RI Careers Interview: “The way the ESG industry is developing, you’ll see opportunities appear in places that you probably didn’t see before”

Mervyn Tang, Global Head of ESG Research, Sustainable Finance, Fitch Ratings talks to Responsible Investor about how he got into ESG and his career to date.

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Tell us a bit about your role and the company you work at?

I'm global head of ESG research for Fitch Ratings. My team sits in the Sustainable Finance Unit, which was created last year as Fitch dedicated more resources to ESG. Our task is to create cross-sector and thematic research that is relevant to credit from an ESG perspective. For example, we look at how climate change affects different sectors and different types of securities and credit, and how we think about corporate governance across different regions or different sectors.

What does a typical working week look like for you? What do you do on a daily basis?

It's a bit clichéd, but there is no such thing as a typical week. Given the seniority of the role and the fact that ESG is a very new industry – meaning that a lot of structures and processes are not yet in place – in my current role I have to think about how Fitch wants to approach ESG, as well as what research would be of interest to investors.

I also spend quite a bit of time recruiting and building the team. In addition to that, I spend one to two weeks a month travelling – that would involve going to conferences, doing investor and issuer meetings, and also attending internal meetings with different offices. There's also a lot of work with media explaining our research and our approach to ESG.

Have you always worked in RI/ESG? Can you tell us about your career path?

I joined the Citigroup Graduate Equities program in 2007, trading emerging market equities in Europe. During that time, because of the financial crisis, things were quite volatile on the trading floor, so after a year or so I moved into global equity sales. My role involved selling equity research to global institutional clients, among which were funds with Social Responsible Investing mandates – at that time SRI was far more commonly-used term than ESG. Those SRI investors were thinking about sustainability more in terms of sector exclusions and/or theme-driven portfolios, versus ESG integration today. That was my first taste of ESG in 2009.

I left Citigroup to work in government policy, partly because it was clear that I preferred a more research-driven path as opposed to a market-driven path. I moved to the Bank of England where I worked on international financial stability issues. As part of my time at the Bank of England, I got the opportunity to move to Washington DC on secondment to the Foreign Service. As a diplomat focused on economic and financial policy, I spent two years in DC working with various US policymakers and regulators on policy issues relevant to the UK. When I moved back to London I wasn't sure what I wanted to do, but luckily I had an opportunity to become a sovereign ratings analyst with Fitch. For someone who loves to travel, that was a great job that I was keen to go into.

As a result, I moved to Hong Kong and spent two and a half years at Fitch, conducting sovereign credit rating reviews in the Asia-Pacific region. At that time I started thinking about where I could go to develop myself further, particularly in terms of management skills. I got a call from MSCI who asked me to move and first manage the ESG team in APAC, and then head their fixed income operation. At MSCI, most of my time was spent working with fixed income investors on how they use MSCI’s ESG products and integrate ESG, as well as producing research. I was at MSCI for about a year and a half when Fitch reached out to me and said they were looking into expanding their ESG operations. The work on ESG at Fitch was very different to what I would be doing at MSCI. It was much more thematic research-focused and that appealed to me, along with the opportunity to create something new.

What degrees and qualifications do you have?

My undergrad was in economics and management. After I graduated, and when I moved to the Bank of England, I had the opportunity to study for the CFA. After the CFA, I was looking at what else I could do and I ended up getting sponsored to do a part time masters in economics in London.

After my formal qualifications, a lot of the training that I've done has been on presentation skills and media training as I have spent more time on external meetings and public speaking appearances.

Were the degrees you got helped along the way?

In my case, they were quite helpful, especially in my time in central banking and policymaking, and even now in finance. The same applies to the CFA – it helps to understand how investors think about things, especially as someone who hasn't worked directly on the buy side. It's useful to know the terms and the processes that might be involved.

What do you like most/least about ESG and RI?

For me as a research analyst, what I like the most is the scale and complexity of ESG issues such as climate and governance, for example. From an intellectual perspective, it is a big attraction for working in the industry as well as helping to be part of the solution to those problems.

The thing I like less about the industry is that there is not much clear definition on a lot of things, which leads to a lot of arguments and discussions that seem incoherent. 

What single thing or person has had the most positive impact on your career, and why?

I would say probably the biggest impact was just going ahead and taking a secondment and moving to DC from London. Before I moved to DC, I was keen on the idea of moving abroad, experiencing new things and picking up different skill sets. But until I did, I didn’t realise how much I would learn, how much I would enjoy moving to a new country, making new contacts and just trying something completely new. The whole DC experience changed the way I approached my career in terms of taking opportunities and bigger risks.

What are your thoughts on the current work culture?

There are a lot of conversations about work/life balance and results-orientated assessments. I think it can be very dependent on the teams and the regions that you work on. I have found that your experience at work can very much be driven by the manager themselves and the kind of people who you're working with immediately.

Of course there are broader structural issues that affect multiple teams in different organizations, but the day-to-day experience and cultural experience can strongly depend on the manager and the team, and that can be either good or bad.

How does your firm recruit into ESG? (graduate level)

I think it's interesting with ESG in the sense that there are a variety of backgrounds that might have some fit. It could be environmental engineering, environmental economics, or someone who has had courses specifically in sustainability as part of a finance degree.

At Fitch, for example, they would need to understand both things from a credit perspective as well as an ESG perspective, and more broadly to be able to understand financial markets and investors. We need people who are interested in how ESG fits into financial analysis and risk analysis, and be able to not just say, “Oh, climate change is important” but “How does this affect companies at a micro level? How do we scale the impact?”

What I found is that a lot of graduates who want to move into ESG aren't necessarily interested in going deeper into the micro level to really understand the business model and financial profile of companies, often thinking from a policy perspective or social impact perspective. 

What I've also looked for in interviews has been the ability to learn and think through problems with a structured thought process.

If you knew what you know now, what would you have done differently when you started your career? What advice do you wish you'd be given when you started out?

Data is becoming more and more important in ESG as well as other parts of finance. As someone working in a place that provides research and information to investors, I have spent more and more time on issues relating to data structures, data management and data analysis. I wish I would have developed a knowledge based on coding and programming at an earlier stage, as it would have helped me understand what is feasible in terms of product development. We have a lot of ideas that could add value to the industry, and it would be much easier to execute them with a sound knowledge of how data systems and architectures work. 

What advice would you give to someone starting out today?

There are different types of people: you have people who are very set on a specific goal that they want to reach and they have a very defined career path; and then you've got people who have ideas of what they might want to do but don't necessarily have a fixed goal. 

I would say I am part of the latter – I tend to evaluate opportunities as they come. If you are part of the latter, I would suggest taking advantage of things that will help you build your skills and give you options from a future career perspective, as well as personal rewards like traveling or other exciting experiences.

If you're not necessarily sure what you want to do, think about what opportunities would help you grow and take advantage of them when they come up because you never really know. There's no step-by-step process which gets you to where you want to go half the time. Jobs can miraculously come up because someone quits or goes on maternity and paternity leave, and you get the opportunity to work in a more senior role. Even if you are not the perfect candidate you might still be the best available to an employer in a given timeframe, and you can grow on the job.

Looking ahead, where do you see the opportunities or growth areas for career paths in RI/ESG?

The way the ESG industry is developing, you'll see opportunities appear in places that you probably didn't see before. There is a move towards other asset classes, such as structured credit, real assets, etc. Because of the complexities of some of those asset classes, there will be more demand for deep expertise in certain niche areas. 

Going back to my earlier point, the industry is looking for ways to get better quality, more measurable, higher frequency data on ESG. As a result, there are a lot of opportunities at start-ups or other financial companies on creating ESG data products that investors can use. ESG data experts are becoming quite valuable.

CV at a glance:

  • Fitch Ratings, Senior Director, Global Head of ESG Research, Sustainable Finance, 2019 – present
  • MSCI Inc., Vice President, Head of Fixed Income, ESG Research, 2017 – 2019
  • Fitch Ratings, Director, Sovereigns, 2015 – 2017
  • Bank of England, Various Roles, 2009 – 2015
  • Citigroup, Analyst, Equities, 2007 – 2009

To access other interviews and Sustainable Finance Careers Report follow the link: esg-data.com/careers