Environmental, Social, and Governance Investing, or ESG is a hot topic right now. You may have seen ESG options in your employer’s retirement plan, or advertisements for this “style” of fund or index.
What the Heck is ESG?
ESG is a Wall Street trend that gets beyond just financials by looking at how corporations address broader societal goals. It asks: how is this company functioning as a citizen? This thinking evolved from the idea of corporate social responsibility.
The idea: a corporation has responsibilities beyond answering to shareholders, and shareholders should want to invest in companies that are good citizens because focusing on all stakeholders is good for society, and good for a sustainable bottom line that looks beyond just the next quarter.
This idea has been boiled down to three big categories: environmental concerns, social concerns, and governance concerns. Let’s take a quick look at each of these:
These include the topics of climate change and environmental sustainability. It looks at the impact a company has on global warming and natural resources. The thinking: current environmental trends are unsustainable.
These include: diversity, human rights, consumer protection, and animal welfare. If you’re thinking it sounds like this could get political, you’re right, and it’s more tedious than it sounds.
Corporate Governance Concerns
Topics are wrapped around management structure, employee relations, and compensation. The question this gets to: how is the company managed, how does it treat employees, and how is everyone hired by shareholders paid?
What Does ESG Investing Look Like?
Without getting into the weeds, you can see how these topics may be important to an investor. We have a classic situation, an investor need has been identified, and Wall Street has cooked up a solution for you! Is this out of the kindness of their hearts, or out of grave concern for these topics? Of course not, it’s to get paid.
Wall Street has been in the process of building ESG indexes, ESG funds, and ESG ratings. Here is a simple example. They will take something like the S&P 500, the 500 largest stocks in the US, an important bellwether, remove stocks based on “ESG factors”, and then sell you an ESG fund that costs more than an S&P 500 fund. Now, the thinking goes, you are a responsible investor, and now you can sleep better at night knowing your investments are making the world a better place.
Of course, it’s too good to be true. Let’s look at why.
The Problems With ESG
In May Tesla was removed from a popular ESG index because of issues with “rampant racism,” and crashes associated with autopilot technology. Racism is never justified, and faulty safety technology that kills people is never a good thing; however, it’s hard to debate that Tesla has been significantly moving the needle on auto carbon emissions with it’s own vehicles, and by forcing competitors to quickly come up with electric vehicle offerings.
If you take this one example, and imagine how environmental, societal, and corporate governance issues may intersect through a single lens that tries to boil a very complex ocean, the entire proposition becomes dicey, especially for an investor whose primary goal is to earn a good return, which is all of us.
From a recent Harvard Business Review article: “It’s long past time we faced a hard truth: despite a historic surge in popularity, ESG investing will not tackle our generation’s urgent environmental and social challenges…Yet it’s hard to blame casual observers for believing that investing in an ESG investment fund is helping to save the planet.”
From The Economist: “although ESG is often well-meaning it is deeply flawed. It risks setting conflicting goals for firms, fleecing savers and distracting from the vital task of tackling climate change. It is an unholy mess that needs to be ruthlessly streamlined.”
These examples go on, and of course in the current political climate ESG is painted as a vast left wing conspiracy. There have been a slew of op eds in the Wall Street Journal to this point.
Another related issue that is seldom discussed, bonds. Most of the ESG discussion focuses on the stock holder perspective; however, a diversified investor owns bond funds as well. A bond holder is still providing capital to corporations. There are far fewer ESG bond funds, and this type of analysis in the world of bonds is even more complex.
In a time of low yields, bond investors have less flexibility given the performance required from the bond side of a portfolio.
Considerations for a Concerned Investor
The important point here is to not simply invest blindly in an ESG fund, and believe you are somehow achieving a personal goal related to what’s important to you under this broad ESG umbrella.
The ESG funds are twisted and contorted when it comes to the goals they are trying to achieve; therefore, any single goal that is important to you may or may not actually be achieved. To make matters worse, your returns may suffer compared to conventional funds, and those differences add up over time. Don’t forget, you’re also paying higher fees for this privilege.
The Economist, a very old and conservative British newspaper, had one conclusion: “ESG should be boiled down to one simple measure: emissions.”
If this topic is important to you, there are funds available that only address climate change, and this kind of laser focus can be successfully achieved for certain parts of a portfolio, namely indexes of large US companies. Attempting to bring this focus to other areas such as small company stocks, international investments, and bonds quickly becomes a more complex proposition.
The bottom line is that your long term wealth is too important to risk the gamesmanship and conflicting interests in the current world of ESG funds.
Please reach out if you would like to discuss ESG funds, or funds that may tackle specific issues that are important to you.
Buoyant Financial, LLC is a registered investment adviser located in Charlotte, NC. Buoyant Financial may only transact business in those states in which it is registered, or qualifies for an exemption or exclusion from registration requirements. A copy of Buoyant Financial’s current written disclosure statement discussing Buoyant Financial’s business operations, services, and fees is available at the SEC’s investment adviser public information website – www.adviserinfo.sec.gov or from Buoyant Financial upon written request. This note is for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as investment advice, or a recommendation to buy or sell securities.