Potential & Challenge Of ESG ETF Investing

While data is getting deeper and more useful, implementation of ESG in portfolios is still tricky.

Reviewed by: Ben Lavine
Edited by: Ben Lavine

This article is part of a regular series of thought leadership pieces from some of the more influential ETF strategists in the money management industry. Today’s article features Benjamin Lavine, chief investment officer for 3D Asset Management.

Investing in strategies built around environmental, socially conscious/social awareness and governance principles (ESG) has gained increased popularity over the last decade as great strides have been made around data collection and standardization.

There are several data providers competing for the “VHS/Betamax” stamp for industry standardization, with Sustainalytics and MSCI emerging as the two primary research providers. The former serves as the data engine for Morningstar’s Sustainability and ESG ratings, while the latter provides ESG data for financial engines like ETF.com.

Our goal is not to advocate for or against ESG-based approaches for asset allocation and investment selection, but to emphasize the importance of understanding what biases are built into an ESG program beyond the direct themes stated in the prospectus or investment policy statement, and where we’d like to see a marrying of ESG and smart beta methodologies.

ESG Investing In A Nutshell

The goal of ESG investing is to maximize participation in companies focused on sustainable business practices while earning competitive returns for their shareholders. It is to better align investment portfolios with client values (source: Investopedia.com).

  1. Environmental: energy use, waste, pollution, natural resource conservation and treatment of animals
  2. Social Awareness: labor practices, board and management diversity, working conditions
  3. Governance: accounting practices, litigation risk, conflicts of interest

Progress has been made by data researchers to more systematically capture and judge corporate practices, and then standardize that data versus peers (e.g., energy sector peer groups). ESG research providers such as Sustainalytics have evolved rating methodologies to focus more on material financial risks, or the degree to which a company’s economic value may be at risk driven by ESG issues.

Fund data providers such as Morningstar and ETF.com subscribe to ESG data researchers to aggregate ESG ratings at the fund level. Funds generally must hold a certain minimum weighted-percentage threshold of ESG-covered companies to receive an ESG fund rating.

Currently, the “ESG fund category” is somewhat nebulous given that ESG can encompass both qualitative themes (e.g., clean energy) and traditional market-based approaches (e.g., the MSCI ESG Indices). Figure 1 is a list of ESG ETFs as categorized by ETF.com. The broad-based market ETFs are dominating overall assets, likely due to low fees and core market exposures.


Figure 1: Top ESG-Focused ETFs

Ticker Fund Expense Ratio AUM ($M)
SUSL iShares ESG MSCI USA Leaders ETF 0.10% 1,600.00
DSI iShares MSCI KLD 400 Social ETF 0.25% 1,550.00
USSG Xtrackers MSCI U.S.A. ESG Leaders Equity ETF 0.10% 1,490.00
ESGU iShares ESG MSCI U.S.A. ETF 0.15% 1,160.00
ESGD iShares ESG MSCI EAFE ETF 0.20% 1,030.00
SUSA iShares MSCI USA ESG Select ETF 0.25% 1,030.00
ESGE iShares ESG MSCI EM ETF 0.25% 694.01
ESGV Vanguard ESG U.S. Stock ETF 0.12% 620.35
CRBN iShares MSCI ACWI Low Carbon Target ETF 0.20% 482.90
VSGX Vanguard ESG International Stock ETF 0.15% 442.24
SHE SPDR SSGA Gender Diversity Index ETF 0.20% 272.32
CATH Global X S&P 500 Catholic Values ETF 0.29% 265.58
BLES Inspire Global Hope ETF 0.61% 151.74
JUST Goldman Sachs JUST U.S. Large Cap Equity ETF 0.20% 132.38
CXSE WisdomTree China ex-State-Owned Enterprises Fund 0.32% 130.83
ISMD Inspire Small/Mid Cap Impact ETF 0.61% 95.10
ESGG FlexShares STOXX Global ESG Impact Index Fund 0.42% 84.54
LOWC SPDR MSCI ACWI Low Carbon Target ETF 0.20% 83.30
TPLC Timothy Plan U.S. Large Cap Core ETF 0.52% 79.32
BIBL Inspire 100 ETF 0.35% 77.52
TPHD Timothy Plan High Dividend Stock ETF 0.52% 71.08
KRMA Global X Conscious Companies ETF 0.43% 70.82
ESML iShares ESG MSCI U.S.A. Small-Cap ETF 0.17% 62.44
ACSI American Customer Satisfaction ETF 0.66% 59.66
SDG iShares MSCI Global Impact ETF 0.49% 58.89
ETHO Etho Climate Leadership U.S. ETF 0.45% 53.72
ESG FlexShares STOXX U.S. ESG Impact Index Fund 0.32% 51.63
RODI Barclays Return on Disability ETN 0.45% 41.01
WIL Barclays Women in Leadership ETN 0.45% 40.33
MAGA Point Bridge GOP Stock Tracker ETF 0.72% 15.85
SNPE Xtrackers S&P 500 ESG ETF 0.11% 12.87
FRDM Alpha Architect Freedom 100 Emerging Market ETF 0.49% 12.65
CHGX Change Finance U.S. Large Cap Fossil Fuel Free ETF 0.49% 9.81
ACSG Xtrackers MSCI ACWI ex U.S.A. ESG Leaders Equity ETF 0.16% 7.88
TBLU Tortoise Global Water ESG Fund 0.40% 7.70
EMSG Xtrackers MSCI Emerging Markets ESG Leaders Equity ETF 0.20% 7.58
EASG Xtrackers MSCI EAFE ESG Leaders Equity ETF 0.14% 7.50
VEGN U.S. Vegan Climate ETF 0.60% 6.89
WOMN Impact Shares YWCA Women's Empowerment ETF 0.76% 6.34
VETS Pacer Military Times Best Employers ETF 0.60% 4.50
BOSS Global X Founder-Run Companies ETF 0.45% 3.82
KGRN KraneShares MSCI China Environment Index ETF 0.80% 3.61
PRID InsightShares LGBT Employment Equality ETF 0.65% 2.77
IXSE WisdomTree India ex-State-Owned Enterprises Fund 0.58% 2.40
NACP Impact Shares NAACP Minority Empowerment ETF 0.76% 2.17
HONR InsightShares Patriotic Employers ETF 0.65% 1.33
SDGA Impact Shares Sustainable Development Goals Global Equity ETF 0.76% 1.03

Source: ETF.com Screener & Database using ESG filter under Features

Should Investors Be Compensated For Taking ESG Risk?

Proponents of efficient market investing may argue that investors should expect lower returns when investing in highly rated ESG companies that operate with lower financial risk.

In a rational capital market, investors should not be compensated for taking on lesser risk. Highly rated ESG stocks tend to trade at premium valuations versus the broader market, but this could be cyclical rather than structural.

However, highly rated ESG stocks also tend to produce higher returns on capital and are more highly profitable. Academic research has shown “profitability” to be historically rewarded with higher excess returns (see Fama/French/Novy-Marx).

3 in 1 – 1 in 3?

What one tends to see is that the ESG category fund scores are highly correlated to one another, suggesting a fair degree of intersectionality across ESG.

In other words, a fund that is highly scored in the environmental category will also likely have high scores across socially conscious and governance categories. One wonders whether there is a methodological bias to the scoring process. Can a coal mining company with a poor environmental score receive a higher score in socially conscious and governance? Are ESG investors really getting exposure to three distinct categories, or just one supercategory?

Asset Allocation: Stacking The ESG Deck

Using ETF data from Morningstar, we produced average overall and individual ESG category scores for various equity fund categories, which are displayed in Figures 2a and 2b. Morningstar ESG Scores range from the mid-30s to the mid-60s. We want to focus attention on the yellow-highlighted categories.


Figures 2a & 2b: ETF Fund Categories: Average Morningstar ESG Fund Scores

Source: Morningstar (8/31/2019)


Some interesting observations stand out:

  1. European-focused funds tend to score at the top, while emerging market funds (primarily China and India) tend to score at the bottom.
  2. Large cap funds score better than midcaps, which score better than small caps. In fact, small cap funds tend to have worse scores than emerging markets.
  3. There is no real significant difference between value and growth funds, which is a little surprising given the factor loadings mentioned earlier.

Given that Europe largely berthed the ESG movement and has pretty much mandated it across a significant portion of the investor base, it should come as little surprise that European stocks tend to rank the highest among major regions.

Although company coverage is improving, we suspect that large cap funds tend to score higher than small cap funds due to lower breadth of data coverage across the small company universe (that and larger companies are more likely able to shoulder the increased compliance and reporting requirements of monitoring and tracking ESG-relevant operating metrics).

Implementation Challenge

Granted, most asset allocators incorporating ESG will adopt a relative approach rather than an absolute approach so as not to sacrifice diversification for the sake of pursuing ESG goals (or you end up with a concentrated U.S./European large cap program). However, this also risks the watering down of the ESG impact that many clients are starting to value as much as they value achieving their financial goals.

At the very least, advisors should disclose and explain these trade-offs with those clients seeking to incorporate ESG principles into their programs.

Integrating ESG With Smart Beta

Finally, we have some thoughts on integrating ESG with factor investing or smart beta. There has been some interesting research published by the likes of MSCI and AQR on improving factor scoring methodologies by removing the “junk” from the eligible universe before applying the scoring rules or factor optimization.

Applying “junk” screens to any rules-based approach—whether simple market-cap weighting or smart beta—to improve risk-adjusted performance could be an intriguing way of incorporating ESG principles while not sacrificing too much of the original mandate.

However, for the quant artist, it’s a fine line between “conditioning” a factor versus turning it into a Frankenstein amalgamation. There could be more interesting research into integrating ESG with traditional smart beta approaches.


As of the time of this writing, 3D currently holds KRMA in its client accounts. The above is the opinion of the author and should not be relied upon as investment advice or a forecast of the future. It is not a recommendation, offer or solicitation to buy or sell any securities or implement any investment strategy. It is for informational purposes only. The above statistics, data, anecdotes and opinions of others are assumed to be true and accurate; however, 3D Asset Management does not warrant the accuracy of any of these. There is also no assurance that any of the above are all inclusive or complete.

3D does not approve or otherwise endorse the information contained in links to third-party sources. 3D is not affiliated with the providers of third-party information and is not responsible for the accuracy of the information contained therein.

Past performance is no guarantee of future results. None of the services offered by 3D Asset Management are insured by the FDIC and the reader is reminded that all investments contain risk. The opinions offered above are as of September 26, 2019 and are subject to change as influencing factors change.

More detail regarding 3D Asset Management, its products, services, personnel, fees and investment methodologies are available in the firm’s Form ADV Part 2 which is available upon request by calling 860-291-1998, option 2 or emailing [email protected] or visiting 3D’s website at www.3dadvisor.com.

Ben Lavine is CIO of 3D Asset Management, based in East Hartford, Connecticut.