Taxonomies: DBS and EU approaches

DBS Bank headquarter in Singapore

Among the 2020 initiatives worth noticing in Sustainable Finance, DBS bank engagement deserves a closer look. DBS is a Singaporean bank, regularly awarded, and one the biggest bank in Asia, outside China. Last June, the bank published its own taxonomy for sustainable and transition finance, which defines sectors considered as sustainable activities.

The DBS initiative was released the same month as the  EU taxonomy for sustainable activities, whose official publication took place after several years of development, and which will come into effect in June 2021 in Europe. Technical appendices of the EU Taxonomy had been modified last November regarding the list of sectors, after a 4-weeks long concertation, and are expected to ben published very soon.

We propose hereafter a brief overview of both initiatives, not to judge which is the “best”, but in order to understand how these entities tried to solve the problem of defining a taxonomy for the ESG investments, in their respective contexts.

EU taxonomy for sustainable activities

We already discussed the EU taxonomy several times these last months. Its first merit is, simply, to exist. But all the limits that we evoked, are still present: lack of a defined threshold to define a sustainable fund, lack of precisions, and many questionable criteria, whose purpose is to indicate, depending of a sector, if a fund is sustainable, or not. The worst thing is that, to date, neither sanctions nor controls of how the taxonomy will be applied are defined… Clearly, every AM will do what it wants.

And, de facto, it’s already happening: cf. our article providing 3 key takeaways on AMs’ first taxonomy tests published by the PRI. This trend will, obviously, goes on, since, in matter of so-called sustainable or green funds, greenwashing is now the rule—especially in a market context where the Sustainable Fund share showed a steady and strong growth in 2020, despite—or probably, thanks to—the COVID-19 pandemics, and where the retail market is looking for impactful investments, aligned with its increasing environmental and social concerns.

As example, in France, a boom happened with the SRI labeled funds (“Label ISR”), with now 618 of them, including many ETFs. This label was a tentative to provide a guarantee of sustainability for a fund. Patently, nothing is more wrong—many of the labeled funds having Carbon intensive or controversial activities in their investments… and the label doesn’t provide any kind of a measure of the ESG impact… But how can “SRI labeled” funds be invested in non-responsible companies, one may ask? Simply because the label doesn’t require this to be granted. Almost all you need is a policy, i.e. a “good” intention, a home-made ESG strategy more or less restrictive depending on the AM. There is no obligation to provide a quantification of the positive impact for an investment to be granted with the “SRI Label”…

So, once more, a useless intention check, and eventually, as usual, a disappointed customer—thanks to a label whose objective was initially to foster the Sustainable Finance, and not to obfuscate even more the situation, and to contribute to the ambient greenwashing.

DBS IBG Sustainable & Transition Finance Framework & Taxonomy

At this point, we can question if a different and more sustainable finance is truly possible… That’s when we found DBS taxonomy initiative. The Singaporean bank developed and released in June 2020 a taxonomy of sustainable and transition economic activities.

A first and very important point, is that a bank asked itself the good questions, and didn’t waited for an imposed regulation to address these issues but acted on it by itself.

The bank taxonomy provides us with a list of sectors, specifying for each if it is eligible to a green or transition label, or related to an SDG objective. And the result is… quite good! What is even better, was to start with the purpose in mind, with the target objective: the point of this taxonomy is to help end customers understanding if a fund is composed of sectors of activities having, or not, a positive impact on the three aspects: green, transition, SDGs. DBS then provides us with a list of existing initiatives which might help to check the sustainability of a company or a project.

The approach might seem a bit simplistic, at first, especially when the 20 pages of the DBS taxonomy is compared to the 100+ pages of the EU Taxonomy and its 593 pages of Technical Annex—but it definitively not the case, because the objective pursued is very clear: providing a “label” for the funds, and be transparent with the customer regarding its investment. Also, interesting to notice, is the fact that the bank has for objective to use this framework for every financial transaction, and so that it implies its use for real-world project funding, grants, etc.

Can a bank be considered sustainable with only 5% of its funds being managed according to SRI principle? Certainly not, obviously… and the last point is here to give the promise that everything will be controlled by an external, independent audit. Of course. Because if nobody is controlling or verifying such an initiative, it will have no credibility, indeed…

It is thus very reassuring to see an initiative such as DBS’s one emerging, despite the many difficulties inherent to the financial sector, and even more, to see it coming from a region, Asia (Japan exc.), there the SRI market is still underdeveloped respectively to the Western financial markets (EU, USA).

As the Asian market is now indeed becoming the driving engine of the worldwide economy, it is here demonstrating a strong will and vision, which will surely allow it to catch up with the (supposedly) more advanced markets, and maybe to quickly surpass them. The future will tell.

We will thus be impatiently looking forward to seeing if DBS will deliver on its promises and ambitions and will also have the courage to be fully transparent on the negative aspects, and the probable difficulties to be encountered along the path.

Providing truly positive ESG impact funds for the Sustainable Finance is not an easy task, and it requires difficult choices for an Asset Manager, among which divestments from rogue companies that no one wants to make due to their (strictly) financial ROI, a necessary transparency, which can put the bank in a delicate position—but, in the end, it is the only choice to create a truly positive economy.

Singapore financial skyline, by night
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