Written for the Financial Policy Council
For many years the divide between instruments of philanthropy and investing has been clear cut. Investing strategies typically did not involve social organizations focused on non-governmental organization (NGO) concerns. However, the advent of millennial investing power, the rise of social enterprises, and the need for further asset diversification have blurred the line between both industries. Environment, Social, Governance (ESG) investing, informally known as impact investing, is on the rise with both active and passive investors. For example, ESG assets under supervision at Goldman Sachs have grown from US$3.8bn in 2015 to US$6.5bn end of fiscal 2016. As Goldman Sachs poignantly stated, ESG investing is now mainstream even within the pension fund and insurance sectors.
Even though financing social causes has overlapped between philanthropy and ESG investing, by no means is the latter non-profit seeking. First, while impact investing may dive into sectors once thought as solely philanthropic, let us make it clear that the investing strategies used to generate returns do not veer from tradition asset management practices. Specific return objectives are set, even if the companies that are in the portfolio may comprise all social enterprises. In fact, Goldman Sachs recommends that investors should be even more aggressive with risk/return analyses when it comes to ESG portfolios, to ensure even more accountability. Traditional sectors tend to put the bottom line first by nature, so it is of utmost importance to hold for-profit social enterprises accountable for revenue and profit estimates.
U.S. Trust’s “Impact Investing: A Guide To Doing Good While Also Doing Well” gives an excellent overview of impact investing. According to the U.S. Trust, managed U.S. assets committed to impact investing in total grew from US$640 billion in 1995 to US$6.57 trillion at present. Impact investing can be broken down into further categories of socially responsible investing (SRI), faith based investing, green investing, and values based investing (VBI). For example, an investor who is against tobacco use but is not necessarily pro-environment may seek investment in an SRI portfolio, but not a green portfolio. As with traditional ETFs and mutual funds, diverse social investing asset classes are available via equities, bonds, REITs and even private equity. Investment funds including these ESG options in have indeed increased from 55 to 925 within the last two decades. In particular, U.S. Trust’s ESG investor pool jumped 23% from 2015, with a whopping 93% of millennial investors who have added ESG components to their portfolios!
ESG investing is an excellent mechanism to be considered by shareholders through engagement and by Board of Directors through guidance and governance. Rick Scott, Vice President of Finance and Compliance at the McKnight Foundation, gave great insight as to the need for adding and monitoring ESG components to investment strategic directions at the Board level. The McKnight Foundation has allocated 10% of its US$2bn portfolio strictly to impact investing with a focus on US clean water and carbon footprint. Scott enlightens that the Board must call for a “triple bottom-line for financial, programmatic, and learning return.” Boards must have an investment or risk committee assigned to give oversight on risk/return objectives specific to the triple bottom line, and with C-Suite determine the healthy mix of ESG and traditional components for portfolio investments. We have said time and time again that clear internal corporate governance goals and procedures, in this case adopting a “triple bottom line” approach, is the most pertinent form of corporate social responsibility an organization can practice.
While global institutional investors have now become ESG investing stalwarts, retail investors, individual private investors, and minor shareholders may still need direction in how to effectively embark on the ESG investing journey. In addition, the ESG investing sphere has been known to be have quite a few ‘greenwashers’ with more public relations talk than actual profit generating. As with any investment vehicle, extensive research is recommended. Global investment firm Cambridge Associates has developed the Impact Investing Benchmark which comprises 51 private investment closed-ended funds dealing strictly with the intent to generate social impact. From this data, Cambridge Associates created and MRI Database, and uses ImpactBase extensively as well. U.S. Trust as well has developed benchmarks via an IMPACTonomics™ program, which has specific in-house and third party impact investing platforms such as the Breckinridge Sustainable Bond Strategies and IMPAX Global Environmental Markets Fund.
Many have the misconception that impact investing precludes investing in traditional industries, such as the fossil fuel and mining industries. Absolutely not! The smart and savvy investor must see diversification opportunity in line with tailored return objectives. There is financial power in such comprehensive asset management. The end point is return on investment, whether from most profitable traditional, social, and technologically advanced companies in the market. A gold mining company with a strong, proven corporate responsibility background can share the same portfolio as a profitable microfinance company that lends globally to small entrepreneurs. Again, the crux of investing in any asset class lies with return objectives. ESG investing, like smart technology, is no longer the niche market. As Rick Scott and Goldman Sachs put it, the point is to find the “right tools for the right time.” The time is right to consider impact investment vehicles in tandem with traditional market portfolios.