How Asset Managers are Embracing ESG

Appetite for ESG investing is growing, but it's often still difficult for investors to determine exactly what a sustainable fund does. Could tighter regulation help?

Andy Pettit 24 July, 2020 | 10:35AM
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ESG investing

As investor appetite grows for ESG options, fund firms are increasingly focusing on environmental, social and governance factors as part of their investment process. But the language funds use to describe their aims and approaches varies vastly, making it difficult for investors to determine exactly what a sustainable fund does. 

Introducing regulation could be one way to help make things clearer, but policymakers must avoid creating barriers which would stop innovation in ESG investing. So where do we stand with these efforts today, and what can regulators do to help?

Asset Managers are Embracing ESG Investing 

There are now more than 2,500 sustainable funds available to European investors, both open-ended and ETFs - this has more than tripled from just a decade ago. The growth shows that fund groups are responding to investor demand for investments that align with their sustainable preferences and values. 

Butthe term “sustainable” can describe a wide variety of fund strategies. Morningstar's own sustainable funds framework includes three subgroups of funds:

ESG Focus funds, which use ESG criteria as a key part of their security selection and portfolio construction process.
Impact/Thematic funds, which seek to make a measurable impact with investments on specific thematic areas like climate change, gender diversity, and community development.
Sustainable Sector funds, which are non-diversified funds investing in mostly environmental-services industries and renewable energy.

In addition to funds committed to sustainability, many otherwise conventional funds now include some consideration of ESG issues within their investment process. These funds, known as ESG Consideration funds, invest across a variety of asset classes and implement their goals in numerous ways. They are also becoming increasingly common as more asset managers incorporate ESG factors in their analysis. Indeed, in Europe integrating ESG factors at the research, securities selection, and/or portfolio level has become the norm. Meanwhile, in the US, the number of ESG Consideration funds in the US grew more than tenfold, from fewer than 50 at the end of 2017 to more than 500 as of December 2019.

However, because of the newness of the area, the ESG information that asset managers disclose about their holdings can be inconsistent. Third parties use their own approaches to analyse a fund’s holdings and estimate the degree to which a fund is sustainable or meets various ESG measures, and this approach may not align with the definition the asset manager uses to define an ESG holding or how their strategy reflects an ESG approach. This sustainability data is valuable for investors, and asset managers should present it in a way that helps lay investors understand a fund’s sustainability objectives.

To some extent, this is a problem caused by inconsistent disclosures from issuers. For example, companies inconsistently disclose their direct and indirect carbon emissions, as well as the carbon emissions in the value chain, so asset managers often end up double-counting carbon emissions.

To understand why, consider an asset manager that discloses the carbon footprint for a portfolio with equities issued by Company A, which reveals both the carbon it produces (scope 1 emissions) and the carbon that its energy suppliers produce (scope 2 emissions). Company A is also part of the supply chain for Company B, which also discloses the emissions of Company A as part of its supply chain (scope 3 emissions). The asset manager has now double-counted the emissions of Company A. In an ideal world, every issuer would disclose its scope 1 and scope 2 emissions, eliminating the need to worry about double-counting, but since disclosure practices vary, double-counting persists at the portfolio level. This is a major issue because it can overestimate exposure to carbon risks.

How to Build Confidence in ESG Investing

Regulators could boost confidence in the sustainable funds universe by tightening requirements for how funds address ESG factors in their prospectuses—at least in jurisdictions that have not yet done so. These prospectuses should provide clear, consistent descriptions on funds’ approaches to considering or incorporating ESG factors in their analysis and through their stewardship activities.

Regulators need to provide flexibility, however, and investors are unlikely to benefit from efforts to tie fund names to a specific percentage of “green” holdings or other highly prescriptive approaches. Regulators also need to be sure that fund-level disclosures match issuer-level disclosures.

For example, the growth of ESG Consideration funds presents the challenge that simply adding a line to a prospectus that “ESG is considered” does not convey the extent to which the manager acts on ESG factors. In fact, nearly 60% of ESG Consideration funds in the US fail to earn a High Morningstar Sustainability Rating. Investors need clear and consistent disclosures that make it easy to understand what a portfolio manager is doing when it considers ESG factors and also that these considerations do not necessarily mean a fund is more sustainable.

Similarly, investors need more disclosure on the extent to which funds integrate different ESG factors. Investors interested in amplifying the effect of their investments also need consistent disclosures that explain how a fund does so and how it evaluates success. For example, recent analysis by Morningstar found that funds that market themselves as climate funds often have exposure to companies deriving revenue from fossil fuels. Such exposure may be appropriate given a fund’s strategy, but it is important that investors understand what they are getting from their investment.

Given these needs and the current state of disclosures, we believe that regulators could require that funds with “Sustainability” or “ESG” in their names:

  • be able to demonstrate “intentionality,” or that their process has been carefully designed to consider a variety of ESG indicators to arrive at a sustainable investment mix, and
  • evaluate all aspects of ESG, both qualitatively and quantitatively. For example, in Hong Kong, the Securities and Futures Commission requires green or ESG funds to substantiate that they invest primarily in sustainable securities.

However, we do not think that eco-labels or other regulatorily defined sustainable naming conventions will ultimately help investors choose a fund that matches their sustainability goals.

The Next Steps for ESG Investing

When it comes to streamlining ESG investing for investors, Europe is the furthest down the road. As soon as March 2021, asset managers will be required to add more substantive information to their websites and prospectuses. In 2022, they will also be subject to additional quantitative measures in annual reports that attest to their success in achieving their ESG aims. The twin challenges for the policymakers are ensuring that disclosures are useful to investors and that asset managers have access to the underlying data that they need from issuers.

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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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About Author

Andy Pettit  Director, Policy Research (EMEA), Morningstar