Editor’s Note: SILC is pleased to publish the following year-end editorial piece by Michael Kraten, Professor of Accounting at Houston Baptist University. Happy New Year!
The piece will also be published on the Blog of the Public Interest Section of the American Accounting Association. See AAAPublicInterest.org.
As the calendar flips from 2019 to 2020, it’s easy to feel a bit depressed about the metrics that have challenged us during the past decade. The aggregate debt of the United States federal government, for instance, has exploded from $13 trillion to $24 trillion. Wealth inequality has also grown, and the number of American citizens without health insurance has resumed its climb after years of decline. Meanwhile, increases in sea levels, meteorological instability, and ocean temperatures are threatening our natural environment.
It’s a grim set of trends, isn’t it? But if we choose to focus on these dismal metrics, we’ll lose sight of the broader picture. There were, after all, many events that occurred during the 2010s that should encourage optimism among those who support the public interest.
At the start of the decade, for instance, the standards of the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) merely provided a voluntary framework of reporting guidelines. But they would not remain a purely voluntary framework for long! In 2013 and 2014, the European Union issued a pair of directives on non-financial reporting. They required many of the world’s largest corporations to begin to include a wide variety of non-financial information in their annual reports, starting in 2018.
Furthermore, at the start of the decade, the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) didn’t even exist. Launched in 2011, the SASB now promulgates detailed sets of standards for 77 industries, including sample disclosure language for inclusion in corporate annual reports. The SASB’s framework and standards, like the European Union’s directives on non-financial reporting, have served to impose sustainability reporting requirements and expectations on the world’s largest for-profit entities.
Meanwhile, the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) was launched by the Financial Stability Board in 2016 to recommend voluntary practices. Chaired by Michael Bloomberg, the Task Force presented its final recommendations the following year, and then remained in place to launch a Knowledge Hub, a pair of annual Status Reports, and a Consortium. The TCFD, like the GRI and the SASB, now focuses on developing and supporting private and public initiatives to enhance financial reporting practices.
The most startling development during the past decade, though, may have been the dramatic growth of the ESG investment industry. According to Fidelity, Socially Responsible Investing assets in the United States have quadrupled since 2010, rising roughly from $3 trillion to $12 trillion; the size of this asset market now exceeds $30 trillion worldwide (see fidelity.com/viewpoints/active-investor/strategies-for-sustainable-investing).
If you believe in the power of money, this final metric may be the most impressive one of all. After all, government entities and standard setting bodies may be able to protect the public interest against public apathy and private sector opposition. However, the re-direction of billions of dollars in investment funds can only occur if public opinion and the private sector support the movement.
So let’s try to maintain an optimistic perspective as we enter the next decade of the 21st Century. After all, the decade of the 2010s have produced an impressive array of positive occurrences. It is entirely possible that the upcoming decade of the 2020s will likewise give birth to many new trends that support the public interest.