The continuing evolution of corporate finance

Australia's major banks have signalled their intention to stop financing businesses that they, the banks, see as problematic for climate change. These are resources businesses in projects related to fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas. During proceedings in a Parliamentary Committee hearing last week, the committee heard evidence that such businesses were increasingly turning to private equity and foreign sources of finance.

I think this trend will accelerate. Public companies, particularly the big retail banks in Australia, have seen their shareholder registers evolve over recent decades. The number of shareholders has increased, the average age of shareholders has reduced and the average shareownership value has reduced. Further, Australian superannuation funds have vast numbers of members that are willing to look through the investment portfolios of their fund to see where the investments are actually being made. Shareholders have become more diverse and, inevitably, many have organised themselves into shareholder activist groups. They put pressure on boards via various means to abandon fossil fuel investments.

Most of the directors and senior executives of public companies and the superannuation funds appear to be frightened of shareholder activist groups. It is hard think of any other reason for those entities to denounce fossil fuel projects as a class of investment.  Investment decisions ought to be made on a case by case basis. To impose a ban on financing a certain class of investment is not operating case by case. It is operating according to a bias.  I have no sympathies for corporate leaders who are scared of the prospect of a twitter storm or other noisy attention. The need to appear virtuous has superseded all other investment objectives if whole classes of projects are simply put off limits. That is weak, and possibly in breach of their duties. When you see a corporate entity claiming sustainability virtue points by selling off their coal investments, you see duplicity in action: selling a coal investment to another party is simply taking all future profits now in one net present value lump sum. If those companies genuinely believed the coal project in question should not exist, then it should be shut, dismantled and cleaned up. It should not be sold as a going concern.

Meanwhile, private equity executives do not need to even consider the issue of shareholder activists. They don't exist in the business model. They can make financing decisions based on a project's merits. In some respects, that is closer to how publicly listed banks used to finance business before the revolution in the shareholder base. I anticipate the on-going evolution of financing options. To be sure, the objectives of private equity are different from those of the high street banks but the end result will be the same: worthwhile projects will get their finances arranged. The projects will continue. While the public banks will withdraw, other financiers will step in. The activists will eventually realise that the game moved on while they thought they were winning.