Socially Responsible ETFs Take Root

March 01, 2017

[This article originally appeared in our March issue of ETF Report.]

One of 2016's big themes was the mass of filings and launches for exchange-traded funds focusing on environmental, social and governance factors, commonly known as ESG, nearly doubling the space.

By’s count, there are nearly 50 funds that focus on sustainable investing, a catch-all term that covers ESG factors, socially responsible investing and other values-based investing. In 2016 alone, there were 21 sustainable funds launched, with the majority of those coming in the second half of the year.

Those new funds count up to roughly $725 million in assets out of a total of $3.5 billion for the space. Not surprisingly, the largest broadly focused sustainable ETF by assets under management is also one of the oldest, the iShares MSCI KLD 400 Social ETF (DSI), a total-market ETF. It has $768 million in AUM, an expense ratio of 0.50% and debuted in 2006.

However, one of last year’s socially responsible ETFs has already cracked the top-five list in AUM, the SPDR SSGA Gender Diversity Index ETF (SHE), a U.S. large-cap fund. It debuted in March 2016, and has $283 million in AUM and an expense ratio of 0.20%. It should be noted, though, that pension fund CalSTRS seeded the fund with $250 million at its launch.

Theme Trickled Down To Retail
A few factors are driving the growth in the ETF trend, several sources say. This type of investing first gained traction with large institutions such as pension funds and high net worth individuals, and as with many investment trends, trickled down to financial advisors and retail buyers.

Because of its focus on criteria such as impact on the environment, and improving social welfare and corporate governance, these issues appeal to younger investors and female investors, the sources say. What’s helped product development is a greater amount of data available from companies and other researchers that moved sustainable investing out of the realm of screening-out companies based on values to one that can be integrated into core asset allocation.

“Particularly on the ETF side and passive investing in general, certainly the development and maturation of the company-level ESG research has helped a lot. It gives you many options for how to build interesting passive portfolios,” said Jon Hale, head of sustainability research at Morningstar. Last year Morningstar unveiled a new system allowing financial advisors to look at how any fund—conventional or socially responsible—rates on sustainability.

Asset Allocation Integration
Tom Kuh, executive director of ESG Indexes at MSCI, concurs. He says that in the fourth quarter of 2016 alone, there were nine ETF launches based on MSCI products, all of them MSCI ESG indexes or developed in conjunction with the ETF issuers. Kuh says MSCI has noticed that the new products being developed are integrating these factors into asset allocation rather than thinking about ESG as a separate entity.

“We’ve seen several and expect to see more fund providers giving investors the opportunity to bring ESG strategies to core assets,” he noted.
Hale said early sustainable investing ETFs focused on themes like water and energy, but now many of the funds have broadly diversified themes.

Growing Excitement, But Not Assets … Yet
Although socially responsible investing has been around for some time—and given the number of new product launches, there’s excitement around the theme—total assets invested suggests it remains in the niche category.

Katie Schoen, senior equity analyst, private wealth, management equity strategy at Robert W. Baird, said while the case for ESG investing is easy to make, assets haven’t followed. She notes that at $838 million, the PureFunds ISE Cyber Security ETF (HACK) has more assets than DSI. That trend, she says, is similar at Baird in terms of the firm’s assets invested in the two funds. She added it’s possible asset growth is slow because it’s been difficult to build broad-themed ESG investments for retail investors who often might have a different definition of sustainability.

“What retail investors consider ESG changes with each one you talk to,” she said.

Socially responsible investing isn’t going away, but it may take some time for financial advisors and their clients to catch on, Schoen notes.

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