who are sincere climate change progressives, but without the backing of numerically-important-in-congress wacko Republicans (the latter used to be the voice of sanity in Mekong Man’s younger years – how the times have changed ! – these days they’re more a good source of prime time comedy).

This state of affairs is distressing: MM cannot see how Paris has any better a fate than Kyoto unless it contains legally binding provisions. Miss your targets? You pay ! – whether this be in money or in some other vitally important way. If Paris doesn’t deliver such provisions, then it becomes too fluffy – “oh, we missed our targets, well, OK, we’ll try harder next time”. This doesn’t sound like a good-enough framework for restricting global warming to 2 degrees centigrade. This week’s pictures from www.climatecentral.org are rather arresting in terms of what the result may be for key global cities – maybe not in our lifetimes, but more likely in our grandchildren’s, which shouldn’t be too far a horizon to consider. Vietnam’s shape and position on the map put it right in the firing line of such concerns.

Mekong Man

Carbon footprinters on the march

Mekong Man recently attended a stimulating conference held by Swiss Sustainable Finance on carbon footprinting. He found it to be satisfyingly meaty compared to the fluffiness of content that can afflict gatherings on sustainable investing – the latter due mostly to the newness of this science, more than anything else.
SSF gave four carbon emissions experts (Inrate, South Pole, TruCost and MSCI’s ESG division) a portfolio of 100 large global stocks and asked them to each calculate the carbon footprint of the portfolio. Predictably, they each came up with different answers, the main reasons for discrepancy probably mainly due to two factors: 1) 22 of the 100 companies did not publish emissions data and another 16 only partial data, so estimations were required for these cases; and 2) estimating indirect emissions (i.e. of suppliers and customers) – which were included in the calculations – is also a dicey business, requiring a host of assumptions, and a consistency of methodology which is not there yet.
MM’s main conclusion from the conference was that, generally, investors’ consideration of CO2 emissions is making progress, both in terms of it becoming more mainstream among major global investors and in the metrics that are being used. This left him thinking that practitioners of sustainable investing had better quickly get as quantitative as they can on this subject in order to remain competitive in this field. To get so, those who don’t yet have it should build and keep a simple spreadsheet for their equity portfolio and watchlist that contains, based initially on direct emissions only – direct, so as to start with the basics; also, there is a case for saying stick to direct emissions only, since this will neatly suffice as and when we reach a stage where everyone in industry, and even consumers, are systematically counting and being counted:-

(1) Stock name
(2) CO2 emissions: Publish/Indicate privately/Do not say [specify which]
(3) CO2 emissions (m tonnes p.a., 2014)
(4) CO2 emissions per US dollar of sales (2014)
(5) CO2 emissions per dollar of sales (2014) for 1-3 leading global sector stocks
(6) CO2 emissions (2014) per dollar of current holding

Just covering these six pieces of data and keeping the spreadsheet routinely updated would represent an important advance from where many investors are currently. By having such a sheet, they would suddenly be able to have a strong idea of the hard answers to important questions such as:-
(a) How carbon intensive is the portfolio?, i.e. CO2 emissions per dollar of fund AUM. This number could be compared to MSCI and other indices that track carbon intensity; this number could also be tracked over time.
(b) One could rank the contributors to the fund’s footprint, i.e. item (6) ranked, for all portfolio stocks.
(c) By ranking item (4) by stock, you could see which stocks are operationally dirtiest or cleanest in terms of greenhouse gasses. The same exercise could also be done for other forms of emissions as well as water usage.
(d) Gap analysis compared to global sector leading companies (i.e. item (4) v (5)): this would be a rough guide only, since only 1-3 global leaders are specified in the above proposed spreadsheet in order to be realistic in terms of workload. This would shed important light compared to widespread current ignorance on this matter.
(e) How prevalent is disclosure, who is leading and who is lagging? (Item (2)).
(f) As time goes on, one would build a picture of stock-by-stock improvement, thus get a good view of leading movers and laggards, and be able to recognize “PR fluff” when it occurs – i.e. talkers as opposed to walkers.

Mekong Man