ESG Investing in Emerging Markets

With governance issues and lighter regulation, emerging markets throw up challenges for ESG investors

Andrew Willis 8 October, 2019 | 1:24PM
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Emerging markets are more volatile than developed markets and are also riskier. However, they are a growing and significant part of global markets and now represent more than 10% of global equity indices. A growing share of the world’s population lives in emerging market countries, with China and India alone making up more than a third. These countries also have a younger workforce with a growing middle class and a consumer base that is getting wealthier.

It is a fact that opportunities abound in these markets, and but they are also often opaque and difficult to navigate. Investors approaching emerging markets face differences in technology, culture and regulatory environments. So why would you want to add another layer of complexity by incorporating ESG (environmental, social and governance) factors too?

For one, the alpha is there. The MSCI Emerging Markets ESG Leaders Index has delivered stronger annualised returns than non-ESG emerging markets peer over both five and 10 year periods.

But is that enough to entice investors away from a home field advantage, and into the riskier world of emerging market investing? After all, any investment abroad faces “an entire spectrum of challenges”, according to John Bai, chief investment officer at NEI Investments. For emerging markets investors, it’s about finding the diamonds in the rough. “In developing economies you’re dealing with less information, on a less-consistent basis” he warns.

One might consider an ESG approach better suited to developed economies, which have benefitted from the general trend of governance, oversight, regulation and corruption issues improving with GDP per capita. But while it may take a little more effort to find ESG investments in emerging markets, Bai thinks it’s worth it.

“Because there is more variability in ESG disclosure, policy and practice standards across emerging markets, there are arguably more opportunities for investors to use ESG to differentiate between companies and pick the potential winners,” agrees Judy Cotte, chief executive at ESG Global Advisors. “This is at least in part because the legal regimes don’t tend to be as strict or prescriptive, so the companies that take ESG seriously may have a strong understanding of its value, as opposed to just approaching it from a compliance perspective,” she explains.

Opportunities in Megatrends

Emerging markets offer some of the greatest growth potential, with untapped and cheap energy, material and labour resources – but Bai says consumers are keeping a closer eye than ever on long-term, responsible governance. “The world is moving to a better place,” Bai says, adding that “investors are keeping companies accountable – even if the regulations aren’t there.”

Governance is the most important of the three pillars of ESG in emerging markets, a panel at the Morningstar executive forum titled, “Is ESG a source of Alpha?” unanimously found, The group pointed out that companies with good stewardship and governance in emerging markets are the most likely to outperform and generate alpha.

The most attractive opportunities in emerging markets – and in the information age – can be part of multi-trillion dollar “megatrends”, says Bai, pointing to emerging markets propelled by new technologies, “leapfrogging” generations of evolution and leaving societies with a double-edged sword of massive change.

“Take China and artificial intelligence,” says Bai, “you have big opportunities, but also risks around data privacy and facial recognition – you have to find out how these new technologies are being applied.”

The Problem of Data

ESG and emerging markets are a complex and volatile mix – often because the quality of data may not be there. In fact, an accusation often levied against ESG screening and ESG data in general is that it is biased against large cap companies – which Bai says are often the worst offenders - and leaves out portions of the market, especially emerging markets.

“For instance, what factors are rewarded by the market? Governance might be, but environmental and social parameters might not. I think the point is that as active managers, we cannot blindly apply the same rationales that we use for developed markets to emerging markets,” said Jeremy Peng, portfolio manager at NEI investments.

So Bai takes an alternative route. He taps into unconventional data points that address the complexity and subjectivity of ESG investing. Alternative data in China for example, can comprise search engine data, job postings and satellite snapshots. And it’s these leads – often more detailed and directly addressing ESG issues than any standard quarterly report may – that mesh well with a strategy focused on reliable and responsible growth.

Another source of important information in emerging markets is the stock exchanges themselves. “It’s interesting to note that emerging markets exchanges have been leaders within the global Sustainable Stock Exchanges Initiative,” says Michelle de Cordova, principal at ESG Global Advisors. “Emerging markets exchanges have been quick to identify better ESG practice and disclosure as a way to build local and international investor trust in their markets.”

Impact Through Engagement

If you’re an active investor and want to change corporate behaviour, “smaller, domestic emerging markets companies want to listen,” says Bai, whereas it can be difficult to move giants and make meaningful changes.

“The variability of ESG practice and disclosure among emerging markets companies makes corporate engagement a potentially productive strategy,” says Cotte, “because shareholders can engage companies in discussions comparing their performance with those of emerging market peers.”

“For investors seeking to align with the Sustainable Development Goals, being invested in emerging markets and then using investor status to engage companies to improve ESG and sustainability performance can be a direct and effective way to create impact,” adds de Cordova.

Bai agrees, noting that smaller emerging market companies might not yet be fully versed in ESG expectations and they’re keen to hear about what will help them succeed. Sitting down with management can lead to “high impact opportunities,” and a way to secure and grow that alpha in emerging markets.

This article originally appeared on Morningstar Canada

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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Andrew Willis  is Senior Editor for Morningstar Canada

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