ETF Investors Embrace ESG 'Lifestyle'

ETF Investors Embrace ESG 'Lifestyle'

Flows data suggests socially responsible investors want to build asset allocations, not capture hot trends.

Reviewed by: Lara Crigger
Edited by: Lara Crigger

Though socially responsible funds as a market segment remain small compared to the rest of the $4 trillion ETF market, their pace of growth is accelerating in 2019, thanks to a few high-profile launches and billion dollar bets.

Year to date, investors have poured $4.7 billion into socially responsible ETFs, also known as environmental, social and governance (ESG) ETFs, almost twice the total money that went into these funds in 2018. Last year, investors added $2.6 billion to the space.

More than half of this year's flows went into two specific funds, the iShares ESG MSCI USA Leaders ETF (SUSL) and the Xtrackers MSCI U.S.A. ESG Leaders Equity ETF (USSG), both of which were seeded by the same institutional investor, Ilmarinen. Year to date, SUSL and USSG have taken in $1.4 billion and $1.2 billion, respectively (read: "Institutional Money Comes To ESG ETFs").

Other big draws were the Vanguard ESG ETFs and several iShares ESG funds (see below) designed to replace or supplement key core asset allocations.

The ETFs with the highest 2019 flows are listed below:


ESG ETFs With Highest Net Inflows In 2019
TickerFundExpense RatioAUM ($M)YTD Returns1-Yr ReturnsYTD Flows ($M)1-Yr Flows ($M)MSCI ESG Rating
SUSL iShares ESG MSCI USA Leaders ETF0.10%1,430----13671367--
USSG Xtrackers MSCI U.S.A. ESG Leaders Equity ETF0.10%1,210----11261126--
ESGV Vanguard ESG U.S. Stock ETF0.12%53421.61%--385497BBB
VSGX Vanguard ESG International Stock ETF0.15%38313.26%--307373A
ESGD iShares ESG MSCI EAFE ETF0.20%83713.83%-0.52%291527AA
ESGE iShares ESG MSCI EM ETF0.25%70511.09%0.84%248375A
SUSA iShares MSCI U.S.A. ESG Select ETF0.25%1,11020.05%8.71%172313AA
LRGE ClearBridge Large Cap Growth ESG ETF0.60%15623.71%12.44%133139A
ESGU iShares ESG MSCI U.S.A. ETF0.15%25820.11%9.41%105155A
CATH Global X S&P 500 Catholic Values ETF0.29%26720.28%8.05%8691BBB

Source:; data as of July 10, 2019


Low-Cost Core Products Attract Most Flows

The common theme between the top flows gatherers is that they are all broad-based, core ETFs designed to supplement or replace vanilla exposure in an asset allocation plan.

For example, the iShares ESG MSCI EAFE ETF (ESGD) and the iShares ESG MSCI EM ETF (ESGE) both track virtually the same exposures as the iShares MSCI EAFE ETF (EFA) and the iShares MSCI Emerging Markets Index (EEM), just with several exclusionary screens to exclude securities rated to be the worst ESG offenders.

Notably, the top-drawing ETFs are almost all low-cost. With one exception, they all have expense ratios below 0.30%; the five ETFs with the biggest year-to-date flows are priced at or below 0.20%.

The fact that low-cost core products reign supreme in the ESG space runs counter to many assumptions around the space; namely, that these ETFs are dominated by narrow, thematic funds designed to capitalize on the next "green" fad.

Hot Thematic Funds See Outflows

In fact, most thematic ESG ETFs have not attracted anywhere near the same kinds of flows that these broad-core funds have.

The thematic ETF with the highest flows is the Global X S&P 500 Catholic Values ETF (CATH), which screens large cap U.S. stocks for their compliance to Catholic values. CATH has brought in $86 million year to date.

However, most thematic ESG ETFs have seen flat to negative flows for 2019. In fact, some high profile thematic funds have experienced significant losses, including the SPDR SSGA Gender Diversity Index ETF (SHE), the iShares MSCI ACWI Low Carbon Target ETF (CRBN) and the Goldman Sachs JUST U.S. Large Cap Equity ETF (JUST). SHE, CRBN and JUST lost $73 million, $88 million and $96 million, respectively.


ESG ETFs With Highest Outflows In 2019
TickerFundExpense RatioAUM ($M)YTD Returns1-Yr ReturnsYTD Flows ($M)1-Yr Flows ($M)MSCI ESG Rating
PBD Invesco Global Clean Energy ETF0.75%5021.73%6.69%-4-7A
NULG Nuveen ESG Large-Cap Growth ETF0.35%5824.99%11.23%-113AA
CXSE WisdomTree China ex-State-Owned Enterprises Fund0.32%14121.03%-9.91%-14-40BB
MAGA Point Bridge GOP Stock Tracker ETF0.72%1617.93%0.45%-20-22BBB
PRID InsightShares LGBT Employment Equality ETF0.65%320.05%9.48%-23-23BBB
HONR InsightShares Patriotic Employers ETF0.65%122.02%9.79%-24-24BBB
LOWC SPDR MSCI ACWI Low Carbon Target ETF0.20%7418.20%4.95%-71-80BBB
SHE SPDR SSGA Gender Diversity Index ETF0.20%29317.69%7.91%-73-42A
CRBN iShares MSCI ACWI Low Carbon Target ETF0.20%45818.69%5.47%-88-77BBB
JUST Goldman Sachs JUST U.S. Large Cap Equity ETF0.20%12818.85%7.20%-96-137A

Source:; data as of July 10, 2019


Interestingly, although most of the ETFs that have bled investment assets have all been higher cost, SHE, CRBN and JUST all carry expense ratios of just 0.20%.

ESG As Investment ‘Lifestyle’

Flows data suggests that ETF investors are approaching socially responsible investing not as a thematic play but as an investment lifestyle, hoping to convert some or all of their existing asset allocations to more ethically acceptable alternatives without sacrificing market performance.

That's further underscored by the fact that once investors have selected ESG-flavored core products, they tend to stick with them.

Assets in the ESG versions of low-cost core ETFs have proven remarkably sticky. For example, SUSL, USSG, the Vanguard ESG U.S. Stock ETF (ESGV) and the Vanguard ESG International Stock ETF (VSGX) have not experienced a single day of outflows since they launched. ESGE and ESGD haven't seen outflows since mid-2018.

We've often likened socially responsible ETFs to a snowball rolling downhill. If investors continue to park their money into these core ESG products, we may see that snowball become an avalanche sooner rather than later.

Contact Lara Crigger at [email protected]

Lara Crigger is a former staff writer for and ETF Report.