It’s safe to say we all agree that green efforts in any industry should be applauded and the same is true when it comes to finance. But while a desire for green finance continues to grow worldwide, how can investors and issuers best identify and evaluate risk when the industry has no standards?
It’s clear that the industry is seeing major growth. In 2017 the issuance of labeled green bonds (PDF) jumped to nearly $160 billion and the self-labeled U.S. green bond market more than doubled, powered by a mix of municipalities, states and large corporations. But as these new and innovative financing options are being established, it seems increasingly important that some mandatory standards be created to guide those working in the industry.
Standards in the world of green finance would be beneficial for both investors and for issuers. For investors who are building their green portfolios and need assurances of best practice and reliable ways to monitor the quality of green instruments — regardless of which geographies or industries they invest in — a sense of best practices and who is meeting them would clearly help with decision making. When it comes to issuers, common standards would clarify options in terms of issuance while also ensuring that deals are being appropriately structured and reaching the right investors for each project.
Standardization also serves to enable innovation because it establishes a level playing field. While ING was first to issue a sustainability rating-linked loan, they have since observed that other banks have embraced different set-ups. Five years ago, Climate Bonds Initiative (CBI) and the International Capital Markets Association (ICMA) both set out to establish a voluntary set of guiding principles for participants.
The framework from both organizations was focused on the process that needed to be followed when issuing green bonds: how issuers should describe the allocation of proceeds to investors; how a second opinion should be obtained; and how they should set about reporting in a transparent way.
And as a way to help kick-start the market, these served as helpful principles that could reassure investors and facilitate the uptake of green bonds, without being overly prescriptive about the use of the finance.
But the market has greatly expanded since 2013 and questions related to the use of green bond proceeds — their so-called "content" — have inevitably arisen: Which projects will qualify in specific sectors? Where should the boundaries be set? Where should classifications lean towards green or social bonds?
While CBI and ICMA with the input of other banks and stakeholders have continuously refined their earlier standards, the fact that the principles remain voluntary means that issuers do not need to follow them. On the flip side, if the standards around the industry become too settled, it will be difficult for the market to support the wide range of investor who would like to participate.
Who are these investors? Well the green finance industry has groups coming from varying green backgrounds, including investors with dedicated mandates for green bonds, investors with diversified portfolios that include pockets of green, and investors who find green bonds attractive but don’t have a dedicated mandate in place.
Because of their varying levels of commitment to being green, the investors might have different standards. Those with a dedicated green mandate are going to put potential issuers under much higher scrutiny than others.
And this is where there is a fine line to maintain between what investors want and expect, and what issuers want and need. It’s simply a fact that different industries are moving at different speeds when it comes to sustainability and different industries will face distinct challenges along the way. Within the investor community, there are a range of perceptions about standards and the various investment opportunities available.
Chief executive of the Loan Market Association, Clare Dawson, summed up the need for green finance standards perfectly, "With any new market, establishing a general framework for the product such as the Green Loan Principles (GLPs), which we recently launched, is beneficial as it helps create a common understanding of what people are looking at. We will be seeking to develop the GLP further to accommodate a wider range of loan structures, including revolving credit facilities, to maximize the number of borrowers able to take out green loans."
While issuers and investors have managed admirably with a voluntary patchwork of existing guidelines this far, a fresh set of commonly adopted standards will be the key to allowing green markets to expand. If these standards put the emphasis on process over content, it should create better conditions for green markets to thrive in future. And that’s great news for everyone.