ESG Integration in Investment Management: Myths and Realities
9 Pages Posted: 12 Jul 2016
Date Written: Spring 2016
The number of public companies reporting ESG information grew from fewer than 20 in the early 1990s to 8,500 by 2014. Moreover, by the end of 2014, over 1,400 institutional investors that manage some $60 trillion in assets had signed the UN Principles for Responsible Investment (UNPRI). Nevertheless, companies with high ESG “scores” have continued to be viewed by mainstream investors as unlikely to produce competitive shareholder returns, in part because of the findings of older studies showing low returns from the social responsibility investing of the 1990s. But studies of more recent periods suggest that companies with significant ESG programs have actually outperformed their competitors in a number of important ways. The authors’ aim in this article is to set the record straight on the financial performance of sustainable investing while also correcting a number of other widespread misconceptions about this rapidly growing set of principles and methods:. Myth Number 1: ESG programs reduce returns on capital and long‐run shareholder value. Reality: Companies committed to ESG are finding competitive advantages in product, labor, and capital markets; and portfolios that have integrated “material” ESG metrics have provided average returns to their investors that are superior to those of conventional portfolios, while exhibiting lower risk. Myth Number 2: ESG is already well integrated into mainstream investment management. Reality: The UNPRI signatories have committed themselves only to adhering to a set of principles for responsible investment, a standard that falls well short of integrating ESG considerations into their investment decisions. Myth Number 3: Companies cannot influence the kind of shareholders who buy their shares, and corporate managers must often sacrifice sustainability goals to meet the quarterly earnings targets of increasingly short‐term‐oriented investors. Reality: Companies that pursue major sustainability initiatives, and publicize them in integrated reports and other communications with investors, have also generally succeeded in attracting disproportionate numbers of longer‐term shareholders. Myth Number 4: ESG data for fundamental analysis is scarce and unreliable. Reality: Thanks to the efforts of reporting and investor organizations such as SASB and Ceres, and of CDP data providers like Bloomberg and MSCI, much more “value‐relevant” ESG data on companies has become available in the past ten years. Myth Number 5: ESG adds value almost entirely by limiting risks. Reality: Along with lower risk and a lower cost of capital, companies with high ESG scores have also experienced increases in operating efficiency and expansions into new markets. Myth Number 6: Consideration of ESG factors might create a conflict with fiduciary duty for some investors. Reality: Many ESG factors have been shown to have positive correlations with corporate financial performance and value, prompting ERISA in 2015 to reverse its earlier instructions to pension funds about the legitimacy of taking account of “non‐financial” considerations when investing in companies.
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