Next month will be the anniversary of the U.S. Business Roundtable’s 2019 call for a shift from “shareholder capitalism” toward “stakeholder capitalism.” Business leaders asked us to imagine a transformed world, but a bat virus in Wuhan had its own ambitious plans — and has, for the time being, transformed the world in quite another way. It has thrust government to the center, pushing business, whatever its approach to capitalism, to the sidelines.
Nobody could reasonably expect business alone to fix the pandemic. Nonetheless, some investors under the banner of “impact investing” argue that business alone will be able to fix the other big problems ailing the global economy, such as climate change or global female literacy, without sacrificing commercial returns. This view has garnered interest from major banks, consultancies, business lobby groups, and even former prime ministers. One of impact investing’s leading champions, Sir Ronald Cohen, believes that it could be the “revolution” that will save capitalism and solve many of the world’s greatest problems.
It is an enticing vision of an enlightened post-pandemic economy, and, as an impact investor and economist, we support its ambitions. However, if we really want to reform capitalism, then impact investing as it is traditionally conceived will not be enough. The pandemic is not a mere anomaly; there are profound limits to what business can do profitably in normal times too. We need to reform the rules that govern how our economy works — and impact investors have a critical role to play.
Why Impact Investing Is Not Enough
There are certainly examples where impact investment has been successful at generating both a commercial return and a positive impact. But there are also those who argue there is a trade-off between profitability and impact. Who is right?
The answer is “both.” An easy way to clarify the issue is by looking at a typical “carbon cost curve”, which shows the financial costs of investments that would reduce carbon emissions.