Green policies helping businesses weather coronavirus crash, study suggests

Businesses with strong environmental and social credentials have been more resilient during the coronavirus stock market crash, research has found.

Chendi Zhang, a professor of finance at the University of Exeter Business School, and his co-authors measured the performance of US stocks in the first quarter of 2020, in which the financial market saw its fastest-ever collapse due to the coronavirus pandemic.

They found that in the three weeks between the start of the stock market decline and the US government’s March 18 bail-out package, firms with high ESG (environmental, social and governmental) ratings outperformed those with low ESG ratings by 7.2%.

‘These policies act like a risk management policy,’ said Professor Zhang. ‘The COVID crisis has affected financial markets everywhere, but we found that firms with green policies or that take social responsibility seriously are less affected by the crisis.’

ESG ratings take into account factors such as a firm’s carbon emissions or the sustainability of a product or service, as well as social issues such as diversity and inclusion in the workforce, human rights and product responsibility.

Examples of ESG policies include Microsoft’s pledge to become carbon negative by 2030, or Google’s commitment to promote social change at its supplier sites.

Companies with large cash balances tend to be best equipped to weather economic shock, but the results show that environmental and social policies are as valuable in creating resilience as cash, which Professor Zhang described as ‘extraordinary.’

The research also found companies that paired high environmental and social commitments with strong advertising fared even better, a sign that spending on social responsibility pays off – especially if consumers know about it.

To explain the findings, Professor Zhang said firms with credible ESG policies tend to attract more loyal customers and so face less need to compete on price.

He said: ‘If you are just trying to compete to sell the cheapest product your profits can be more sensitive.

‘When you go to the supermarket and buy organic food, this demand is more stable but if you just try to compete to sell the cheapest product your profits can be more sensitive to economic cycles that increase the risk for firms and reduce firm value.’

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Thomas Barrett

Thomas Barrett

Journalist. Follow him on Twitter

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