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.
ACTIVE OWNERSHIP STRATEGIES
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.
By Liz Su, CFA and Kevin Hart, CIMA of Boston Common Asset Management
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.
The SEC just put out a shot across the bow of brokerage firms as it regards Reg BI. Firms and industry attorneys have been expecting the SEC to ratchet up enforcement over the coming year as the agency starts to bring Biden’s priorities into reality. However, the SEC made it very clear this week, telling firms that it is not enough to tell reps what Reg BI says, but educate them with examples of how to meet Reg BI’s requirements. Investment News summarized the SEC’s comments this way, saying “Financial firms that are failing to comply with the broker standard of conduct aren’t aligning their internal controls to meet its requirements”. The SEC is now checking to see if firms have set up a robust Reg BI compliance program, and if not, they will be in hot water”. According to Corey Schuster, assistant director of Division of Enforcement’s asset management unit, “firms may want to consider: Have you done a deep dive on conflicts? … Have you examined your disclosures regarding conflicts? And is there a need to mitigate certain conflicts of interest?”.
FINSUM: The SEC is gearing up to drop the hammer on Reg BI enforcement, which has long been expected. However, the reality of heavier enforcement and the specifics of how it is executed are very different than seemingly far-off expectations.
In our continued coverage of Morningstar’s top model portfolios, today we are featuring those ranked 6-10. Morningstar is soon going to double the coverage of the growing model portfolio universe, which is great news for advisors having trouble deciding on which to choose. Without further delay, here are the rankings. Number 10: Vanguard S&P (Silver rating). Number 9: Vanguard Russell (Silver rating). Number 8: Vanguard CRSP (Silver rating). Number 7: American Funds Tax Aware Income (Silver rating). Number 6: American Funds Tax Aware Growth and Income (Silver rating).
FINSUM: Well the list isn’t very diverse in terms of managers, but the Russell model from Vanguard looks like an interesting way to play small caps. Additionally, given Biden’s proposals, tax aware income would be a wise strategy in which to take a holistic approach.
China’s giant real estate group Evergrande Real Estate Group is in hot water. While they may be China’s second-largest real estate holding company, they are the world’s most indebted as their balance sheet carries an excess of $300 billion in liabilities. Despite this, some of the most prominent investment firms such as BlackRock, UBS, and HSBC Holdings have all bought up their debt. Evergrande’s bonds are trading at 25 cents on the dollar. BlackRock, for example, has increased its holdings from 12.2 million units to 43.5 million YTD and is now nearly 1% of its portfolio. Evergrande is taking measures like discounting apartments, parking spaces, or retail property to pay back its debt as notes are beginning to reach their maturity. Many investors are expecting Chinese authorities to step in to accommodate the debt by either rolling it over or taking other measures.
FINSUM: There is certainly safer debt to hold, but many investment firms see Evergrande as a buy and a risk worth taking because it may be too big to fail.
Healthcare technology is a rapidly changing field that has a plethora of new ideas entering the market daily, but driving that change is impact investing. The Covid-19 pandemic laid bare many of the problems in the healthcare sector and health technology is closing many of those gaps. For example, Zipline used fleets of drones to distribute vaccines to out of reach populations around the globe after securing $250 million in funding. Healthcare is the third-largest portion of impact investing, lagging climate and financial services, but it’s the fastest-growing area. Venture capital in healthcare doubled in 2020 from 2019, and many see this capital as augmenting government and charitable giving to healthcare to improve access and distribution. Breakthroughs in the sector include companies like Han Genix, which uses ultrasound technology to ensure safety procedures are followed by medical workers, or Plethy which syncs sensors and apps to improve post-orthopedic care.
FINSUM: Technology healthcare blends could become one of the best ways to capture growth and industry diversity in your portfolio.