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Business leaders see ESG as crucial to competitiveness

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Environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues have been rising up the agenda for companies and investors around the world. They have a particular resonance in Brazil, not just because of its vast natural riches but also because of its huge agribusiness sector.

To discuss how the ESG agenda is affecting Brazilian business, the Financial Times and research institute the Fundacão Getulio Vargas invited Walter Schalka, chief executive of paper and pulp giant Suzano; Ilan Goldfajn, chairman of Credit Suisse Brazil and former head of Brazil’s central bank; Marina Grossi, president of the Brazilian Business Council for Sustainable Development (CEBDS); Wesley Batista Filho, President of JBS Latin America and Seara; and Annelise Vendramini, co-ordinator of the sustainable finance programme at the FGV-EAESP business school, to exchange views with Latin America editor Michael Stott and Brazil bureau chief Bryan Harris. 

Here are some edited extracts from their discussion:


Marina Grossi
Marina Grossi: ‘We can preserve and produce’

FT: Tell us how Brazilian business views the ESG agenda now.

Marina Grossi, CEBDS: We started work on a movement to fight illegal deforestation. The main message is that [Brazil’s] CEOs are concerned about illegality, and now we have about 90 companies signed up.

This started as a communiqué but now it’s a movement, because we’ve been talking with all the authorities in the government [and saying]: “This is not a matter of government or of a party, it’s a matter of Brazil’s chances of competing in this new economy.”

The message is that we can preserve and produce — I think that’s the most important message in the communiqué.

Walter Schalka
Walter Schalka: ‘We cannot postpone any more. It is time for action’

FT: Walter, you were there when this communiqué was drafted, what has changed since?

Walter Schalka, Suzano: We have a nice opportunity next year during COP26 in Glasgow [the UN Climate Change Conference], where we can address chapters 6.2 and 6.4 of the Paris agreement [on creating a carbon market] and implement a very critical tool to change the situation — we can have the cap-and-trade agreement addressed.

Brazil has a huge opportunity on that. If Brazil avoids illegal deforestation and improves carbon sequestration through planting new trees, Brazil could be on the right side of the equation and the right side of the solution.

We cannot wait for what companies and countries are telling us, that they are going to be carbon-neutral in 2050 or 2060. If you go back 20 years, many were saying exactly the same, that they would be carbon-neutral in 2020 or 2025. We cannot postpone any more. It is time for action.

Ilan Goldfajn
Ilan Goldfajn: ‘It’s not [enough] any more just to be profitable’ © Marcelo Pereira/FOTOKA

FT: Ilan, how are investors taking ESG on board and what do you think it means for Brazilian companies?

Ilan Goldfajn, Credit Suisse: When you look at capital flows coming from abroad to Brazil, they have basically dried up in the last few years [and] part of the reason is that Brazil is not seen as complying fully with the standards that some investors demand.

Secondly, we do have an issue regarding some global negotiations and agreements, there is the trade agreement with the EU which needs to be ratified and this is clearly dependent on having good environmental standards. 

We are seeing the private sector coming into action. It’s not [enough] any more just to be profitable, you do need to care about ESG. The famous Milton Friedman theorem that [profit] will be enough is not relevant any more.

Wesley Batista Filho
Wesley Batista Filho: ‘We need to make sure that the whole value chain is more and more sustainable’ © Credito Obrigatorio

FT: Wesley, a lot of the pressure globally has been directed at meat companies. What has JBS been doing to address this?

Wesley Batista Filho, JBS: We have this system called the Green Platform we run daily with satellite pictures to make sure the suppliers we buy our raw materials from are in compliance with [environmental regulations]. We are sharing our system with suppliers, so they can [ensure that] their suppliers are also in compliance.

It’s important that we don’t create two types of market, one that’s sustainable and one that’s not sustainable. If we do that, we won’t solve the problem. What we need to do is to make sure that the whole value chain is more and more sustainable.

The second part of our response is the fund that we’ve just created. The name says it all, it’s “Together for the Amazon” . . . there are 20m people who live in the Amazon biome, these people need to have an adequate livelihood, [they need] prosperity and they need to see the forest as an asset.

Annelise Vendramini, co-ordinator of the sustainable finance programme at the FGV-EAESP business school
Annelise Vendramini: ‘Brazil has a very innovative public policy on agriculture. . . but we lack transparency’

FT: Annelise, how would you rate Brazil’s efforts so far on ESG relative to other countries?

Annelise Vendramini, FGV: Talking about the real economy and the companies that operate in Brazil, we have made some advances. 

For instance, Brazil has a very innovative public policy on agribusiness, it’s called the ABC plan, it’s been around 10 years now, it’s low-carbon agriculture. But we lack the transparency, the recording and the monitoring. This is something that we should improve a lot.

On the financial side, there have been a lot of advances, especially on the central bank side. Since 2008 it has been regulating on environmental and deforestation issues and now it has a very strategic agenda, which is called Agenda BC# [after Banco Central].



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China reaffirms plans to beef up oversight of foreign listings

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Chinese politics & policy updates

Beijing reiterated its intention to strengthen oversight of overseas listings on Friday, capping a volatile week during which contradictory policy signals rocked the share prices of Chinese companies.

At its mid-year meeting, the Chinese Communist party’s politburo stated its determination to “improve” the regulatory framework for companies listing shares overseas. It was the first time the politburo, comprised of the party’s top 25 officials, had specifically addressed the issue.

Chinese regulators have been angered by Didi Chuxing’s decision to press ahead with a $4.4bn initial public offering in New York last month, despite their concerns about the ride-hailing group’s data security practices.

Senior party and government officials have subsequently vowed stricter oversight of overseas listings, which will now require clearance from the country’s internet regulator. Didi’s shares have plunged as other Chinese companies cancelled or delayed plans to list outside of the country.

Investor confidence in Chinese tech companies was further dented on Monday when Beijing revealed draconian new rules for the country’s booming private education sector. The share prices of New York-listed tutoring companies collapsed, after which a senior securities regulator sought to reassure financial executives that Beijing was not seeking to ‘“decouple” Chinese companies from US and other overseas markets.

The comments by Fang Xinghai, vice-chair of the China Securities Regulatory Commission, on Wednesday helped stop a broader sell-off of Chinese shares. But they were not enough to prevent a more than 20 per cent monthly decline in US-listed Chinese tech companies.

Chinese officials have shown no sign of reining in their crackdown of the country’s largest tech groups for alleged violations of monopoly and data security laws.

Separately, China’s transportation ministry on Friday signalled an intensification of the measures against Didi and other ride-hailing groups. It said in a statement that companies in the sector must improve compliance over network and data security management to better protect customers’ personal data. Stronger supervision of antitrust practices, as well as improved rights of workers in the sector, was also needed, it said.

The statement did not name specific companies but noted that the government’s transport sector oversight is being directed by President Xi Jinping.

The Chinese government is conscious that the campaigns against tech and education companies could dent already fragile private sector confidence as the government tries to boost slowing economic growth.

Liu He, a Chinese vice-premier and the country’s top economic and financial official, sought to reassure representatives of small and medium-sized enterprises on July 27, acknowledging that they were the “main source” of employment. “The Chinese economy will do well only if SMEs do well,” he added.

While China has rebounded strongly from the Covid-19 pandemic, officials have been concerned by slowing infrastructure investment — an essential driver of the world’s second-largest economy. The politburo suggested it would encourage more fiscal spending and local government debt issuance to accelerate economic growth.

The Chinese government has also struggled to contain a new outbreak of Covid-19’s Delta variant, which has spread across the country from an airport in eastern China.

Additional reporting by Edward White in Seoul



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More questions than answers in a Hong Kong courtroom

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Hong Kong politics updates

Leaving Hong Kong’s district court last week, I saw a group of pro-Beijing people waving the Chinese national flag. They had a handwritten banner saying: “Injustice waiting to be undone.”

In July 2019, more than 100 white T-shirt-clad men armed with metal rods indiscriminately attacked pro-democracy protesters, journalists and commuters in Yuen Long station. The incident shocked Hong Kongers to their core.

Last week, seven of the so-called “white shirts” attackers were sentenced to between three and a half and seven years for rioting and wounding. Friends and families of the victims sat in the public gallery. They were joined by supporters of the white-clad men. An old man carrying the red flag into the public gallery cried, “This is unjust. We have to report the case to President Xi Jinping.”

But for many people, the Yuen Long incident was one of the darkest moments during the 2019 Hong Kong anti-government protests.

I was on the streets that day, covering the protesters when they defaced Beijing’s main office in the territory — the first time they had targeted an important symbol of the national government. As the police tear-gassed the area, a protester told me to go to Yuen Long. It was the first I had heard of the incident.

Police officers arrived at the scene late, despite numerous emergency calls, and a nearby police station shut its gate. The alleged police inaction, both on that day and afterwards, has fuelled public distrust of law enforcement.

“Such unscrupulous mass lynching has caused great panic among the citizens and the court must impose a deterrent sentence on the perpetrator,” said Judge Eddie Yip as he read out his judgment. “The passengers’ defences were only a few umbrellas and a few brave young bodies standing at the front,” Judge Yip added.

However, to the victims, the public and even the defendants, the tough sentences have not resolved public discontent, and many questions remain unanswered. For example, despite arresting 63 people related to the case, no mastermind behind the attack has been identified and only eight white-shirts have been brought to court. By contrast, police have arrested thousands of pro-democracy activists, including alleged leaders such as Jimmy Lai and Joshua Wong.

A victim who tried to protect a journalist, and who was hit in the mouth during the attack, told the FT: “If we can’t find out who directs this, who’s involved and bring them to the public, the court is not going to solve this, nor [be] able to help in solving this.”

The wife of Tang Wai-sum, who was sentenced to seven years for his part in the attack, organised a press conference against the “harsh” judgment. “My husband is only an ordinary villager, a small-business owner,” she said. He was only there to “protect his home”.

Alex Yeung, a pro-Beijing YouTuber, sat next to Mrs Tang at the press conference. “The judge is ‘yellow’,” he said, pounding the table angrily. He was referring to the colour used by pro-democracy groups. “I hope the national security law and the independent commission against corruption will investigate this judge.”

The victim who was hit in the face, who was also a witness in the case, said: “both sides are asking for truth: the protesters want to know who directed this, the villagers [locals in Yuen Long] or pro-Beijing people are also making clips they say reflect the ‘truth’. So we need to have an institution to lay out the facts and find all the things behind [it].”

Attempts to find out the truth have been hindered. Bao Choy, a journalist who investigated police conduct during the attack, was convicted and fined for the criminal offence of making false statements.

At one point the police attempted to define the incident as a “mass fight” and “conflict” between “people with different political beliefs” instead of an attack. Seven other people, including former legislative councillor Lam Cheuk-ting, who was injured by the attackers, have been charged with participating in a riot. This trial has been adjourned to 2023.

One court may have made a decision about what happened at Yuen Long, but many people feel the truth is yet to be revealed.

nicolle.lui@ft.com



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Beijing seeks to ease fears on Wall Street after tech crackdown

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Chinese equities updates

China’s securities regulator has sought to pacify concerns among international investors and banks after tough new restrictions on private education companies sent shockwaves through markets.

Regulators in Beijing held a call with executives from global investors, Wall Street banks and Chinese financial groups on Wednesday night, according to three people familiar with the matter. One of the people said there were about 12 attendees including executives from BlackRock, Fidelity, Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan.

The call sought to reassure the groups after China issued an effective ban on the country’s $100bn private tutoring industry at the weekend.

News of the call boosted Chinese shares, which had suffered a punishing week amid a slate of regulatory action. The Hong Kong-listed shares of internet groups Tencent and Alibaba jumped 8.4 per cent and 6.7 per cent, respectively, as the broader Hang Seng Tech index rose 7 per cent.

China’s CSI 300 index of Shanghai- and Shenzhen-listed stocks was up 1.5 per cent, while the tech-focused ChiNext index gained 3.7 per cent.

Line chart of Hong Kong share price (indexed to 100) showing China tech stocks bounce after regulators hold call

One person briefed on the call hosted by the China Securities Regulatory Commission said it showed that the Chinese government was not “completely tone-deaf to international investors’ sentiment”, but added that it did not do much to assuage concerns about future regulatory policies.

“These policies are not coming from the CSRC, they’re coming from much higher up. It’s clear there will be more to come, that’s obvious to everyone,” the person said.

During the call, CSRC vice-chair Fang Xinghai told the international groups China was committed to allowing companies to access capital markets and that the action on education technology businesses was an isolated situation, according to the person.

The person said that a number of people asked the CSRC about whether regulators would target the “variable interest entity” structure that many large Chinese tech groups have used to list overseas. However, the questions were not answered definitively, the person said.

The crackdown on private tutoring companies included restrictions on their ability to use the VIE structure, which has also been used by tech companies including Alibaba and Pinduoduo to list in the US. The structure, which is not legally recognised in China, allows global investors to get around controls on foreign ownership in some Chinese industries.

The latest restrictions on tutoring groups prompted worries that regulators could target the structure more widely.

Fang said he was not interested in talking to journalists when contacted by the Financial Times.

One person close to the CSRC said regulators “didn’t expect the policy to have such a big impact on investor sentiment and [are] keen to send the message that it is business as usual . . . but everyone felt the crackdown is too much and there is no regulatory boundary. Investors will have to reprice China risks going forward”.

Regulatory pressure from Beijing on tech groups has escalated rapidly over the past month. Authorities have initiated an overhaul of how Chinese companies list overseas and the country’s cyber security regulator has announced plans to review all overseas listings of groups with more than 1m users on national security grounds.

The new cyber security rules were announced just days after ride-hailing app Didi Chuxing raised $4.4bn in a New York initial public offering last month. Its shares have since fallen 40 per cent.

The actions have prompted a scramble on Wall Street to redirect IPOs of Chinese companies from New York to Hong Kong. The US has not approved a major transaction from a Chinese group since the Didi episode left global investors nursing large losses.

Tencent spooked markets further on Tuesday when it announced it was suspending user registrations for its flagship WeChat app while it upgraded its security technology to “to align with all relevant laws and regulations”.

Chinese state media has sought to put investors at ease in the wake of sharp falls for shares in Shanghai and Shenzhen. An article on Wednesday by Xinhua said the CSRC maintains an “open attitude” on where Chinese companies list.

BlackRock, Fidelity and JPMorgan did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Goldman Sachs declined to comment.

With additional reporting by Edward White and Ryan McMorrow



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