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Bank of America Private Bank, Merrill bulk up on ESG execs

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Despite a growing backlash among Republicans to invest with environmental, social and governance themes, Bank of America is doubling down on ESG in its wealth business, placing a bet on the trend’s viability.

The financial giant bulked up with several ESG executive hires in August following comments by CEO Brian Moynihan in May that financing the global transition to a greener economy was a “big business opportunity.” Last week, the bank announced that it had created and filled a role focused on developing new ESG-themed products and encouraging advisors to apply ESG strategies in their practice.

Julia Shin joined Merrill in September as the ESG integration and innovation executive for products and platforms, according to a Bank of America spokesperson. Shin will report to Keith Glenfield, managing director and head of Investment Solutions Group Products.

The bank also expanded the roles of two other wealth executives who will collaborate with Shin on ESG, a spokesperson said. Both executives are on the Sustainable & Impact Investing team, which is part of the chief investment office supporting Merrill and Private Bank. Anna Snider, who has been head of due diligence at the CIO, will now also lead ESG strategy for the CIO. Snider has a background in researching alternative investments at Bank of America, according to her LinkedIn profile. Sarah Norman, who was senior SSI strategist at the CIO office, also had a role expansion and is now head of ESG thought leadership there.

In her previous role, Shin was the managing director of impact investing at Enterprise Community Partners, a Maryland-based nonprofit that finances affordable housing programs nationwide. She has a background in corporate and investment banking, though. Shin’s LinkedIn profile says that she began her financial services career on Wall Street at Goldman Sachs, then moved into a role at Citigroup before joining the nonprofit fold.

Asked why she chose Bank of America, Shin said in an email that she commended Moynihan’s commitment to “responsible growth” through adoption of ESG in its business and perceived “thoughtful engagement by each of the business lines to incorporate what responsible growth means for our work and clients, especially in the face of rapidly developing challenges and solutions.” She also cited her team’s support of an innovative approach to their work and the “enormous potential for impact” she had in working at Merrill, one of the biggest wealth firms.

“Julia has a very unique and impressive skill set that makes her uniquely qualified to provide broad leadership and connectivity — across the end to end client experience,” Glenfield said in an emailed statement. He added that the bank wanted to “make it easier for clients to leverage our investment capabilities in a manner that further reflects their financial situation, views and preferences.”

Glenfield said Shin’s position was created “in response to clients’ feedback and interest,” suggesting that wealthy clients are still interested in ESG investing and reflecting the bank’s ongoing projection of substantial long-term client demand in this area.

The Merrill website’s impact investing page claims that globally, over a third of all client assets — over $53 trillion — could end up invested under some form of ESG strategy by 2025. It cited a 2021 report by Bloomberg Intelligence that called ESG a “gold rush” in Europe, where it first caught on in popularity, and predicted that the US and Asia were next.

The move also comes a year after the White House signed a green energy bill into law, ensuring billions of dollars of funding for green energy and climate-friendly policies in the coming decade. Bank of America is looking to pounce on some of that. Earlier this year, other wirehouses made similar moves, with Wells Fargo hiring its first ever chief sustainability officer in April.

However, in the past year skepticism has emerged in the public conversation about ESG, and critics have pointed to frequent “greenwashing” in so-called ESG funds, which sometimes have labels of virtue painted on that do not appear to be borne out in the activities of included companies. On the right, ESG is also under attack as GOP legislators seek to punish those supporting the approach, which they deem “woke.”

Bank of America recently took part in a lawsuit with other American banks against the Kentucky attorney general for, it alleged, stifling its business freedoms by demanding to keep a tight leash on all banks’ ESG disclosures.

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