Maybe the risk about environmental, social and governance (ESG) investing is backward.
The common narrative is that the risk rests on an investor’s shoulder, a potential sacrifice of returns for the greater good in the world.
But with recent activist action shaking up the Exxon boardroom, there’s an ESG move afoot and boards of directors are in the crosshair.
Companies who ignore the movement toward answering to ESG standards in the boardroom are putting their investors at risk. This is a trend that is only gaining steam as time goes on.
ESG Concerns Coming At Corporate Boards
ESG is a way to invest money in a manner that aligns with our personal values, but it can also serve as a framework to think about risk management.
If a company chooses to ignore any ESG factors, there is a growing risk to the company that did not exist before as these issues come more into focus.
The firm had recently succeeded in putting three candidates on Exxon’s board of directors. Though the firm owned only a small portion of Exxon’s shares, it had won the board seats by persuading other shareholders to join their mission.
Engine No. 1’s success, and subsequent fund launch, could be the turning point when it comes to bringing impact investing into the spotlight and onto corporate radars.
ESG Funds Seeing Flows
Even before the launch of this fund, however, there was no denying that investor interest in ESG has been growing.
New ESG funds are being launched regularly, not only from niche players but from the largest issuers in the ETF game. And more assets are beginning to flow into these funds, with 18 socially responsible ETFs having gathered at least $1 billion in assets—and the iShares ESG Aware MSCI USA ETF (ESGU), the largest socially responsible ETF by AUM, holding more than $17 billion in assets under management.
In absolute levels, net flows into ESG ETFs are higher this year relative to the same time period last year, with over $21 billion flocking to ESG funds so far.
This underscores the point that these issues are growing in importance to investors. Companies will have to face various ESG factors head-on in order to please not only their consumers but their shareholders.
No Single Definition
Without a doubt, the biggest hurdle facing investor adoption is that, as of yet, there is no industrywide standard for what makes an ESG fund. Socially responsible, impact investing, ethical investing are all terms also used to describe the space.
And of course, different funds have different methods for what constitutes “ESG” in their screens.
And when it comes to clients, there’s a fundamental misunderstanding facing advisors. Client perception often focuses on environmental factors and “negative screening”—excluding certain industries such as oil or coal.
Certainly, some ETFs rely on these types of rules to construct their portfolios. Other funds, like the Global X S&P 500 Catholic Values ETF (CATH), might exclude companies that aren’t aligned with a specific religion’s values. But the full meaning of ESG is not well-understood. There’s more to it than “environmental.”
One thing to keep in mind is that excluding entire segments of the market can lead to periods of at least short-term underperformance should these industries catch a bid.
For example, if oil- and gas-related stocks exhibit a period of strong performance, portfolios that do not hold these names could underperform those that do. However, many ESG investors have said this is a risk they are willing to take if they feel good about the investment.
Kind Of Excluded…
Other funds might not entirely remove specific industries, but instead establish certain thresholds for exclusion.
For example, the iShares MSCI USA ESG Select ETF (SUSA) uses categorical exclusions for some categories, but relies on a revenue threshold for others.
Companies involved in businesses such as alcohol, gambling or civilian firearms are excluded, while tobacco companies may be included if they are classified as a distributor, retailer or supplier yet earn less than 15% of their revenues from tobacco products.
The benefit of using this type of methodology is that businesses can often be involved in several different industries. Investors won’t miss out on the potential performance of these companies by excluding them from the portfolio if only a tiny portion of their revenues come from a specific business line.
Don’t Ignore The Social
Other ESG ETFs might take a more thematic approach, meaning they focus on one specific sustainability theme. Here, the possibilities for themes are seemingly endless.
The SPDR SSGA Gender Diversity Index ETF (SHE) invests in companies that have a relatively high proportion of women in executive and director positions. Others, like the Impact Shares NAACP Minority Empowerment ETF (NACP), select companies based on social criteria defined by the NAACP. Others focus on areas like clean energy or water infrastructure.
With many options out there and no two investors having the same values, the hurdle for advisors and retail investors alike will be in taking an inventory of which principles should take priority, and then identifying which funds are most in line with these principles.
Data Pitfalls Abound
Even when the methodology underlying a fund’s ESG mandate is clear, the industry still has a ways to go in building out and standardizing the data on how each company fares on certain metrics. These metrics are much fuzzier and harder to pin down than statistics like market cap or valuation that might be used in building traditional indices and products.
Here too, there are signs that the tide is changing. Earlier this week, Gary Gensler, chairman of the SEC, noted that he has asked staff to put together recommendations on mandatory company disclosures on climate risk and human capital.
His rationale for this action was specifically due to increasing investor interest and the need for disclosure to facilitate the efficient allocation of capital across the market.
ESG Analysis At The Fund Level
A good starting point for evaluating ETFs can be found on ETF.com’s fund profiles, which include ESG Analytics Insight from MSCI. For example, SUSA has an A rating against other funds in its peer group.
Not surprisingly, the SPDR S&P 500 ETF Trust (SPY), which has no defined ESG mandate, has a lower ESG fund rating.
The risks to companies that do not consider ESG factors is growing as investors further consider these issues.
Companies that refuse to consider ESG factors face risks that did not exist just a few years ago. The evolution of new standards for boardrooms and investors is in full motion. Adapt or face the consequences.
Contact Jessica Ferringer at [email protected]