What are the impacts in impact investing and how to do know when these impacts have been made? Most impact investors know this kind of analysis is a growing and still imperfect science. We can’t do without it, but we don’t completely have it yet either.
Stephen Barnett, CEO of analytics firm Util.co, underscores the importance of these questions in his recent article on Medium. Util’s purpose, stated in large type on the website home page, is “Analytics to quantify impact.” Barnett cofounded Util in 2017 with Chief Technology Officer Abdel Wahab Turkmani. One-third of their nine-person staff, plus Turkmani, are machine-learning experts, which is where this firm gets its juice.
“Using machine learning to measure the impact of every company, we’re working with investors to build the next generation of investment solutions,” they say.
In his Medium article, Barnett directly confronts the charges of “green-washing” that some funds face, which happens when a fund is marketed as sustainable but can’t prove its impact. Skeptics point to these examples as proof that capitalism and markets can’t or won’t bother to solve the world’s most pressing problems. On the other hand, some fund managers claim that the inexact, nascent science of documenting impact makes it impossible for them to comply.
To push the science ahead, Barnett makes an intriguing proposal: He suggests that the big ratings firms – like Moody’s, S&P and MSCI, who together have $5 billion in cash on their balance sheets – invest “a fraction of that cash” in a leading analytics firm, or a few firms – to grow and establish those firms.
“Channelling a fraction of this cash into a world-class provider of standardised sustainability analytics and metrics would create a de facto industry leader,” Barnett writes. “This leader would have the credibility and resources to provide robust data and analytics to drive a new articulation of investment industry performance and incentives.”
A sort of Marshall Plan, but for data.