U.S. markets regulator deploys team to target climate, ESG misconduct

FILE PHOTO: The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission logo adorns an office door at the SEC headquarters in Washington, June 24, 2011. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has formed an enforcement task force to examine misconduct related to environmental, social and governance issues as the regulator ramps up a focus on climate and other hot-button topics.

The SEC has deployed a 22-person team that will focus on disclosures from public companies related to issues such as climate change, investment-advisor activities and funds dedicated to ESG investments, the agency said on Thursday.

This is the latest in a series of SEC moves in recent weeks under President Joe Biden, who has made climate a key focus of his administration. The agency has also launched an effort to update guidance for public companies on how they share information with investors on climate risk and made the topic a priority for 2021 examinations.[nL2N2L11UL]

The team’s “broad array of experience and expertise will allow us to better police the market, pursue misconduct and protect investors,” Kelly L. Gibson, acting deputy director of SEC’s enforcement division and head of the task force, said in a statement.

Rooting out disclosure-related fraud is considered “bread and butter” work for the SEC, but climate-related disclosures have not been a central focus.

The SEC has brought cases against automakers Fiat Chrysler Automobiles N.V., now part of Stellantis NV, BMW AG and Volkswagen AG related to what they shared with investors about diesel emissions. In 2016, the regulator launched a review of Exxon Mobil Corp’s disclosures on climate and reserves, which was closed without action.

“Climate risks and sustainability are critical issues for the investing public and our capital markets,” SEC Acting Chair Allison Herren Lee said in a statement.

ESG funds have attracted a higher percentage of inflows than other equity funds since 2013, according to an August 2020 Barclays report. But the SEC has largely steered away from specific directives to firms on ESG issues despite the growing investor interest, until recently.

The recent moves underscore that the agency is “taking an ‘all of SEC approach’ to climate and ESG risks,” Satyam Khanna, SEC senior policy adviser for climate and ESG, told Reuters.

Reporting by Chris Prentice; Editing by Chris Reese and Dan Grebler