ESG investing – the consideration of environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors and how they impact an investment – has been gaining traction with investors over the last few years. Even as capital pours into ESG investing, data and understanding in this area remain incomplete and opaque, which is good news for investors seeking competitive market returns. Many investors living in Cayman tend to define themselves as conservative – they own real estate and keep liquidity at the bank.
An ESG overlay in your portfolio may complement the conservative nature of your overall investments as it will increase diversification, mitigate risk and may improve the portfolio's risk-adjusted returns.
These are the key conclusions drawn from RBC Global Asset Management's (GAM) recent survey of ESG asset owners, wealth managers and consultants. The survey reveals lingering uncertainty about responsible investing's ability to drive financial performance and mitigate portfolio risk. It also indicates frustration with the lack of corporate ESG disclosures and points to evolving expectations for both investing strategies and portfolio managers.
ALPHA UNCERTAINTIES AND DATA DISSATISFACTION
In perhaps the survey's most surprising revelation, less than one-third (30%) of respondents considered ESG investing a source of alpha, despite a growing body of research concluding that various responsible-investing factors actually improve financial returns. In a 2015 study, MSCI found that portfolios with an ESG bias outperformed a world stock index, made up of over 1,500 large-cap equities, over an eight-year period. Specific factors valued by ESG investors have also been proven to correlate with higher long-term returns.
Investors' uncertainty about ESG as an alpha source may derive from their dissatisfaction with the amount of accessible, relevant data. Just 17% of survey participants were satisfied with the quality and quantity of ESG-related data companies are making available. Conversely, 43% of participants were somewhat or completely dissatisfied. While multiple efforts are underway to close this information gap, the divergence between the empirical data and the marketplace perception represents an opportunity that can be exploited for enhanced returns. It points to the need for thorough fundamental analysis in ESG investment decisions, especially for investors seeking both alpha and impact in the long term. Because ESG factors are not yet fully incorporated into valuations, we believe that investors who understand how to identify and properly consider these factors will have an advantage.
The consideration of environmental, social and governance factors and how they impact an investment has been gaining traction with investors over the last few years. This represents more than a change in investing style. Rather, it is recognition that engagement is more powerful than divestment.
FROM DIVESTMENT TO ENGAGEMENT
Qualitative, ESG integrated buy-and-hold investing remains a relatively new development in responsible investment, which consisted almost exclusively of negative screens deployed to weed out companies with particularly objectionable social or environmental practices a few decades ago. Today, a majority (52%) of responsible investors and professionals consider negative screens a niche tactic to be used only by mission-specific investors.
This represents more than a change in investing style. Rather, it is recognition that engagement is more powerful than divestment. Many of today's responsible investors believe they can encourage and enact greater positive change — and increase shareholder value — by engaging with companies on ESG issues rather than by divesting. An asset manager, who is a significant shareholder, gains access to company senior management and boards of directors,
developing a voice to advocate for positive change. These investors view change as a powerful driver of shareholder value. To be sure, negative screens remain in widespread use and divestiture campaigns can still generate enormous momentum. In recent years, the fossil fuel-free movement not only captured headlines, but prompted commitments to divest totalling in the trillions of dollars, largely driven by institutional titans including the world's largest sovereign-investment fund. According to RBC GAM's survey of ESG asset owners, wealth managers and consultants, investors are taking the fossil fuel-free movement seriously. Only 26% of respondents consider fossil fuel free to be a fad and a full 62% consider it a lasting investment issue. Whether this is driven by true philosophical alignment or merely reflects investors following a popular trend remains to be seen.
There is an opportunity to exploit a market that remains inefficient, but this may not be the case for long. Growing realisation that ESG can drive compelling returns will draw more interest and more capital, which will drive out some or most inefficiencies. Opportunities will be harder to come by; however, this survey portrayed an investment approach only beginning to come into its own. It's encouraging to see so much capital pouring into ESG-related investing, even as asset owners and financial professionals alike remain broadly uncertain about those investments' ability to provide alpha and mitigate risk. The largest group of respondents (40%) do not consider ESG a risk mitigator.
But, for the one out of three respondents who do see ESG as a risk mitigator, it will be crucial to ensure they engage with investment managers who share that belief. For those living in Cayman who are interested in taking advantage of this approach, you can employ an ESG overlay to provide risk mitigation and potentially increase your risk-adjusted returns.The value proposition inherent in ESG investing is becoming more apparent all the time. Even as data remain imperfect, investors can see and feel the impact on their portfolio values. There are examples of value that is spectacularly destroyed by companies with poor ESG standards, particularly those with high-profile scandals or environmental catastrophes.
There are many reasons why people choose to live in the Cayman Islands, but a Cayman culture that incorporates strong environmental, social and governance factors is a reason why many of us call Cayman home. For similar reasons, we see the importance of investing in companies with an approach that is better for the environment and for society. Seeing value created by ESG investing requires commitment to an ESG approach as well as to skilled, knowledgeable analysis and long-term ownership. As ESG integration becomes more prevalent in investment, those commitments will continue to spread across the industry and asset owners will be all the better for it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Stephen Price is the driving force behind The Price Team of RBC Dominion Securities. He has been with the firm since September 2001 and began his financial services career as an analyst with a leading global investment banking, securities and investment management firm.
While he has lived primarily in the Cayman Islands, Stephen has studied and worked in several other countries, including South Africa and Spain. He obtained a Bachelor of Science degree at Cornell University in New York in 1995, and a Master of Business Administration degree with a specialization in finance from the University of London in 1999.
He holds a Master of Philosophy in management studies from Cambridge University in the UK and received his Chartered Investment Manager (CIM) designation from the Canadian Securities Institute.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.