BNP Defends $20 Billion ESG Call as Downgrades Feed Controversy

The asset management arm of BNP Paribas SA said using a different interpretation of “sustainable investment” than some of its peers has allowed it to keep the European Union’s top ESG tag attached to about $20 billion worth of funds.

Firms including BlackRock Inc., Amundi SA and Axa Investment Managers have reclassified more than $140 billion of so-called Article 9 funds — the EU’s highest environmental, social and governance fund designation — to a less stringent category known as Article 8. The downgrades follow stricter EU guidance stipulating that Article 9 must be reserved for 100% sustainable investments, save for liquidity and hedging needs.

But reaching the 100% threshold depends on how asset managers define a sustainable investment. And under current EU rules, that’s “a judgment call left for each market participant to make,” the asset management unit of BNP told Bloomberg in an emailed response to questions.

Calling an investment sustainable is “much more akin to security valuation than to objective company-level data,” BNP said. That paves the way for “possible and natural disagreements in the outcome of the analysis between financial market participants.”

BNP has interpreted the EU’s stricter guidance on Article 9 to mean that all but one of its passive, index-tracking funds can no longer carry the designation, representing about $16 billion in total. But for roughly $20 billion of actively managed funds, the classification won’t be removed, BNP told Bloomberg.