Faithful Investing: A Natural Development of ESG

*Interview with Borja Barragán, CEO of Altum Faithful Investing, for El Debate published on 03/02/2022. Accessed at: https://bit.ly/3AVOzQZ

In its own way, ethical concerns are making their way into the stock market. Sustainability and equality issues are becoming more and more important when it comes to choosing the shares of one company or another, a trend that is reflected in the so-called ESG criteria. This stands for Environmental, Social and Governance, i.e., the company’s care for the environment, its impact on the social environment and its corporate governance.

Four years ago, Borja Barragán left the bank where he worked to found Altum, a financial advisory firm that bases all its decisions on the Gospel and the Social Doctrine of the Church. For him, the fact that ESG criteria are being considered is a good start, but he warns, it is not enough for the Catholic investor who wants to be consistent with their faith.

Isn’t what they call «ethical investment» enough for a Christian?

“The question is who defines what is ‘ethical’. For a Christian investor, a company that has no CO2 emissions and boasts parity on its board but then limits religious freedom or promotes abortion…that will not be an ethical choice. ESG criteria are fine as a first step – it is very positive to go from doing nothing to doing something – but they often fall short.”

Are ESG criteria measured equally across all companies?

“No, they are not consistent or coherent. Socially responsible investment, as it is also known, has a tremendous subjective component, because it depends on the yardstick used and who is measuring it. Each company interprets it as it sees fit.”

Is there an alternative?

“Yes, they call it faithful investing or ‘faith-consistent’ investing. This implies basing your way of investing on immutable virtues, on values of the Church’s magisterium that do not change and are always good: life, the family, human dignity and the protection of creation. Bearing in mind, of course, that investing based on faith-based criteria does not imply sacrificing profitability.”

Isn’t faithful investing a competitive disadvantage when it comes to investing?

“It’s true that you add one more filter, but let’s put the situation in perspective: there are more than 15,000 investable companies in the world. At Altum, for example, we are able to generate investment portfolios that are adjusted to the risk of each client and that respond as well as or better than conventional portfolios. What this approach does require, however, is an in-depth look into the ‘kitchen’ of each company to see whether or not its activities conflict with the Church’s magisterium.”

If ESG criteria are a first step, should faith-consistent investment include them and build on them?

“Let’s not get confused: ESG investing has more to do with sustainability issues, and faithful investing with the field of morality. The problem we find in many cases – as in the famous United Nations Sustainable Development Goals – is that the two fields begin to intermingle in ways that can be contradictory for a Christian.”

Are there any topics that are difficult to bring up?

“Since we are an independent entity, we can speak with parrhresia about many issues that the big multinationals do not dare to bring up because they are politically correct. We can talk to companies openly about conscientious objection, gender ideology, the instrumentalization of procreation… Everyone talks about the easy stuff – sustainability, carbon footprint… – but there are many other issues that must be taken into account in order to invest coherently.”

Transhumanism, bioethical issues… How do you address the debates that are still ongoing?

“We are obliged to be constantly aware. We have an ethics committee to which we refer these questions. We study controversial issues internally, with the help of leading experts, and then implement them in company policies. With all new issues, we always want to be faithful to the Social Doctrine of the Church, and very neat.”

It is not enough to paint with a broad brush…

“No, that would be the most comfortable thing to do. There are investment funds out there that call themselves Catholic and say, ‘we don’t invest in pharmaceuticals’. Well, that can be a tremendous mistake, because you could be investing in the company that will find the cure for malaria. The difference between moral and immoral is in the details.”

Has the Anglo-Saxon world overtaken us in this field?

“There, the notion of being consistent with the faith in all areas of your life is more widespread. In Europe it is beginning to develop, and it is true that the Protestants have moved much more quickly and efficiently… Although a few months ago the US Bishops’ Conference published new investment guidelines that coincide with many of the criteria we use at Altum.”

Finally: after an interview talking about money, what would you say to those who are thinking about the camel and the eye of the needle?

“There is a lot of caricature in this vision, because when Jesus speaks of the eye of the needle, he is referring to where the heart is, whether it is in riches or in God. We must not fall into hypocrisy: we all know that in order to do good work it is necessary to have material goods. God has given us a series of gifts, material and spiritual, and we have the obligation to manage them in the best possible way, so that they bear fruit. In the end, money is neither a good nor an evil in itself; it all depends on how you use it… and how you obtain it. In this respect, it is necessary to be very cautious and precise.”

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