Journal of Law, Finance, and Accounting > Vol 5 > Issue 2

Sense and Nonsense in ESG Ratings

Ingo Walter, Stern School of Business, New York University, USA,
Suggested Citation
Ingo Walter (2020), "Sense and Nonsense in ESG Ratings", Journal of Law, Finance, and Accounting: Vol. 5: No. 2, pp 307-336.

Publication Date: 08 Sep 2020
© 2020 I. Walter
International business,  Organizational behavior,  Strategic management,  Corporate governance,  Performance measurement,  Bureaucracy,  Political economy,  Interest groups,  Heuristics
JEL Codes: B55, D18, D30, D62, D68, D74, F53, H89, I30, K29, K38, K42, K49, Z128
Environmental degradationsocial impact, sustainabilitycorporate governancecorporate ratingstarget fundsinvestment fund performance


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In this article:
1. Introduction 
2. The Social Control Platform 
3. Systemic Stresses 
4. Weaker Signals on the Periphery – Expectations and Values 
5. Political Economy and the Social Control Platform 
6. Reconciling ESG Norms and Market Practice 
7. Developing ESG Metrics and Tracking Investment Effects 
8. The ESG Rating Industry 
9. ESG Ratings, Economic Performance and Capital Allocation 
10. Summary, Reforms, and Policy Recommendations How well does ESG scoring align with a firm’s strategic positioning 


Concerns about the future of the natural environment, prevailing social conditions, and governance of private and public institutions inspire today’s ESG movement. This paper proposes a heuristic that can be useful in examining the ESG-scoring issue. We begin with a social control diagnostic covering business activities – one that addresses the interests and actions of various stakeholders in the system. We examine its dynamics in the context of economic, social, and political pressures, including various initiatives to set standards against which business conduct may be calibrated. We evaluate efforts to create metrics that reflect normative improvements in ESG outcomes and performance scoring against them. We assess the industrial organization of the ESG ratings industry and review key empirical studies of ESG-driven investing. We conclude with policy recommendations intended to alleviate existing shortcomings in ESG ratings and improve their role in capital allocation and corporate governance.