A Deeper Dive Into ESG ETF Portfolios

Making choices based on environmental, social and governance metrics has a real impact on overall returns. 

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Reviewed by: Dave Nadig
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Edited by: Dave Nadig

The world is full of model ETF portfolios, but we’re just starting to see the environmental, socially responsible and governance (ESG) filter as a consideration on many. The biggest recent news on this front was the development by robo-platform Betterment of an ESG version of its core portfolio last month.

I thought this would be a timely opportunity to look at some popular portfolios and see how they stack up using the MSCI ESG data we’re now featuring here at ETF.com. (For a primer on what that data is, see my article from June when we launched it.)

Let’s start by looking at the portfolio my friend Matt Hougan puts together every year here on ETF.com, the world’s cheapest portfolio. 

 

The Hougan Portfolio

ExposureWeightTickerNameExpense
Ratio
ESG
Score
SIS %SRI
Exclusion
%
MSCI ESG Score
U.S. Equity40%ITOTiShares Core S&P Total U.S. Stock Market ETF34.9386.2310.645.17
Developed Markets30%SCHFSchwab International Equity ETF66.2856.1210.976.58
Emerging Markets5%SCHESchwab Emerging Markets Equity ETF134.3893.163.253.45
Fixed Income15%SCHZSchwab US Aggregate Bond ETF46.2280.912.406.00
REITS5%SCHHSchwab U.S. REIT ETF74.0369.8304.27
Commodities5%COMBGraniteShares Bloomberg Commodity Broad Strategy No K-1 ETF25   6.89
    5.855.495.388.49 

 

 

This portfolio doesn’t have any considerations other than cost, and an essentially random asset allocation. “Cheap” is definitely the word for it—with a weighted average expense ratio of just 0.058%, it’s so close to free as to not even matter. You can stick $1 million in this portfolio and pay less for it a year than it would cost to see Hamilton.

But how does it look from an ESG lens? Put simply, pretty much middle of the road.

The U.S. equity choice here scores an overall 5, which conveniently also puts it right about the 50th percentile among U.S. total market funds. The same is true of the developed-market equity exposure—most developed markets score better than the U.S. (Europe and Japan generally have stronger governance, diversity, labor and environmental regulations), so it’s pretty middle of the road as well.

 

The bond exposure is pretty good though, with some caveats: the MSCI methodology gets thin on the ground when it comes to covering debt issuers. Of the bonds in the Schwab US Aggregate Bond ETF (SCHZ), only 68% are actually tracked and measured back to the issuer. Still, SCHZ is in the 88th percentile for overall “ESG-ness” among peer funds. (I’ve removed the commodity allocations from the averages, as MSCI doesn’t cover, say, wheat, from an ESG perspective.)

The last two columns here represent the percentage of the funds in “do good” stocks that are working toward things like clean energy and affordable housing; and the “sin” stocks, like companies that make land mines and booze. The numbers here are pretty representative of the broad markets, which is unsurprising.

Robo Conscience

With that backdrop, let’s see how the new Betterment portfolio looks—compared to both Matt’s dumb-and-cheap portfolio, and the basic Betterment portfolio it’s competing against:

 

Betterment Vanilla

ExposureAllocationTickerNameExpense
Ratio %
ESG
Score
SIS %SRI
Exclusion
%
MSCI ESG Score
U.S. Total Market12.90%VTIVanguard Total Stock Market ETF44.90536.2610.645.18
U.S. Large Cap Value12.90%VTVVanguard Value ETF65.2344.7018.185.38
U.S. Mid Cap Value4.10%VOEVanguard Mid-Cap Value ETF74.69213.309.985.05
U.S. Small Cap Value3.60%VBRVanguard Small-Cap Value ETF73.90272.995.593.76
Developed Markets30.10%VEAVanguard FTSE Developed Markets ETF76.21295.8310.406.46
Emerging Markets6.30%VWOVanguard FTSE Emerging Markets ETF144.3522.693.073.39
U.S. Corp Bond1.70%LQDiShares iBoxx $ Investment Grade Corporate Bond ETF154.75645.4911.814.80
International Bonds6.90%BNDXVanguard Total International Bond ETF126.19940.571.656.23
Emerging Market Bonds4.20%EMBiShares JP Morgan USD Emerging Markets Bond ETF404.019600.772.94
Municipal Bonds17.20%MUBiShares National Muni Bond ETF25    
    11.895.404.739.67 

 

Betterment SRI

ExposureAllocationTickerNameExpense
Ratio %
ESG
Score
SIS %SRI
Exclusion
%
MSCI ESG Score
U.S. Large Cap23.10%DSIiShares MSCI KLD 400 Social ETF506.385612.080.357.50
U.S. Mid Cap Growth1.00%VOTVanguard Mid-Cap Growth ETF74.635211.581.844.70
U.S. Mid Cap Value5.30%VOEVanguard Mid-Cap Value ETF74.69213.309.985.05
U.S. Small Cap Growth0.30%VBKVanguard Small-Cap Growth ETF73.95546.312.133.44
U.S. Small Cap Value4.00%VBRVanguard Small-Cap Value ETF73.90272.995.593.76
Developed Markets30.10%VEAVanguard FTSE Developed Markets ETF76.21295.8310.46.46
Emerging Markets6.30%VWOVanguard FTSE Emerging Markets ETF144.3522.693.073.39
U.S. Corp Bond1.70%LQDiShares iBoxx $ Investment Grade Corporate Bond ETF154.75645.4911.814.80
International Bonds6.90%BNDXVanguard Total International Bond ETF126.19940.571.656.23
Emerging Market Bonds4.20%EMBiShares JP Morgan USD Emerging Markets Bond ETF404.019600.772.94
Municipal Bonds17.20%MUBiShares National Muni Bond ETF25   N/A
    22.325.746.705.46 

 

 

A few things to note here: First, Betterment’s vanilla portfolio—which they kindly provided me at a similar 70% equity allocation to Matt Hougan’s—makes a few different choices than Matt. It’s still hunting for cheap, but it’s clearly also looking for liquidity.

When Betterment chooses an ETF, it ends up steering hundreds of millions of dollars around. When Matt chooses an ETF, it happens in an academic vacuum where trading is free and market impact is irrelevant. While funds like the Schwab International Equity ETF (SCHF) are plenty liquid for any individual investor, the Vanguard funds here are almost 10 times as liquid, or more.

Second, both of these portfolios include muni bonds, which, like commodities, aren’t rated by the MSCI ESG methodology, so I’ve pulled them from the calculations.

The Big Difference

So what’s the conclusion here? Surprisingly, the major difference between these two portfolios—and indeed between the SRI portfolio and Matt’s—is simply the inclusion of the iShares MSCI KLD 400 Social ETF (DSI) in place of a big chunk of the U.S. equity exposure. On the surface, this has a huge impact on expenses—nearly doubling the overall portfolio expense—and not much impact on the weighted average score, which goes up from 5.4 to 5.74.

But here’s where I think it pays to look under the hood. If you really care about owning companies that are doing good—and avoiding those doing, well, bad—then this SRI spin makes a difference. The percentage of “good” companies goes up by 2%, and the percentage of “bad” companies drops by more than 4%. It’s up to you whether you think that matters, but it’s not insignificant, and belies the raw score a bit.

Can You Do Better?

Since Betterment is making a bit of a big deal over its SRI alternative, I thought it might be worth looking at its biggest competitor, Wealthfront. Here’s a sample portfolio I was able to extract that gets pretty close in terms of overall exposure weights to both Matt’s and Betterment’s vanilla portfolios.

 

Wealthfront

ExposureAllocationTickerNameExpense
Ratio %
ESG
Score
SIS %SRI
Exclusion
%
MSCI ESG Score
U.S. Equity33%VTIVanguard Total Stock Market ETF44.90536.2610.645.18
Intl. Equity15%VEAVanguard FTSE Developed Markets ETF76.21295.8310.406.46
Emerging Markets12%VWOVanguard FTSE Emerging Markets ETF144.3522.693.073.39
Dividends6%VIGVanguard Dividend Appreciation ETF85.6174.9815.266.07
Natural Resources5%XLEEnergy Select Sector SPDR Fund144.1280.102.035.62
Municipal Bonds29%VTEBVanguard Tax-Exempt Bond ETF9   N/A
    7.845.095.029.09 

 

 

Like Betterment, Wealthfront leans hard on Vanguard for that magic combo of cost and liquidity. The end result is a surprisingly similar portfolio, with a slightly lower all-in expense average (0.0784% vs. 0.1189%), but also a slightly worse starting point from an ESG perspective (5.09 vs 5.40).

The question is, is it possible to really move the needle here with the existing ETFs in the marketplace? The short answer is yes.

Here’s a crack at the same allocations from Matt’s portfolio, but instead of focusing on cost, it focuses “only” on the ESG rating for the desired exposures:

 

ETF.com's Super ESG Portfolio

ExposureAllocationTickerNameExpense
Ratio %
ESG
Score
SIS %SRI
Exclusion
%
MSCI ESG Score
U.S. Equity40%SUSAiShares MSCI USA ESG Select ETF508.19919.055.228.73
Developed Markets30%ESGDiShares MSCI EAFE ESG Optimized ETF407.43918.0210.268.05
Emerging Markets5%ESGE iShares MSCI EM ESG Optimized ETF455.72485.061.855.91
Fixed Income15%SCHZSchwab US Aggregate Bond ETF46.22830.912.406.00
REITS5%SCHHSchwab U.S. REIT ETF74.03559.8304.27
Commodities5%COMBGraniteShares Bloomberg Commodity Broad Strategy No K-1 ETF25   6.89
    36.457.307.275.91 

 

Here we’ve leaned hard not on super-cheap Vanguard or Schwab, but on a slew of newfangled ESG launches from BlackRock, the iShares ESG series. You can’t do better than either of the two Schwab products for your real estate and bond exposure, so we’ve left those intact.

The impacts are significant. The overall rating of the portfolio climbs from the 5s up to 7.3, making it as ESG friendly as dedicated individual funds in the space. The “good stock” percentage climbs to 7.27% and the “bad stock” percentage gets under 6%.

But it comes at a real cost. The expense of this portfolio gets pretty pricey indeed. While 0.36% still seems like a deal when compared to some actively managed mutual funds charging over 1%, there is no getting over the fact that this feel-good portfolio costs six times more than Matt’s super-cheap version.

The other thing worth noting is that you can do better, depending on what’s important to you.

 

If you’re focused “only” on, say, avoiding sin stocks, you can do a lot better than the iShares MSCI EAFE ESG Optimized ETF (ESGD) by choosing the PowerShares DWA Developed Markets Momentum Portfolio (PIZ). That fund makes no claim about either providing broad exposure to ex-U.S. stocks, or to keeping sin stocks out, but its momentum-chasing approach results in a portfolio with just 2.88% sin stocks.

You want nothing but do-gooders? Swap out all the equity exposure for the iShares MSCI Global Impact ETF (MPCT), which holds just 87 companies from all over the world, 75% of which pass the Sustainable Impact Solutions test.

Balancing Act

All of those choices have real consequences. Not only do most of these ETFs cost substantially more, some of them start entering the realm of being tricky to trade. MPCT, for instance, trades just a few thousand shares on an average day, making it a leap of faith to use for most people’s core allocation, and a nonstarter for big firms like Wealthfront or Betterment.

It’s great to see folks like Betterment cracking open the ESG egg. I’m quite confident that as ESG investing continues to catch on, more ETFs will have the liquidity and the track record to make their efforts even more meaningful.

In the meantime, it always pays to do your homework and determine what you’re really asking of your investing dollar. After all, it’s yours.

At the time of writing, the author held no positions in the securities mentioned. Contact Dave Nadig at [email protected].

 

Prior to becoming chief investment officer and director of research at ETF Trends, Dave Nadig was managing director of etf.com. Previously, he was director of ETFs at FactSet Research Systems. Before that, as managing director at BGI, Nadig helped design some of the first ETFs. As co-founder of Cerulli Associates, he conducted some of the earliest research on fee-only financial advisors and the rise of indexing.