By Liz Su, CFA and Kevin Hart, CIMA of Boston Common Asset Management
Responsible investors have long believed that investing with embedded consideration of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors is a compelling approach to identify investment opportunities: well-run, thoughtfully managed companies built for the long term, ready to foster societal transition and dynamically adapt to our rapidly changing world. This belief is simple enough to justify: identification, application, and integration of ESG risks and opportunities can provide investors with additional, independently derived insight into a company’s management quality, strategic positioning, operational efficiency, and potential risk exposure.
The broader investment community has caught on. In 2020, ESG funds saw greater inflows than in any year prior, a nearly 140% increase over 2019 and nearly ten times greater than in 2018. Corporations have responded to this shift, with a record number of companies appointing their first Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) in 2020, a year that saw more CSOs recruited than in the previous three years combined.
SUSTAINABLE FUND ANNUAL FLOWS AND ASSETS
Source: Morningstar. Data as of 12/31/2020
Includes Sustainable Funds as defined in Sustainable Funds U.S. Landscape Report, Feb. 2020.
Includes funds that have been liquidated, does not include funds of funds.
The transformative potential in the hands of ESG investors has grown by orders of magnitude. This exponential growth has brought an increasingly crowded field with a variety of approaches to ESG, creating ambiguity in the marketplace over what it means to be intentional as an impact investor. An authentic, intentional, and holistic approach relies on aligning active ownership strategies (e.g., shareholder resolutions, public policy participation, voting proxies) with stated investment goals, an ESG-led research process, and impact-oriented themes and targets.
Dispelling a Persistent Myth
There has been a widespread misconception among investors that ESG factors are non-financial. This is not entirely accurate. ESG factors can instead represent unpriced externalities and unmanaged risks that are uncorrelated with traditional financial metrics. By incorporating ESG factors into security analysis, investors can identify a host of material issues core to business fundamentals, enhancing the ability to recognize patterns that are not already priced in.
In addition to risk-mitigation, businesses that proactively accelerate the adoption of positive ESG practices and the development of solutions-oriented products have a unique opportunity to exceed revenue expectations and thus be rewarded with higher ratings over time. These companies may see an improving competitive position versus peers, while those that are on the wrong side of this transition may see changes in their cost of capital and an accompanying deterioration in their competitive position. Investing in the transition to a more just, sustainable world gives investors access to solutions-fixed revenue streams while altering the trajectory on climate action and racial equity among a host of other vital issues.
Identifying strong business fundamentals and ESG process leadership — underpinned by the belief that businesses with forward-thinking managements are higher quality — combined with insights gained from global, proactive, and sustained shareowner engagement can together form a positive feedback loop for better investment decision-making. Managers with the knowledge and experience to employ this holistic approach understand the need to incorporate the product dimension into impact and support companies whose products and services are solutions for societal, environmental, and human rights problems.
The Way Forward
We are at an inflection point where ESG is transitioning from niche to mainstream. True to the original spirit of the movement, we should hope not to build a new investment establishment in the image of the old, but instead to forge a dynamic, holistic, evolved approach, generating positive impacts by holding companies accountable as stewards of people and planet. As investors, holding ourselves to the same high standards we demand of portfolio companies will go a long way toward making these impacts sustainable.
We hope that you will join us on the journey.
Past performance is not a guarantee of future results. Investing involves risk including possible loss of principal.
This does not constitute investment advice or an investment recommendation.
This represents the views and opinions of Boston Common Asset Management. It does not constitute investment advice or an offer or solicitation to purchase or sell any security and is subject to change at any time due to changes in market or economic conditions. The comments should not be construed as a recommendation of individual holdings or market sectors, but as an illustration of broader themes.
Applying ESG investment criteria to investments may result in the selection or exclusion of securities of certain issuers for reasons other than performance, and may underperform investments that do not utilize an ESG investment strategy. The application of an ESG strategy may affect an investment's exposure to certain companies, sectors, regions, countries or types of investments, which could negatively impact performance depending on whether such investments are in or out of favor. Applying ESG criteria to investment decisions is qualitative and subjective by nature, and there is no guarantee that the criteria utilized or any judgment exercised by an investment manager will reflect the beliefs or values of any particular investor.
AMG Funds LLC (“AMG Funds”) is a wholly-owned subsidiary and U.S. retail distribution arm of AMG. AMG Funds offers long-term investment strategies through a unique platform that includes a family of funds and separate accounts managed by a selection of AMG's investment managers.
N.B. This is sponsored content and not FINSUM editorial.
For the most part, regulatory risk is understood well before it becomes a reality. There is a lot of uncertainty around the final rule, but generally you can prepare long in advance. That said, Reg BI may be about to cause a big problem in publicly traded markets. In particular, there is increasing speculation that Reg BI may soon be applied to everyone’s favorite darling (or the opposite), Robinhood (HOOD). The company has been under intense scrutiny for most of this year for its monetization strategies as well as its gamification of trading.
FINSUM: And this would not just be limited to Robinhood but all online trading platforms. This could lead to some significant volatility.
The bond market seems to have lost all touch with reality. Yields are extremely low, and given the more relaxed inflation reading this month, seem likely to stay pinned. Now consider this: European corporate debt real yields just turned negative. Yes, you are paying for the privilege of holding corporate debt. The ICE BofA index of European high-yield bonds is now at 2.34%, well below inflation.
FINSUM: Is there were ever a sign of a peak, this is it. Bond yields have nowhere to go but up, as there is no defensible logic that they could sustainably move lower. Unfortunately, it seems as though bonds and equity could move hand in hand, as the catalyst for big losses would be the Fed, which would trigger both asset classes.
Active funds are finding themselves in a better position than ever. Outflows are at their lowest levels in over half a decade, inflows are starting to swell, so what is the key to their success? The predominant factor driving them is the wide range of dispersion in the stock market’s performance. Sure, the aggregate performance has been great post-pandemic but the difference between the bottom and top quintiles has been above average for the last year. This gives pickers an advantage over passive funds. They are making their picks by not overreacting to inflation news and doubling down on stocks that benefit from stay-at-home orders and the covid environment. Active funds tend to downplay value-oriented stocks, and the few they are bullish on are bargains in communications companies. Finally, Facebook is the through-line, as nearly two-thirds of active funds hold the largest social network.
FINSUM: This is definitely a ‘pickem’ environment with large dispersion in the S&P 500, and broad index/passive funds will lag active managers.
Chinese regulators have come after everything from internet companies to education platforms, and this has left many investors skittish. Investors that would have maintained their convictions would have been well-suited, as since mid-August Chinese internet companies have bounced. Over this same time frame the MSCI Emerging Market Index, which holds a large share of Chinese companies, has doubled the return in the S&P 500. China’s focus on future regulation will better promote growth moving forward. The structure formed may benefit semiconductor companies, smart manufacturing, alternative energy, machine learning, cloud computing, autonomous vehicles, and other internet-related companies. Finally, Chinese companies have been quick to undue overwrought regulation and long-term regulation will be moderate.
FINSUM: Investors shouldn’t be too fickle with China, don’t spend too much time trying to nail regulatory swells, and embrace the long haul.