Evaluating an ESG Approach to Short-term Cash Management

Corporate cash management strategies have long focused on attributes like yield, stability, and liquidity, but today forward-looking treasury departments are adding another criterion: social responsibility. An environmental, social, and governance (ESG) approach to treasury management applies socially-responsible investing strategies to money market and other short-term cash investments.

These strategies enable companies to invest for positive impact. At the same time, treasury teams can avoid the risks that can come from holding securities issued by companies with poor ESG practices, including: regulatory issues, fines, lawsuits, boycotts, negative publicity, and loss of customer trust.

The rise of ESG investing practices

Over the last several decades, increasing numbers of institutional and individual investors have sought to align their portfolios with their values. In 1995, the Foundation for Sustainable and Responsible Investment (US:SIF) reported just $639 billion in U.S.-domiciled ESG assets; by 2018, these assets had grown 18-fold to more than $12 trillion.

ESG-focused asset managers invest in companies that protect the environment, foster a diverse and inclusive workforce, respect human rights, and practice strong governance policies.

Up to now, asset managers mostly applied ESG to longer-term investments, such as stocks and bonds in pension portfolios. In recent years, however, institutional investors—at first in Northern Europe and now increasingly in the U.S.—have begun to extend ESG analysis to their short-term cash portfolios, too.

Fitch Ratings found that ESG-screened money market assets grew by 15% to $52 billion in the first half of 2019 after increasing by just 1% throughout all of 2018. Even with this accelerating growth, ESG-focused short-term investments still make up a small portion of the $6 trillion in global money market investments.

ESG analysis of short-term securities has been difficult historically. Managers of money market funds and other short-term investments operate in a market with relatively few issuers, compared to stock and bond markets. A focus on liquidity, quality, and yield further constrains the pool of available investments.

Screening for ESG characteristics can have an outsized impact because there are simply not as many alternatives as there are in other markets. In addition, data on the ESG characteristics of short-term debt issuers has been scarce, but this is starting to change.

The Sustainability Accounting Standards Boards’ Materiality Map identifies key ESG issues in each industry, which gives investors an easy way to analyze exposure to specific sustainability risks and opportunities. Similarly, the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals now highlight 17 areas where companies, governments, and other organizations can have a positive ESG impact. Many corporations are now linking their ESG reporting and objectives to these development goals.

A number of third-party data and analytics companies, including vendors like Sustainalytics, have also emerged to provide data on the ESG risks of specific short-term debt issuers. Fitch Rating recently launched a scoring system that shows how ESG impacts individual credit rating decisions. Similarly, S&P Global Ratings published its first ESG-focused credit rating in the summer of 2019.

All these new tools will make integrating ESG analysis into short-term investments easier and more effective as interest in these strategies grows.

The business case for ESG

ESG appeals to investors because of its potential for social good, but it is also a way of analyzing and reducing risk.

In particular, this type of research helps investors understand three types of exposure:

  • Environmental risk: Companies with strong environmental practices are less likely to experience costly accidents. For instance, the Elk River chemical spill in 2014 leaked toxic chemicals into nine counties in West Virginia and eventually caused the bankruptcy of Freedom Industries, the company responsible for storing the chemicals.
  • Social: Organizations that protect human rights and provide a safe, equitable working environment are less vulnerable to boycotts and lawsuits. Examples include the class action lawsuit against Goldman Sachs for equal pay or the $10 billion settlement against Purdue Pharma for its role in creating the opioid crisis.
  • Governance: Strong governance practices, like establishing an independent, diverse board, can help companies avoid taking on inappropriate risks. Poor governance was a factor in the Enron accounting scandal of 2001, which triggered the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history.

Companies that score high in ESG screening have attractive investment characteristics.

One global aggregation study by Oxford Partners and BNP Paribas analyzed 200 different academic papers on ESG and investment performance. It found that 88% of the studies it reviewed linked robust sustainability practices with better operational performance and stronger cash flows, while 80% demonstrated that prudent sustainability practices had a positive influence on investment performance.

ESG analysis in short-term securities is still evolving, but a variety of ESG-screened money market products are starting to emerge for the treasury marketplace.

In 2018, Federated Investors purchased a majority stake of ESG specialist Hermes Fund Managers. This was partly to add ESG capabilities to its market-leading family of money market funds. Blackrock, DWS, and State Street all launched ESG-screened cash products in 2019, significantly adding to the capacity for what had previously been a niche market area.

How companies are applying ESG to the treasury management function

Adding ESG to the investment management function may seem complex, but often it builds on existing socially responsible practices.

Many companies already have mission-aligned investment guidelines that determine how they allocate cash investments to minority-, women-, or veteran-owned asset managers.

Companies also already perform extensive research to reduce risk in their cash investment portfolios. It may add clarity to think of ESG investigation as another form of risk management—akin to credit or duration analysis.

There are a variety of tools available to analyze ESG risks, from non-governmental entities like the UN, ratings agencies, and third-party research providers. Treasury departments don’t have to develop this expertise on their own.

Even so, integrating ESG into treasury management is a collaborative, customized process, requiring an understanding of a treasury organization’s unique set of goals, constraints, and values.  Finding the right ESG solutions requires a broad, comprehensive view of market providers, granular research into portfolio holdings, and an unbiased approach dedicated solely to meeting investor goals.  

Independent Trading Portals: Avoiding the Hidden Risks of Bank Portals

Treasury professionals understand the language of risk.

This includes financial risks, reputational risk, and cyber-security risks that can affect their operations.

Treasury teams must also be especially aware of the inherent risks and exposures within their systems and processes.

That’s why the largest, most sophisticated treasury departments are exploring independent treasury portals to meet their needs. A recent survey found that around 37% of organizations with revenues exceeding $1 billion expect to use non-traditional vendors for treasury services in the future.

Non-traditional vendors, in this case, include “vendors other than banks that are offering niche services…” Firms interested in these independent portals cite flexibility and adaptability (58%) and specialized expertise (51%) as top reasons to switch, followed by customization (31%), lower costs (30%), better customer service (21%), and cutting-edge technology (17%).

But treasury is notoriously risk-averse, and many still rely on bank-owned portals because they have a long-standing relationship with the bank. Nonetheless, there are three hidden risks in bank portals that organizations can avoid by using an independently-owned portal.

Hidden risk of bank portals #1: Leverage

Treasury departments that use bank-owned portals give those banks access to their entire network of internal and external cash management relationships.

This reduces the treasury organization’s leverage in demanding reduced fees or other concessions from the bank-owned portal. The bank will often counter by asking the treasury department to move additional assets to their funds.

An independent portal, on the other hand, gives treasury professionals real-time visibility into all their funds, and flexibility to share their information with whichever banks they so choose – and with any vendors that are part of their treasury workflow. An independent portal also provides unbiased access to hundreds of funds without any pressure to choose one over another.

Hidden risk of bank portals #2: Difficulties in integrating with existing systems

Teams that manage independent portals, by contrast, are used to working with different third-party technologies. They know how to integrate their platform into the broad market of treasury technology providers, and how to maximize the workflow efficiency of the total solution set. They are focused solely on meeting the needs of customers.

Before signing on with any portal provider, get a sense of the integration process by asking about how many times the bank has integrated to the technologies used to support your treasury operations.  Ask to speak with other clients with similar technology configurations to the systems used by your organization. Inquire what technology resources will be responsible for putting the integration in place and who will maintain the connectivity after the portal is live.

By talking about these issues early in the selection process, treasury professionals can get an idea of how easy, or disruptive, the portal setup will be.

Hidden risk of bank portals #3: Obsolescence

Treasury technology is evolving fast. Cutting-edge platforms already integrate AI, machine learning and robotic process automation (RPA) into their services. But technology is expensive, and portals are never a bank’s primary revenue stream. As a result, the parent company may be slow to invest in technology. This may result in functionality that is out of date or lacking key capabilities.

For example, one technology platform is still unable to calculate floating NAV for money market funds—even three years after money market reform.

Independently-owned portals invest in technology continuously because the portal is their only business. They often release enhancements multiple times per month and treat client feedback as business imperatives.

Independent portals continue to innovate as new technologies and market challenges emerge. The idea is to develop a platform that not only works well today but can be adapted to meet clients’ needs going forward.

Independent portals can future-proof treasury functions, so that no matter how markets, regulations, or technology change, the treasury department can continue to support corporate objectives.

Independent portals reduce treasury risk

Using a bank-owned portal may seem like the path of least resistance, especially when treasury departments have long-standing relationships with the institutions that own them. Sticking with a familiar solution may seem sensible, but, in fact, it exposes treasury groups to additional risks.

Independent portals reduce those risks with unbiased market access, streamlined integration, customization, and a commitment to continuous innovation.

6 Questions to Consider When Choosing a Trading Portal

The world’s most sophisticated treasury departments today manage cash across various markets, asset classes, geographies, and in multiple currencies. The group’s central function is to manage cash and ensure it's available when the business requires. But, ensuring access to capital is offset by the shareholder’s desire to maximize returns on idle cash, so treasury must have a balanced view and invest proactively to protect capital and provide liquidity – all while trying to achieve competitive yields.

It’s a complex business, and it requires cutting-edge tools that provide integrated market discovery, trading, and reporting capabilities.

Trading portals for short-term investments offer treasury professionals these tools at no cost; however, choosing a portal provider requires significant due diligence.

Not all portals are created equal

Treasury teams need to be sure that the portal they select has the right funds to meet their requirements. But there are other considerations as well.

Here are six questions treasury organizations should ask to ensure a portal meets their needs.   

#1: Who owns the portal?

Some portals are owned by banks and are offered as an ancillary service to their cash management clients. Others are independently owned by companies that focus solely on supporting and developing the portal offering.

The ownership structure has significant implications for the type of products and quality of services a portal provides.  For instance, some bank portals favor their own proprietary products, while independent portals provide unbiased access to hundreds of investment vehicles.

Banks often see their portals as a secondary business, meant to strengthen ties with asset management clients. As a result, they may not devote significant resources to maintaining and upgrading the portal.

Independent portal providers are 100% focused on treasury services. They compete for business by offering up-to-date technology, cutting-edge functionality, and dedicated customer service.

#2: Is the portal future-proof?

Short-term investments technology is constantly evolving to handle new products, compliance requirements, and a dynamic global marketplace. It’s important to make sure a portal is not only relevant now, but that it also has the capacity to adapt to changing conditions in the future.

Treasury organizations should evaluate the resources a prospective portal provider has allocated to technology—including dedicated staff, customer service, and R&D budgets.

It’s smart to inquire about how potential providers have adapted to recent industry changes, such as money market reform, the global credit crisis, or the IRS’ new rules on simplified capital gains and loss reporting. Treasury professionals may also want to know about other new technologies in development, like automated trade settlement.

Ideally, a treasury portal should keep its clients a step ahead of a rapidly changing industry. That means, not only adapting technology to provide new and improved functionality, but also sharing insights into an evolving environment.

Ask for examples of any potential provider’s white papers and briefs. Find out if they’ve been recognized for innovation by treasury industry organizations, publications, or other third-party evaluators. Try to get a sense for how each provider shares information with clients; they may be your main source of insight for important changes that will affect the treasury function.

#3: How well does the portal company communicate and collaborate?

Treasury portal technology has to work seamlessly with treasury management software and processes. Onboarding new clients and managing the transition requires regular collaboration.

Good portal technology providers will work with their clients to solve their problems and, in the process, develop new functionalities that work for other clients, too. Ask providers if any of their platforms’ key features were developed based on client input.

Because collaboration is critical, communication matters, too. Treasury professionals may want to talk directly to high-level executives at the portal provider to get answers about configuring and optimizing the platform for their use.  Find out how easy it is to get in touch with the portal’s leadership team, including the chief technology officer.

#4: How does the portal make money?

Different portal providers have various revenue sources, which may have an effect on the breadth and quality of the services they offer.

Banks, for instance, may not expect to make much money from their portal — but make up for it by selling proprietary cash management products or other corporate banking offerings. Independent portals, on the other hand, generally earn a small percentage of the embedded management fees that fund companies charge the end-client.  Given the “intermediary” business model, and sole reliance on customers investing through their application, independent providers have to build their business on service and innovative technology.  In the end, it is their whole business, so they are more likely to be fully focused on it.

#5: How can I get the most out of my treasury technology?

The saying goes, use “the right tool for the right job,” which is true, but the right investment portal can actually amplify the impact of the other “tools” in the tech stack.  Since every treasury organization is unique, it is critical to work with a partner who has experience integrating with the broader market of treasury technology providers and knows how to maximize the workflow efficiency of the total solution set.

The following questions can help teams get a sense of what to expect:

  • Will the portal integrate seamlessly with existing treasury management systems, or will the treasury team have to adapt and retrofit their software?
  • Are there additional processes and tools that the treasury staff will need in order to use the portal, or can it work with existing applications?
  • Is reporting integrated into the platform, and can it incorporate off-portal investments?

By talking about these issues early in the selection process, treasury professionals can get an idea of how easy, or disruptive, the portal setup will be.

#6: How do clients feel about the portal?

Sales presentations and marketing materials can only reveal so much about a portal provider. Current and former clients offer the best insights into how portal technologies and services function in the real world.

Customer surveys and evaluations can provide critical information.  Statistics on client turnover can demonstrate how well —or how poorly — portals are meeting client needs. Teams can also speak directly to clients about their experiences. Especially helpful are clients that are similar in size or in the same industry.

Talk to your peers, it is a small treasury community and personal references should be weighted heavily and where there’s evidence of significant client losses, find out why customers left.

Find the right investment portal partner

The right portal can make a treasury department’s job easier, streamlining processes and identifying the best investment products that match an organization’s specific needs. But not all portals are alike.

Asking these six questions ahead of time will help treasury professionals find the best portal for their organization’s needs.