The world of investing is increasingly focusing attention on ways in which capital can be invested to support businesses that are promoting social or environmental welfare, and/or govern themselves in a way that promotes diversity and inclusion of those historically marginalized in corporate leadership, either by virtue of gender, race or other suspect criteria.
For many investors, this approach aligns with their desire to support business that are “doing good” in the world either in terms of what social or environmental issues they are addressing, and perhaps in terms of how they govern themselves and treat the employees within their companies.
What has come to be known as Socially Responsible Investing (“SRI”) or Environmental Social Governance investing (“ESG”) involves using criteria like environmental, social, governance and employment practices to choose what investments will be held in a portfolio. According to Commonwealth Financial Network’s website:
Sometimes referred to as environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) investing, Socially Responsible (SRI) is a broad-based strategy in which corporate responsibility and societal concerns are factored into investment decisions. In short, an SRI strategy seeks to maximize both financial return and social good.
Companies that deal in tobacco, gambling, fossil fuels, weapons, or involve child labor, employee discrimination, or lack board diversity are the kinds that get attention in SRI/ESG screening. Mutual funds will screen out companies that don’t measure up in those areas.
This has broad appeal for many investors, but for some time there have been concerns that one could sacrifice market performance for social benefit. Over time, the index that measures the performance of mutual funds that screen for SRI companies has shown that the gap has narrowed significantly between the general mutual and exchange-traded fund world and SRI-screened funds.
Most recently, during the first quarter of 2020, some saw better performance from their ESG exchange traded fund (ETF) than the S&P500 delivered. A June 2020 article “ESG Funds Shine During Pandemic” in Wealthmanagement.com by Lawrence Carrel noted historically high inflows into mutual and exchange-traded funds while the overall fund universe posted higher outflows.
Favorable performance in the SRI and ESG space is not new. According to a US News and World Reports June 7, 2018 blog post entitled Socially Responsible Investing Delivers:
Research and performance history imply that socially responsible investors receive superior absolute returns and risk-adjusted performance, while also addressing sustainability concerns. Dollars invested in sustainable and socially responsible strategies provide companies with better ESG metrics easier access to capital, which reduces the cost of equity and supports higher stock prices.
The author, Kate Stalter, regular contributor to The Smarter Investor noted “Since 1990, the socially conscious Morgan Stanley Capital International KLD 400 index (DSI) of U.S. stocks outperformed the S&P 500 in almost every time frame, and had better returns than the market cap-weighted index in both bull and bear markets.”
The Covid-19 pandemic may have magnified the appeal of SRI and ESG investing. The Carrel article quoted a senior product specialist at Swiss-based Pictet Asset Management, Marc-Oliver Buffle: “A lot of people have noticed that not having as many airplanes in the sky and cars on the road leads to cleaner air…leading to a global realization…directly playing into the hand of those businesses that we invest in, ones providing solutions to those issues.”
Perhaps as compelling for some investors, the article also quoted Martin Jarzebowski, director of responsible investing at Federated Hermes, as noting …”a new consistency of quality factors among ESG leaders, such as lower volatility and a higher profitability of their business models…taking structural ESG considerations into a normal investing framework is anew form of risk management.” He concluded, after noting the outperformance of ESG in the 4th quarter of 2018 “…ESG has more semblance of being the new quality factor.”
While the positive social and environmental perspective of SRI/ESG investing may be compelling, the quality dimension of these investments may be equally - if not more -compelling for some.
Consider whether a more socially responsible approach to investing makes sense for you. Would knowing that your investments were supporting companies working to improve the environment, or address social causes, or include women and minorities in executive leadership add value to your experience as an investor? As with all investment choices, you should consult with your financial advisors before making any changes to your portfolio or investment strategy.