ESG gains more importance


KL-based fund manager Areca Capital’s CEO Danny Wong tells StarBizWeek that ESG issues are increasingly becoming more important in investment decisions and that it can affect a company’s valuations.

COMPANIES in Malaysia need to pay more attention to environmental, social, and governance (ESG) matters from now on as investors are placing a higher emphasis on it.

This may also be more pertinent for companies that have fund managers as shareholders who pay close attention to ESG issues.

KL-based fund manager Areca Capital’s CEO Danny Wong tells StarBizWeek that ESG issues are increasingly becoming more important in investment decisions and that it can affect a company’s valuations.

“More people and funds are adopting a more responsible investing style.

“Even if there are some who do not see it as important, most in the Malaysian market are paying increased attention to ESG issues, ” Wong says.

“There are effects on these companies’ valuations in a way that they might not be able to command a higher valuation when compared to their peers.

“Say there is a strong recovery or rebound in share prices in a particular industry, then the company that refuses to pay attention to this matter would see only minimal gains in its share price, ” Wong adds.

He notes that even if there are funds that do not look at this factor, there would be others that would pay attention to ESG and this would then influence the company’s valuations.

“It is important to have good governance, good management in place.

“And stakeholders such as a company’s workers must be treated fairly, also looking at the social and environmental impact of the company’s business, ” Wong says.

“Companies that do not pay attention to ESG matters can eventually fall off the radar of investors, as it is hard to get other investors’ support (if they want to sell or liquidate their investment in the future).

“Other factors or red flags that funds look at is also a shareholder who is very dominant on the board, ” he adds.

He notes that the profit of such companies would be eventually be affected when stakeholders find out the truth and they would be dealt with by their customers or regulators.

Over the week, Top Glove Corp Bhd, which is the world’s largest rubber glove maker, received a rebuke, so to speak, from the world’s largest fund manager BlackRock Inc.

BlackRock, through BlackRock Institutional Trust Co, is the 10th largest shareholder of Top Glove, holding 1.07% of its shares.

BlackRock notes that there were severe shortcomings in management and oversight of workers’ health and safety-related issues at Top Glove.

It also says that the Top Glove board was ineffective in Covid-19 mitigation and there was an oversight of worker’s health and safety issues.

The asset manager says in its Vote Bulletin that the BlackRock Investment Stewardship team (BIS) had voted against the proposed re-election of six independent non-executive directors on the board of Top Glove due to the above-mentioned issues.

It was also reported that another shareholder of Top Glove, Norges Bank Investment Management, had also voted against the directors of Top Glove following widespread news of its workers having contracted the Covid-19 disease.

In its bulletin note, BlackRock implied that it was led to believe that Top Glove’s workers’ living conditions were otherwise deemed alright and decent.

“The investigations conducted by the Human Resources Ministry and the United States Customs and Border Protection (US CBP), together with the whistleblower’s account and other media reports, have shown that Top Glove’s workers live in dense, unsuitable accommodations with a lack of proper ventilation and physical distancing – a stark contrast to what the board has conveyed to shareholders, ” BlackRock says.

“Despite the board and management’s reassurance that Covid-19 preventive measures have been implemented since the start of the pandemic, a quarter of its workers have since been infected with the virus, with one associated death, ” it adds.

Despite BlackRock’s and Norges Bank not being able to alter the composition of the Top Glove board, it had somewhat re-enacted the state of affairs of its workers and this has also brought to light the importance of such matters to investors these days.

The Employees Provident Fund on Friday announced that it had ceased to be a substantial shareholder of Top Glove.

Top Glove reportedly responded to BlackRock’s rebuke on Friday noting that its independent directors have served an average of six years and that the board meets regularly to discuss the pandemic and other governance matters.

The debacle appears to have begun in July 2020 after the US CBP placed a detention order on Top Glove Sdn Bhd and TG Medical Sdn Bhd as it encountered issues with its treatment of foreign workers.

Another Malaysian company seems to have come under a similar spotlight recently as well.

Last week, Sime Darby Plantation Bhd (SDP) said that it had been issued with a Withhold Release Order (WRO) from the US CBP.

The US CBP had reportedly said that palm oil and products containing palm oil produced by SDP and its subsidiaries, joint ventures and affiliated entities in Malaysia would be detained at all US ports of entry due to forced labour allegations.

According to the CBP, the issuance of the WRO against SDP’s products is based on information that “reasonably indicates” the presence of all 11 of the International Labour Organisation’s forced labour indicators in SDP’s production process.

The Malaysian Palm Oil Certification Council (MPOCC) says that it was concerned about this new development, taking note of its certification scheme which is mandatory for all planters.

MPOCC says that the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil certification scheme has clear and strong requirements on workers’ rights and health and safety, and that no forms of forced or trafficked labour were used.

Moody’s Investors Service, meanwhile, had reportedly said on Thursday that the WRO from the US CBP is credit-negative, noting that the situation could damage SDP’s relationship with customers and other stakeholders, and may potentially cause large losses in earnings.

This could in turn weaken its credit profile.

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