Indie Economics

Wall Street’s Inner Sanctum

David Brancaccio Sep 29, 2014

Once during the roaring ’90s, I was ushered into the high temple of Wall Street. You might be thinking Goldman Sachs, but its headquarters are near, but not on, Wall Street. The high temple of Wall Street is the big church that presides over the street’s high end, Trinity.

I was interviewing the Rev. Dan Matthews, the Episcopal priest who was, at the time, rector of Trinity. The topic was what we then called “socially responsible investment,” a way to apply an investor’s personal values to a portfolio. Trinity owns a lot of Manhattan real estate and I was curious if the parish screens its massive portfolio to be sure it doesn’t own securities in companies that do things the church finds morally repugnant. 

Not really, came the answer. Matthews told me that his board of directors consisted of captains of Wall Street, and, try as he might, he could never get his vestry to agree on good versus bad companies (beyond their capacities to generate future profits). There was a strong view that it was the board’s fiduciary responsibility to make sure the church’s portfolio generated the best return. It was the job of priests and parishioners to then decide what good works could be done with the proceeds.

That was 18 years ago, and the movement has come a long, long way. Many practitioners have taken the word “social” out of the acronym; it’s still SRI, but Socially Responsible Investing now stands for Sustainable, Responsible, Impact investing. It involves much more than screening out companies that do stuff you don’t like (like despoiling the Earth). It can also mean rewarding companies that do better than their peers to address social ills as you, the investor, see them. SRI is also about shareholder engagement. Investors are part-owners of companies and can band together to pressure management to clean up its act.

All those years ago, SRI might have come off as hippie investing money management for the granola set. Now, it’s very big business, with some of the largest investment companies in the world prepared to screen portfolios.

It may be that this month SRI reached a new milestone: a high-level call for governments to help with this movement. Some of the most powerful people in the world have, in essence, endorsed what they label as Impact Investing. British Prime Minister David Cameron, as then-head of the Group of Eight club of nations, had called for a committee to be pulled together on the subject. The U.S., Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Australia and the European Union delegated one senior official and one prominent figure from the private sector to the group. Their mission: to figure out ways to take Impact Investing to the next level, so it can do even more to make the world a better place. The project grew out of the sense that persists after the great financial collapse of 2008 that the world of finance needs to “build a health society rather than endanger it.”

You’ve heard of the “invisible hand”? The group has just released a report calling “Impact Investing” the “invisible heart” of markets. I spoke with Matthew Bishop, New York Bureau Chief for The Economist magazine, who served as the fancy group’s reporter. He said the group embraced the notion of “three-dimensional investing,” adding social and environmental impact to the usual elements of risk and reward. He is also excited about new ways of measuring the effects of impact investing.

What’s next? The report argues that it is now time for governments to play a key role in markets that make the world healthier by making sure that regulations aren’t a stumbling block for these social innovations. Government can also make sure that when it spends its big money, it does its part to demand the similar kinds of social returns that investors may increasingly ask of their portfolios. 

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