Germany’s first Sustainable Finance Summit: new contributions to discourse on a sustainable finance sector

The Hub for Sustainable Finance has concluded its first public convening. Representatives of the finance sector, supervisory authorities, civil society, the sciences and the political arena discussed how the financial system can become more sustainable. Here, you can read a selection of key contributions to the discussion – and about what the Hub will be doing going forward.

In the run-up to the conference, the organisations responsible for the Hub for Sustainable Finance outlined in ten recommendations what it would be concerning itself with on a content level. This served to focus the discussion. In six rounds of discussions, the some 200 participants developed ideas and suggestions that can take practical application and quality in the sustainable finance sector forward. The participants were united in their view of the topic’s urgency.

“All of you sitting here know where the obstacles to sustainable finance lie, where the limits to your business models are and what is preventing you from scaling up your activities,” affirmed Marlehn Thieme, Chairwoman of the German Sustainability Council (RNE), at the beginning of the Summit. “Join us now in working together to take a decisive step forward in rebuilding our financial system!” she appealed to the audience. A selection of the most important ideas and discussion contributions is presented below:

Idea 1: introduce a “green supporting factor” in financial market oversight

The idea was put forward by the French banking association in 2016 with the aim of making it easier to mobilise capital for the worldwide energy transition. The green supporting factor could also be expanded to other sustainable projects as needed, however. In order to effectively assess factors with an impact on risks and opportunities, Klaus Tiedeken, member of the Management Board of Kreissparkasse Köln, argued in favour of applying the German Sustainability Code, which can be used for much more than just public reporting.

Gerald Podobnik, Global Head of Capital Solutions of Deutsche Bank, gave the French idea more concrete form: banking regulations prescribe that banks maintain certain capital reserves in line with the risks associated with various types of investment as security should the investment default. This also applies when banks invest in solar parks or wind farms, for instance. The green supporting factor would allow banks to maintain lower reserves for investments related to the energy transition – because they are contributing to minimising the risks of climate change and thus to stabilising the financial system. The financial market oversight would have to be the body to introduce such a factor as it decides on the capital requirements for the various types of investment.

Idea 2: change accounting regulations

Christian Thimann, Chairman of the European Commission High-Level Expert Group on Sustainable Finance and member of the Management Board of insurer AXA, made the suggestion that accounting regulations be amended to favour sustainable investments. “Financial regulations in recent years were mainly strongly aimed at achieving short-term stabilisation,” explained Thimann. Accounting practice among companies is currently dominated by the mark-to-market method, whereby the value of an investment is determined for a given valuation date and entered correspondingly in the balance sheet.

However, this is often in conflict with the idea that sustainable investments require a longer time horizon to become profitable. Different accounting regulations could weight this long-term potential of sustainable investments higher and thus allow them to positively influence the balance sheet. “How can we allow players to give out more long-term credits? How can we oblige them to control long-term risks with reasonable proportionality?” Thimann commented, summarising the key challenge.

Idea 3: supervisory boards must have sustainability qualifications

Patricia Geibel-Conrad, member of the Supervisory Board of Hochtief AG, argued that the qualifications of supervisory boards should be a starting point. The members of such boards needed to be sensitive to the topic of climate change and have basic knowledge of sustainable development, for instance. Such minimum requirements have long since entered public debate in the Anglo-American context as well as topics like diversity. Geibel-Conrad added that such qualifications for supervisory and management boards were among other things to be discussed at the next World Economic Forum in January 2018 in Davos. In the US, the discussion is centred around the key idea of “proxy access”. This rule gives even smaller-volume shareholders of corporations the opportunity to nominate candidates to board positions – and thereby strengthen representation of the topic of climate change, for instance.

Idea 4: integrate sustainability report and group management report

The topic of integrated reporting, meaning company reporting with an integrated management and sustainability report, was discussed at many different points. Currently, the two reports are usually published separately. As explained by Dieter W. Horst, expert for sustainable finance at PricewaterhouseCoopers, this means for companies that their key systems and processes are not yet tailored to the topic of sustainability.

At 80 per cent of companies, the finance and accounting teams that prepare these key financial indicators comprise a few dozen or even a hundred people. The sustainability department on the other hand sometimes consists of a single individual or perhaps a handful of staff. Kristina Jeromin, Head of Group Sustainability at Deutsche Börse AG, also sees enhancing focus on materiality and the integrated perspective in reporting as a solution to this problem.

Idea 5: re-evaluate EU-wide CSR reporting obligation

Which indicators from a sustainability report are so important that a shareholder would say: I will or I will not buy this stock? This was the question posed by Ralf Frank, Secretary General and Managing Director of the German Association of Financial Analysts and Asset Management Professionals (DVFA). The root of this question is the new EU requirement that as of the financial year 2017 large companies must publish sustainability or corporate social responsibility reports (CSR reports for short). “The main point of interest will be which indicators lastly are so important that they have relevance with respect to the management report and thus for an understanding of the course of business,” explained Frank.

Dieter W. Horst of PricewaterhouseCoopers believes that the CSR reporting obligation could possibly also show that there are no sustainability indicators which are so important that they need to be included in the management report – this would mean the new reporting obligation has missed the mark entirely. Several speakers therefore proposed that the CSR reporting obligation be reviewed next year. Should the indicators determined as a result of the obligation not have relevance for companies’ annual reports and management reports, the regulation would need to be revised.

Idea 6: climate risks could become relevant for banking oversight

Germany’s central bank is considering including the risks of climate change for the finance sector in its supervisory oversight for banks, as presented by Joachim Wuermeling, member of the Management Board of the Deutsche Bundesbank. Two aspects are the main focus: firstly, hurricanes and storms can have direct impact on the financial situation of banks and insurers. Should extreme weather situations increase, the risks would also rise and eventually become uninsurable.

On top of this, according to Wuermeling, transitory risks on the path to becoming a low-carbon economy are a factor: many fossil fuels that are currently listed as assets in companies’ balance sheets cannot be consumed as a result of the climate targets. “One thing is clear: the sooner we become active, the less pressure there will be to act later,” comments Wuermeling. This is why the Bundesbank is expanding its analysis capabilities and striving to achieve a better understanding of climate risks and their impact on financial market institutions. Going forward, climate risks may possibly be taken into account in banking oversight.

Idea 7: the users need to have a voice

Anja Mikus, CEO/CIO of the foundation Fund for the Financing of Nuclear Waste Disposal, called for those who make investment decisions on a daily basis to be better integrated into the discussion on a sustainable finance sector. As she sees it, the problem is that there is no uniform definition of what exactly sustainability in the investment process means. “How is a portfolio manager to treat it? How does sustainability enter into the investment process?” she asked. This question can only be answered if a portfolio manager is sitting at the table too. This would also help reduce scepticism among many managers as to whether sustainable investments can actually yield substantial returns. Studies have shown they can, however, “studies don’t help – actual practice is the deciding factor,” added Mikus.

Idea 8: big data can help, but the “can” needs to be qualified

Big data, artificial intelligence and learning machines will change the financial industry for the better and can help with regard to sustainability as well. This was the thesis of Konrad Sippel, Head of the Deutsche Börse Content Lab. “When it comes to the availability of information and the ability to quantitatively evaluate it in order to explain why sustainability makes sense, more data and improved analysis will be needed,” he says. Other discussion participants suggested that more data does not necessarily equal better data. It always depends on why the data is being collected and the data’s quality.

The future of the Hub for Sustainable Finance

The first task of the H4SF going forward will be to catch up. The financial sector and investors in Germany are lagging behind their European and even global peers. Because it is not the case in Germany that statutory obligations and requirements are quite simply decreed, the initiators will have to help themselves. Via the H4SF, they aim to make discussion on this topic more clearly heard in Germany. The great popularity of the event and the participants’ high willingness to engage in discussion are confirmation for the initiators that the initiative for a more sustainable finance sector should be taken forward.

The aims of the H4SF are to be discussed with the federal government and parliament at the earliest possible opportunity. As Günther Bachmann, Secretary General of the Sustainability Council, made clear in the final panel in this context, the significance of results of the European discussion will need to be debated for Germany. Additional discussion events with expert participation are planned for 2018.

With the pioneers of sustainable finance continuing to be encouraged and bolstered, it is now the turn of the mainstream to be won over for the topic of sustainable finance. Günther Bachmann went on to describe how, in future, professional investors should make decisions not solely on the basis of financial indicators, but also make sustainability a factor in assessing risk and opportunity and thus include it in their investment decisions. Federal action would then take comparable considerations into account.

Through the event, the Steering Committee and the Council for Sustainable Development were given a great deal of cause for thought that will now be taken on board in shaping the Hub. A recording of the Summit covering all items on the programme in full will be available for a period of six months at Updates and concrete next steps will be communicated on the project website and in the Council’s newsletter.