Liberty Mutual’s approach to ESG investing, with Vlad Barbalat

The insurance industry has been honing methods of risk distribution since Babylonian traders hit the sea to sell their wares in what I imagine were not the sturdiest vessels.

The industry is especially equipped to support the sustainability agenda. As former Bank of England governor Mark Carney said, the insurance industry is “a faithful reporter of what’s happening on the ground. What they won’t insure is a leading indicator of how bad things could get because it’s their job to think about that.”

Whether the underwriting side of the insurance business has played the integral role it needs to in supporting the transition to a clean economy is another conversation.

The insurance industry isn’t only in the business of risk assessment and transference. It’s also one of the largest investors: of all asset owners, insurance sits behind only pension funds in its scale. And, like pension funds, investors from insurance are long-term investors with interests and mandates that align with the ethos of ESG investing. That is, long-term value creation and retention.

Liberty Mutual is one of the largest property and casualty insurers in the United States, with $41.5 billion in annual premiums. Liberty Mutual Investments (LMI), the group that manages Liberty Mutual Insurance’s globally invested financial assets, has about $92 billion in assets under management (AUM).

I checked in with LMI’s chief investment officer, Vlad Barbalat, to learn more about how the asset manager is incorporating ESG across asset classes in its portfolio. Barbalat joined Liberty Mutual in 2017 as head of investment strategy and was later promoted to co-head of strategy and asset allocation for LMI. He was appointed to his current role last year.

As always, I hope you find the conversation valuable. Feel free to reach me at [email protected] with thoughts or feedback.

Grant Harrison: How do LMI’s strategies incorporate ESG across the asset classes in your portfolio? Can you share some examples of progress you’ve made on the energy transition and your expectations for your future portfolio?

Vlad Barbalat: At LMI, we take a holistic approach to incorporating material ESG factors into our investment process because we think that this can enhance our ability to meet Liberty Mutual’s long-term investment objectives. Simply put, the LMI ESG strategy is about making smarter investment decisions.

As investors, we find that ESG performance is often a reflection of broader business practices and can lead to valuable insights that otherwise wouldn’t be captured as part of the traditional investment analysis. By expanding the information set available to the LMI team in our daily investment decision-making, we look to sharpen our understanding of the investments under consideration.

For example, our ESG integration approach in fixed income starts with a research analyst’s ESG assessment of a given issuer relative to its peers, which then informs portfolio management and trading decisions. In evaluating private investments, such as private equity and real estate deals, we’ve added an ESG due diligence questionnaire and scorecard as part of the deal process. We also continue to evaluate external public equity managers that align with our ESG integration goals.

We are deeply committed to collaboration across the LMI platform and to true ESG integration. Our ESG initiative is specifically designed to provide strategic clarity through a formal, cross-functional ESG governance structure, while also reflecting diverse perspectives of LMI professionals. This approach has enabled us to generate strong buy-in across the organization and effectively drive our ESG strategy forward.

Harrison: Liberty Mutual launched a Sustainability Office in 2019. How has the office worked to implement ESG considerations directly into the business, specifically in your investments? What have been the most fruitful opportunities and, conversely, the most pressing challenges?

Barbalat: Liberty Mutual has a long-standing history of cultivating a corporate purpose and core values that are well-aligned with the underlying principles of sustainability and ESG. We are also continuing to build on our collective strengths across the enterprise —on truly “delivering the entire company” — in our interactions with our customers, business partners and our other key stakeholders.

The Sustainability Office has helped us take our enterprise-level ESG efforts to the next level by providing strategic clarity and enterprise alignment through close collaboration with the Executive Leadership Team, while also enabling our respective businesses to focus on their own ESG goals.

At LMI, we have benefited from this partnership in myriad ways, including our continuing dialogue about important ESG topics that impact all parts of the business such as climate risk and energy transition. This type of collaboration has helped us arrive at more comprehensive, resilient solutions.

Harrison: The calls for a transition away from fossil fuels have been plenty loud. But given Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and several recent reports on the increasingly disastrous impacts of climate change, the calls to transition to renewable and clean energy are intensifying. Could you share your take on the insurance industry’s role in accelerating the energy transition, both as an underwriter and an investor?

Barbalat: As one of the leading property and casualty insurers, Liberty Mutual is keenly aware of the impacts of climate change and the global energy transition that is currently underway.

At LMI, we believe that this global shift will have a significant, positive impact on innovative, forward-thinking companies and investors, and we are actively looking to seize this opportunity. As such, in 2020, we defined our overall energy transition investment strategy, formalized a dedicated investment team and engaged with colleagues across Liberty Mutual to drive a strategic enterprise-level energy transition effort.

Our energy transition investment strategy is built at the intersection of driving returns for LMI’s financial performance, our commitment to supporting the global energy transition and the overall investment context. The strategy is informed by key energy transition trends and uncertainties, which have driven and will continue to influence the attractiveness of certain sectors and the corresponding investment opportunities. Through this lens, we then look to isolate high-conviction areas across the overall energy value chain. Lastly, within the focus areas of interest, we apply a rigorous due diligence process and investment analysis to select attractive investments and partners to whom we can allocate capital.

For example, we committed to acquire, develop and build out power generation capabilities at 22 existing non-powered dams. We also made investments that support residential solar, wind power generation and other important aspects of the overall energy transition investment ecosystem.

We are proud of the progress we’re making, but we know that any change is complex, messy and not without risk. We believe that at least for the immediate future, the world needs to retain some level of balance between energy generation from fossil fuels and from alternative energy sources. This is why we are committed to a gradual energy transition that will lead to a greater use of alternative energy sources over time, while at the same time maintaining energy availability, stability and affordability.

Harrison: How has Liberty Mutual called on partners to support your strategic planning and execution of ESG goals? Are there any standout examples of progress within your own portfolio, and/or driving progress within and beyond your own industry, that you’d like to highlight?

Barbalat: We think that carefully selected partnerships are key to our success across all aspects of the business, and this is certainly also true for our ESG efforts.

In December 2020, Liberty Mutual became the first U.S. property and casualty insurer to become a signatory of the United Nations-backed Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI). By becoming a part of this leading, international network of institutional investors and asset owners committed to including ESG factors in their investment decision-making, we can share insights with and learn from our peers as we continue to advance our own ESG strategy. We have also committed to PRI’s annual reporting, which will help us assess our progress over time.

Harrison: “S” factors are an often overlooked piece of the ESG puzzle, though that’s beginning to change. The financial services sector has long struggled with diversity and equity with employees and customers alike. What is Liberty Mutual doing to address this? Are there any changes you’ve made recently to integrate DEI, both internally and externally?

Barbalat: I really appreciate the way you framed that, ESG truly is a puzzle, and no puzzle is complete if all the pieces are not in place — in this case the “S.”

My favorite part of being part of a company like Liberty Mutual is that I get to be a part of a diverse and vibrant global community. Our people speak dozens of languages, hail from nations across the world and bring to bear degrees and skills across countless disciplines. It is amazing to see how every day, our people come together to bring the best of our company to our customers.

From a cultural perspective, we have been on a journey to break down barriers and bring our multidimensional diversity and authenticity to our work. This is not an easy task and takes persistence that our leaders have committed to. We know that to get it right, we must create a high-performance culture where everyone can have the opportunity to impact, thrive and achieve success.

And we have a lot to celebrate on that front! Our employee resource groups (ERG) elevate and amplify the issues that are important to our people and help foster a community that is truly multi-dimensional. More than 14,000 employees engaged in over 600 ERG-related programs and events globally last year — creating positive connections between our DEI commitments and our business objectives.

Across Liberty Mutual Group, we have made substantial progress across our representation goals — and have launched a self-ID campaign in the U.S., enabling employees to self-identify across many dimensions, such as veterans, LGBTQ+ and those with disabilities.

I am also incredibly proud of our company’s philanthropic work, led by our Community Investments team and supported year-round by our employees through our Give and Serve with Liberty programs, where they can generously volunteer and donate. We partner with a lot of non-profit organizations that make a huge difference. Last year alone we gave $55 million to organizations focused on empowering individuals who are experiencing homelessness, advancing access for people with disabilities and expanding educational opportunities for underserved students.