A galaxy of globes to assess socially responsible funds

Socially responsible investing used to be on the fringe. Now, it's officially mainstream, said Amy O'Brien, managing director and head of TIAA Global Asset Management's Responsible Investment Team.

But for any given company or group of them, what constitutes the relevant ways to be socially responsible or sustainable?

"Jargon is certainly part of the problem," O'Brien said.

To solve that problem, the fund-tracking firm Morningstar earlier this year introduced the industry's first scoring system for mutual funds and exchange-traded funds for ESG, or environmental, social, and governance metrics.

Instead of stars, Morningstar uses globes to assign mutual funds social-good rankings. The firm is rolling out ESG grades for 20,000 funds - applying sustainable-investing grades related to social, environmental, and corporate-governance screens to the underlying securities in each fund. It debuted the program through a partnership with ESG-researcher Sustainalytics.

There's been so much demand for socially responsible funds that TIAA last year launched the TIAA-CREF Social Choice Low Carbon Equity Fund (TLWCX), an equity fund that seeks to match the Russell 3000 Index while giving consideration to companies' ESG records, with criteria relating to companies' current and future carbon emissions.

That's in addition to the TIAA-CREF Social Choice Bond Fund, TIAA-CREF Social Choice Equity Fund, and the offerings of firms such as Brown Advisory, which in 2014 launched the Core Sustainable Fixed Income fund to add to its ESG menu.

In part, the interest has to do with a ruling in the fall by the U.S. Department of Labor, which clarified the appropriateness of socially responsible funds for retirement plans. But demographics help, too.

Who wants to invest for the social good?

Why, millennials, of course: Sixty-nine percent are interested in participating in responsible investments over the next 12 months, compared with 43 percent among other generations, according to a recent TIAA survey.

Putting up a fight

Financial elder abuse is expensive - for victims, caregivers, banks, and taxpayers.

People lose their savings, financial institutions lose deposits, and almost one in 10 financial-abuse victims turn to Medicaid as a result, according to Joe Snyder, director of older adult protective services at the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging.

Which is why he and the Philadelphia Financial Exploitation Prevention Task Force will host a "Safeguarding Our Seniors" forum from 10 a.m. to noon June 15 at the Parkway Free Library, 1901 Vine St. The event is free, but registration is required through the Alzheimer's Association Helpline (1-800-272-3900) by Wednesday.

Presenters will include local banks, the Philadelphia Police Department and District Attorney's Office, the Alzheimer's Association, the SeniorLAW Center, and the Corporation for Aging. Experts will discuss keeping money and assets safe, making good financial decisions as you age, and accessing resources such as your bank.

For instance, Snyder said, "Bob" was 87 years old and lived with his daughter. Bob's bank called Older Adult Protective Services with a report that the elderly man had befriended a young woman who had scammed him out of $100,000. Bob realized she wasn't paying back the money - she even threatened to have Bob beaten if he didn't withdraw more.

Older Adult Protective Services investigators visited Bob, who had actually given away $198,000 - and now he wanted the young woman arrested.

Some banks hide behind information-safeguard laws such as the Federal Privacy Act and the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, Snyder said. But in cases of a civil, criminal, or regulatory investigation or to prevent against potential fraud, there are exceptions. Bob's daughter helped investigators find various bank accounts and financial documents.

If an older adult wants to prosecute - and it can often be difficult to persuade them to file charges - the Philadelphia Financial Exploitation Prevention Task Force "has built very strong relationships among several financial institutions and law-enforcement agencies," Snyder said, including the Police Department's C.A.R.E. Unit (Crimes Against Retired and Elderly) and the SeniorLAW Center.

Philadelphia Corporation for Aging has long-standing relationships with banks to obtain financial documents.

"If we don't have those, we don't have a case," Snyder explained. "Scammers are too good, so we can't get ahead of them. And we can't stop dysfunctional families. So we go where the money is and partner with financial institutions."