The ratings also acknowledge the potential cost of police misconduct, which traditional rating agencies have typically ignored. In one exception that illustrates how police killings can destabilize city budgets, Moody’s downgraded the bonds of Ferguson, Mo., after a white police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager, in 2014. Moody’s cited “the potential financial impact of ongoing litigation costs,” legal settlements and negotiations with the Department of Justice to overhaul the city’s justice system.
“The ability to clearly and precisely distill all of the many fiscal justice risks into an outlook is very needed in this market,” Mr. Wallace said.
Activest, which Mr. Wallace founded six years ago with Ryan Bowers, a racial equity consultant, plans to publish research reports and ratings for as many as 50 U.S. cities. The initial goal is to bring to light police settlements, both public and private, and identify cities that are most at risk of not being able to pay them or meet other obligations.
But the ultimate goal is to use the bond market to rein in police brutality and make cities more just. As investors look for socially responsible investments, Mr. Wallace believes Activest’s fiscal justice ratings could influence bond prices and, therefore, the interest rates. By attracting more investors, a city would lower its borrowing costs, improving budgets and possibly allowing politicians to lower taxes or at least spend money elsewhere. And that could provide an incentive to treat citizens more fairly.
E.S.G. for municipal bonds
Municipal bonds were the original socially responsible investment. In ubiquitous television commercials that ran throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the bond salesman Jim Lebenthal stood in front of landfills, power plants and bridges to pitch the idea that investing in local government debt was putting money toward a better America.
But the modern iteration of socially responsible investing, known as the environmental, social and governance, or E.S.G., movement, has mostly steered clear of the muni bond market, and when E.S.G. investing tactics are applied to muni bonds, the focus is usually on environmental issues.
One reason for this, muni market experts say, is a lack of data. Larry Bellinger, the head of municipal bond research at AllianceBernstein, which manages $55 billion in local government debt, said that he had found relatively adequate research on carbon footprints and natural hazards, but that on social and justice issues, “data is a problem.”