Sustainable Investing

08/16/2011

Commentary: The Big Choice

A $20 trillion “externality” appears to present civilization with its BIG CHOICE: economic destruction or ecological destruction, both with chilling global security implications. Here’s why, along with a practical and more hopeful alternative to “Sophie’s Choice.”

Carbon Tracker has released an illuminating report, “Unburnable Carbon—Are the world’s financial markets carrying a carbon bubble?

The report nicely describes the potential “stranded asset risk” to resource company investors, and calls for a regulatory response on disclosure. What the report does not make explicit is the BIG CHOICE: Barring a miracle technology advance in the next decade (keep working brilliant scientists and entrepreneurs), if we want to avoid civilization-transforming and global security threatening climate change, we must absorb a global security threatening a $20 trillion write off (that’s 40 percent of global GDP) into our already stressed global economy. Even if gradually spread over a decade or more, with partial offsetting value creation in sustainable energy industries, this is an unprecedented challenge.

First the essential facts as per the report:

  • The Potsdam Institute calculates that in order to reduce the risk of exceeding 2 degrees Celsius warming to a 20 percent chance (not all that comforting), the global carbon budget for 2000–2050 cannot exceed 886 GtC02. Minus emissions in the first decade of the century, this leaves a budget of 565 GtC02 over the next 40 years.
  • Total “proved” fossil fuel reserves listed on public company balance sheets and State reported reserves is estimated at 2795 GtC02, nearly 5 times the remaining budget, implying 80 percent of these reserves should be left in the ground.
  • Seventy four percent of these reserves are State owned (Russia, China, Saudi, Venezuela, Iran, Iraq, etc.) or owned by private companies, 26 percent are owned by the 200 largest public energy companies.

According to James Leaton at Carbon Tracker, the market value of the top 100 public oil and gas companies and the top 100 public coal companies listed in the report exceeds $7 trillion, approximately 12% of the global public equity market. Making a simple assumption1 that State-owned companies and reserves have an equivalent market value per unit of carbon would suggest the global market value of proved fossil fuel reserves equals $27 trillion.

A real cap on carbon emissions designed to limit warming to two degrees implies sovereign states and public corporations will need to strand 80 percent of their $27 trillion of proved reserves. Rounding down, this implies a potential $20 trillion write off.2

The risk of systemic collapse of an already fragile, interconnected global economy is high if we incur a write off of this magnitude. Fossil fuel intensive economies and investors would be severely damaged, no doubt triggering a deep and prolonged recession while the losses were absorbed. Some, like Saudi Arabia where energy represents 75% of government revenues, and Venezuela (50% of government revenues) would face economic devastation leading to widespread social unrest.

Not surprisingly, the markets are ignoring this risk today as the Carbon Tracker report makes clear. Why would they do otherwise when, as Bill McKibben pointed out, the US House of Representatives recently defeated a resolution stating simply that “climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for public health and welfare”? Why listen to the broad scientific consensus when we can invent a more accommodating (and remarkably partisan) physics? No surprise that this week, American Electric Power announced that it is shelving plans for its $668-million, full-scale carbon capture plant at Mountaineer in West Virginia, the nation’s most prominent effort to capture carbon dioxide from a coal-burning power plant in the United States, “until economic and policy conditions create a viable path forward.”

Rising fossil fuel stock prices coupled with no game-changing promise of carbon sequestration technologies (the present reality) implies the markets assume we blow past the 2 degree warming limit into catastrophic climate change.

Is there an alternative to the BIG CHOICE between ecological destruction and economic destruction? I think the answer is “yes,” but not with the simple happy talk of “CSR” and “growing the green economy.” A viable plan will entail real costs, unprecedented commitment, and shared sacrifice.

Costs: The seminal “Stern Review” on the economics of climate change suggests that for a range of manageable costs centered around a 1% reduction of GDP growth, greenhouse gasses can be stabilized at 500 to 550 ppm by 2050. While this modeling exercise is highly complex, it contains at least two fundamental flaws. First, it presumes 500 ppm is consistent with the 2 degree goal, when the scientific consensus, propelled by increasingly disturbing new evidence of climate change, is calling for a limit of only 350 ppm, what Bill McKibben calls “the most important number in the world.” And second, it appears to ignore the $20 trillion stranded asset write down and associated economic spillovers by assuming carbon sequestration capabilities will allow us to continue burning fossil fuels largely unabated.

I can only speculate on what portion of the $20 trillion stranded cost potential will need to be incurred. It will depend on the success of carbon sequestration technologies (unknowable), and their cost (also unknowable). But it will not be cheap. Prudence suggests we should plan to incur at least half of these costs, still a profound multi-decade economic challenge. We must also determine what combination of caps, taxes, and regulation will best manage the difficult carbon-limiting prioritization decisions among coal, various qualities of oil, and gas, and among the resource bases of sovereign states (with armies) and multinational corporations that we decide to burn, all having profound financial, political, social, and security implications.

Unprecedented commitment: At the core, our challenge and our greatest chance to mitigate the most horrendous consequences of the BIG CHOICE boils down to a capital allocation decision. We must of course invest aggressively in the “green economy” of clean technologies including carbon sequestration, energy efficiency, and alternative energy. Indeed this process has begun as documented by Ethical Market’s Green Transition Scoreboard, which now documents over $2 trillion of private sector investments in, and commitments to, the “Green Transition.” We must accelerate low technology paths such as avoided deforestation and grassland restoration3 to sequester carbon. But we must also remove subsidies and divest from the destructive fossil-fuel- based energy, transportation, and industrial agriculture systems, and from the destabilizing and counterproductive speculation of the Wall Street financial system. Only if we marshal unprecedented private and public resources to the great energy system transition can we hope to manage the BIG CHOICE.

Shared sacrifice: It’s time for true leadership around shared sacrifice. This must start with the richest half billion people, less than 10% of the human race, whose consumption and investment decisions will determine the fate of civilization. It’s time we awaken to the burden we bear. Seeking justice, our children will ask—What did you do, once you knew?


–John Fullerton is the founder and president of the Capital Institute. He is also the principal of Level 3 Capital Advisors, LLC, an investment firm focused on high impact sustainable private investments. This article originally appeared on his blog, the Future of Finance.


1. This assumption is somewhat flawed because the market capitalization of a resource company should and usually does exceed the present value of its “proved reserves” because as a going concern, it is expected to create incremental value beyond its current reserves. However, my assumption remains conservative because it also ignores all “unproved” reserves whose values are only partially reflected in company valuations, and ignores reserves held by all private companies and public companies not in the top 100 lists. World recoverable reserves certainly exceed by a wide margin, some argue by multiples, the current quantity of “proved reserves” on the books, meaning the total potential for stranded reserves is far greater than indicated here.

2. Yes this analysis ignores the potential of carbon sequestration technologies, but they are probably at least a decade away and uncertain. It also probably overstates the sovereign value of reserves, given the widely held belief that some governments overstate their reserves for political reasons. But it also ignores the value of many refining assets, power plants, shipping, rail, and pipeline infrastructure that will be devalued if we decide to leave fossil fuels in the ground in order to limit carbon pollution. It ignores the value of all private and smaller energy companies. It ignores the value to dependent governments of all associated production and consumption tax receipts associated with fossil fuels which have tremendous economic value. And, it only achieves an 80 percent confidence that we don’t exceed the 2 degrees warming target. Overall, we believe the $20 trillion estimate of aggregate economic exposure is reasonable.

3. See www.savoryinstitute.com.

07/19/2011

Commodities are Different (in a "Full World")

Foreign Policy’s recent “How Goldman Sachs Created the Food Crisis” reflects the dangerous, myopic thinking all too prone to “blame Wall Street” that is a natural consequence of Wall Street’s appalling, anti-social behavior in recent years.

I am no apologist for Wall Street’s modern business practices and ethics, and certainly not for Goldman Sachs, as reflected in this blog and in my 2009 Blankfein Letters. But to confuse the historic shift underway in the commodities markets that is a result of our “full world” economy with Goldman’s or any other Wall Street speculator’s bad behavior is missing the critical point.

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05/18/2011

Sustainable Mining—An Oxymoron or a Challenge to be Met?

It can be argued that the mining industry is at a decided disadvantage as it attempts to establish its creds as a sector of the economy committed to making a contribution to a more sustainable economy. As Stephen D’Esposito, former executive director of Earthworks, suggests in an article published in  Corporate Ethics Monitor, “Is Mining Sustainable?” the very fact that mining is in the business of depleting finite natural resources argues that the term sustainable mining will forever be oxymoronic. However, mine we must, and the industry has much headway to make in reducing the tremendous amounts of energy it consumes, water it pollutes, toxins it emits, solid waste it produces, landscapes it scars, and habitats it disturbs in the process of extracting minerals and metals from the earth. The challenge on all these fronts becomes greater as the process of extraction becomes technically more difficult and more environmentally damaging as the richest mineral deposits are increasingly depleted, requiring that ever-larger volumes of rock and soil be disturbed to extract a given amount of mineral or metal.

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04/20/2011

How Your Family Office Can Practice Philanthropy Through Its Investment Practice

While “giving back through philanthropy” will be a key topic for discussion at NYSSA’s 3rd Annual Family Office Conference on May 10, it may be well worth noting that a number of family offices are now discovering that they can express their philanthropic goals not just by “giving back” in the traditional sense but also through their investment practices.

Stephen Viederman has first-hand experience with this innovative approach to philanthropy as the former president of the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation, a family foundation that was one of the earliest to put its investment assets behind its mission. The practical guidance he has offered to family foundations like Noyes is equally applicable to family offices that are not explicitly “purpose-driven” but whose family members desire to deploy a significant portion of their assets for the social and/or environmental benefits of their community or for the world at large.

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03/15/2011

Eerie Parallels: Our Unsustainable Financial System and Industrial Agribusiness

I attended the annual US Department of Agriculture conference this week in Washington DC. My job was to participate on a panel with The Savory Institute, organized by the Risk Management Agency of the USDA. Our topic was “Critical Thinking: The Best Risk Management Tool.”

My message was about systems thinking, and how the financial system collapse should be understood as the “canary in the coal mine” for our unsustainable industrial agriculture industry. The parallels are eerie, but I could tell many in the audience were having trouble seeing the connection.

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02/15/2011

Novo Nordisk's Annual Report Stresses Value Creation In a Resource-Stressed Economy

Corporations frequently report that one of their biggest frustrations is that their social and environmental sustainability initiatives are largely ignored by a mainstream investment community focused on short-term financial performance. At the same time, stellar short-term performance often masks hidden risks that are being ignored internally when sustainability goals are not imbedded in a company’s business model.

To counterbalance this short-sighted short-termism, and in the run-up to NYSSA’s Second Annual Healthcare Conference, it might be worthwhile to highlight the activities of Novo Nordisk, a global pharmaceutical company that has not only made a long-term commitment to sustainable practices but is also using a new way of reporting to raise the investment community’s awareness of the strong linkages between sustainable practices and value creation.

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01/05/2011

Natural Gas: A Cleaner Energy Solution Grapples with Environmental Risks

The natural gas industry has recently been the beneficiary of the Obama administration’s efforts to strike a bipartisan pose in the wake of the Republican midterm-election ascendancy. At a news conference the day after the elections, when asked if there were ways he might find to collaborate with the new Congress, Obama responded that there was certainly broad agreement that the country has “terrific natural gas resources.” He went on to ask, “Are we doing everything we can to develop those?” His response was welcomed by the natural gas industry but viewed with mixed emotions by environmentalists. On the one hand, the latter acknowledge that natural gas is a significantly cleaner burning fuel than oil or coal and is a necessary complement to renewable sources of energy. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the burning of natural gas produces a third of the quantity of nitrogen oxides, half the amount of carbon dioxide, and only one percent of the quantify of sulfur oxides as the burning of coal. Natural gas also emits negligible amounts of mercury compounds. But environmentalists are equally concerned about the environmental impacts of the boom in hydraulic fracturing—a technology used to extract natural gas from rock formations.

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12/15/2010

2010—The Year of the Integrated Report

Corporations are clearly increasing the quantity and quality of their environmental, social, and governance reporting in response to investor pressure and a growing awareness of the consequences of a failure to manage the associated risks. But few have taken the next step—to formally integrate their financial and ESG reporting. However, 2010 may be remembered as the year the integrated reporting movement truly began to gather steam.

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11/17/2010

Wind Industry Calls on Congress to Boost Investor Confidence

Windmills
The wind industry has lately been the victim of a combination of Washington policy-making gridlock, a recession-related weakening of demand for energy, and the reluctance of banks to extend commercial credit. Although a record-breaking 10,000 megawatts of wind energy was added in the United States in 2009, the industry has recently been experiencing a dramatic slowdown, with only 395 megawatts of wind power added in the third quarter of 2010, the worst quarterly performance since the first quarter of 2007. This pushed industry performance down 72% in the first three quarters versus the same period a year ago.

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11/15/2010

Commentary: Footprints and Foreclosure

The global economy now uses 1.5 times the earth’s capacity to regenerate the natural capital we use every year, up from the 1.4 times of the prior year, according to a report of the well-respected Global Footprint Network. In their Living Planet Report 2010, released this week but based on 2007 data, the most recent available, WWF together with the Global Footprint Network and the Zoological Society of London record the most significant milestone since we crossed parity (an ecological footprint of one) back in 1975. This is not good news.

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11/04/2010

Pure Cycle's "Compelling Advantage" in a Water-Constrained Market

NYSSA’s upcoming 14th Annual Water Utilities Conference, to be held on December 1st, will focus on those companies that are best positioned to compete in a world where water supply will be increasingly constrained. We recently spoke with Mark Harding, CEO of Pure Cycle Corporation, an investor-owned vertically integrated water company providing water and wastewater services to the greater Denver, Colorado, metropolitan area to find out why he believes water ownership has “a compelling advantage” in its Western market.

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10/28/2010

Water as Political Capital

Colin ChartresOn one hand we need large urban centers to begin aggressively conserving water, while on the other hand there are hundreds of millions of people in India and China who do not have running water. This is a global issue that's not making enough headlines—and it needs to.

Colin Chartres is the co-author of Out of Water: From Abundance to Scarcity and How to Solve the World's Water Problems and is the director general of the International Water Management Institute (IWMI).

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10/21/2010

A Toniic for Impact Investors

A small but growing group of high-net-worth individuals are redefining the meaning of investing as they commit increasing portions of their wealth to projects that yield desired social and environmental outcomes as well as financial returns. These pioneer “impact” investors face many challenges, including the task of undertaking time-consuming due diligence and monitoring of investments in far-flung locations, navigating unfamiliar legal systems, and often assuming the heightened risks associated with going it alone without the support and knowledge-sharing of trusted advisors or coinvestors.

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09/27/2010

Mark Warren of Vulcan Materials Talks About the Outlook for the Construction Materials Sector

Vulcan Materials Company, the nation’s largest producer of construction aggregates, will be presenting at NYSSA’s fifth annual Construction Materials Conference on September 29. We recently spoke with Mark Warren, Vulcan’s director of investor relations, about the outlook for the industry. Warren also described Vulcan’s sustainability and corporate social responsibility initiatives, which have been critical to its ability to maintain and grow its business.

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08/09/2010

Plug In and Play: The Current is Flowing in Electric Grid Investing

“When people think about renewable energy, they have visual images of solar panels and windmills,” says Rob Wilder, manager of the benchmark index Wilderhill Clean Energy Index. “They never think about ugly old transmission.” But just as green technology has suddenly made those engineers with pocket protectors the cool guys at cocktail parties, ugly old transmission may well be on its way to becoming the darling of Wall Street.

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07/19/2010

Wall Street Meets the EPA

Where can I, as a securities analyst or portfolio manager, gain access to free, consistent, and reliable data on sector-based environmental performance that avoid the current limits of voluntary company reporting?

This question was central to a session entitled “Dialogue to Explore the Use of EPA Data in Financial and Investment Analysis,” held in New York City on June 19, 2008. The invitation to the meeting, which attracted 85 participants drawn in large part from the financial-services industry, was jointly issued by the New York Society of Security Analysts, Inc. (NYSSA), and the US EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) Region 2 (which includes New York). The meeting was part of the EPA’s National Dialogue on Access to Environmental Information, an attempt to cope with the increasing demand for environmental information from numerous professional sectors, including community leaders, academics, and the financial sector.

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07/14/2010

Are All Components of ESG Scores Equally Important?

Our research questions whether all aspects of responsible investing are equally important for stock analysis. Can the different aspects of ESG performance—that is, performance in environmental and social sectors and corporate governance, as well as operations in “sin” areas—be combined for stock analysis? Our research is geared toward investment practitioners, and we therefore concentrate on stock returns (the main parameter affecting the performance of investment managers) and ROE (return on equity, which is arguably the most important parameter of corporate performance and stock quality). 

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06/16/2010

The Time is Ripe for Cleantech to Address Its Own Environmental Impacts

WindmillsNYSSA will be hosting an upcoming forum that focuses on the challenges and opportunities for investors in the sustainable infrastructure sector, including renewable energy and transportation. As is typically the case, many of the challenges can be turned into opportunities when the appropriate monitoring and analytical tools are put in place. One prominent investor in the sector, Diana Propper de Callejon, suggests that as part of that effort, the time is ripe for industry stakeholders to adopt formal codes of best practices to address environmental and social risks.

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06/02/2010

Sustainability Focus Can Drive Profits for Food and Beverages Companies

An upcoming NYSSA forum will explore how companies can begin to view their mandates to operate more sustainably as opportunities to drive future performance and mitigate risk rather than as societal burdens that must be addressed at the minimum cost.

Arlene Meritz, a strategic organizational consultant with 25 years experience leading centers of excellence in organizational effectiveness, change, and talent at Cadbury Schweppes, admits that it is difficult for companies to take the long-term view required to implement sustainable practices when financial markets and investors are so focused on short-term performance. That said, she notes, consumers' needs and interests ultimately drive a food and beverage company’s profits. 

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04/23/2010

Developing Business Models to Address Climate Change

The writing is on the wall. The economic order that treats the consequences of manmade carbon emissions as an external cost of doing business is about to suffer an abrupt demise.

The scientific community is nearing consensus on the need to reduce carbon and other atmospheric greenhouse gases by about 80% relative to 2000 levels before the year 2050, if a global climate catastrophe is to be avoided. Policy and market makers around the world are responding with an array of cap-and-trade systems, clean-energy subsidies, and fossil-fuel taxes that will eventually embed a carbon price into the operating margins and cost of capital of practically every company on earth. The skyrocketing price of fossil fuels is only adding momentum to this unstoppable decarbonization trend.

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04/22/2010

Calculating the Risks of Impending Water Shortages

World Water UsageWater is taking center stage alongside the emission of carbon as the preeminent environmental risk facing the planet in the twenty-first century. And, in a manner similar to its early response to carbon risk, the private sector has begun to prepare for an era of stricter regulation and rationing of what is perhaps the earth’s most precious finite resource.

The media has recently focused on water scarcity primarily from a climate-change perspective. Glacial melting—which Achim Steiner, executive director of the UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme), has called “the canary in the coal mine”—is reportedly depleting the freshwater supply of vast regions of Asia and South America. 

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04/20/2010

Fiduciaries Can Save the Earth

Earth Day is as good occasion as any to celebrate the many positive influences sustainable investing has had on mainstream investing practices. Sustainable investing addresses the flawed assumption of traditional investment models that financial capital can be deployed endlessly without reference to the limits of the earth’s regenerative capacities. Sustainable investing is consequently creating profound shifts in the way we think about “wealth,” forcing us to question our obsession with short-term results, and stimulating research into new metrics for defining and measuring the value of our investments. But perhaps the most far-reaching impacts on the real world of investing will be felt as the principles of sustainable investing cause fiduciaries to radically rethink their responsibilities to those whose assets they hold in trust.

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04/19/2010

The Sustainability Education Gap

More than 570 asset owners and investment managers who control more than $18 trillion in global assets have signed on to the UN’s Principles for Responsible Investment (UNPRI). The magnitude of these numbers indicates that sustainable and socially responsible investing has achieved mainstream status. At the same time, the news that the UNPRI expelled five signatories for failure to issue annual reports detailing their progress in implementing the group’s sustainability guidelines suggests a lack of serious commitment to the charter’s principles. These compliance failures may also be attributable to a short supply of investment professionals with the requisite skills to meaningfully assess the complex spectrum of environmental, social, and governance risk factors that must be monitored under the PRI initiative.

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04/12/2010

Moving Toward a Steady-State Economy

Illustration by Mark AndresenWhen he resigned his post as a senior economist with the World Bank in January 1994, Herman Daly delivered a farewell speech to his colleagues in the style of the Dutch uncle. Prescribing “a few remedies for the Bank’s middle-aged infirmities,” he spoke of the bank’s “unrealistic vision of development as the generalization of northern overconsumption to the rapidly multiplying masses of the south.” He warned that the depletion of natural capital could no longer be left out of the economic equation. It was time, he said, to assign a monetary value to the negative environmental impacts of throughput and to factor them in as opportunity costs of production.

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03/22/2010

Investment Opportunities for a Low Carbon World

FTSEAs markets globally struggle with recession, a core part of the message from many political leaders to their citizens is that economic growth can be stimulated in part by investment in the technologies, infrastructure and services that will enable the transition to a low carbon economy.

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03/19/2010

ASSET4 Helps Investors Navigate “The New Normal” Economy

“The new normal” is a term used frequently by the sustainable investing community to define an emerging economic landscape characterized by greater regulation and investor scrutiny of corporate environmental, governance, and social behavior. This, in turn, is requiring corporations to internalize or address what were once the external costs of doing business. Those costs are showing up with increasing impact in the corporate bottom line. At a recent breakfast seminar hosted at NYSSA headquarters, representatives of ASSET4, a provider of environmental, social and governance (ESG) data and analytics, discussed the services the organization provides to corporations and investors who seek to compete in this “new normal” economy.

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03/17/2010

Copenhagen Climate Change Conference Sets Stage For Growth of Ecosystem Services Market

DeforestationDeforestation is currently responsible for about 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions and that percentage is likely to increase if serious efforts are not undertaken to decelerate the rate at which forests are being destroyed and degraded. If anything substantive came out of the December Copenhagen Climate Change Conference it was an almost universal recognition of the critical need to reduce emissions from deforestation and to provide positive financial incentives to encourage reforestation and forest preservation. 

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03/16/2010

Standard & Poor's Tracks Carbon Footprints

Standard & Poor'sThe new S&P U.S. Carbon Efficient Index is the first broad market U.S. index that can be used to create financial products that provide investors with reduced Carbon Footprint exposure. This index also seeks to avoid a trade-off in performance by frequently optimizing the index to closely track the return of the S&P 500, its parent index.

Click here to watch a video.

03/14/2010

Sustainable Investing: An Interview with Heather Langsner of Riskmetrics Group

Heather Langsner is the new director of Sustainability Research at risk management provider Riskmetrics Group. She talks here about the potentially “disruptive” power of sustainable investment analysis and her passionate belief that this kind of research is poised to transform the practice of equity valuation.

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