Mike Ryan is a true veteran of UBS. He began his career within the financial services industry in 1984 at one of the firm’s predecessor firms, PaineWebber. In his nearly four-decade long career here at UBS, Mike has enjoyed a number of different roles in various parts of our organization. He has progressed from being a research analyst, to the Chief Fixed Income Strategist and ultimately to the position as CIO for Global Wealth Management Americas. In 2021 Mike assumed a new role as one of the firm’s Vice Chairmen and agreed to take on the responsibility for both building and leading UBS’s newly formed Sustainability and Impact Institute.

The head of the Sustainability and Impact Institute explains how it aims to help explain the risks and opportunities posed by the shift to a more sustainable economy.

What first attracted you to work in the sustainability space, and why did you agree to lead the Institute?

Like most of us, I both appreciate the fragile beauty of this planet and have a deep and abiding concern for the wellbeing of the individuals who inhabit it. However, I am not what some might narrowly describe as an “environmental or social activist.” Instead, I view sustainability and impact through the complex lens as an investment professional, a capitalist, a parent, a grandparent and a concerned global citizen.

During my tenure as an investment professional, I have witnessed an evolution of the investment decision making with regard to sustainability. When I began my career in 1984, the market had a far narrower conception of what constituted return and risk. Over time we have seen a proliferation in the accessibility of data and the tools available to market participants. This has broadened the scope of what we need to evaluate and altered the way we utilize these insights. This process has now extended into the field of sustainability.

Some people view sustainability as the only criteria in investment decisions. I instead view it as yet another dimension to the process of making informed investment decisions. Given this, I saw the UBS Sustainability and Impact Institute as an important initiative to help evolve our thinking around sustainability when it comes to investing – and how UBS can be a leader here.

We have truly exceptional people across our entire firm and the role of the Institute is to act as a knowledge hub bringing all the in-house expertise across the different business divisions UBS together under one central roof for the benefit of all our clients.

The opportunity to lead this cross-divisional initiative on behalf of our clients was what made this role appealing to me. I have a background in research and strategy and have had the opportunity to work with both our individual and institutional clients. This has provided me with a perspective into the divergent needs of these constituents, and how best to serve them.

We certainly don’t have all the answers, but we do have a responsibility to explore the critical questions that are most relevant for our clients.

What are the top priorities for the Institute looking to the future?

There are three things we should look to achieve in the coming few years. First, whatever we do has to be credible. That means we must do high quality work that is thoughtful and has a high level of integrity. Secondly, we need to focus on what’s most relevant for our core constituents – namely our clients, our shareholders, our employees and the communities that we share. Lastly, we need to help inform the views of elected officials, business leaders and policy makers, so that they can maximize the impact within their respective areas.

Our clients are principally investors, and they want to understand how developments in the field of stainability impact them. This includes not only highlighting the opportunities that are likely to emerge, but also the challenges they are almost certain to confront. To do that, we must focus on their priorities. What are they now and how will they change?

We recognize that our clients’ needs will continue to evolve along with the change in the way that society functions. So, we as thought leaders will need to evolve as well.

What are the biggest challenges and opportunities to embedding sustainability into the financial system?

I’ve been doing this for 40 years and a therefore recognize there are a whole host of challenges whenever you attempt to assess risks or provide thoughts on how best to make investment decisions. The sustainability space is no different.

But I think the main concerns are largely structural in nature. There is a complete lack of standardization and availability of metrics within the sustainability field. And since we all tend to look at these issues through slightly different lenses, it means that we often fail to find common ground. This lack of standardization also makes measurement difficult, which in turn makes it harder to assess the challenges we face.

At the Institute, I believe the largest opportunity we have is to help educate and inform. But we have to be humble in the way that we do this. As I’ve already noted, we don’t have all the answers to some of the biggest challenges that we face. However, that does not mean that we can’t help advance the conversation by bringing together some of the most insightful thought leaders. I view this as a pragmatic process, not a dogmatic one. Because once we approach any problem dogmatically, we close our minds to differing views, alternative approaches and novel solutions. Our role is therefore not to preach; but instead to thoughtfully and methodically enquire.

Once we approach any problem dogmatically, we close our minds to differing views, alternative approaches and novel solutions. Our role is therefore not to preach; but instead to thoughtfully and methodically enquire.

What are aspects that relate to sustainability that need more focus?

I believe that the best outcomes are derived from the efficient leveraging and prudent deployment of our capital base for productive purposes through a market-based approach. However, to effectively leverage that capital we must first preserve it, protect it…and hopefully even grow it. Up until now, capital has largely been identified as either financial or material in nature. But natural capital and human capital are increasingly important dimensions of our capital base as well. So, if we seek to continue to reap the rewards that capitalism offers, then we better focus more of our attention on how we can preserve that capital base rather than squander it. I firmly believe that the Institute can help play a role in that process.

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