(last updated: December 2020)
As we covered recently in Part 1 - What is ESG Investing? - environmental, social, governance (ESG) investing is a relatively new approach to investing.
Some ESG investors may be more values-driven, hoping to best align their investments with their personal beliefs. Others are more value-driven, hoping for higher returns by investing in companies whose sound ESG practices are expected to generate better outcomes.
To varying degrees, investors are increasingly seeking a combination of both:
- A 2018 Global Sustainable Investment Alliance review cited investor demand as the leading motivation for sustainable investing.
- Morningstar reports the number of sustainable index funds and dollars invested in them have more than doubled in the past three years. As of June 30, 2020, there were more than 500 sustainable index funds managing more than $250 billion around the world.
- In December 2020, The Wall Street Journal reported that investors had added a record $27.4 billion into U.S. ESG ETFs alone for the year.
Quantifying a Quality
How do we ensure there’s real substance behind the popular appeal? Along with the rise of “green” investing, “greenwashed” investments are sprouting up like weeds. They may claim to be ESG-focused, but a closer look might reveal otherwise.
Academics and practitioners alike are still working on this triple riddle:
- Data: How do we compel or cajole companies into reporting meaningful ESG data?
- Ratings: How do we consistently compare and score companies’ ESG data?
- Application: How do we incorporate ratings into an evidence-based investment strategy?
Differing Data Standards
Arguably the greatest challenge in this still-developing field is gathering the data needed to measure corporate “goodness.”
In a BNP Paribas 2019 ESG Global Survey of institutional investors, participants cited “inconsistent quality of data” as the greatest challenge to ESG investing. As one survey participant commented,
There is lots of data. The challenge is finding the right data in the right format and knowing how to use it.
At least three hurdles exist:
- Three Balls to Juggle
- Missing Pieces
- He Said, She Said
First, remember, “ESG” isn’t one thing – it’s three. Governance data has been around the longest, so it’s the most robust. According to the aforementioned survey, generating better corporate environmental and social data is “a key part of the data challenge.” Plus, a company’s overall ESG rating can vary widely, depending on how much weight each component has in the total score.
Most corporate data reporting remains voluntary. Some requirements are coming into focus. Countries like the U.K., are beginning to require specific data reporting. Plus, activist shareholders are increasingly calling for more robust ESG reporting from the companies they’re invested in. But for now, companies often have wide leeway on what ESG data they choose to report, and how they choose to report it.
Multiple data providers produce different, sometimes conflicting data. A 2020 Research Affiliates report identified 70 different firms that create or curate ESG ratings data (not including untold numbers of private, one-off, or customized data sets). Each firm may adhere to different standards, or even its own secret sauce. In an August 2020 report, researcher Larry Swedroe cited a host of new studies showing “the major firms that issue ESG ‘ratings’ use sufficiently different criteria, which results in unreliable research findings when their databases are used.”
Gathering dependable data is a challenge for any evidence-based investment approach. But it can be especially daunting when an approach is relatively new and advancing faster than best practices can keep pace with. Bottom line, strong, time-tested data reporting standards remain a work in progress.
Once we get ahold of a company’s ESG data, the next step is to use it to score and rank their relative ESG performance.
For this, most investors depend on rating agencies. In its 2020 “Rate the Raters” report, SustainAbility counted more than 600 global ESG raters and rankers as of 2018. That number has grown since then, and each agency brings its own personality to the mix.
Research Affiliates describes three broad categories of ESG rating activities:
- Fundamental: Some data providers specialize in curating publicly available data, without necessarily creating scores or ratings themselves; they leave that next step to others. Examples include Refinitiv (formerly Thomson-Reuters) and Bloomberg.
- Comprehensive: A number of rating agencies combine public data with their own analyses, interpretations, and rating methodologies to provide ratings as well as trend reports. Examples include veteran firms such as MSCI and Sustainalytics, as well as newer “algorithmic-focused” firms such as TruValue Labs and RepRisk.
- Specialized: Some data providers specialize in a particular cause, such as human rights or gender diversity, to serve investors who want to prioritize particular issues.
Given the assorted reviews, a company’s ESG data may receive widely different “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” scores. It often depends on who is doing the rating, and what metrics, weightings and priorities they’re using.
To illustrate, Research Affiliates took a look at Wells Fargo’s year-end 2017 ESG ratings. You may recall, this was a period when the company was in the thick of its notorious account-churning scandal. Two different rating agencies issued very different ESG scores at the time. On a best-to-worst scale of 1.0 to 0.0, one agency gave Wells Fargo an overall ESG score of 0.84; the other gave it a 0.31, in part due to widely divergent social and governance ratings.
Wells Fargo: One Company, Different Scores (as of 12/31/2017)
It’s not necessarily bad or wrong for different rating companies to rank the same data differently. However, an effective ESG investor should understand what’s really behind different ratings to ensure the investment aligns with their priorities, values and goals.
Applying the Ratings
There’s one more avenue to explore. How do we balance an investor’s desire to invest “ethically” with our fiduciary duty to advise clients according to their highest financial interests?
The goal is simple enough: We’d like to achieve both. Existing studies and practical applications suggest we can. Just as we have standard benchmarks/indexes for other purposes (such as tracking U.S. large companies, global bonds, or emerging market real estate), providers have responded to public interest by offering a growing collection of ESG benchmarks for comparing one strategy to another.
That said, we’re still early in the process. By definition, it takes years, if not decades, to determine whether evidence-based theories test out in reality – through bull and bear markets; here and abroad; and across stocks, bonds, and other asset classes. The reality is, evidence-based ESG investing is too new to have this sort of track record.
Where We Stand Today
Evidence to date suggests there are cost-effective solutions available if you would like to invest more sustainably while still pursuing efficient market returns.
But the same evidence informs us, not all ESG data, ratings, and strategies are created equally. A helpful perspective was offered in an October 2020 paper, “The Economics of Climate Change.” While the paper focuses on environmental-related ratings, the conclusions apply broadly across ESG investing.
"[I]nvestors face voluminous and sometimes contradictory academic evidence” the authors note, but, “simple, tried-and-true investing principles can help."
These principles include:
- Letting relatively efficient markets set the pricing (rather than chasing hot trends)
- Having well-defined investment goals
- Maintaining broad diversification
Whether you’re investing in ESG or traditional funds, these principles remain the enduring keys to a successful investment experience. They are the touchstones for navigating the uncertainty inherent in any fast-moving trend.
So, yes, ESG investment challenges remain – and probably always will. That’s where we can assist. We’ll help you clearly define your financial intentions in the context of your personal values. By positioning you to compare and contrast the practical costs and benefits involved, we can empower you to invest in the right ESG solution for you.
Whether you’d like to get started right away, or simply remain informed, we stand ready to respond. Call us anytime to continue the conversation.
Read more on ESG investing here: Part 1 - What is ESG Investing?