Al Gore, Felix Salmon, and How to Think About “Sustainable Capitalism”

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Report from Generation Foundation on “sustainable capitalism”

The new issue has my piece on the Generation Investment Management firm co-founded more than a decade ago by Al Gore, and why Gore thinks its profitable track record can shift capitalist incentives in a pro-environmental direction. I hope you’ll read it, because I think the arguments Gore and colleagues are making bear directly on the “saving capitalism from itself” debate that has been running for years in Europe and which the Democratic candidates waded into during this week’s debate.

Yesterday I posted a long, largely skeptical response by the financial writer Felix Salmon, of Fusion. You’ll see it lower down on this page. Salmon had once looked into Generation himself, and he had questions about both the details of its operation and the significance of its example.

My purpose in this story is different from that of some others I’ve written. For instance, in the big Chickenhawk Nation piece I did in January, the narrative structure boiled down to: I’ve been wrestling with this topic for years, I’ve been reporting on it in recently, and now I have a line of argument. So sit back and let me see if I can convince you. Some other long stories, on fields I’ve dealt with for decades, follow that same structure (for instance this and this and this and this or this.)

Many other stories are in more straightforwardly reportorial mode. (The Atlantic is one of a handful of publications comfortable with both.)

For those stories the narrative structure boils down to: I heard about some new subject, I found out what I could, and now I am going to show and tell you what I’ve seen, which you may not have heard about before. Most of my reporting from China was in this second category, and so in this current story about Generation.

At face value, I find the Generation story an example very much worth taking seriously, on a subject of tremendous world-wide importance. And at a minimum I find very interesting. But my main ambition with this story was to move the “sustainable capitalism” argument closer toward the limelight of public attention and discussion, both by financial experts and by informed amateurs. Toward that end, even a note as querulous as Salmon’s helps the discussion.


Nothing that follows should be construed as an response from Al Gore, David Blood, Miguel Nogales, Mark Ferguson, or the other Generation co-founders I write about in the story. I haven’t spoken with any of them. These are my answers, based on things I learned during my reporting or inferences I make. Their intention is to put in context questions like those Salmon raises. Here goes, starting with a lot of specific points.

  • Is the Generation team cooking the books, index-shopping, “p-hacking,” or in other ways cheating by choosing the MSCI World Index as the benchmark for their success? (Over the past 10 years, that MSCI index had a 7 percent average annual return. Generation averaged 12.1 percent.)  Answer: Not as far as I can see. From the start the broadly accepted MSCI World Index was the benchmark for their global-equity fund, which accounts for most of their holdings.
  • Why not use the better-performing S&P 500 as a benchmark? Because that is a U.S. index; their holdings are international.
  • What is the MercerInsight assessment that shows Generation’s results to be so strong? It’s from Mercer, a well-known firm that among its products offers a proprietary assessment of asset-manager performance. That is where I got my figures. Also a recent article in Institutional Investor quoted another source, eVestment, as saying that Generation’s returns had been 12.14 percent over the past decade, versus the 12.1 percent I attributed to Mercer.
  • Does Generation really have $12 billion under management? That’s what they tell the regulators.
  • Why has Generation closed its best-performing global equity fund? In London they told me they were deliberately capping its size because they did not want to let it get unmanageably large. Instead they have been opening new funds.  
  • Why do they have a $3 million minimum-investment threshold? Their clients are mainly big institutional investors.
  • Do they hold any bonds? The global-equity fund is mainly for stocks.
  • Do they actually hold shares longer than other managers? When I asked, they said that their average share-holding duration was 3 years. I didn’t check systematically, but published reports suggest that many managers turn over their entire portfolio within a year or less.
  • Why are they buying only companies they like, rather than shorting companies they don’t? I asked this in London and was told that they consider themselves an investment fund, not a hedge fund. That is, as one of their people put it to me, “We want to reward companies we think are doing well, not penalize ones we think are doing poorly.” For better or worse it’s a deliberate choice.
  • Why do they hold less of the Irish company, Kingspan, than they used to? Because (as they told me when I asked) they have a “value” measure as well as a “sustainability” measure. If they like a company but it’s too expensive, they don’t buy. If they like it but it gets too expensive, they sell.
  • Do they really interact with management, as active “owners”? That’s what they said. “We want to be active owners, not activists,” one said.
  • Is Al Gore more than a rainmaker? They claim he is.
  • Why didn’t I write more about the mechanics of buying and selling? I thought I did a fair amount, but for more you can check an explicitly financial publication (Institutional Investor) or a business case study (this proprietary one from Harvard Business School).

Now, the big and important question:

  • Does anyone at Generation imagine that, on their own, they’re changing the course of capitalism? That’s not what I understood. I understood them to say that their track record deserved consideration as a test case of the proposition that “sustainable” investment could bring high returns.

    As it happens, that’s just what I said in the piece: “Their demonstration has its obvious limits: It’s based on the track record of one firm, which through one decade-long period has managed assets that are merely boutique-scale in the industry’s terms…. Generation’s goal is to present an example of a less environmentally and socially destructive path toward high returns.”

Where can you read more, for the sorts of things I didn’t get to in the piece? Here is a start:


Thanks to Felix Salmon, thanks to others who have written in pro and con, thanks to all who are considering this argument.