After Davos: Lessons for Impact and Social Investors from the WEF 2015
By Marta Maretich @maximpactdotcom
The World Economic Forum has been and gone, leaving the Davos snow more than a little trampled. Now that 2500+ of the world’s most powerful people have flown home in somewhat fewer (it seems) than 1700 private jets, what do we know about what’s coming in 2015? And, more specifically, what lessons did the Forum hold for impact and social investors?
Impact and social investing are part of the global economic reality, so the larger trends identified at Davos will be felt in our sector, too. Quantitative easing in the Eurozone, the unpredictable fallout from the Grexit, the slowdown in growth in China and India, its surge in the US, will all shape the world economic outlook for 2015 and will inevitably have their effects on the social sphere. And yet it was interesting to notice certain issues — some our own favorite topics — were more prominent on the agenda than they have been in previous years.
The financial crisis pushed climate change off the agenda; the presence of Gore as the opening act at Davos seems to indicate that it’s now back on. The ex-US Vice President (and his musical friend Pharrell Williams) were on hand to drive home, once again, the message that we need to act fast to avert disaster. This can’t have been news to the delegates at Davos, all of whom have heard Gore’s arguments before and yet have presided over the increase in the use of fossil fuels we’ve seen in recent years.
Among those in the know, real indicator that things are changing was the advocacy of Lord Stern, Tony Blair’s climate change adviser. At Davos, he argued cogently that fossil fuel is not, as it long appeared, cheap anymore, and that alternatives are now getting cheaper. Governments don’t have to make a tradeoff between growth and preventing climate change, he said, and his argument seems to be gaining traction in the world of business. It’s one that impact and sustainable investors have long understood, of course, but the mainstreaming of sustainability should bring new opportunities for impact investors and climate-friendly social enterprises alike, especially when it comes to collaborating with business and government.
Related to the issue of climate change is that of energy, another hot topic at Davos. The energy landscape is changing, partly because of the wider acceptance of the reality of climate change, but also because alternative energy sources are coming into their own. A plunge in oil prices, due in large part to the availability of cheap gas from fracking, is driving oil-producing nations to re-examine their strategies, diversify their activities and rethink their future. It’s also fanning the flames of the divestiture movement, which is gaining ground as the value of fossil fuel stocks, for so long the central pillars of many portfolios, continues to fall.
For impact and social investors, this shift in focus will help in two ways. First, the exit of capital from fossil fuels could spur a renewed wave of investment in existing forms of alternative energy such as wind, solar and hydrogen, and in energy efficient technologies, all areas where impact investing has a track record. Second, turning away from fossil fuels will require more investment into developing new alternative sources of energy. Investment in energy R&D and in companies rolling out alternative energy solutions to new markets will be attractive opportunities for social investors.
The specter of Thomas Piketty was found haunting many of the sessions at Davos. The French economist’s landmark tome, Capital in the 21st Century, has sparked wide-ranging debate about the nature and role of capital in our times. One of its impacts is to highlight the growing problem of wealth inequality, an important theme threading through many discussions at WEF15.
Different delegates working in different contexts and sectors interpreted inequality in a number of ways. Piketty is mainly concerned with the current dynamic that sees wealth in societies moving inexorably in one direction—upwards—and accumulating in the hands of fewer and fewer people at the top (such as those attending the Davos conference, for instance). Other kinds of inequality, however, were on the agenda, including the disparity between rich and poor nations, and among different groups, for example women and marginalized groups, within societies.
For impact and social investors, investments aimed at reducing inequality of all kinds are already part of the landscape and can take a number of forms. Affordable loans for college students, edutech that brings learning to those who need it, and provision of healthcare for girls and women, are all examples of investments that can help reduce inequality. Technology also has a role to play. Sheryl Sandberg, when asked by Arianna Huffington, opined that more technology, specifically access to the internet, and, less specifically, “more data” would bring more equality to the world. Social investments that extend tech to the tech-poor are already on the cards, but more work, targeted specifically on easing inequality, is needed from our sector.
Corruption and crime
In a recent blog, we showed why the impact and social investing sector should be putting its weight behind the growing global movement to fight corruption. At Davos, corruption and crime were prominent on the agenda, an indication that the movement is now hitting the mainstream thanks to the efforts of campaigners like Global Witness. The connection between corruption, poverty and the health of markets is becoming clearer, as is the role of the business community in tackling this scourge. These topics and others were addressed in number of sessions and an issue briefing at the WEF. Impact and social investors should keep abreast of how this discussion develops and, in keeping with their commitment to ethics, adopt anti-corruption strategies wherever possible.
Changes to the way the world invests
The delegates at Davos showed a new level of interest in the way capital markets are changing, and this has implications for the impact and social investing movements. This change-consciousness was evident in this year’s sessions, many of which acknowledged, in different ways, a new mood and attitude toward investing in mainstream markets. Yet it can be seen most clearly in the future projects funded by the WEF for next year. Projects on accelerating capital markets in emerging economies and direct investment by institutional investors, for example, point to trends in the markets that could be important for impact investors. Meanwhile. Phase III of the Mainstreaming Impact project has been cleared to move forward, led by Abigail Noble. If the excellent work coming out of this project so far is any indication, this will give us even more data to work with and deepen our understanding of the developments in our own corner of the financial world.
An insight into the things to come?
The World Economic Forum provides a fascinating snapshot of the forces that shape our global economy and thus determine the fate of billions—billions of people, that is, not only dollars. It gives us a fleeting glimpse of the individuals making the decisions and the merest hint of how things will go in the year to come. For our emerging sector, it’s vital to tune in to the lessons of Davos and learn what we can, especially if our aim is to one day become the mainstream that Davos represents.
And yet, in another sense, Davos may be less relevant to us than it first appears. As a guage of the status quo—what is now—nothing compares to it. But as a guage of what will be, it falls short. Piketty reminds us all that economics is, after all, not a hard science like mathematics, but a social science with historical underpinnings. Looking at the past is very helpful for understanding the present, as he ably proves. However it doesn’t necessarily help us predict the future with perfect certainty. For many, Davos is already the past. The future, if committed impact and social investors have their way, could be very, very different.
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