HSBC AM’s Kirk exposes hypocrisy as ESG gets political

A Republican US senator waded into the argument last week

Theo Andrew

HSBC Asset Management

From being described as a ‘nut job’ to being lauded for his honesty, much has been written about the now-infamous presentation given by HSBC Asset Management’s responsible investments head Stuart Kirk at theFinancial TimesMoral Money conference last month.

His remarks sparked a row across the asset management industry, which widely condemned Kirk (pictured) and his comments, labelling him a climate change denier and causing some to question whether they would ever evenconsider holdingany ‘responsible’ HSBC AM product.

But this point is misguided, and, on some level, hypocritical.

Kirk was quite explicit in his suggestion that climate change was happening, but that it is not the existential risk to financial markets many would have you believe.

However, with so many moving to cancel Kirk, you could be forgiven for thinking the sustainable investing practices of many large asset managers are a divine endeavour and not just another way to peddle run-of-the-mill investment products. Justlook at DWS.

What is more damaging is the practice of greenwashing. Surely it is this that should be eliciting the level of hysteria created by Kirk.

According to the Bernstein ESG Investor survey, 32% of ESG investors increased their exposure to fossil fuel and nuclear since the onset of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine while issuers continue tore-labeltheir ETFs ESG with little changes to the underlying.

Perhaps even more damaging is the precedent set by HSBC AM in silencing Kirk following his speech.

The saga took an even more surprising turn last week after a Republican US senator waded into the debate, questioning the legality of HSBC AM’s decision to suspend Kirk pending an investigation following reports that the asset manager had, at least in part, pre-approved the presentation.

In a letter to HSBC, Steve Daines, the senator for Montana, said Kirk’s suspension was in response to “outside parties that may be legally prohibited from influencing the management of your company”, potentially breaking the domestic law that prohibits US institutional investors from influencing the British bank’s management team.

Daines’ comments come as Republicans look to seize ESG as a political issue, opposing a proposal from the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) that would require companies to disclose information on their climate change impact, arguing it would drive up costs for these businesses.

The politicising of ESG investing is also being felt closer to home.

The European Parliament is currently locked in a debate about whether to approve a European Commission plan to label gas and nuclear energy as climate-friendly investments, in a plan that could have far-reaching consequences for the continent’s climate change targets.

With ESG becoming even more of a political hot potato, it is surely more important to highlight the greenwashing practices of the industry and anti-ESG political agenda, rather than a responsible investment head with sabre-rattling opinions.

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