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Environmental, social, and governance issues, collectively called ESG, have become significant factors in investment decision making, especially over the last decade. However, investors’ approaches to ESG vary, ranging from the systematic integration of material ESG factors to portfolios constructed solely of investments in companies promoting social good. Some investors also run screens that help them avoid investing in companies they deem to have a negative impact on the environment (e.g., energy or manufacturing companies) or society (e.g., tobacco, alcohol, or gaming businesses).
At Dodge & Cox, we have operated with the same investment philosophy for over 85 years: we seek to identify well-established companies that have attractive long-term earnings and cash flow prospects not reflected in the current security valuation. To select investments, we employ a consistent and disciplined approach that focuses on intensive bottom-up research, a long term investment horizon, and a strict price discipline.
As part of this investment process, we assess many factors, including ESG factors, on a company-by-company basis, for their potential to materially impact a company’s risk/reward profile. As active owners, we pay particular attention to a company’s governance structure and practices as well as risks and opportunities associated with environmental and social factors, when applicable. We proactively engage with the board and management teams of companies in which we choose to invest, especially when a particular issue is significant to our investment thesis. We also vote proxies, including those addressing ESG-related issues, consistent with our approach as long-term investors.
Our Approach to ESG: Focusing on Material Factors
We look at the mosaic of ESG factors and evaluate them in terms of their potential impact on a company’s earnings and cash flow prospects. When we deem these factors to be material, we will incorporate them into our investment analysis and decision-making process. To emphasize our commitment, we became a signatory to the United Nations Principles for Responsible Investment (UNPRI)(a) in 2012. Dodge & Cox remains committed to considering the investment implications of ESG issues, when appropriate and consistent with our fiduciary duty.
Several academic studies support our approach, affirming that “materiality” matters when incorporating ESG factors in the investment process. For example, Harvard Business School researchers Mozaffar Khan, George Serafeim, and Aaron Yoon(b) found that “firms with good ratings on material sustainability issues significantly outperform firms with poor ratings on these issues. In contrast, firms with good ratings on immaterial sustainability issues do not significantly outperform firms with poor ratings on the same issues.” This suggests that focusing on material sustainability issues can enhance shareholder value. The authors examined ESG issues that were material or immaterial at the industry level, and measured the stock performance of companies with high and low ESG ratings on material ESG factors.
ESG exposures may also convey information about future risks that are not captured by statistical risk models. In their paper Assessing Risk Through Environmental, Social and Governance Exposures,(c) Dunn, Fitzgibbons, and Pomorski investigated the relationship between companies’ ESG exposures and the statistical risk of their equity. They found a strong positive relationship: “Stocks with poor ESG exposures tend to have higher total and specific risk and higher betas, both contemporaneously and as far as five years into the future.”
Integrating ESG into our investment process
Through our bottom-up approach, we evaluate investment risks and opportunities on a company-by-company basis. Analysis of ESG factors has been an important element of our investment review process for many years. Each Fund’s portfolio composition is a result of individual security selection, which takes these and many other factors into consideration.
STEP 1: Due Diligence
Rigorous research and due diligence are the foundation of our investment process, enabling us to develop a thorough understanding of each individual company and issuer under consideration. Our global industry analysts visit companies across the globe and meet with senior management teams in our office. We often attend industry conferences and talk with competitors, customers, and suppliers to develop a well-rounded view of a company’s fundamental strengths and weaknesses.
ESG-related issues may be material to the long-term sustainability of a particular company’s competitive advantage. Such issues may present unique challenges or opportunities for companies and industries that could impact long-term investment performance. Therefore, as part of our due diligence process, we consider various ESG factors, including:
- Chemical safety
- Emissions, pollution, contamination
- Management of environmental risks
- Raw material sourcing
- Supply chain management
- Community relations
- Customer satisfaction
- Employee and union relations
- Human health impacts
- Safety practices
- Board structure
- Capital allocation
- Company bylaws & articles
- Management incentive structures
- Shareholder and bondholder rights
In addition to our own analysis of ESG issues, we review reports from MSCI ESG Research and other third-party providers to help alert us to any significant related issues pertaining to the companies and issuers we are evaluating. While taking this research into consideration, we ultimately make an independent evaluation of the material ESG factors for each company.
STEP 2: Written Analysis
Our global industry analysts develop three- to five-year growth, earnings, and cash flow projections, along with a detailed assessment of the risks and opportunities, to derive a range of potential investment returns over our investment horizon. They analyze the past drivers of the business and determine the materiality of selected ESG issues. Our analysts present their findings in thorough written reports that represent formal buy and sell recommendations based on the combination of a wide range of analytical inputs.
Analysts systematically integrate ESG considerations into their research reports and provide a qualitative overview of the significant ESG risks and opportunities they have examined. The qualitative ESG overview is recorded in an ESG Risks and Opportunities Checklist (see Appendix) that is included as part of the analyst’s recommendation report. If we have engaged with a company on ESG issues, the company’s responses will also be incorporated into our report.
STEP 3: Weighing Valuation Is Essential
As bottom-up, value-oriented investors, we weigh a company’s valuation against its risks and opportunities. Our emphasis on value often leads us to find opportunities where other investors have become overly pessimistic about current challenges. We may decide to invest in a company that has a significant ESG issue if we believe the company is making progress in resolving the issue or we conclude that the issue is exerting an unwarranted impact on the valuation.
STEP 4: Investment Decision-Making Process
Our analysts’ written analysis is subject to peer review by Sector Committees, whose members rigorously vet analyst recommendations, stress test assumptions, and identify areas for additional research. The Sector Committees will consider material ESG issues as part of their role in advising the Investment Committees on intra-sector relative value.
Our Investment Committees then review analyst and Sector Committee recommendations and consider a particular investment’s risks and opportunities before approving new investments or changes in the size of existing holdings.
Note: For separately managed accounts, we will adhere to specific ESG driven screens or restrictions when directed by the client.
Why governance matters to value-oriented, long-term investors
We believe governance factors—defined as the system of rules, practices, and processes through which a company is directed and controlled—are material for every company. Strong governance is expressed in the way a company makes decisions and balances the interests of all of its stakeholders, including shareholders, bondholders, employees, management, customers, suppliers, and the communities in which it operates.
As investors with a three- to five-year investment horizon and low portfolio turnover, we closely analyze a company’s governance structure and monitor related issues. We look for core attributes of an effective corporate governance system, as shown in the diagram below.(d) We seek to understand how the company makes decisions and
Core Attributes of an Effective Corporate Governance System
Source: Clayman, Fridson, and Troughton. “Corporate Finance: A Practical Approach.”
assess whether management is truly running the company for the benefit of its long-term owners. Management’s past behavior, in particular how they balance stakeholder interests, can provide valuable insights.
We also assess risks pertaining to business ethics, ownership structure, board composition, financial accounting and reporting practices, regulatory interventions, and litigation. For example: Has the company adopted takeover defenses or issued share classes with different voting rights that unduly favor incumbent management? Are board members qualified? Is there an independent majority on the Board?
We spend considerable time gathering information and corroborating our findings with a variety of sources, which may include:
- Speaking directly with a company’s management and board members;
- Cross-checking assertions of corporate management teams (e.g., holding in-depth conversations with providers of finance);
- Talking with industry consultants, brokerage firm analysts, credit rating agency analysts, macro economists, competitors, and customers;
- Reviewing information in trade periodicals and business publications as well as various database services; and
- Enlisting legal counsel to research and evaluate corporate structures and legal entitlements.
WE ENGAGE WITH COMPANIES AS ACTIVE OWNERS, NOT AS ACTIVISTS
There is an important distinction between being an activist investor and an active owner in a company. Activist investors may purchase shares in a public company and/or try to obtain seats on the company’s board with the short-term purpose of creating a major change in the company. Active owners expect management teams to run their businesses with a focus on creating long-term value.
As active owners, we seek to build constructive long-term relationships with boards and management teams, rather than filing shareholder resolutions or joining public campaigns. We engage with the management of a company when we believe their decisions are not aligned with the best interests of long-term shareholders. These may include decisions that provide short-term benefits but ultimately harm company stakeholders in the long run.
When we have concerns that we believe have not been addressed adequately to protect the long-term value of the company, we may choose to adjust our position or express our views through our proxy votes on management and shareholder proposals.
Engaging Directly With Management
We believe that undertaking and maintaining a dialogue with management is an important aspect of investment analysis and critical to building our understanding
of management’s priorities and strategies. We seek to understand management’s views on key issues that are important to its business. These could include capital allocation, investment decisions, cost structures, quality of workforce, environmental considerations, diversity of management, diversity of board, and a host of other issues. We do not have opinions on everything a company does, but when we do, we want to be able to share our views with management when merited. Conversely, management teams have sought our input on various issues, including capital allocation, remuneration practices, governance structure, and board composition.
Expressing Our Views Through Proxy Votes
Proxy voting is an effective mechanism to express our views about ESG issues. Our policy is to vote proxies in a way that we believe best serves the interests of our clients as long-term shareholders of a company, which includes voting on issues with ESG implications. We vote securities for which we have full proxy voting authority
consistently across all of our portfolios in accordance with the Dodge & Cox Proxy Voting Policies and Procedures, which can be found on our website.
Just as we thoroughly research each investment, we also diligently evaluate each proxy initiative. In addition to undertaking our own analyses, our proxy team reviews research provided by Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS) and Glass Lewis prior to voting. Once the team has recommended a vote and the global industry analyst has ratified the decision where applicable, the proxy voting team implements the voting decisions.
While we do not vote proxies to conform to specific ESG criteria or an ESG mandate, the Proxy Voting Policy does address ESG issues. We evaluate each proposal on a case-by-case basis and vote in a way that we believe will best preserve the long-term value of our clients’ shares in the company.
When items are not covered by our Proxy Voting Policy, the global industry analyst recommends a vote, and the proposal and the analyst’s recommendation are then evaluated by one or more members of the Dodge & Cox Proxy Policy Committee.
In our opinion, ESG issues do not lend themselves to hard and fast rules or metrics. In fact, some ESG factors may be more salient than others in certain situations or for specific companies or industries.
At Dodge & Cox, ESG considerations are embedded in each phase of our investment due diligence and decision-making processes. Material ESG factors are important considerations when assessing the range of investment risks and opportunities. Our task as active owners is to identify whether the company is addressing issues we deem material or the market is overly pessimistic about the risks. As a value-oriented manager, we may invest in a company that has a significant ESG issue if we believe that the company is making progress or if the issue is overly discounting the company’s valuation. We invest for the long term and look for companies with sustainable franchises.
The use of specific examples does not imply that they are more or less attractive investments than the portfolios’ other holdings. Akzo Nobel, Axis Bank, Engie, Kinder Morgan, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, and HP Inc.were held in one or more of the Dodge & Cox Funds as of March 31, 2018.
Opinions expressed are subject to change without notice. Before investing in any Dodge & Cox Fund, you should carefully consider the Fund’s investment objectives, risks, and charges and expenses. To obtain a Fund’s prospectus and summary prospectus, which contain this and other important information, visit dodgeandcox.com or call 800-621-3979. Please read the prospectus and summary prospectus carefully before investing.
1 For more information, see http://www.unpri.org/about/the-six-principles.
2 Khan, Mozaffar, George Serafeim, and Aaron Yoon. “Corpo-rate Sustainability: First Evidence on Materiality.” The Account-ing Review 91, no. 6 (2016): 1697-1724.
3 Dunn, Jeff, Shaun Fitzgibbons, and Lukasz Pomorski. “As-sessing Risk Through Environmental, Social, and Governance Exposures.” AQR Capital Management, LLC (2016).
4 Clayman, Michelle R., Martin S. Fridson, and George H. Troughton.Corporate Finance: A Practical Approach. Vol. 42. John Wiley & Sons, 2012.