How Sinful is Your UK Equity Fund?

How are some of the most popular UK-equity funds performing on ESG factors? Until recently, it would have been difficult to answer this question

Muna Abu-Habsa 25 November, 2016 | 11:21AM
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Sustainable investing is generally depicted as a concept that is implemented through specialist mandates: that is, those which explicitly express a commitment to sustainability objectives. As a result, investors have developed a polarised view of investment strategies–sustainable versus mainstream. This is not only because funds are often marketed that way, but the language cited in investment literature, where terms such as ethical, socially conscious/responsible, sustainable, mission-based, green, ESG, and so on are used interchangeably, has left those funds lumped into an undifferentiated mass.

Taking a bird’s-eye view, sustainable investing is a long-term approach that captures the environmental, social, and governance, or ESG, disciplines of companies. It has very little to do with ‘negative screens’, instead focusing on the behaviour of companies in areas such as product safety, climate change and carbon emissions, board composition, gender and diversity in the work place, executive compensation, energy efficiency; to name but a few. 

By and large, unless an investor has opted for a fund that is labelled as sustainable, it is safe to assume that the sustainability profile of their investments doesn’t keep them wide awake at night. We think sustainability warrants greater attention, though, as time and time again we are reminded about the significant, and long-lasting, impact that ESG-related mishaps have on companies’ financial performance. Therefore, this concept need not be confined to a specific group of funds that carry the sustainable label. It is relevant to all funds.

How Do UK Equity Funds Measure Up?

How are some of the most popular UK-equity funds performing on ESG factors? Until recently, it would have been difficult to answer this question. However, Morningstar has launched a new rating which gives investors a fresh perspective on how well the underlying companies in a fund are doing on sustainability relative to their peers. The Morningstar Sustainability Rating is based on ESG company research from Sustainalytics, a leading provider of ESG and corporate governance ratings and research. To derive the rating, we first calculate a Portfolio Sustainability Score, which is based on a portfolio’s ESG score and a deduction for current ESG-related controversies.

Sustainalytics classifies controversial events involving companies by severity across five categories, with category five being the most severe. To arrive at the rating, we then sort funds into five normally distributed groups by comparing a fund’s Portfolio Sustainability Score with that of its Morningstar category peers.

Amongst the top-10 largest active UK equity funds within the Morningstar UK Large-Cap Blend Equity category, the results are varied. Threadneedle UK combines a favourable ESG score relative to peers, as well as a limited exposure to companies with controversies when compared with peers, therefore achieving a 5-globe rating. It is worth mentioning that on average across its fund range, the ratings of Columbia Threadneedle – a signatory of the UN Principles for Responsible Investments – have been slightly above average. However, that’s not to say that the fund has zero exposure to companies with controversies.

Indeed, Royal Dutch Shell (RDSB), which has featured in this portfolio, as well as eight others out of the 10 funds, has a category four controversy score. According to Sustainalytics, the company’s ongoing operations through its subsidiaries in Nigeria are linked to severe environmental pollution in relation to oil spills over several decades. During the past five years, the company has spilled 12.6 thousand tonnes of oil worldwide.

If we look closely at the scores, JOHCM UK Opportunities has an Average ESG score relative to its peers, but its favourable controversy score has pushed its overall rating to Above Average, which is equivalent to a 4-globe rating. The fund’s manager, John Wood, has a long-term strategy focused on identifying quality stocks and stable growers, which tends to favour stocks that score well in sustainability. Amongst the holdings in the portfolio is The Sage Group, a global supplier of accounting and business management software, which has not been involved in any controversies.

Although the Morningstar Sustainability Rating reflects a best-in-class approach to ESG, controversies may be prevalent in some sectors more than others and therefore sector biases within funds can still have an impact on the overall rating. Looking at the fund’s sector exposures, it seems that the muted exposure to financials and metals and mining, as well as the underweight exposure to energy relative to peers may have also contributed to its strong rating, given the higher incidence of controversies in those sectors.

Causing Controversy

In a similar vein, Majedie UK Equity has an Average ESG score; however, its controversy score ranks among the worst in its category, therefore dragging its overall rating down to two globes. The fund is structured into four subportfolios run by different managers. Overall, the managers seek to identify attractively valued companies whose price is below its real, industrial, or long-term worth. The fund owns five out of the six most commonly held stocks, omitting only The Sage Group (SGE).

Given the growth-oriented nature of the stock and its valuation metrics, we wouldn’t expect to see it in this value-driven portfolio. GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), which is an outperformer in its sector, has featured in the portfolio. The stock, however, is contributing to the fund’s poor controversy score as it has a category four controversy rating. The company has been involved in several controversies, including severe bribery cases between 2007 and 2013, after which the company has progressively improved its programmes and management systems to mitigate risks of reoccurrence. It has also been accused of being involved in a series of unethical clinical trial practices.

Which Funds Don’t Score Well?

At the other end of the spectrum, Invesco Perpetual UK Growth has a Low Sustainability Rating. Although the fund has an Average ESG score, its controversy score is Below Average. The fund’s manager, Martin Walker, adopts a pragmatic, unconstrained approach, which is contrarian in nature. The manager’s value orientation can partly explain his ownership of stocks such as Rio Tinto, BP, Barclays, and Shell, which have been battered in recent years and have delivered a negative annualised return during the past three years.

BP (BP.), for example, which has a category three controversy rating, has been involved in several controversies relating to employee safety violations across its global operations. It also remains exposed to shareholder litigations in relation to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon incident.  

Interestingly, Barclays (BARC) has been owned across eight of the 10 funds. Although it scores broadly in line with its sector, its record shows several controversies, with the highest being a category four as the bank has faced multiple investigations and lawsuits. In 2012, Barclays was the first bank to settle investigations over Libor manipulation with the US and UK with regulators, accepting a major fine of $453 million. In 2014, the SEC started an investigation over big “dark pools” and in 2015, Barclays pleaded guilty to criminally manipulating the foreign exchange markets between 2007 and 2011 and agreed to pay a record fine of $2.4 billion to the US Department of Justice, the Federal Reserve, and other US- and UK-based financial regulators.

Some companies clearly do a better job of managing their ESG risks and opportunities than others, and this feeds not only into funds with sustainable mandates, it’s also relevant for mainstream funds. Morningstar’s new ratings will contribute to the mainstreaming of sustainable investing, helping the field move from the province of the institutional and high-net-worth investor to the everyday investor. However, investors should also expect greater scrutiny from fund managers as they interact with companies on corporate sustainability issues. 

The information contained within is for educational and informational purposes ONLY. It is not intended nor should it be considered an invitation or inducement to buy or sell a security or securities noted within nor should it be viewed as a communication intended to persuade or incite you to buy or sell security or securities noted within. Any commentary provided is the opinion of the author and should not be considered a personalised recommendation. The information contained within should not be a person's sole basis for making an investment decision. Please contact your financial professional before making an investment decision.

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Securities Mentioned in Article

Security NamePriceChange (%)Morningstar
Barclays PLC202.00 GBX-1.54Rating
BP PLC460.00 GBX0.00Rating
GSK PLC1,604.50 GBX-0.34Rating
Invesco UK Opports (UK) (Acc)972.58 GBP-0.87Rating
JOHCM UK Opportunities B GBP Acc3.19 GBP-0.44Rating
Sage Group (The) PLC1,056.50 GBX2.47Rating

About Author

Muna Abu-Habsa  is a senior investment research analyst at Morningstar

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