Is The Money Moving Away From Sustainability?

Sustainability professionals just got a kick in the gut, or a boost in confidence depending on how you look at it.

Jason Karp of Tourbillon Capital, a $3.7 billion hedge fund, wrote a letter to investors earlier this summer stating “One of today’s greatest market inefficiencies may stem from the scarcity of capital devoted toward long-term, fundamental investing.” He continued, “People are just paying significantly more for assets without any fundamental improvement in those assets… big multiples got bigger while fundamentals remained the same.”

We’ve all known about short-termism for some time, but this got me thinking – just how far has equities valuation moved away from business fundamentals? And if disparities between stock price and the company’s underlying fundamentals continue as Karp cautions, might that call into question whether foundational principles of sustainability value are valid? This could be an existential crisis for the concept of sustainability.

There are differing schools of thought about equities valuation, including the “efficient market” and behavioral economics. The efficient market theory is similar to Adam Smith’s invisible hand – the market analyzes all available information about a company and the stock price quickly adjusts in response. Behavioral economics theorizes that stock prices are a result of imprecise impressions and beliefs – human emotions and gut feelings rather than formal analyses.

On one hand, it could be argued that increased sustainability transparency helps an efficient market and should provide a “feel good” basis for less rational decisions short term (i.e., behavioral economics). Numerous studies over at least a decade have generally shown inconclusive results at best.

Yet sustainability is inherently a long-term view and business fundamentals are also a reflection of a company’s anticipated future. Karp’s comments demonstrate the difficulty sustainability practitioners have had in attracting management attention.

The same thinking is mirrored in recent comments from Tim Koller, a principal in McKinsey & Company’s New York office.  When asked about sustainability, he said

I think we have to separate the mechanics of valuation from what managers should be doing to maximize a company’s value and how investors react to the whole thing. For hundreds of years, the value of a company has ultimately come down to the cash flows it generated. That’s what you can spend as an owner, whether you’re a private owner or whether you’re a shareholder in a large company.

Now, there have been periods of time when people said, “Oh, the rules are changing.” For example, during the dot-com bubble, all of a sudden, people said, “Traditional methods of valuation don’t make sense anymore—look at all these companies with high valuations that have nothing to do with cash flow.” Well, ultimately, it was the lack of cash flow that brought those companies’ valuations back down.

That sums it up pretty well.

But lets be honest here – $3.7B really isn’t that big a fund so its’ sphere of influence is limited. Still…

 

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