Capitalism must be saved by capitalists, argue these pioneering ESG investors

Fortune |Katherine Dunn | Nov 15, 2020

Rise of citizen capital - Capitalism must be saved by capitalists, argue these pioneering ESG investorsWhen Michael O’Leary and Warren Valdmanis first met at Bain Capital’s offices in Asia, both were more or less conventional members of the finance profession. And yet, years later, they would become the coauthors of a book arguing that American-style capitalism—including a “meatheaded” obsession with short-term profits—is doing dire damage. Our economic system, they argue, urgently needs a reboot.

In their recent book, Accountable: The Rise of Citizen Capitalism, they argue that Adam Smith–style invisible hand capitalism is ineffective—and out of date—and that companies need to reorient themselves to serve more than just shareholders (which, by the way, they don’t think are being served particularly well, either).

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Both authors, who were on the founding team behind Bain’s first social impact investing fund under former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, spoke to Fortune about the rise of ESG (environmental, social, and governance) investing, the divestment moveme

nt (and whether it actually works), the Business Roundtable’s pledge to end shareholder primacy, and where companies—and investors—can be the most effective.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

You talk a lot in the book about the skepticism or the outright cynicism regular people—but especially people in the investment world—have toward ESG and socially responsible investing. Was that the place that you guys started from?

Valdmanis: I admit that I was skeptical. I was schooled in this Adam Smith invisible hand idea, that if you just go about your business of creating more valuable companies and creating shareholder value, that’s going to have knock-on effects that are positive for the world. So I didn’t feel this need to add a social adjective in front of it. But I swiftly realized a couple of things through the effort with Governor Patrick.

“You have an economy where the buck is passed around and around and around until, poof, it disappears.”  Michael o’Leary, coauthor of accountable

The first is that the invisible hand [idea] is a really attractive one, but it doesn’t always work that way. I think, frankly, even Adam Smith, if you read his work closely, you realize that he didn’t even intend the way it’s currently understood and used. But furthermore, I also realized, there is enormous potential at the intersection of the social and the commercial. I think that we have this meatheaded short-term-ism in our economy that prevents even businesses from realizing what’s in their long-term best interests sometimes.

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O’Leary: I don’t think we recognized going in how that generational difference really shows up in a lot of people’s fundamental views around capitalism. You look at the portion of millennials and Gen Z who approve of capitalism or have a favorable view of capitalism, that’s fallen from two-thirds in 2010, to just about half today. And I think millennials just approach these questions with a different view. You ask folks, “Is sustainability or ESG important to investing?” And nine out of 10 millennials will say, “Yes, of course you should be thinking about environmental and social issues in your investment portfolio.” And 40% of baby boomers, maybe less, will agree. And so I think you approach the question from a slightly different angle—I think with less skepticism—when you’re of a younger generation.

“I think that we have this meatheaded short-term-ism in our economy that prevents even businesses from realizing what’s in their long-term best interests sometimes.”  warren valdmanis, coauthor of Accountable

I was struck in the book how you talk about what you call this “rational hypocrisy” that companies have to deal with.

O’Leary: If you’re a CEO today, you’ve got demands from shareholders to maximize profits; you’ve got demands from all of your stakeholders to do good things for people. And when you’re faced with these conflicting demands, it’s much easier to fake good works than it is to fake good returns. So as a result, they exhibit a sort of rational hypocrisy, where they say different things to different audiences. The best evidence of this would be all the companies out there that issue two different annual reports: a 10-K and then a corporate social responsibility report, or a sustainability report, for all their stakeholders. And oftentimes, there’s no relationship between the two.

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I look at the crisis of trust we have in our economy where three-quarters of people don’t trust Big Business; people don’t trust corporate executives. So you roll back the clock to last December, before the pandemic hit. And in some ways it’s so easy when you’re in the 11th year of an economic boom for CEOs to say, “No, we’re good for shareholders; we’re good for stakeholders; we’re good for workers; we’re good for everyone.” The opportunity that the pandemic gave business leaders is in times of crisis—that’s when they can actually show what they meant in their commitments. And they can show that when they said their workers are the most important thing about their business…Prove it.

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