Some private equity firms have integrated environmental, social and governance considerations into their standard process, while many others have yet to do so, according to a new PitchBook survey.
The survey, conducted from January to April, comprised 48 firms globally, including 33 in North America, 11 in Europe, three in Asia/Pacific and one in Africa.
PitchBook said the data in the new study came mainly from smaller firms — 23 reported assets of less than $500 million, while eight had assets of more than $5 billion — and so should be considered as representative of smaller outfits rather than of the overall market.
The report found that unlike in earlier studies when the influence of limited partners drove ESG efforts at private equity firms, risk management surged as the main driver in the new survey. Only 40% of respondents said LPs had expressed increased concern about ESG in the previous three years.
Researchers explained that LPs had not stepped back from encouraging ESG considerations. Rather, given the predominance of smaller firms in this year’s respondent class, LPs were family offices and high-net-worth individuals, not large institutions, and these may not be urging ESG consideration as much as institutional investors would.
At smaller firms, managing general risks take on much more importance.
Cost was a major challenge confronting ESG promoters in the new survey, named by 28% of respondents, compared with only 4% in 2014.
The report said this coincided with the number of small firms in the survey; the smaller the firm, the harder it is to put resources into ESG issues.
As a result, the number of firms that said they outlined their ESG philosophy in LP agreements had increased significantly as a way to manage LP expectations from the outset.
About a third of firms in the new survey said they produced a corporate social responsibility report, up from a quarter in the previous poll. These can serve as a differentiator among the competition, the report said. They can also be useful at a time when customers are demanding more transparency.
Some 40% of respondents in the new survey said they either required or were working toward have their portfolio companies develop responsibility reports.
At the same time, nearly half of respondents—more than in previous studies—said considering ESG matters when enhancing portfolio companies’ operations was only somewhat important or entirely unimportant.
PitchBook said many smaller firms have not yet adopted official ESG programs or initiatives, and do not put much emphasis on such issues when enhancing portfolio companies’ value. Their engagement in ESG matters is still evolving, it said.
As well, many firms lack the resources to prioritize ESG concerns.
LPs remain crucial in shaping private equity firms attitudes. LPs at smaller firms, although stressing other issues, are not paying less attention to ESG matters. They simply want to maintain current ESG efforts, not increase them.
The report said that at a time when the buyout cycle is slowing, LPs at small private equity funds are more likely to be risk averse than investors in big funds, which may translate into less focus on sustainable investments.
For sure, it said, managing risks associated with insufficiently robust consideration of ESG issues remains important. However, at both the general partner and limited partner levels, other risks take precedence.