NYSE’s new investment vehicle—‘natural asset companies’—will tap into ESG fever

September 14, 2021, 11:30 AM UTC

America’s most iconic stock exchange wants to bridge the gap between nature and the concrete jungle that is Wall Street.

With investors now closely scrutinizing the environmental, social, and governance or ESG credentials of companies, the New York Stock Exchange on Tuesday unveiled a partnership two years in the making with Intrinsic Exchange Group to open up investment opportunities in what IEG calls “nature’s economy.”

“There haven’t historically been mechanisms to encourage the capital formation necessary to preserve and restore the natural assets that ultimately underpin the ability for there to be life on Earth,” NYSE COO Michael Blaugrund told Fortune. 

So, the Big Board is helping create one.

The NYSE has developed a new kind of listing vehicle that will be called a natural asset company, or NAC. Using NACs, governments, farmers, and other owners of natural assets will be able to form a specialized corporation that holds the rights to the ecosystem services produced on a given chunk of land, services like carbon sequestration or clean water. Then the company will tap the U.S. public markets by way of the NYSE like any other entity would. The difference is that instead of using the capital raised to shore up a balance sheet, fund M&A, or buy back stock down the road, NACs will use the funds to help preserve a rain forest or undertake other conservation efforts, like changing a farm’s conventional agricultural production practices to regenerative methods.

In return, investors will get access to a new form of sustainable investment—a space that has enthralled the likes of BlackRock CEO Larry Fink over the past several years even though there remain big, unanswered questions about it. A 2020 report from the U.S. SIF Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for the adoption of sustainable investing, found that one out of every three dollars under professional management in the U.S. at the end of 2019 was managed with a sustainable investment strategy.

“Our hope is that owning a natural asset company is going to be a way that an increasingly broad range of investors have the ability to invest in something that’s intrinsically valuable, but, up to this point, was really excluded from the financial markets,” Blaugrund said. 

When public, an NAC will be required to file financial statements in accordance with U.S. accounting rules, just like any other publicly traded company. However, IEG, whose investors include the Inter-American Development Bank, the Rockefeller Foundation, and Aberdare Ventures, has also developed a framework to measure the ecological performance of an NAC as a way to make up for any gaps in the traditional metrics. The ecological standards will include “relevant, reliable, and understandable information on the flows of the ecosystem services [the NACs] produce and their stocks of natural capital assets,” former Financial Accounting Standards Board chairman Robert Herz said in a statement Tuesday. Herz and several accounting firms helped advise IEG on the ecological framework’s development.

The NYSE has taken a minority stake in IEG, too, according to the statement Tuesday. The companies did not disclose the investment’s terms, though. The NYSE said the investment is not material to the earnings or capital allocation plans of its parent company, Intercontinental Exchange.

The exchange plans to file the listing standards and accounting information for NACs with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in the fourth quarter, setting the stage for the vehicle—if approved by the SEC—to become available as soon as next year.

IEG has already managed to attract issuer interest from several corners of the natural asset market. It plans to announce a collaboration with a “multinational corporation” to form an NAC later this year, according to the statement. And IEG, in partnership with the Inter-American Development Bank, is currently in talks with the Costa Rican government about forming an NAC. “This will deepen the economic analysis of giving nature its economic value, as well as to continue mobilizing financial flows to conservation,” Costa Rica Minister of Environment and Energy Andrea Meza Murillo said in a statement.

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