The SEC announced on Sept. 25, 2023, that it has fined DWS USD 19 million for failing to implement procedures to ensure that all investment staff members were following its environmental, social, and governance policies. This relates to funds where ESG factors were analyzed alongside other financially material factors, but where managers retained discretion over ESG outcomes. In addition, the firm was ordered to pay USD 6 million for deficiencies in its anti-money-laundering processes that were uncovered in a separate investigation. The investigation by the German authorities into the firm's ESG disclosures is still ongoing.
The SEC findings underline that despite strong senior management commitment, it takes a considerable amount of time and resources to embed sustainability across all levels of an organization for firms without a long-standing sustainability heritage. Overconfidence and failure to deal with internal criticism adequately appear to have contributed to DWS' misleading statements on ESG matters. While it's difficult to quantify the financial damage to clients and no misstatements were detected in financial disclosures or prospectuses, we believe the firm’s shortcomings have the potential to adversely affect investor outcomes. Hence, we welcome DWS' efforts to strengthen governance around ESG integration and communicate more conservatively about its ESG capabilities.
Questionable and unsteady leadership has contributed to the DWS' woes. Previous CEO Asoka Woehrmann, who had spearheaded the firm's ESG push, stepped down in June 2022 as a result of the ESG investigations. His credibility had already been harmed following his use of personal email for business purposes and a large payment made to him by a client when he was head of Deutsche Bank's private-client business before being appointed as DWS' CEO in 2018. His successor Stefan Hoops is the firm's sixth CEO in the past 10 years, highlighting the instability in the firm's top leadership. This appointment also shows the continued influence of its parent company, even after the partial IPO in 2018. Hoops has spent most of his career at Deutsche Bank but has no asset-management background.
Despite all these negative headlines and shaky leadership, DWS has managed to remain quite stable in its investment ranks. The firm has also made strides to gain greater independence. For example, since 2020, bonuses have been linked to the firm's own performance rather than to that of the bank as a whole, which supports alignment and talent retention. Variable remuneration takes into account performance of up to five years.
DWS' vast fund lineup covers all asset classes, including passive strategies, which are offered under the Xtrackers brand. Many offerings don't distinguish themselves, but there are genuine areas of strength among active strategies, and fees are competitive across many funds. While the product development process has been streamlined, and although the firm has launched new strategies at a slower pace, lineup turnover remains a concern as a culture of asset-gathering prevails. New offerings are partly related to an expansion of ESG capabilities, but the firm is also building out its thematic equity, multi-asset, alternatives, and exchange-traded fund range.
At this stage, we continue to believe that DWS' strengths justify a Parent Pillar rating of Average despite several weaknesses in its stewardship practices, but we will closely monitor the company for further disruption.