Bank of America CEO says new ESG rules are needed to reboot capitalism

Bank of America Chief Executive Brian Moynihan said Wednesday that current efforts to produce a set of official global standards on ESG issues were vital to “align capitalism with what society wants from it.”

Asked by CNBC’s Karen Tso at the World Economic Forum in Davos whether stakeholder capitalism needed a reboot through the creation of common standards for corporate disclosures, Moynihan said he was converted to the idea after seeing hundreds of companies sign up to the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals in 2017, followed by ongoing debate over what concepts like sustainability actually mean, and accusations of greenwashing.

“Without that definition, without that convergence, what you had is everybody defined it their own way. Somebody would think this issue’s important or this way to talk about it is important,” he said.

Environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) initiatives are increasingly discussed in corporate results and by senior business figures, though they have also proven controversial. Critics have included both those who claim they are a PR exercise and, recently, those who argue ESG investment funds will provide weaker returns.

In 2020, Moynihan — who is also chair of WEF’s International Business Council — and WEF founder and chair Klaus Schwab worked with the big four accountants to create a set of common stakeholder metrics for companies to follow.

He said it was now important to “go to the official side” and was supporting the new International Sustainability Standards Board set up by non-profit the IFRS.

On Wednesday’s panel, IFRS Chair Erkki Liikanen said that since setting up the board they had consolidated their work with that of other groups with niche expertise, and were working on a final standards publication to be released in the middle of 2023.

This is due to comprise a set of general non-financial sustainability disclosure requirements for companies, and a set specifically on climate. Liikanen said it would then need adoption and endorsement around the world.

Moynihan also said it was crucial that sustainability and ethical standards became official and global.

He said informal standards-setting meant companies could hide poor sustainability practices “further down the stream” of their supply chains or divest certain assets, or else claim they are too small to carry out checks.

But with standardized, cross-jurisdiction rules that are part of companies’ annual reports and audited, he continued, “then frankly, an investment manager, a consumer, society, others can sit there and say, here’s a line that is acceptable and you’re either above it or below it.”

“If you’re below it we shouldn’t do business with you, and if you’re above it, tell us how you’re making progress along these important things.”

“Which, at the end of the day, will align capitalism with what society wants from it and get us going faster.”

Correction: The headline on this story has been updated to better reflect a quote by Brian Moynihan.