ESG investments: Exponential potential or surfing one wave?

Energy

Amidst four concurrent crises — health, economic, race relations and climate — one stand-out 2020 development has been the rebound of major stock markets and, particularly, the growing performance and prominence of environment, social and governance (ESG) traded funds.

ESG portfolios not only have outperformed traditional financial assets this year, but also a data analysis prepared by Morningstar, a financial advisory research firm, concluded that almost 60 percent of sustainable investments delivered higher returns than comparable funds over the past decade. Morningstar also found that ESG funds have greater longevity than non-ESG portfolios. About 77 percent of ESG funds that existed 10 years ago are presently available, whereas only 46 percent of traditional investment vehicles maintain that survivorship.

These developments raise two overriding questions: what factors have converged to catapult ESG portfolios into the front rows of investment strategy, and what challenges can transform (for better or worse) ESG fund performance in the future?

ESG investing has made important strides in the past decade and possesses significant momentum to expand its reach into the broader economy.

ESG’s arrival at the Big Dance

Since the rebound from the 2007-08 financial crisis, it would have taken a singularly motivated unwise investor to lose money in U.S. equity markets. ESG investors were not unwise. Several sets of factors converged to make these funds an even better bet than the S&P 500, Dow Jones or NASDAQ exchanges that covered a broad array of individual equities, mutual funds or indexed portfolios. These factors include:

  • Less risk and volatility. ESG asset managers and their customers generally prefer a longer-term planning horizon than many of their traditional competitors whose reliance upon program trading or other methods result in more frequent turnover in holdings. In retrospect, it also turned out that ESG portfolios contained less financial risk because they had more accurately identified risks from climate change and considered other variables — such as resilience — for which no accepted risk methodology exists. The response to the international COVID-19 pandemic has become a de facto surrogate to measure corporate resilience and has previewed the economic and societal chaos that is increasingly expected to arrive from accelerating climate change. For investors, ESG portfolios have provided a welcome shelter in the storm and a more profitable one at that.
     
  • A declining investment rationale for fossil fuels. What was once a trend is now a rout. ESG asset managers, closely attuned to climate-related risks, recognized the receding value of first coal, and now, petroleum investments that are in the midst of an historic decline. Prior to the 2007-08 financial crash, ExxonMobil enjoyed a market capitalization in excess of $500 billion. By 2016 (and accounting for the rebound from that crash), it stood at about $400 billion. Today, it is $159 billion even as overall equity valuations reach historic highs. Asset write-offs from the oil sector continue to mount and include BP’s write-down of $17.5 billion and Total’s cancellation of $9.3 billion in Canadian oil sands assets. By virtually any established financial metric — net income, capital expenditures, earnings per share — petroleum companies are shrinking. As an industry group, energy is one of the smallest sectors in the S&P 500.
     
  • Convergence of transparency and governance. While there are frequent complaints about the lack of robust financial metrics to evaluate ESG investment opportunities, the fact is one of growing convergence around some critical reporting measures. For climate change, these include the information obtained from companies adhering to the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) that provide for voluntary and more consistent financial risk reporting. CDP is widely respected among asset managers, and there is growing interest in the efforts of the Global Reporting Initiative-Sustainability Accounting Standards Board to arrive at a simpler, sector-specific, financially relevant set of performance metrics. Governance expectations also have accelerated as more financial firms seek not only fuller disclosure but understanding of actual plans to achieve an impact through, as one example, Scopes 1, 2 and 3 reductions within specific time frames.
     
  • Collaboration among financial asset management firms. No longer is it necessary for nuns organized through the Sisters of St. Francis or the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility to maintain their lonely vigil to persuade management of their social and environmental concerns. In recent years, their cause has been transformed by the world’s largest asset management firms that have the added advantage of being very large investors in the companies whose practices they wish to change. These organizations — including BlackRock, BNP Paribas Asset Management, CalPERS and UBS Asset Management — generally have no difficulty in meeting with CEOs or, more recently, obtaining increasingly large support for the shareholder resolutions they support. Most significant, in the aftermath of the 2015 Paris Climate Accord, these firms increasingly collaborate through organizations such as Climate Action 100+, known as CA100+ (which presently has more than 450 investor members with over $40 trillion in assets), Ceres and the Asia Investor Group on Climate Change. Their climate change action agenda includes setting an emissions reduction target, disclosing climate-related financial risks through the TCFD reporting framework and ensuring that corporate boards are appropriately constituted to focus upon and deliver climate results. In reflecting on this evolution, long-time sustainability investor John Streur of Calvert Research & Management wrote, “We need to spend more of our engagement time pressing for change, as opposed to asking for disclosure.”

Disrupting and being disrupted — the road ahead

The ESG investment movement has every reason to be optimistic in the short term. There is growing investor and stakeholder momentum for the goals of expanded disclosure, improved corporate governance and measurable plans and impacts, especially for climate change. There is significant expansion in the staff sizes and expertise that better enable firms with ESG portfolios to evaluate financial risks. And their financial performance continues to impress.

What could go wrong, come up short or require adaptation? Several factors bear a closer scrutiny.

  • ESG’s value proposition is principally based on de-risking assets. This is too limited a value proposition to meet future needs. For example, ESG data does not reveal much insight for identifying research and development priorities, product innovation opportunities or effective branding and marketing strategies. As Brown University professor Cary Krosinsky has commented, “ESG data doesn’t tell you the most important thing: who will win the race” in future business competition and success for the long-term. In short, is ESG investment too disconnected from the very purpose of an enterprise — to innovate new products, gain customers and make money over time through business development?
     
  • As ESG investment goes mainstream, it will face new challenges and risks. A current advantage that ESG managers possess is that their decisions focus more on pure-play outcomes such as de-risking companies from climate change or other sustainability challenges. As more traditional investment firms acquire or expand ESG capabilities, more complexity will enter into investment decisions to reconcile clients’ needs or manage the trade-offs between ESG performance measures and those applied through shareholder value driven outcomes (earnings per share, quarterly financial reporting). Aligning expectations concerning executive compensation, independence of directors and future investment opportunities are major unresolved issues between ESG and traditional investment practitioners.
     
  • To be more impactful, the composition of ESG portfolios will need to change. Currently, ESG funds are dominated by equities, but significant capital is invested in other sectors such as bonds, exchange traded funds (ETFs) and real estate. The methodology for evaluating these asset classes will need to be modified from that applied to the assessment of equities. At the same time, ESG funds are heavily weighted in ownership of technology stocks, particularly the so-called FAANG companies — Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google — in addition to Microsoft. A number of these firms have inadequate data security and privacy protections, weak corporate governance and poor business ethics. The long-term wisdom of piling so many investment eggs into a single sector basket, combined with the multiple ESG problems of current technology portfolios, challenges ESG asset firms to become more transparent about their own evaluation criteria and decision making about portfolio diversity.
     
  • ESG assessments should assign a higher priority to social issues. The “S” in ESG is the least understood of the three factors, and it will be the most challenging to apply. As diversity, inclusion and equity become a greater focus of corporate sustainability policies and programs, the methodology for their evaluation is the least advanced. In part, this reflects the cultural and racial filter of a largely white and wealthy investor class lagging in its comprehension that race and social justice are material investment criteria. Simultaneously, data on social indicators will be more difficult to collect. Large numbers of companies are reluctant to disclose such information because it will expose gender and racial gaps in pay and promotion and general under-representation of minorities. Again, the technology sector is a major laggard on such issues. More broadly, the collection of social data, especially for racial diversity, is made more difficult as a matter of policy by many governments outside the United States, including in Europe where it is illegal in some countries to collect ethic and racial information. Some ESG investors are beginning to expand their dialogue around these issues, but they are much further behind when compared to their assessments and investment policies on environmental and governance issues.

ESG investing has made important strides in the past decade and possesses significant momentum to expand its reach into the broader economy. Karina Funk, portfolio manager and chair of Sustainable investing at Brown Advisory, sees an approaching convergence between ESG and traditional investment philosophies.

“ESG is a value-add,” she noted in a recent conversation. “It provides an expanding array of tools — financial screening, data analysis, issue-specific consultations with companies, proxy voting and an emerging focus on social risks — so that, in five years, ESG will be a standard expectation in asset evaluations. The key will be to focus on all risks facing a company, quantifiable or not, the exposure of business models and identifying what factors are within a company’s control.”

Will management listen to ESG investors? Voices as varied as the U.S. Department of Labor and Harvard economics professor Gregory Mankiw are urging company executives and fund managers to tip the scales against what they consider to be economically risky and materially irrelevant ESG factors.

In re-asserting the primacy of shareholder value, they remind us that voice of Milton Friedman still echoes from the crypt even as it grows fainter within the rapid humming of today’s marketplace and changing society.

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