Sustainability Preferences Under Stress: Evidence from Mutual Fund Flows During COVID-19
58 Pages Posted: 21 Jul 2020
Date Written: July 20, 2020
We investigate investor ESG preferences during market distress revealed by retail mutual fund flows. Using the COVID-19 pandemic as an unexpected shock to the economy, we show that "high ESG" funds with five-globe Morningstar sustainability ratings - which receive higher than average fund flows during normal times - experience a sharper decline in flows compared to other funds during the crisis. Consequently, high and low ESG fund flows converge as a percentage of assets under management. This effect is significant not only during the market crash weeks between February 22 and March 21, but also during the post-stimulus recovery weeks between March 28 and April 25. The results are not driven by style, time effects, fund size or age, star ratings, past returns, or investors buying the dip during the crash. Based on markedly different responses by institutional fund flows, we argue that our results are consistent with a shift in sustainability preference among retail investors. Our interpretation is corroborated by an inspection of internet search traffic data that shows falling interest in sustainability topics during the pandemic. Highlighting retail ESG fund flows as a potential source of fragility, our findings have important implications for the long-run prospects of ESG investing.
Keywords: COVID-19, Mutual Fund Flows, Sustainable Investing, ESG, SRI
JEL Classification: D62, G11, G14, G23, G41, I10, M14
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation