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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The case for sustainable investing — or ESG, for environmental, social, and governance — is a pretty simple one: Long-term investors have a clear financial incentive to back companies that will thrive over the long term. Such companies need to be well governed, have good relations with their stakeholders, and be well positioned to help humanity minimize our onrushing environmental catastrophe.

Why it matters: While the Obama administration was well disposed towards such investing, the Trump administration isn't. To sum up the thesis in three letters: ESG, for environmental, social, and governance.

  • A proposed new rule from the Labor Department would effectively ban pension-plan administrators from making any kind of ESG offering part of the default option in a 401(k) plan, and would discourage them from having any ESG options at all.

What they're saying: "When investments are made to further a particular environmental or social cause, returns unsurprisingly suffer," wrote Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia in an 0p-ed announcing the new rule.

  • The rule itself claims that it will have a positive economic effect, saying that "investments' returns will generally tend to be higher over the long run" as a result of ignoring ESG factors.
  • But, but, but: ESG funds outperform their peers.

Between the lines: Scalia doesn't have a lot of support. The asset management industry is naturally wary of this rule, because it creates more work and potential liability for pension fund managers. And even his natural bedfellows are wary.

  • The U.S. Chamber of Commerce initially reacted positively to the rule, but when I asked them for comment, I was put in touch with Chantel Sheaks, the executive director for retirement policy, who praised only the fact that the Department of Labor was implementing a 30-day comment period.
  • The American Petroleum Institute represents the companies most excluded by ESG policies. But the API's Aaron Padilla, who covers ESG policy there, told Axios that he wants the government to "encourage the consideration of ESG as it is linked to companies' financial performance."

My thought bubble: This rule looks like lame-duck hippie-punching from a beleaguered administration wanting to throw a bone to climate-change deniers.

The bottom line: As the Environmental Defense Fund's Gabe Malek told Axios: "ESG is a key part of fiduciary duty in the EU. The U.S. is just lagging behind other countries."

Go deeper

Updated 7 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

  1. Health: Pfizer and Moderna boosters overwhelmingly prevent Omicron hospitalizations, CDC finds — Omicron pushes COVID deaths toward 2,000 per day — The pandemic-proof health care giant.
  2. Vaccines: The case for Operation Warp Speed 2.0 — Starbucks drops worker vaccine or test requirement after SCOTUS ruling — Kids' COVID vaccination rates are particularly low in rural America.
  3. Politics: Biden concedes U.S. should have done more testing — Arizona says it "will not be intimidated" by Biden on anti-mask school policies — Federal judge blocks Biden's vaccine mandate for federal workers.
  4. World: American Airlines flight to London forced to turn around over mask dispute — WHO: COVID health emergency could end this year — Greece imposes vaccine mandate for people 60 and older — Austria approves COVID vaccine mandate for adults.
  5. Variant tracker

Arizona governor sues Biden administration over COVID funds tied to mandates

A teacher prepares a hallway barrier to help students maintain social distancing at John B. Wright Elementary School in Tucson, Arizona, on Aug. 14, 2020. Photo: Cheney Orr/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) filed a lawsuit Friday against the Biden administration for ordering the state to stop allocating federal COVID relief funds to schools that don't comply with public health recommendations such as masking, the Arizona Republic reports.

Why it matters: The Treasury Department said last week that the state would have to pay back the money if Ducey does not redesignate the $173 million programs to ensure they don't "undermine efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19."

Federal judge blocks Biden's vaccine mandate for federal workers

President Biden speaking from Eisenhower Executive Office Building on Jan. 21. Photo: Yuri Gripas/Abaca/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A federal judge in Texas blocked the Biden administration from enforcing its coronavirus vaccine mandate for federal workers on Friday, citing the outcome of last week's Supreme Court ruling that nullified the administration's vaccine-or-test requirement for large employers.

Why it matters: It's a blow to President Biden's efforts to increase the U.S.' vaccination rates, though much of the federal workforce has already been vaccinated against the virus.