How investing ethically powers returns
Over the last few years, there has been a significant increase in the interest in environmental, social and governance (ESG) investing. According to a paper released recently, over $8trn of the $40trn of money managed in the USA is now under some form of Sustainable and Responsible Investing (SRI) or ESG, up 33% since 2014 and up fivefold from $1.4trn in 2012 for money run by fund managers.
In many respects Australian fund managers have been caught unready for this change. If we look at the Mercer survey data for January 2017, the Global Equities strategy section contains 127 global funds that are sold in Australia. Of this, only 5 are classed as SRI funds. It is somewhat better for Australian equities with 157 funds in the survey, of which 13 are SRI. If we were to use the ratio of assets in the USA, the number of SRI funds should be 27 and 34 respectively.
One reason could be that there is a view amongst many people (and particularly fund managers) that “you can’t have your cake and eat it too”: that SRI results in lower returns for investors and the investors have to pay a price to be responsible.
In some ways this misconception, of accepting lower returns for being ethical, goes against another tenant of conventional investing wisdom: buy good businesses. The grandfather of long term investing, Warren Buffett, discusses a lot in his letters to shareholders the importance of ethics and the quality of the character of the people running the businesses he owns.
Implicitly he is saying that businesses that have an ethos and focus on ‘doing the right thing’ by staff and customers, should generate higher returns. Now admittedly he is discussing the character of the people rather than the nature of the business, and some people would find owning Coca Cola unethical.
And it is this differentiation between good people and bad unethical businesses that opens an interesting next line of inquiry.