The value of a business is linked to its corporate values said World Vision Australia chief executive Tim Costello, who exhorted super fund executives to consider the difference between success and significance.
In a well received and thought-provoking address to 170 fund executives at the FEAL national conference in Melbourne, Costello – brother of former Treasurer, Peter – outlined how the world is changing and the role superannuation will need to play, on both a national and international level, if it is to keep its social contract.
Encouraging super funds to move into areas of shared value between businesses and wider society – like impact investing – Costello argued inequality is no longer just a moral issue, but now an economic one. The IMF, the World Bank, and even the right-of-centre The Economist magazine are all saying that if profits keep flowing to the top 20 per cent it becomes a barrier to economic growth and achievement. If a greater share flows to the bottom 20 per cent, it is good for everybody because they spend that money and create greater business activity.
“Growth in itself is not enough; it has to be inclusive growth. It has to include those who are poorest because if growth keeps on flowing up, particularly to the top 20 per cent, we are all worse off. All of us,” Costello said.
He added the privileged position of companies in law was justified by the historical assumption they were there for public good, and the license to operate comes from the community.
“The criteria we set for success needs to thought through in the context of the bigger systems we form part of. This is not simply shareholder value, or stakeholder value; it is shared value,” he said.
He called for amendments to corporate law, particularly fiduciary responsibility and the sole purpose test, to catch up with society in releasing profits at the expense of the wider public good was unacceptable.
He urged the executives to press for regulatory permission to be able to shift investment focus to areas of shared valued as this would create a stronger economy. He cautioned that while real change can happen, it needed to be thought out and there would likely be a lot of failures on the way.
“What we are doing needs to have a human return,” Costello said on the wider purpose of superannuation. “It is more blessed to give than to receive, for we are social creatures.”