How to build a portfolio based on sustainable principles.
Sustainable investing needs to create a comparable measure of on-the-ground impact from decisions made by portfolio managers, i.e. medicines supplied, emissions reduced, income levels raised, if investors are to choose between funds with any clarity.
Sustainable investing has gone mainstream over the past decade. Both major asset owners and individual investors are increasingly keen to ensure that environmental, social and governance (ESG) considerations are factored into the investment strategies that determine their future wealth.
According to the Global Sustainable Investment Alliance, US$30.7 trillion was invested sustainably at the start of 2018, a 34% increase in two years1. UK-focused research sponsored by Aberdeen Standard Investments found that 24% of women and 20% of men want their investment choices to have “a positive impact on the world”2; 43% of independent financial advisors believe ESG could help in “engaging the next generation of investors”. In the same report, 42% of pension investment decision-makers and consultants across the UK, France and Australia agreed that ESG integration results in positive performance outcomes.
As such, asset managers are responding to growing demands for more details on the sustainability of their funds. “It’s no longer a matter of whether a request for proposal will include questions about ESG, but how many,” says Dr Jake Reynolds, head of the Institute for Sustainability Leadership at the University of Cambridge.
But these information requirements are as diverse as the ESG perspectives and priorities of investors. If you want to avoid investing in industries such as gambling or tobacco for ethical or financial reasons (‘exclusionary screening’), your data needs will be different from investors wishing to invest in firms with policies broadly consistent with ‘good’ ESG behaviours (‘positive screening’).
If you want to proactively invest in firms and projects focused on positive ESG change, whilst also delivering attractive financial returns (‘ESG integration’), you might expect your asset managers to provide some kind of rating or benchmark. However, to ensure there are tangible, real-world benefits to your investments (‘impact investing’), your information needs are much more detailed and much harder to fulfil. There is an overlap with ‘active engagement’ – where asset managers and private equity managers work with firms on a one-on-one basis to implement strategies that ensure long-term alignment with ESG objectives – but impact investing is where the information gap is at its widest. It is also where most attention is being focused, in term of generating and refining data, as well as developing definitions and stress-testing frameworks.
These efforts have thrown into sharper relief by the publication of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015. These are 17 high-level goals and 169 targets agreed by governments as necessary for sustainable global economic development. Although never designed to channel investments into specific activities, the SDGs have been grasped as a useful framework for monitoring and measuring the impacts of ESG-based investments.
The Institute for Sustainability Leadership has incorporated the SDGs into a real-world impact framework in partnership with the Investment Leaders Group, which includes global institutions such Aon, Aegon, HSBC, Pimco, State Street and Zurich. Its Cambridge Impact Framework condenses the 17 SDGs into six areas (e.g. climate stability, healthy ecosystems, resource security, basic needs, wellbeing, and decent work), and specifies metrics for assessing the contribution of reported results to objectives. The framework also outlines the wide gap between the data that would ideally be used to measure impact and the currently-available proxy data that can be used today.
Reynolds describes current data as “rudimentary” and says sophisticated measures of impact require both increased disclosure and more conceptual development around the relationship between assets and impact themes. To the former end, the institute is working with data vendors to build the data infrastructures required to populate its measures with greater accuracy.
Nevertheless, ILG members are already running their investments through the framework’s methodology in the hope that portfolios or individual holdings achieve a ‘very positive’ green rating for one or more of the six themes, according to its traffic light system (‘very negative’ is coloured red).
“Any asset manager can use the framework to create a dashboard to understand their funds’ impact,” explains Reynolds. “At both the institutional and retail level, greater transparency on impact should feed into fund selection and investors will be able to vote with their pockets.”
The ISL framework complements other initiatives aimed at identifying and measuring impact, positive or otherwise. The Global Impact Investing Network develops tools and resources including a scheme dedicated to asset owners and a system of metrics (IRIS) to enable comparability. In November, the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board published 77 industry-specific standards designed to help firms provide investors with data on their societal and environmental impact. In early April, the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation launched its ‘Operating Principles for Impact Management’, outlining the underlying processes needed to construct a robust impact management system. The efforts of these bodies and others including the UN and the OECD are coordinated through the Impact Management Project, to forge consensus on measuring, reporting and comparing impact performance.
While consensus and awareness builds, investor priorities and needs remain diverse. According to the Aberdeen Standard Investments report, some pension fund trustees see ESG primarily as a matter of protecting pensioners from adverse risks, such as pollution fines. Others want their investments to have a positive social impact while delivering a market rate of return, but many are uncertain on how to match products to outcomes. Further, information is a constant cause for complaint, with 38% of pension decision-makers and consultants citing “insufficient risk and return data” as the biggest barrier to incorporating responsible and sustainable investments into their portfolios.
As frameworks are tested and information gaps filled, some asset owners and managers are rolling up their sleeves. Danielle Brassel, a sustainable investment analyst at Zurich Insurance, dug deep into the data to grasp the impact of her firm’s investments in terms of CO2-equivalent emissions avoided and number of direct beneficiaries. Existing frameworks offered helpful signposts, but she had to travel much of the journey alone. A harmonised framework for impact reporting on projects to which green bond proceeds have been allocated, for example, does not ensure the required data will be easily located, compared and aggregated. Some issuers, typically supranational institutions, serve their particular ‘pool of projects’ with the proceeds of issued bonds, while corporate issuers of green bonds assign individual eligible projects to a specific green bond, with differing reporting implications for each. Further, private equity firms that invest for impact are even less consistent than issuers, leading Brassel to call them individually, in a time-consuming, but ultimately productive exercise.
“While any framework needs to strike a balance between flexibility and standardisation, reporting CO2-equivalent emissions avoided on a pro rata and annualised basis, for example, would reduce some of the room for interpretation which currently makes the process quite labour-intensive,” says Brassel.
Zurich first set itself impact targets in 2017, and today tracks intentional and measurable positive impacts across its investments in green, social and sustainability bonds, impact private equity funds, green and social infrastructure and real estate assets. In March, Zurich reported that its impact investment portfolio (totalling US$3.8 billion) had helped to avoid 3.4 million tons of CO2-equivalent emissions and improved the lives of 2.4 million people annually, as of December 2018.
CO2equivalent emissions is one of the more commonly-used and thus perhaps quantifiable metrics in the impact realm. But it can be expressed ‘net,’ ‘relative,’ ‘absolute’ and several other ways, leaving scope for doubt over actual impact. This vagueness can become an impenetrable fog in other even less well-defined areas of impact.
And no investment is one-dimensional in its impact, either at the project or company level. How do you rate the impact of a coal-mining firm, for example, that creates thousands of well-paid jobs using advanced mining machinery in an otherwise economically under-developed country?
“Any company is also a network,” says Eoin Murray, head of Investment at Hermes Investment Management. “It is both a collection of its own assets and the centre of a complex supply chain. We must map the impact of events and activities to that network and draw out the implications for investors.”
Amanda Young, head of global ESG investment research at Aberdeen Standard Investments, agrees the multifaceted nature of impact requires a holistic approach to assessment. ”Collectively, we need to get our heads around the idea that all investments have a footprint, negative or positive,” she asserts. “But we also need consistency of data if we are to report accurately on a portfolio basis.”
Young acknowledges the risks of “data fatigue” among ESG investors, especially at the impact end of the spectrum, but expects to see positive steps in the collection and comparison on impact data, noting initiatives to accelerate innovation such as the UK government task force headed by Elisabeth Corley, vice-chair of Allianz Global Investors.
Zurich’s Brassel too is hopeful that the next stages of her impact investing journey will be less labour intensive more densely populated. “The data is out there to support impact investing. I am confident that current issues with structure, format and availability will improve in line with increasing requests from investors.” l
1. 2018 Global Sustainable Investment Review (April 2019).
2. ESG 360 (November 2018).