Highlights

  • As investors increasingly look at allocating assets based on environmental, social, and governance (ESG) considerations, these strategies are becoming less niche.
  • We look at different ESG investing strategies, in both equities and bonds, and analyze their historical risk-adjusted returns and performance in bear markets and recessions.
  • We find that ESG indices have at least performed in line with, and often outperformed, aggregate indices, with lower volatility. However, performance varies from region to region and between asset classes.
  • Markets with the worst ESG standards tend to see the biggest improvement in performance when ESG factors are considered

Feature

Increasing investor interest in environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investing poses a big question for money managers: how does an allocation to ESG investments affect the return and volatility profile of a traditional portfolio?

This Special Report addresses the following issues:

  • What are the risk-return characteristics of ESG investments from a top-down perspective?
  • Do ESG investments provide recession/bear market protection?
  • What are the unique challenges that money managers using an ESG strategy need to account for?

A Brief Overview Of ESG

To begin, we need to define what exactly ESG investing means. We see it as any investment activity that recognizes a certain set of principles to screen for environmental, social, and governance standards.

ESG investing, as a term, is relatively new. However, the core concept can be traced back several decades. During the 20th century, ethical investing (EI) emerged, as investors applied faith-based criteria to their investments. From the 1980s, socially responsible investing (SRI) allowed investors to focus on social and environmental goals, in addition to their ethical beliefs. This was mainly due to an increased global awareness of environmentalism that emerged in this period, following events such as the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 and claims of labor-rights abuses in various industries. In the early 2000s, ESG investing arose from investors' increasing awareness of the need to include corporate governance as an additional screening to SRI investing. The inclusion of the governance factor was also due to numerous corporate scandals, such as Enron's bankruptcy in 2001. Simply put, ESG is a broader concept than the previous incarnations of ethical investing.

Throughout the early 2000s, various global initiatives started supporting the cause of ESG investing. The United Nations launched the Principles for Responsible Investing (PRI) in 2006 to promote ESG investing among institutional investors.1 Based upon six pillars, the PRI aims to encourage the use of ESG factors by investors in their investment process. Currently, most of the demand for ESG investing comes from larger financial institutions, particularly pension funds, whereas smaller investment institutions and retail investors lag in their interest.

The Global Sustainable Investment Alliance (GSIA) has released a global standard classification to distinguish between the different ESG strategies as summarized in Table 1. Negative screening, positive screening, and corporate engagement are the most used strategies, while themed investing and targeted-situation investing have relatively less allocation. Figure 1 illustrates various examples of which types of investments might fall under ESG.2

Table 1
Global Standard ESG Classification*
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Figure 1
Types Of Investments That Fall Under ESG*
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The total market size of "sustainable investing" is difficult to quantify, due to the wide range of securities that could fall under this ambiguous label. According to the 2016 Global Sustainable Investment Review, published bi-annually by the GSIA, global ESG assets under management (using a very broad definition of ESG) totaled $22.9 trillion dollars as of 2016, a 25% increase from 2014.3 The development of cleaner energy sources, changing social norms, interest by millennials in environmental and social issues, and regulation are among the drivers of this growth.

The increasing number of ETFs and mutual funds that define themselves as "socially conscious", standing at 279 as of Q3 2018, also demonstrates the growing interest in ESG investing.4 Additionally, the number of active managers integrating ESG factors in their investment strategy has grown (Chart 1).

Chart 1
Growing Interest...
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Increasing investor demand has translated into further transparency from companies. According to the Governance & Accountability Institute, the number of S&P 500 firms that disclose their sustainability, corporate governance and social responsibility performance more than quadrupled between 2011 and 2017 (Chart 2).5

Chart 2
...More Transparency
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However, transparency is not the only barrier to the growth of ESG investing. The term ESG is still utilized and defined in different ways, confusing investors. A joint survey by the UN and the CFA Institute showed that 43% of U.S. equity and fixed income investors cited a lack of historical data, and 41% limited understanding and knowledge of ESG issues as the top barriers to incorporating ESG.6 Additionally, due to the lack of a standardized reporting system, investors cannot properly assess and compare ESG metrics across firms.7 ESG factors tend to be hard to quantify.

Inconsistent ESG ratings due to differences in data analysis and reporting contribute to the lack of comparability. Investors should do their own thorough due diligence before investing. Various funds that screen for "socially responsible" criteria do sometimes include controversial stocks. For example, Vanguard's SRI European Stock Fund includes Royal Dutch Shell and British American Tobacco plc amongst its top 10 holdings.8

Risk-Return Characteristics9

To compare returns across regions, we use the MSCI ESG Leaders Index, which MSCI describes as using a best-in-class strategy and excluding companies involved in the alcohol, gambling, tobacco, nuclear power, and weapons businesses. It also minimizes sector-based tracking error by targeting 50% of the market capitalization within each GICS sector.10 MSCI assigns companies an ESG rating ranging from AAA to CCC; companies must maintain a rating above BB to be eligible for inclusion. We use the Bloomberg Barclays MSCI Socially Responsible Indices for our fixed-income comparisons. These indices use a negative screening process to exclude issuers involved in businesses that are in conflict with social and environmental values.

Historical data for ESG indices tend to be limited; the earliest data-point for the MSCI ESG Leaders Index is September 2007. We analyze historical metrics for two periods: one starting September 2007, and the other starting July 2009 to show returns after the negative impact of the Global Financial Crisis (GFC).

Tables 2 and 3 show that equity investors have enjoyed higher risk-adjusted returns on equity ESG indices thanon standard equity indices. However, this is not the case across all regions. The global ESG equity index outperformed in both periods, with lower volatility (Chart 3). In the U.S. and U.K., ESG indices underperformed their conventional counterparts, but in the euro area, China and Canada they significantly outperformed, while achieving lower volatility (charts for all countries shown in the Appendix). Emerging markets are perhaps the biggest surprise, since here the ESG index outperformed by over 3.5% annually in both periods. However, EM outperformance was mainly driven by China (Chart 4).

Table 2
Equities: Risk-Return Profile (September 2007 - October 2018)
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Table 3
Equities: Risk-Return Profile (July 2009 - October 2018)
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Chart 3
ESG Equities: Global Outperformance
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Chart 4
China Drove EM Outperformance
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A study conducted by MSCI ESG Research showed that stock selection had the biggest contribution to the excess return of the emerging markets ESG equity indices, followed by sector-selection tilts. In fact, stock-selection added value in most regions, except the U.S. The MSCI ESG Leaders Index excludes firms such as Amazon (for its labor practices), Apple (supply-chain issues), and Facebook (privacy and data security) from both the U.S. and the global ESG indices, which resulted in its relative poor performance during the strong technology market of the past few years. Some argue that the regions with the worst ESG standards tend to see the biggest improvement in performance when ESG factors are considered. However, a debate then arises as to whether ESG ratings can be taken at face value, or should simply be an input into a broader analysis.11

One of the most surprising results from Tables 2 and 3 is the finding that the global ESG index has lower volatility, given the more idiosyncratic risk of ESG indices, which have on average only about half the number of constituents of aggregate market indices. The concentration - based on a Herfindahl-Hirschman Index (HHI) - of the top 10 ESG constituents is about four times that of the broad indices.

ESG equity indices trade at lower PE multiples than traditional indices. Chart 5 shows that, on average, ESG equities' outperformance has been mainly driven by stronger relative earnings growth rather than relative multiple expansion. Earnings contributed 48% to total return growth for the ACWI ESG index, compared to 41% for its counterpart. PE expansion contributed 21% of the ESG index's total return, compared to over 30% for the ACWI index.

Chart 5
Drivers Of Return
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The conclusions are not very different for fixed income (Table 4). There is little difference between returns for corporate SRI bonds and investment grade bonds. Despite the slight sector tilts towards financials and banks in SRI Bond Indices, the indices have largely tracked each other (Chart 6).

Table 4
Bonds: Risk-Return Profile (July 2009 - October 2018)
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Chart 6
ESG Bonds: No Difference In Performance
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Only a limited amount of research has been conducted into the importance of ESG factors for credit portfolios, but several papers concluded that ESG scores do not significantly impact performance, though there was some evidence that bonds of companies with higher ESG scores actually trade at wider spreads.12

Recession/Bear Market Protection

Despite the efforts of ESG providers to limit sector-based tracking error, ESG equity indices still tend to have sector tilts due to over- and under-weighting firms based on their ESG scores. Sectors such as Information Technology, Financials, Communication Services, and Healthcare usually are favored relative to Materials, Industrials, and Energy. However, the magnitude of these tilts differs from region to region, and understanding the scope of these tilts is important when considering an ESG allocation. For example, the Chinese MSCI ESG Leaders Index is heavily skewed towards Communication Services (one stock, Tencent, in particular).

Simply put, the sector composition/index construction of ESG indices alters their cyclicality and, therefore, performance. To understand this, it is important to observe this behavior over as many cycles as possible. To analyze this, we looked at the U.S. MSCI KLD 400 Index, one of the oldest ESG indices, with data starting in 1990. In 2001-2002 (the aftermath of the tech bubble), the KLD 400 underperformed the S&P 500 due to the former's larger exposure to tech. On the other hand, during the 2007-2008 GFC, the KLD 400 had a smaller drawdown than the S&P 500 (Chart 7).

Chart 7
Sector Tilts Matter
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Additionally, Table 5 shows that an ESG allocation has tended to at least perform in line with equities overall, if not slightly outperform them, during bear markets. The MSCI KLD 400 outperformed the S&P 500 by an annualized average of 1% in the past five bear markets.13

Table 5
Bear Market Protection?
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We performed a risk-return analysis of a portfolio consisting of 60% conventional equities and 40% investment-grade bonds, compared to similarly weighted ESG-focused equity and fixed income indices. The results for the three regions for the period July 2009 and October 2018 are shown in Chart 8.

Chart 8
Portfolio Performance (Jul 2009 - Oct 2018)
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The global and the euro area multi-asset ESG portfolios outperformed the conventional portfolios by 2 and 10 bps a year respectively while achieving slightly lower volatility. The U.S. ESG portfolio, on the other hand, slightly underperformed due to the underperformance of the ESG equity index in a strong tech market of the past nine years.

Conclusion

From the above analysis, we would draw the following conclusions:

  • There is little evidence that ESG investing detracts from performance. In fact, there is some evidence that it can provide some outperformance and bear-market protection depending on the ESG index composition.
  • Consideration of ESG factors in taking investment decisions needs to go beyond simply looking at ESG scores.
  • Incorporating ESG analysis will increasingly become a core step in assessing risk for both equity and fixed-income investors.
  • Index methodology and construction, as well as sector composition, play a big role in evaluating expected performance.
  • ESG indices are growing. As of end of 2017, there were 42 ESG-focused equity indices by the major three providers as shown in Appendix Table 1. We expect to see more as ESG becomes increasingly acknowledged.

Amr Hanafy, Research Associate
amrh@bcaresearch.com

Footnotes

Appendix

Appendix Table 1
ESG Equity Indices
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Appendix Chart 1
ESG Equities: U.S.
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Appendix Chart 2
ESG Equities: Euro Area
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Appendix Chart 3
ESG Equities: Emerging Markets
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Appendix Chart 4
ESG Equities: Canada
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Appendix Chart 5
ESG Equities: U.K.
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Appendix Chart 6
ESG Bonds: U.S.
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Appendix Chart 7
ESG Bonds: Euro Area
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