Scott A. Shay
Jun 30, 2022
In June of this year, Morningstar issued a report in response to the criticism that its ESG (Environment, Social, and Governance) scores, ratings and commentary supported a boycott of Israel while ignoring dozens of conflict zones in the world.
Original publication link: https://jewishlink.news/op-eds/52292-morningstar-s-modified-limited-hangout
Editor’s note: In November 2021, The Jewish Link published an important essay by Scott A. Shay, called “A Smear By Any Name,” which took issue with Morningstar’s ESG ratings, which he, as well as many others, found to be widely and disproportionally biased against Israel. The essay enumerated how investors who have no desire to boycott Israel may be doing so because of hidden screens run by Morningstar’s subsidiary, Sustainalytics, that disproportionately penalize companies doing business with or in Israel. Since then, Morningstar comissioned a independent report in order to investigate the criticism. We are pleased to present Mr. Shay’s analysis of the report.
In June of this year, Morningstar issued a report in response to the criticism that its ESG (Environment, Social, and Governance) scores, ratings and commentary supported a boycott of Israel while ignoring dozens of conflict zones in the world. As one of two of the most influential ESG rating agencies in the world today, this boycott has huge economic ramifications for Israeli companies (many of which are at the forefront of life-saving technologies) and critical conceptual ramifications for ESG as an investment filter. The story of how this report came to be, as well as its content, sadly have done little to improve the confidence of investors who noticed the company’s unexplained and unjustified bias. In fact, the report, which is best described as a Nixonian “modified limited hang-out,” should worry all investors who count on ESG raters to help them invest for the good of the planet.
To comprehend why this issue is crucial not only for Israel and the Jews, one needs to understand the importance of ESG and Morningstar’s leading role in ESG screening. As the report itself states, ESG investing accounts for $17 trillion of investments in 2022 and growing rapidly. To put this in perspective the value of all the US stocks is about $45 billion. This means mutual funds, pension plans, and all manner of investment vehicles that involve almost all Americans are influenced by ESG ratings. Further, there are just two firms that are doing the bulk of the screening for ESG: Morningstar, through its subsidiary Sustainalytics, and MSCI. Thus, the power of these two companies to direct where this money goes is massive. As one top investment bank put it to its corporate clients, “Ignore the noise… it is important to focus your efforts on the key providers most commonly used by investors—MSCI and Sustainalytics. Understand which factors might get you screened out…business involvement screens [are vital to] understand which controversial business involvement will get you flagged.” Being flagged means that the $17 trillion investment pool will exclude your firm, or in the case of Israel, a country. This is why it is so vital for raters to be absolutely transparent about how they arrive at their ratings and to be crystal clear about whether the criteria used really reflect investor concerns. In the case of Israel, the Sustainalytics ratings led to a de facto boycott of Israeli companies based on strange, obsessive, skewed, and above all, unexplained criteria. The focus and bias with respect to Israel was so extreme, that some investors began to ask questions as early as 2016. In what became the beginning of a pattern, Sustainalytics ignored these questions and offered no insight into its selection criteria.
In Spring 2020, Morningstar acquired complete ownership of Sustainalytics, having previously been a minority investor. Almost as soon as the transaction was announced some investors asked Morningstar about Sustainalytics’s bias against, and obsession with, Israel. They were assured by senior management that if Sustainalytics had enabled a de facto boycott of the country in the past, new ownership would stamp it out. But nothing changed. Morningstar soon also displayed a bias against Israel that was so blatant that it, too, compelled attention. For example, just two months after the acquisition, a widely read Morningstar publication highlighted an advisor who listed about 100 companies from a universe of thousands that should be eliminated from investment consideration. Of these 100, 59 related to Israel. JLens was the first to note that the sources cited by Sustainalytics were notoriously biased against Israel. These included Danwatch, the Electronic Intifada, Who Profits, Mondoweiss, Iran Daily and others of a similar viewpoint. Although some Israeli sources were used from time to time, they were disingenuously curated. Rather than offering a different viewpoint they referred to various forms of opposition against Israel, such as an organization voting for a BDS (Boycott Divestment Sanctions) resolution. Further, in proprietary reports I was able to read, but unfortunately cannot cite due to Morningstar’s confidentiality agreement with clients, I found conspiratorial language about Israel and its imagined nefarious impact on the world.
There were other signs that pointed to bias as well. It is hard not to see cynicism behind Sustainalytics’s focus on Western Sahara and Tibet in addition to Israel as the conflict zones in the globe most worthy of an effective boycott. For ESG purposes, adding the Principality of Madripoor would have had the same financial effect, as these two economies are not susceptible to ESG screening, and Tibet in particular, is impervious. In contrast for deniability purposes, the inclusion of these two other conflicts (which has now been expanded somewhat further) means that technically Sustainanalytics, and now Morningstar, did not run afoul of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism, the definition often used in anti-BDS legislation. The questions about criteria for inclusion in this list have never been adequately answered. Despite a few additions, the list of conflict zones not mentioned by Sustainalytics and now Morningstar is still very long. It is thus reasonable to ask whether running afoul of the letter of anti-BDS legislation and/or the IHRA was Sustainalytics primary criteria for the inclusion of countries other than Israel.
Morningstar’s initial response to concerns about its failure to address the bias against Israel that it inherited from Sustainalytics raised even more red flags. For one, they turned some of their sales employees into liars. When many investment professionals asked their Morningstar representatives about the anti-Israel bias of the ESGs, they responded with scripts that they simply denied any bias. Further both the CEO and Chairman personally dismissed attempts by respected members of the investment community to get them to focus on the issue. Their tactics were aggressive denial.
As the questions kept coming, management stepped up its denial with an exculpatory internal report in March 2021. The report was framed in such a way that it would have been impossible for its authors to find any bias in Morningstar’s actions. It also gave investors no insight into how Morningstar selected its ESG criteria and why Israel featured so heavily on its no-go list. The report was then used by Morningstar executives to angrily dismiss those in the investment and Jewish communities who sought to discuss Morningstar’s bias in a private and helpful manner. After many unfriendly rebuffs, critics felt they had no choice but to bring the issue to the Illinois Investment Policy Board (IIPB). This move was entirely appropriate since the IIPB is the entity authorized by the state of Illinois to make sure that the state investment portfolio does not include firms espousing BDS in accordance with Illinois’s anti-BDS legislation. The March 2021 report has since been deleted from the Morningstar website.
The importance of this story goes beyond the bias against Israel to the issue of trust in raters more generally. Morningstar is not in the habit of being transparent despite advocating transparency for all others. In fact, it is an understatement to say Morningstar does not like outside review of its procedures. In an entirely separate matter in February, 2021, the SEC (the US Securities Exchange Commission, the independent federal government regulatory agency responsible for protecting investors) sued Morningstar for permitting its analysts “to make undisclosed adjustments to key stresses in the model that is used in determining the rating.” Morningstar responded that it vigorously disputed the charges and argued that the SEC was, among other contentions, violating the independence of the rating agencies. In May 2022, Morningstar settled the case by paying a fine. While the SEC matter is not connected to the issue of Morningstar’s bias against Israel, it shows that Morningstar does not like it when outsiders want to know how they arrive at the conclusions that investors are supposed to accept as fact. While demanding companies to be transparent Morningstar is as opaque as it gets. No outsider gets to review the making or inputs to Morningstar’s ESG reports. I have spoken to senior managers of top investment firms that were flat out told that they weren’t allowed behind the curtain, but just had to trust Morningstar. Since most investment managers focus on their actual investments but nevertheless want to assure their clients that these comply with ESG, trust from an accepted name is what is needed. As a result, Morningstar can do almost anything in the name of ESG.
Despite Morningstar’s track-record of opposition to any outside review, the IIPB’s inquiry about its stance on Israel could not be ignored. And so, Morningstar hired White and Case to do an independent report. Yet far from being a genuine admission and program to resolve the underlying disease, the White and Case report is best described as a modified limited hangout and may very well get Morningstar a pass. For those of you who don’t recognize the term, modified limited hangout, John Ehrlichman, one of President Nixon’s advisors coined the phrase to describe a PR strategy, honed by intelligence agencies, of mixing some partial admissions with plenty of misdirecting information that has the effect of halting further inquiry. And per the Ehrlichman strategy, the final report will say that “nobody was involved.” To conduct the investigation, Morningstar selected a lawyer whose LinkedIn profile boasts that “she is particularly adept at understanding and guiding clients through the public relations aspects of crisis investigations.” Translation: hire us and we will get you through this just fine. The author does state in the report that she had independent access to seek out facts but at no point does the report state that the recommendations were made independently of Morningstar. The report is indeed a masterpiece of denial of responsibility, but a careful read should leave all investors incredulous and angry for several reasons.
First, the contradictions in the report are so blatant as to be absurd. In the cover letter to the report, the CEO and Chairman say that “We stated then—and reaffirm today—that neither Morningstar nor Sustainalytics supports the anti-Israel BDS campaign. Yet the report itself recites that, “Sustainalytics employees acknowledged that some clients may use [Sustainalytic’s] GSS [Global Standards Screening] as a so called ‘do not invest’ list in order to comply with internal policies. One employee explained that the Sustainalytics GSS ratings sometimes functions as a de facto divestment list in the Netherlands—i.e., the divestment lists published in the Dutch market almost perfectly mirrors the Sustainalytics rankings… Over the last decade, these sorts of internal investment policies have become common in the United States as well.” Thus, as I pointed out in my book, Conspiracy U, and related article A Smear by Any Name, Morningstar didn’t have to be officially pro-BDS to be an indispensable enabler of BDS. However, Morningstar seems to have felt that this “plausible deniability,” another intelligence tactic, would protect them. Yet for any careful reader of the report (and the most interesting material is indeed buried deep in the hinter pages) the repeated attempts at plausible deniability are cynical at best.
Second, the actual information in the report on Morningstar’s subsidiary Sustainalytics is damning yet the report bizarrely characterizes it as fair. For example, Sustainalytics has a key group called the Global Standards Oversight Committee (GSOC), comprised of approximately ten members who are charged with conducting geopolitical research and deciding what global issues they need to galvanize the $17 trillion of ESG power to rectify. For years the only problems they could find were in Israel, Tibet, and Western Sahara, and then of late in a few more countries, though they continue to ignore most of the hotspots around the globe. The only explanation of this limited universe can be bias. Yet the report does not consider this option. When it came to thirty ratings “involving what Sustainalytics tags as ‘Occupied Territories/ Disputed Regions’…the Israel/Palestine conflict is a factor in 70%—that is twenty-one—of those ratings. The remaining 30% of those ratings [encompass all of] involvement in Sudan, Western Sahara, Hong Kong, Somalia, Kurdistan, Yemen, Syria, and Myanmar.” Incredibly this does not bother the author of the report writer in reaching her conclusion—without any evidence—that “there are justifiable, non-biased explanations for this focus such as the Israeli/Palestinian conflict receiving a disproportionate amount of media attention.” And so with this glib assertion, the report can confidently state that “our analysis did not reveal clear evidence of biased outcomes related to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in the Controversies or ESG ratings products.” Sustainalytics looks at the world and sees the bulk of all evil emanating from the one Jewish state in the world, but according to the report, the company has no bias.
This point alone should be a case study in confirmation bias and blindness to anti-Semitism. For any genuinely unbiased look at the world would indicate that the one Jewish nation is not responsible for 70% of the problems of the world. That is unless one believes that Jews are somehow some evil cabal of conspirators seeking to harm the rest of the globe. The report is entirely uncurious as to how Morningstar allowed this sort of prejudice to fester.
Third, the justifications in the report for singling out Israel defy common sense. This view that Israel exerts an outsized influence on the whole world was flagrant in an assertion by, as the report states, “One Sustainalytics employee emphasized the increased volume of corporate activity in Israel resulting in part from the fact that the Israeli economy is more developed suggesting that the denominator of companies exposed ratings related to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is therefore larger.”  Really? This comes from a Sustainalytics official who is supposed to understand basic economics. It shouldn’t take an expert to know that the Chinese economy is gargantuan compared to Israel and hundreds of times more companies are exposed to it than to the economy of Israel. This faulty logic can only emanate from Sustainalytics if they embrace the anti-Semitic canard that Jews control of the world. But according to Sustainanalytics, Israel is unique in other ways too. In one Sustainalytics methodology, various high-risk factors are used for human rights. In all other conflicts in the world the range is between two and four of these factors. In Israel however, there are, for some inexplicable reason, five high-risk factors. Israel is somehow in a league of its own in the view of Morningstar employees who deem themselves fair-minded and without bias.
Fourth, the report’s lack of criticism on the sources used for their ESG ratings should also raise alarms for investors. For example, the report asks no questions about the relationship between Sustainalytics staff and Who Profits even though Who Profits uses flagrantly anti-Semitic terms and has a virulent position toward Israel (to take just one minor example Who Profits deals harshly with any involvement with the Golan Heights, which they falsely characterize as occupied Palestinian territory, but has nothing to say about those involved with the Syrian regime). Yet there is a great deal of connectedness between the organizations. At times it is pretty clear that Who Profits is consciously writing for a specific audience at Sustainalytics. “One Sustainalytics employee described the relationship with Who Profits as being somewhat distinct from other NGO sources, as Sustainalytics is familiar with Who Profits research approach, and thus analysts will sometimes contact Who Profits directly to ask clarifying questions or obtain additional information.”  This means that Sustainalytics essentially subcontracts some of its work to Who Profits. In addition, communications between Sustainalytics employees and representatives of Who Profits suggest that the relationship between the entities is close, relative to Sustainalytics relationships with other organizations. “For example, in at least two instances, Who Profits raised complaints to Sustainalytics.” In other words, their relationship was so close that Who Profits could tell Sustainalytics it had not been harsh enough against Israel. To make matters worse, there are no instances of Sustainalytics approaching pro-Israel NGOs or news organization for a countervailing view. The report also claims in many places that Sustainalytics doesn’t blindly follow the UN Human Rights Commission and its sister groups at the UN, while simultaneously mentioning the UN a myriad of times to justify Sustainalystics’s focus on Israel. It should be noted that the UN has a long history of negative and disproportionate focus on Israel. To give but one example, the UN Human Rights Council has passed 45 resolutions condemning Israel, or half of the country-specific resolutions passed for the entire world.
Fifth, what is lacking in the report may be far worse than what is there. These omissions are why the report so reminded me of a carefully crafted intelligence diversion device. Obvious lines of inquiry were studiously avoided by the investigator. The fundamental question the report never answers and that is of concern to all Americans embracing ESG is why Sustainalytics is so obsessive in its focus on Israel as a central ESG concern when very few Americans agree with this view. Indeed, according to a Pew Study published in May, The vast majority of Americans (84%) have not heard much of anything about BDS and only 2% support it strongly. Yet 70% of Sustainalytics tags relating to territorial conflicts relate to Israel. Was Sustainalytics really following client demand, as they instructed their employees to tell clients who asked, or was their focus self -generated? The report has no curiosity on that point either. In fact, the report repeatedly depicts all of the Sustainalytics employees as earnest and fair-minded: “Sustainalytics employees consistently expressed confidence in the existing system of checks and balances on research and ratings assessments that assist Sustainalytics in analyzing issues appropriately, particularly in areas such as the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and every research analyst interviewed in the course of our investigation approached the reflection mandated by this process as eager to eliminate any existence or perception of potential bias in their ratings or research.” This is an absurd conclusion, while at the same time being unanimously held as true by all of the firm’s analysts. Where is the diversity of perspectives that ESG is supposed to engender? Somehow Sustainalytics obsessively focuses on an issue that 84% of Americans can’t identify and only 2% strongly support, yet its employees are not biased and have confidence in their “checks and balances.” The report not only ignored the immense contradiction between the employees’ self-perception and Sustainanalytics’s actual bias, but there was also no analysis of the culture that gave rise to it. While many investors have been consistently puzzled as to the source of this compulsive focus on Israel, the report follows Ehrlichman’s direction that, “nobody was involved.” There were just these amazingly hard working and earnest Sustainalytics employees who have been falsely accused of bias when all they were doing was the job demanded of them by fair-minded clients. One has to wonder in what other ways, Sustainalytics employees, management, and committee members are driving agendas that are alien to the desires of investors who think they are investing to improve the planet.
Finally, if all of this were not bad enough there is more. Morningstar not only has demonstrated bias against Israel in its reports, it has actively worked to get companies to stop doing business with Israel. On this point, the report again presents a modified limited hangout narrative that reverses what is taking place. “One employee…characterized the GSE engagement services as the opposite of divestment, as it consists of a dialogue with the engaged company that is designed to improve relationships between the investor-client and engaged company issued, rather than to punish the issuer.” Let’s translate this from cover-up speak to a description of the actual activity taking place. Sustainalytics finds out a company is doing business with Israel in some way it does not like. A representative sends a letter and/or calls the company and says the equivalent of “Nice company you’ve got there. Too bad you’re doing business with Israel, if you don’t stop,we will have to flag you and $17 trillion of ESG investment funds won’t consider you as worthy of investment. So how about it? It really isn’t that much of your revenues but a lot of your investors have an ESG lens. Stop doing business with Israel and it will be the opposite of divestment. It won’t hurt a bit.” Amazingly, the report finds little wrong with this type of behavior other than that it might look bad: “Nevertheless, the nature of GSE engagement work with engaged companies could create the appearance of a lack of objectivity in Sustainalytics’s rating products for those same engaged companies.” The report also notes an instance in which Sustainalytics uses its engagement product to ask that Israeli buyers be subject to additional scrutiny because the Israeli buyers might retrofit the machinery to demolish homes in the West Bank. Whether specific machinery was retrofitted or not, Sustainalytics “encouraged the company to put pressure on some of its larger dealers with respect to scrutinizing their buyers (“Know-Your-Customer” processes). This approach is nuanced and practical and evidences Sustainalytics’ understanding of the company and its businesses.” In other words, the report writers are excusing Sustainalytics from causing a primary and secondary boycott of Israel not because Sustainalytics has any evidence, but because it relies on Who Profits which has suspicions that the Jews of Israel might adapt a product for nefarious use. By that same logic, Sustainalytics could ask hardware dealers to tell hardware stores to which they sell not to sell screwdrivers, hammers, saws or a host of other products to specific ethnic groups because of a suspicion that they would use them for harm.
The Nixonian flavor to the report continues with its four recommendations. While two called for transparency and consistency (though without suggesting how this should be done), the third main recommendation was a style guide to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. This suggestion comes after the report acknowledges the obvious point that Sustainalytics “sometimes uses inflammatory language and fails to clearly and consistently provide sourcing attribution.” In other words, the report’s answer the core problem at stake is not to get rid of the bias, but to come up with more neutral terms so that the same bias can be expressed in a way that will make it harder for outsiders to point out it out as a bias. This aspect of the report is reminiscent of the efforts of Wilhelm Marr, a late 19th century German politician who thought that the word Judenhass (Jew hatred) was too impolite, so he coined the term anti-Semitism and created the anti-Semitic League. Now he could openly espouse his disdain for the Jews without causing much of a stir. This is absurd. The solution to Morningstar’s bias should be to rid itself of bias so that it doesn’t have to worry about its analysts clearly expressing what they mean, rather than to hire a team of copy editors. As these recommendations show, at no point does the report accept that there was a systemic bias against Israel or suggest that Morningstar should do something about it
The issue of Morningstar’s anti-Israel bias is of concern to all investors because it undermines the usefulness of ESG. So far, I have assumed for argument purposes only, that the conflict with Israel is comparable to that of the other (few) conflicts that Sustainalytics considers. However, this too is not the case. Sustainalytics decided that it would take one side on a complex issue. For example, Sustainalytics has implicitly decided, despite evidence to the contrary, that the Jews have no indigenous status in the region or historical connection to the land when many scholars clearly disagree. They have also implicitly accepted the view that Israel is an unprovoked perpetrator and occupier in the West Bank. Yet, again based on ample evidence, many scholars and analysts consider the war in 1967 that led Israel to acquire the West Bank to be defensive and its continued operations there to be defensive as well. Nor is it clear to Morningstar that Gaza is not occupied by Israel and has no Jewish presence, but is rather governed by Palestinians (Hamas), a view that is closer to objective reality. In other words, by the lens through which it sees Israel, Morningstar is taking a political side on a conflict which is contested, and on which a majority of Americans side differently. Yet they present this political agenda as impartial criteria related to the environment, society, and governance upon which all fair-minded people can agree. What cause might Morningstar embrace next that is at odds with objective criteria about the environment, society, and governance and the values of an overwhelming majority of Americans? The report gives the investor no answer to this existential question for ESG.
Morningstar needs to come clean for the good of ESG as an investment pillar. If investors come to understand that ESG can be so easily hijacked to promote political agendas, then it will cease to be a force for good. This issue is all the more urgent since Morningstar’s lack of transparency means we don’t even know which other companies or countries are being unfairly and covertly boycotted. The report, which was meant to restore investor confidence, is a step in the wrong direction. To read the report one would think there were a few scratches on the door, not a broken engine, and that no one was responsible. But that’s not what happened. The anti-Israel bias was at the very least willfully ignored and senior management took aggressive steps to keep anyone from looking under the hood. The Morningstar CEO and Chairman state in their cover letter to the report that “We acquired Sustainalytics because we thought the firm shared our values… Our experience since that time has only further reinforced our original conviction. Bob [the president of Sustainalytics] and his team work tirelessly….It is far from an easy task, as Sustainalytics is often called upon to assess controversial or ethically ambiguous matters.”
The letter embraces Ehrlichman’s strategy that ‘nobody was involved.” No member of senior management of either Morningstar or Sustainalytics has taken responsibility. The most management can muster is to admit what Nixon’s press spokesman said, “mistakes were made.” The tone from the top will presumably stay unchanged, and those same ten members of Morningstar’s committee who gaze upon the world and see the only Jewish-majority country in the world as a malevolent force will apparently remain at their posts. Morningstar can continue to make evaluations that will be used as de facto divestment lists as long as it does not advertise them as such. Morningstar can continue to express bias against Israel but, now based on the report’s recommendation, with more polite terminology.
Will the Morningstar modified limited hangout work? In their report, Morningstar executives are certainly pushing a rose-colored narrative that everything can be explained as minor and inadvertent transgressions. There is a desire from some in the pro-Israel community to accept the report as a victory and move on. There are so many institutions now being instigated into anti-Semitism/anti-Israelism that the Jewish community and its allies can only expend so much energy on any one issue. And indeed it should be noted that it is a partial victory that Morningstar management was forced to commission the report even as it is. But the report and Morningstar’s reaction are fatally flawed; Neither admits to a problem, answers the fundamental question as to how it came about, nor suggests that anything will be done to change the bias or improve the company’s transparency besides better PR and subterfuge.
The IIPB met in late June, and if the news accounts are correct, gave Morningstar an “incomplete.” The Foundation for the Defense of Democracy deserves some credit for not taking Morningstar at its word and for issuing a study pointing out some of the flaws in the White and Case report. The Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago also deserve credit for bringing this issue to center stage. And JLens has also continued its leadership role throughout.
While the IIPB meeting minutes are not yet available, it seems that Morningstar has been given until September to update the IIPB on its plans. My suggestion is that during this period the IIPRB select its own independent investigator to study and recommend solutions to the Morningstar/Sustainalytics bias at the company’s expense. While it may seem unusual to ask for a new report, Morningstar, and Sustainanalytics before them, have issued so many false denials over the six years since this issue was first raised, stiff-armed so many people who politely approached them, and mischaracterized so many facts from the White and Case report that they are no longer entitled to the benefit of the doubt. Something is rotten in the state of Morningstar and the company seems determined not to uncover the source. If Morningstar truly believes it has come clean with the White and Case report then it should agree to clear its name with a true outsider selected by the IIPB. Morningstar is not a typical company: it purports to have the power and authority to tell the rest of corporate America what is right and wrong. With this trust comes unusual responsibility. The stakes are high for anyone who cares about the future of ESG. The Morningstar/Sustainalytics politicization of ESG should not be allowed to continue just because it involves only Israel and the Jews. As the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks put it, what starts with the Jews never ends with the Jews.
 Tara Lee, White and Case LLP, Report of an Independent Investigative Counsel Regarding Alleged Anti-Israel Bias in Morningstar, Inc. ESG Products, May 11, 2022.
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