Since we published the first edition of this report in 2018, there has been a widespread increase in the general public’s awareness about structural racism and the many ways people of color have been systematically denied access to social and economic opportunity since the earliest days of European arrival to what is now the United States.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed alarming weaknesses in the systems we depend on upon in everyday life in the U.S. – healthcare, education, and economic systems, to name just a few. It has cast a harsh light on the disproportionate impacts of these weaknesses on people of color, whose health and wealth have been decimated at far greater rates than those experienced by whites.
Moreover, there has been a dramatic growth in awareness of how the financial system has functionally been closed off to people of color, starting with the largest companies, most of which pay lip-service (at best) to racial equity and many of which do not address the issue at all.
Investors can contribute to the narrowing of economic disparities by investing in communities of color. In this report, we update the findings of our original work in 2018. We also offer fresh insights into how both the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements have galvanized shareholder engagement initiatives, with investors increasingly pressing companies to be more transparent and accountable regarding their policies, practices and cultures. We have added a section as well regarding support for diverse asset managers with strong track records who are often overlooked. Lastly, we are pleased to note that over the past two years there has been growth in the number of investment solutions that seek to address racial and ethnic economic disparities.
Download Investing to Advance Racial Equity.
On May 5th, Cornerstone Capital hosted a webinar about Covid-19 and its disproportionate impact on some communities. Race, income, ZIP Code – all are factors that influence one’s chances of making it through the crisis personally and financially. In New York City, black and Hispanic/Latinx residents are twice as likely as white residents to die from the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. This fact is directly related to the lack of economic opportunity in some communities, especially communities of color anywhere in the US, as well as other structural issues including who has access to investment capital.
How can investors address the inequitable impact of COVID-19?
Katherine Pease, Managing Director, Head of Impact Investing at Cornerstone moderated our call with three investors and entrepreneurs with expertise in venture capital and investing for impact for women, communities of color and social justice:
NATHALIE MOLINA NIÑO is an entrepreneur, an investor (at O cubed) and tech globalization veteran focused on high-growth businesses that benefit women and the planet. She is the author of LEAPFROG, The New Revolution for Women Entrepreneurs (Penguin Random House, Tarcher Perigee) and serves as a Venture Partner at Connectivity Capital Partners. Molina Niño launched her first tech startup at the age of twenty and is the co-founder of Entrepreneurs@Athena at the Athena Center for Leadership Studies of Barnard College at Columbia University.
PRIYA PARRISH is the Managing Partner of Private Equity at Impact Engine. Prior to joining Impact Engine, she served as Chief Investment Officer at Schwartz Capital Group, a single-family office investing across global markets. Priya currently serves as Adjunct Assistant Professor of Strategy and Impact Investor in Residence at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
MORGAN SIMON is co-founder of Candide Group. She has close to two decades of experience making finance a tool for social justice. Morgan has influenced over $150B in investments and is a regularly sought out expert on impact investing. Her first book, Real Impact: The New Economics of Social Change, has been featured widely. Prior to Candide Group, Morgan was the founding CEO of Toniic, a global impact investment network.
The link between health and the economy
Nathalie began the webinar by noting that the existential danger facing black and brown businesses is directly correlated to their communities’ economy and health. She noted that banks have a long history of rejecting people of color for loans. They are often asked for more qualifying material compared to white borrowers. If loans are received, they are typically issued at higher interest rates that whites obtain. As a result, Nathalie was not surprised that $559 billion in PPP (paycheck protection program) loan money which was deployed through banks went to borrowers with whom the banks already had existing relationships vs. black and brown business owners. As a further barrier, the program excluded people with prison records, which disproportionately impacts entrepreneurs of color.
Morgan noted that $30 billion of the PPP has been designated to be disseminated through Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) and smaller community banks (under $10 billion in asset size). She is angry that this relatively small amount is dwarfed by the $500 billion-plus being targeted at large companies, including $17 billion to Boeing. She believes that this policy failure should be addressed by investors and noted that her organization, Candide, publicly makes political contributions to advocate for broader access to capital for all. Candide has 75 women-owned companies in its portfolio, of which 18 successfully applied and were approved for PPP, in part because they had investors that advocated for them. Candide leveraged its financial connections to help business owners, including some who are not in their portfolio, to gain access to funds.
Priya voiced a somewhat optimistic outlook on the economy. She noted that PPP is not an economic stimulus plan per se but rather a relief package. She sees a long road ahead with actual fiscal stimulus and investor tax incentives. She expects a larger amount of capital to be deployed going forward.
Access to capital a challenge to black and brown communities
But with regards to access to capital, networks or key. Those who have access to a managing director at a venture capital (VC) firm are typically people from privilege, not just a particular race or gender. Priya noted that VC is a high risk/reward asset class and most who invest in venture can afford to take those risks. If you do not come from money, you’re an outsider. The VC firms tend to look for larger, high tech firms that can have big returns. Those firms’ founders/owners tend to be white and male (as are most VC partners).
Priya also noted that venture firms with female and diverse partners may be open to a variety of investments, not just the high-risk, high-reward kind. As an example, the firm invests in a telemedicine company that provides mental health services to 50% of the counties in the U.S. that do not have access to a mental facility. That is impact, in Priya’s estimation.
Nathalie said it’s likely that half of businesses owned by people of color will be gone soon. She believes there must be policy solutions at the municipal and state level. She hopes some policies will be initiated quickly by both the public and private sectors to try to save some of these businesses. Nathalie notes that the needs of both black and brown main street and high-growth companies should be addressed. With people of color a growing US demographic, the needs of main street companies need to be addressed to support near term and future economic health of the US. High growth companies with Black and Brown founders also need access to capital. The challenge is that there are few asset managers of color running funds. Nathalie proposed that governments, corporations and limited partnerships should allocate 30% of money to managers who are people of color to address the growing need for capital by companies run by people of color. Priya agreed but went further by suggesting that managers and investors need to look at who the company is serving and to invest in companies whose products and services support underserved communities.
Finally, during the discussion, both panelists and attendees shared a variety of articles and links to additional resources regarding small business relief, impacts on communities of color, and philanthropic opportunities:
Rising income and wealth inequality is a widely recognized social concern in the United States. This is a multi-faceted issue, with root causes that vary according to demographics, and one that impact investors have shown strong interest in addressing.
Since the 1990s, there has been a growing disparity in economic opportunity for rural Americans. This demographic issue has gained public awareness in mainstream social discourse in the recent past. In this report, we lay out the key challenges faced by rural America, highlight approaches to revitalization that have proven effective, and describe existing investment strategies.
The decline of manufacturing and shift to a knowledge- and service-based economy left many rural communities unable to recover adequately from the Great Recession of the late ’00s. The resulting challenges can be summarized as:
- Lack of jobs, or a mismatch in skills with available jobs.
- Poor infrastructure: Rural communities often lack high speed internet, access to quality healthcare, and local banking services.
- Drug addiction, specifically opioids, which compounds the effect of limited health care access.
Effective strategies for revitalization
Asset-based community development (ABCD) is a “self-help” strategy that sets the stage to attract private loans and investments by taking advantage of a community’s existing strengths. Initially a community might use government or foundation funding to develop community assets, e.g. supporting existing local entrepreneurs or developing local natural resources to offer an attractive quality of life. Once an initiative proves viable it may be possible to attract private investment.
Community Development Finance Institutions (CDFIs) and other local intermediaries can help aggregate capital to support local investment. Aggregators attract capital to an investment theme and allocate sums to projects that need funding.
Real estate development is another possible path to revitalization, with Opportunity Zones potentially attracting investment that might not otherwise be economically feasible.
We highlight several initiatives that are under way related to broadband projects in small communities that may finally begin to deploy this critical infrastructure.
Lastly, we highlight how some communities are making a concerted effort to attract a younger population and stem the “brain drain” of rural youth to urban areas.
For investors interested in promoting capital investment in infrastructure and businesses that create jobs in rural America, there are various strategies one can consider across asset classes. We describe these strategies in this report; some are general categories of investment, and in other cases we refer to specific strategies available to our clients.
We recently hosted a live video webinar to discuss ways in which investors can contribute to the narrowing of economic disparities through a dedicated emphasis on investing in underserved minority communities. Our panel, moderated by Randall Strickland, Cornerstone’s Director of Client Relationship Management, featured Pat Miguel Tomaino, Director of Socially Responsible Investing for Zevin Asset Management, and Julianne Zimmerman, Managing Director of Reinventure Capital.
Access our full report here.
The US legacy of inequality based on race and ethnicity is rooted in centuries-old policies and practices that were designed to provide greater opportunity and wealth to some people (white people) and less opportunity and wealth to others (people of color). These practices were sometimes promoted at the outset as “race-neutral,” while in actuality they were nothing of the sort. For instance, policies such as the G.I. Bill granted opportunities to build wealth but were implemented to benefit white Americans while suppressing others’ access to those opportunities. Over time, investors have done little to break the economic divide; indeed, in many cases investment practices have only served to reinforce the accumulation of wealth among a small percentage of people.
Investors cannot alter centuries of structural racism that have led to economic inequality on their own, but they can support ways to help build an economy that provides opportunity for everyone. In this report, we look at some ways that investors are attempting to alter the economic paradigm through their investing practices.
People of color in the US earn far less and possess a fraction of the household wealth of white communities. The disparity reflects, in large part, 20th century policies such as the New Deal that set the stage for the emergence of a robust middle class but also embedded discriminatory practices that severely limited the participation of communities of color in that upward mobility. Many decades on, the overhang from these policies persists, and for many households of color were exacerbated by the impact of the 2007-09 recession.
Household wealth underpins financial security, helps families weather difficulties such as health issues or natural disasters, and enables people to maintain their standard of living during periods of unemployment. Family transfers of wealth are key to funding higher education, the formation of businesses, and home ownership for the next generation.
The implications of this wealth disparity go beyond the disadvantages it creates for the people directly affected. People of color will become the majority of the US population as early as 2045, according to a new US census projection. If the current income and wealth gaps between whites and people of color remain static, the overall pool of investment capital for entrepreneurship and home equity will be concentrated in fewer hands and sectors of the economy. This could fuel social instability and create major headwinds for future US economic growth.
Whether motivated by a desire to address racial inequities or concern about the future health of the US economy overall, investors are interested in understanding concrete ways to invest toward a more equitable economic playing field — one that fosters the creation of durable wealth. Investors are increasingly seeking companies, funds, and other assets that address long-term risks resulting from racial inequality and that are positioned for success if society moves to confront the status quo. We have assessed how investors may be able to contribute to solutions to three of the main current components of wealth inequality:
- Income inequality: Lower incomes result in less savings and, over time, less wealth. This leaves fewer resources available for the next generation.
- Home ownership and affordable housing: Less access to affordable home ownership deprives families of an important source of household wealth. Given the lack of family financial transfers that can help with a down payment for a home, lower family income, or other financial impediments, families of color may not have access to low-cost financing to purchase a decent home — or any home at all.
- Access to capital: Less access to affordable loans can diminish household savings. High-cost debt payments for educational loans, car or consumer loans, or mortgages may hinder a family’s ability to build wealth. Less access to reasonably priced commercial loans to start or grow a business may also impair a parent’s ability to pass wealth on to children.
In crafting impact investment strategies, Cornerstone Capital Group evaluates how investments can improve access to resources needed to improve individual, community, and societal outcomes. In considering what investors can do to help break the cycle of racial and ethnic wealth inequality, we look for ways to foster wealth creation by tackling those three challenges.
- Investing in deposits at Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) will help those institutions invest in underserved communities through affordable commercial, consumer and mortgage loans. Access to affordable mortgages helps families build wealth through home ownership. Access to reasonable consumer and educational loans helps families save on finance costs so they can put extra money into savings accounts. The ability to start or build a business with access to reasonable commercial loans is an excellent path to building household and community jobs and wealth.
- Fixed income or alternative funds focused on impact in underserved communities can provide reasonably priced loans to businesses and for commercial properties and owned housing in neighborhoods of color. Again, these funds can help people of color build wealth through home ownership, entrepreneurship or ownership of a property, and can enable a local business to remain in its neighborhood and not be driven off by escalating rents.
- Through crowdfunding, investors can help repair household balance sheets of overleveraged individuals by swapping high-cost consumer, educational or mortgage loans for restructured, affordable, lower-cost loans. These lower-cost loans might substitute for family financial transfers and allow adult children to build wealth.
Fortunately, the scope and number of investment vehicles designed to improve access to housing and capital is broadening along with growing interest in targeting investments for impact.
The “skilling up” of the retail workforce has the potential to enable retail workers to improve their productivity and career prospects, while enabling retail companies to build their future workforces. Purposeful investors can identify these companies and take a long-term investor view to encourage these companies to train and deploy this workforce.
The widely reported decline of physical retail stores is alarming for a variety of reasons, but retail stores are likely to live on in one form or another for the foreseeable future (as evidenced by Amazon’s recent moves into the “bricks and mortar” space). The question for retail workers is “Which retailer should I work for?”
Our recent report Retail Automation: Stranded Workers? Opportunities and risks for labor and automation provides some insight into this question for people who are looking to join or currently work in the retail sector. The report highlighted structural changes under way in retail that have the potential to impact the size and wages of the retail labor force. More than six million of the 16 million retail workers in the US, especially women and those located in smaller regional hubs and rural areas are at risk of losing their jobs to automation just in light of technology that is currently available.
Our research revealed two key automation-related trends likely to affect labor.
First is the “hollowing out” of middle-skilled workers who perform routine tasks, like cashiers and back office associates. These workers will either retrain for higher-skilled jobs or, without training, be pushed down into basic “innate ability” jobs (such as store greeters), with minimal career growth opportunities.
Second is the potential movement of retail stores to more clearly bifurcated strategies:
- Convenience – focus on removing the “friction” of the purchase process within the retail store to increase sales volume and decrease labor costs through technology.
- Experience – focus on enhancing consumers’ interaction with the store and its employees to increase pricing power.
Companies that adopt an experience strategy are likely to invest in their workers and use technology to enhance the effectiveness of their workforce. In contrast, we see convenience strategies as reducing the absolute number of workers to save costs. Our report offers a framework for assessing a company’s movement towards a convenience or experience strategy—or its lack of clear direction.
What’s a retail worker to do?
Based on these two trends, retail workers looking to navigate the structural changes under way should favor companies that provide tuition reimbursement and/or technical and programming training. Workers who acquire the skills to advance beyond their current roles will be better positioned to benefit, or at least avoid harm, from these secular changes.
Examples of companies that provide such programs are shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1: Publicly disclosed tuition reimbursement and incentivized training programsSource: Company reports, Cornerstone Capital Group
Amazon, Lowe’s, Gap, and Wal-Mart offer public disclosure around tuition reimbursement that suggests they are positioning their labor force for retail jobs of the future. Best Buy intends to increase its investment in employee development, while automotive retailers Advance Auto Parts and O’Reilly Automotive signal support of their labor force advancing within the automotive field.
Most retail companies are also actively hiring a range of programming, user experience, and merchandising workers. Retailers are competing with Silicon Valley for workers that are in high demand and have seen their wages grow significantly over the last decade, as shown in Figure 2. (Note: our original report did not explore this trend.)
Figure 2: Software developer hourly wage growth vs. total private hourly wage growth
Source: BLS, Cornerstone Capital Group
Retailers already employ a large workforce that, with training, could provide these higher-skilled services. In addition, these workers have corporate knowledge that could allow them to be more useful to the organization than a Silicon Valley software developer.
The “skilling up” of the retail workforce has the potential to enable retail workers to improve their productivity and career prospects, while enabling retail companies to build their future workforces. We believe purposeful investors can identify these companies and take a long-term investor view to encourage these companies to train and deploy this workforce.
Sebastian Vanderzeil is a Director and Global Thematics Analyst at Cornerstone Capital Group.
Executive summary (download full report here)
The retail landscape is experiencing unprecedented change in the face of disruptive forces, one of the most recent and powerful being the rapid rise of automation in the sector. The World Economic Forum predicts that 30-50% of retail jobs are at risk once known automation technologies are fully incorporated. This would result in the loss of about 6 million retail jobs and represents a greater percentage reduction than the manufacturing industry experienced. Using Osborne and Frey study1 with the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the analysis suggests that more than 7.5 million jobs are at high risk of computerization. A large proportion of the human capital represented by the retail workforce is therefore at risk of becoming “stranded workers.”
As of 2002, retail employment exceeded total manufacturing employment, and now sits at about 16 million workers (Figure 1). Total manufacturing employment, which peaked in 1979 at approximately 19 million workers, has fallen to 12 million workers. The repercussions of manufacturing’s decline, which was driven by automation and globalization, have been felt at the local and national levels. For example, certain areas of the US that were once manufacturing hubs have experienced rising poverty, declining populations, and erosion of political trust.
Figure 1: Employment in manufacturing and retail trade
Source: US FRED, Cornerstone Capital Group
The impact of significant reductions in retail workers may mirror the impact of manufacturing job losses. Retail sales at brick-and-mortar stores, as well as margins on those sales, are increasingly constrained as consumers shift to online shopping. At the same time, many parts of the country are experiencing upward structural wage pressure as concerns about income inequality are gaining political traction. Major retailers, including Macy’s, J.C. Penney, Kohl’s and Wal-Mart, have collectively closed hundreds of stores over the last few years in attempts to stem losses from unprofitable stores. These headwinds are pushing retailers to rethink the traditional retail business model.
|Technology has the potential to automate part of the sales process and render a range of jobs redundant|
Retailers are investing in technology to build out their omnichannel platforms. In some cases, technology is complementing labor by providing a better customer experience. Indeed, this report argues that companies which use technology to support their workers are likely to benefit from long-term productivity gains. However, technology also has the potential to automate part of the sales process and render a range of jobs redundant. Taken together, store closures and automation technology have the potential to accelerate job losses in retail, an industry that employs approximately 10% of the total US labor force.
An in-depth examination of retail automation was undertaken to enable investors to consider investment risks and opportunities by exploring how retail is addressing profit pressure and how employees are considered in the context of a broader shift in strategy. This report:
- Identifies the structural factors catalyzing change in the retail industry;
- Examines the current and potential automation initiatives across 30 retail companies, chosen based on market capitalization and comparability;
- Provides analysis on the characteristics of current retail workers, including gender and location, and assesses stakeholder groups that may be impacted by changes to retail labor;
- Leverages these insights, using Cornerstone’s BRAVE MatrixTM as well as novel metrics (given the retail sector’s limited disclosure) to analyze how these companies are positioned to manage automation and labor through the industry’s transition; and
- Provides a set of questions for investors to include in their engagement with retailers.
Which factors are driving automation in retail?
Given that automation has been a central driving force for economic development for decades, it is important to understand why its application in the retail sector threatens to radically and rapidly reshape the retail labor force. The research identifies two key factors driving the automation conversation.
First, e-commerce has grown significantly over the last five years and now accounts for more than 8% of total US retail sales. Amazon has been a dominant force in e-commerce for years, and the company accounted for 43% of all online sales in 2016. While the consumer benefits from lower prices and greater price transparency, Amazon’s success is pressuring retailer profit margins as they fight to maintain market share and keep prices low to remain competitive.
|Retail workers are disproportionately represented among recipients of public assistance|
Second, a growing focus on income inequality and regulatory-driven minimum wage changes are a source of increasing wage pressure. Retail employs about 10% of the US labor force, and research finds that retail workers are disproportionately represented among recipients of public assistance. Retailers have been increasing wages recently due to a tighter labor market, but retail faces a structural issue of increasing pressure for minimum wage hikes at the local and state level.
Taken together, retailers are facing structural price and cost issues that impact profitability and create meaningful long-term uncertainty. These headwinds will likely increase the industry’s propensity to automate, which would have significant impacts on existing labor. Companies are likely to respond through two consumer strategies:
- Convenience – focus on removing the ‘friction’ of the purchase process within the retail store to increase sales volume and decrease labor costs through technology.
- Experience – focus on enhancing consumers’ interaction with the store and its employees to increase pricing power.
While companies may pursue a mix of these two strategies, understanding which is the primary strategy will enable investors to understand how technology and labor are likely to be used, and how the overall labor profile of the company might change.
How is automation being adopted in retail?
The technology initiatives of 30 retail companies were assessed, and ten in-store technologies that will impact the retail industry were identified. The assessment provides an indication of the extent to which each technology is being deployed. These initiatives are focused on improving customer satisfaction, operational efficiency, or a combination thereof.
|Research indicates companies are adopting mobile devices, self-checkout, digital kiosks, proximity beacons, and workforce and task management solutions|
The review of company reports indicates that retail companies are implementing technologies such as mobile devices, self-checkout, digital kiosks, proximity beacons, and workforce and task management solutions.
What are the broader stakeholder implications?
An assessment of the gender composition of retail workers shows that the largest group, retail salespeople, has equal numbers of men and women. However, cashiers, the next largest group of retail workers, are predominantly women (73%). Cashiers are considered one of the most easily automatable jobs in the economy. Based on this analysis, large-scale automation of retail labor could disproportionately affect women, as noted previously in Cornerstone Capital Group’s September 2016 report, Women in an Automated World.
From a geographical standpoint, it appears that several major retail companies have store footprints that are concentrated in less densely populated metropolitan areas. For example, a UCLA study shows that Wal-Mart possesses an average market share of 25% in metropolitan areas with populations of fewer than 500,000 residents. This market share, if indicative of employment share (even if not directly proportionate), suggests significant potential impacts for local communities should Wal-Mart pursue an aggressive labor automation strategy.
How are companies managing labor issues associated with automation?
The retail sector provides little disclosure on labor issues. None of the 30 companies reviewed in this report provides key labor data such as employee turnover, labor costs as a percentage of SG&A, or employee satisfaction. Therefore, a series of proxy metrics were developed to evaluate the universe of companies:
- Public disclosure of automation initiatives;
- Changing labor profile associated with an experience or convenience strategy;
- Minimum wage and poverty level exposure;
- Labor investment; and
- Public perception of employee practices, social policies, and prior reputation.
|No companies provide key labor data such as employee turnover, labor costs as a percentage of SG&A, or employee satisfaction|
Based on the assessment, key takeaways include:
- No retailers appear to be pursuing a clear convenience strategy. Approximately 35% of the assessed retailers are positioning towards an experience strategy. The remaining 65% do not appear to have a clear strategy, at least as determinable by public disclosures.
- On average, retail companies are moderately exposed to state minimum wage increases, although Sprouts is significantly more exposed than others. Only Costco, Nordstrom, Whole Foods, and Tiffany & Co. pay their cashiers and associates a wage at or above the poverty level for a family of four as calculated by the US Department of Health and Human Services.
- Amazon, Best Buy, Lowe’s, Staples, Target, and Wal-Mart stand out as investing in their labor through programs such as tuition reimbursement and technical and programming training, which is consistent with their strong employee ratings.
- Dollar General and Wal-Mart receive the most negative scores on social policies and public reputation from the data sources utilized, while Costco scores most favorably. Data sources include Mission Measurement and Sustainalytics.
The analysis indicates that automation is set to alter the retail industry’s labor profile. If companies migrate towards a high-touch, experience-based strategy, then it is possible workers will receive improved training and higher wages, and there will be fewer layoffs. If companies adopt a heavily convenience-oriented strategy, more tasks will be automated and less labor required. To date, companies’ discussions around implementing technology suggest that technology is aimed at complementing labor. However, should structural price and cost issues persist, technology may be viewed as a potential substitute for labor.
|A mix of experience and convenience strategies could still result in material lay-offs in the retail sector|
The most likely outcome is a mix of experience and convenience strategies, though this could still result in material layoffs in the retail sector. Because retail represents approximately 10% of the total US labor force, any systematic deployment of automation is likely to reduce the number of retail jobs by a figure in the millions.
Download full report here.
 Calculated from retail trade employment, given by the Bureau of Labor Statistics Current Employment Statistics Survey
 Business Relationship Analytics for Value Enhancement.
 EPI analysis of Current Population Survey Annual Social and Economic Supplement microdata, pooled years 2012-2014
Michael Shavel is a Global Thematic Research Analyst at Cornerstone Capital Group. Prior to joining the firm, Michael was a Research Analyst on the Global Growth and Thematic team at Alliance Bernstein. He holds a B.S. in Finance from Rutgers University and is a CFA Charterholder.
Sebastian Vanderzeil is a Global Thematic Research Analyst with Cornerstone Capital Group. He holds an MBA from New York University’s Stern School of Business. Previously, Sebastian was an economic consultant with global technical services group AECOM, where he advised on the development and finance of major infrastructure across Asia and Australia. Sebastian also worked with the Queensland State Government on water and climate issues prior to establishing Australia’s first government-owned carbon broker, Ecofund Queensland.
Emma Currier is a Research Associate at Cornerstone Capital Group. Emma graduated with a Bachelors of Arts degree in Economics from Brown University in May 2016. While at school, she worked with the Socially Responsible Investing Fund and as a teaching assistant for the Public Health and Economics departments. She spent her sophomore summer researching differences between American and Indian educational styles in Arunachal Pradesh, India, and completed a summer investment bank analyst position with Citi in the Media & Telecom group in 2015.
On February 21 Cornerstone Capital Group Research published “The Art of the Possible: Investing to Address Income Inequality,” in which authors John Wilson, Craig Metrick and Sebastian Vanderzeil provided perspective on the factors fueling increasing disparities in both income and opportunity. The report identifies investment opportunities that offer competitive financial returns while helping to address concerns about increasing levels of inequality and income stagnation.
In late April Cornerstone hosted a live streaming panel discussion on the topic, inviting Brian Trelstad, Partner at Bridges Fund Management, and Beth Bafford of Calvert Foundation’s investment management team, to discuss the topic in more detail.
In this report we identify investment opportunities that offer competitive financial returns while helping to address concerns about increasing levels of inequality and income stagnation.
The rise of populist and anti-globalization political movements in the developed world is in part a reaction to middle-class wage stagnation and inequities based on age, race, gender and geography. The increasingly popular belief that the global economic system does not serve the interests of all is a source of social tension and political upheaval, creating long-term risks for investors.
Middle-income workers in developed countries face rising economic pressures:
- Globalization and automation have benefited economic elites and workers in some developing countries while contributing to wage stagnation for many developed country workers.
- Decreasing returns on investment in education are reducing opportunities for economic mobility in the US.
- The prices of certain necessary goods, like college, medical care and shelter, have increased relative to wages.
- Inequality is becoming more pronounced among younger people, potentially hampering their long-term economic mobility. The percentage of US households earning a middle-class income has decreased.
Age, geography, gender and race further limit upward mobility for many groups of people. For instance, the likelihood of a low-income child in the southeast US achieving a high income in adulthood is notably less than for rest of the country.
Populist and nationalist movements are pledging to reverse these trends for some groups or all, sometimes gaining support by exploiting social tensions associated with these inequities. Such a response to globalization might exacerbate social tension and do more harm than good to the economic and political foundations for prosperity in the developed world.
Investors can address concerns about inequality responsibly by selecting managers who employ a number of sustainable investing strategies. Inequality cannot be addressed without supportive public policy. Yet, investors can still make a substantial impact through certain strategies such as:
- Proxy voting and corporate engagement. Investors have a voice in company policy through their equity ownership stake, on issues such as equitable compensation policies, improved diversity and fair labor policies.
- Investing in fixed income instruments to support investments in communities. A small group of fixed income funds offers market rate returns supporting affordable housing and social and environmental infrastructure. These funds can be targeted geographically and thematically.
- Affordable housing or other real estate funds. Affordable housing funds offer an avenue for investment that provides subsidized housing and links residents to social services while still earning market returns for investors.
- Private debt strategies. These funds finance small businesses and other organizations in underserved communities. Some low-risk/low-return vehicles lend directly to small businesses and non-profits in low-income areas to provide services in underserved communities.
Click here to download the full report. To discuss customized advice on this or other investment themes, see contact information at the end of this report.
Increasing automation will change the composition of the US workforce. 49% of workers are in professions that face a high risk (greater than 70% probability) of computerization, defined as automation by computer-controlled equipment. 32% of US workers are in professions that face a very high risk (greater than 90%).
Women face greater risk of job loss due to computerization, and “lower risk” jobs typically dominated by women pay less than low risk male-dominated jobs. Our analysis revealed that women hold nearly 60% of jobs facing very high risk of computerization. Women also hold a greater percentage of jobs in very low risk professions (less than 10% chance of automation); the median annual income of those jobs is $27,000 less than that for low risk men’s jobs.
Developing “non-computerizable” skills minimizes exposure to automation risk over the long term and enables migration towards emerging sectors. Programs aiming to develop social and critical thinking skills offer a way for women to transition to lower risk jobs and access low risk male-dominated STEM fields.
There are a range of options available to investors who wish to influence this trend. Education technology (EdTech) funds and gender lens investing offer opportunities to investors concerned with the potential impact of automation on women. We offer a brief overview of the relevant investment approaches.
Figure 1: Computerization risk categories by gender in the US
Source: Frey and Osborne, “The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation?” Oxford University, September 2013; Bureau of Labor Statistics; Cornerstone Capital Group.
To download our complete report, click here.
Fiona Ewing recently completed an internship in the Research department of Cornerstone Capital Group, where she produced this original report while contributing to another major project. She is a rising senior at Dartmouth College, where she is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Economics with a minor in Chinese. Previously she interned with Clarion Partners, focusing on strategy and research.
Sebastian Vanderzeil is a Global Thematic Analyst with Cornerstone Capital Group. He holds an MBA from New York University’s Stern School of Business. Previously, Sebastian was an economic consultant with global technical services group AECOM, where he advised on the development and finance of major infrastructure across Asia and Australia. Sebastian also worked with the Queensland State Government on water and climate issues prior to establishing Australia’s first government-owned carbon broker, Ecofund Queensland.