Members of the public are giving the U.S. Department of Labor an earful about its proposed rule restricting environmental, social and governance-themed investments within tax-qualified retirement plans. Several investor organizations and financial industry firms made an analysis of the public comments and announced their findings Thursday.
The critics are taking on the DOL’s proposed rule, known as “Financial Factors in Selecting Plan Investments.” It suggests that plan fiduciaries governed by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) are to consider only the financial ramifications of investments they choose.
“This innocuous sounding description conceals the real purpose of the [rule], which is to limit the use of investments that consider environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) issues in worker retirement plans,” said the release from US SIF: The Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment.
The group found that nearly 96% of the 8,636 public comments, most by individuals, were made in opposition to the DOL’s proposed rulemaking. Only 4% of comments expressed support for it, and a scant 1% expressed a neutral view or recommended the changes without clearly expressing support or opposition.
Besides individuals, the opposition was especially high among “investment-related groups,” which includes asset managers, financial advisors, financial service providers, asset owners, pension plans and investment organizations. Among 229 comments from such groups, 94% were opposed, 2% were in favor and 4% were mixed or neutral.
A second group of non-investment organizations (including policy groups, academics and trade associations) also saw a majority (57%) opposed the rule, while a third of their 120 comments expressed the highest level of support for it. A small minority (6%) expressed neutral views.
Some of the rule’s detractors said the DOL did not make the case for it by providing evidence that fiduciaries choosing investments for ESG criteria are likely to have lower returns.
Others suggested that the rule puts burdens and restrictions on fiduciaries who want to use ESG criteria, and say incorporating such factors into investment decisions ought to be part of a fiduciary duty. The commenters said that singling out ESG for a heightened level of scrutiny and restriction was inappropriate.
Lisa Woll, the CEO of US SIF, said in a press release that the overwhelming public response in opposition to the DOL’s proposed rulemaking reflected the growing interest in and asset flows to sustainable investing.
“Generating more hurdles to the incorporation of ESG criteria will have a chilling effect, leading to plan participants losing access to ESG options—many of which have outperformed their indices over time and especially during the market shock related to Covid-19,” she said. “Limiting plan participant options and diversification opportunities should not be the role of the Department of Labor.”
The 30-day public comment period on the proposal ended July 30.
Among the organizations involved in the analysis besides US SIF were the sustainability non-profit organization Ceres; the Intentional Endowments Network, a peer network of colleges, universities and other institutional investors; the AFL-CIO union; the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, a shareholder advocacy group; the specialist asset manager Impax Asset Management; and data analysis provider Morningstar.