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How to Pick a Sustainable Investing ETF

Morningstar's Hortense Bioy provides a list of key considerations that investors can refer to when choosing an ESG ETF

Hortense Bioy, CFA 30 July, 2018 | 8:38AM

investing ideas investment basics ESG ethical environmental ETF passive funds

As sustainable investing becomes more mainstream, the menu of exchange-traded funds focused on environmental, social, and governance factors is growing. There are now close to 30 such ETFs listed on the London Stock Exchange, with combined assets of £4.8 billion.

While this expanding choice is great news for investors, it also calls for greater attention. No ESG ETF is created equal, and complexity is on the rise. And it becomes increasingly critical to understand what’s under the hood of these funds. Here we provide a list of key considerations that investors can refer to when choosing an ESG ETF.

What’s the fund’s ESG focus and the metrics it uses?

An investor must first decide whether the focus of an ETF’s underlying index; environmental, social, and/or governance concerns, and the metrics it uses are aligned with the ESG criteria that he or she wishes to emphasise.

For example, there are many environmental metrics, including carbon emission intensity, fossil fuel reserves, and green revenues. Different metrics reflect different company attributes, and the choice of one metric over another may lead to different fund composition.

Does the fund apply exclusions?

Many ESG ETFs use some sort of values- or norms-based exclusionary screening in addition to their consideration of ESG factors. Investors must evaluate whether an index’s exclusions, or lack thereof, align with their beliefs and investment objectives.

Modern Portfolio Theory suggests that limiting the investment universe, especially when it’s done on a purely non-financial basis, forces an investor into a less-efficient portfolio that will have lower risk-adjusted performance than a more efficient portfolio selected from the broader universe. Common exclusions include tobacco, alcohol, controversial weapons, gambling.

Are there any sector and geographic biases?

ESG scores tend to vary across geographies and sectors. For example, Europe is the world's leading region for sustainability, while emerging markets tend to score poorly. Some sectors, such as oil and gas, are prone to low overall ESG scores. But others, such as technology, may have higher scores due to the nature of the underlying businesses. Sector and geographic biases can impact performance relative to the broader market.

What’s the fund’s tracking error relative to the broad market?

There’s a potential trade-off between high ESG scores on one hand, and broad diversification and low tracking error on the other. For example, those investors most committed to sustainability may favour the “purest” ESG exposure but at the expense of a more concentrated portfolio with higher tracking error. Investors seeking to replace a core portfolio allocation may be more willing to compromise on the purity of ESG holdings in exchange for retaining the benefits of diversification and lower tracking error. Optimisation techniques can be used to minimise tracking error.

Does the fund charge an ESG premium?

Fees charged by ESG ETFs are generally higher than those levied by their more ordinary passive peers. This is especially the case for some of the older funds and those that target specific themes, like water or clean energy.

What’s the fund’s track record?

Performance analysis can be a challenge, as most of the newer ESG ETFs track indices that have short track records. This means that a returns-based analysis must often rely on back tests, which can be manipulated, whether consciously or not, to achieve the desirable outcomes.

Is the fund company a responsible steward?

Investors should select responsible asset managers who vote company shares and engage with companies on a variety of ESG issues to advocate for better practices and effect change. Partnering with an asset manager that has strong active ownership practices is especially important when selecting funds that include, rather than exclude, sustainability laggards.

How sustainable is the fund really?

It isn’t always easy for investors to objectively assess how sustainable an ESG ETF actually is and how it might compare to other choices in the market. To help investors understand the sustainability profiles of the funds they invest in, Morningstar created the Morningstar Sustainability Rating for funds. The rating assesses funds based on how well each of the companies they own live up to a set of defined ESG criteria.

A version of this article appeared in Money Observer magazine

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.

About Author

Hortense Bioy, CFA

Hortense Bioy, CFA  is director of passive funds and sustainability research in Europe for Morningstar

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