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Introduction by Money Marketing editor Justin Cash
Sustainable investment. It’s probably taken up more column inches than any other topic in fund management in the past few years. What more is there to say about it, you may ask?
Many commentators seem wedded to their camps already. For the doubters, they can certainly find reasons to be sceptical. You need look no further than the recent Boohoo scandal about supply-chain malpractice and how many so-called ethical funds held the firm’s stock to conclude that there’s a significant amount of greenwashing still going on in the sector.
Some think the fight over semantics is an important one, that sustainable investing is distinct from ethical investing, is distinct from ESG investing, is distinct from impact investing; that all of these are fundamentally different styles that should not be conflated. Or they may think that so many labels render any analysis redundant.
Regardless of what we call it, we need to all be on the same page regarding the facts about ESG investing because there are plenty of areas where scepticism is unjustified. In this supplement, we devote the majority of our efforts to answering that question, to provide the definitive guide, chapter and verse, on what the numbers are telling us.
Whether it’s discussions over performance, the influence activist investors can actually exert, or the volatility and diversity of the sector, more and more evidence is coming to light that says – in theory at least – sustainable investing can prove, and is proving, some of the doubters wrong.
That’s not to say a huge amount of due diligence isn’t still required from financial advisers. The fact that myths abound in some corners, and the jury is rightly still out on other issues, is testament to the need for more transparency and better data on what’s really going on under the bonnet of so-called ESG funds.
We need to avoid jumping on the bandwagon for the sake of it. Some managers have been practising ESG for years. Others are newer to the party. But pretty soon advisers will start to see which funds have maintained their record over a number of years, and which have fallen short. Deciding who has rightly earned the continuing flows of hot money into the sector is advisers’ next big challenge.
the noise around sustainable investment
Where are the opportunities
for advisers in a fast-changing
Myth-busting in sustainable investments
A closer look at products available from RLAM
Profile: Mike Fox
Will Covid-19 mark a watershed for sustainable investing?
Go to... Interview with
Sustainable investing has rapidly grown in popularity in recent years, beating a path towards the mainstream.
Savers are realising they can make a difference with their money by putting it into funds that are socially responsible. However, despite the growth of sustainable funds, many advisers still remain resistant to change.
Proponents of sustainable investing have long argued that the lack of knowledge and the myths surrounding this form of investing mean that advisers are unreceptive.
Money Marketing spoke to advisers and analysts about such myths in a bid to separate fact from fiction.
By Stephen Little and Jon Yarker
Plenty of advisers think they’ve got the measure of sustainable investments, but the market has transformed significantly in recent years. Here we examine some of the myths still commonly held today
"Good-quality sustainable investments should be longer term and therefore lower volatility"
One of the biggest myths about sustainable investing is that it leads to lower performance.
Investors are often concerned that by limiting their investment universe they could see a negative impact in returns.
Critics argue that excluding certain stocks based on what a company makes could increase tracking error and risk underperformance.
However, several studies over the past decade suggest investment strategies that integrate an assessment of sustainability metrics outperform over the longer term. Among them was a recent Morningstar analysis that showed that around 60 per cent of sustainable funds delivered higher returns than their equivalent traditional counterpart over the past decade.
AJ Bell head of active portfolios Ryan Hughes says there is no reason sustainable investing should lead to lower performance.
“What is more important is the type of company you are exposed to, and style biases,” he says. “If we look over the past few years, a lot of sustainable investment firms will have done very well because the typical company they hold is likely to be growth focused, in a service industry, and aligned with the new economy rather than the old economy.
“The market favours these kinds of investment, but you always need to remember that, if you are investing solely in a sustainable manner, you might have some style holes in your portfolio where that kind of strategy might underperform in certain conditions.”
Companies with sustainable strategies and characteristics tend to be better-run businesses, performing more strongly during times of market volatility. This can mean there is less risk for investors.
During the stockmarket dive in late 2018, sustainable portfolios experienced substantially less volatility. That trend has been seen again this year, with sustainable funds outperforming the broader market.
Research by Bank of America Merrill Lynch has also shown that companies that are more progressive regarding sustainability are less likely to have large price declines, and have fewer bankruptcies.
Square Mile Investment Consulting and Research senior investment consultant Jake Moeller says: “Good-quality sustainable investments should be longer term and therefore lower volatility.
“If a company is doing the right things from a sustainability perspective, it should be safe to assume it is a better-run business at the same time.”
Hughes thinks a lot depends on the timeframe over which people are investing.
He says: “In the past few years, these kinds of company have proven to be less volatile, but I do not think anyone can say, with certainty, what the case will be in the future. It comes down to market leadership and what kind of style is in favour. You cannot generalise, and it needs to be thought about in a variety of ways.”
You have to sacrifice performance to invest sustainably
Sustainable investments are more volatile
One commonly held belief is that asset managers with a sustainable proposition try to pass on costs to their clients. The truth is that the fees for sustainable funds tend to be comparable to those for conventional funds.
Integrating sustainable investment processes can take a bit more work, especially if the due diligence is in depth. However, while developing sustainable propositions can be more expensive for fund managers, the costs are usually absorbed, according to Moeller, outside areas like high-impact funds.
He says: “We have to remember sustainable criteria have been a component for many funds for a long time, so [they are] nothing new and [are] an already regularly encountered research cost.”
JB Beckett, independent member of Royal London’s investment advisory committee, says previously some asset managers had added premiums onto sustainable products, but this attitude is changing.
He says: “Now we are seeing pressure from the demand side that investors are not penalised for wanting to invest more sustainably.
“The asset management industry was guilty of overpricing and treating sustainable investing as a marketing opportunity, but that is starting to settle down and we are seeing greater engagement between asset managers and investors on this.”
Sustainable investment will cost you more
Sustainable investment can’t give you enough diversity
Funds that cater to social and ethical values are becoming more prevalent in the market, providing plenty of choice for investors. Sustainable investing is now more mainstream, accounting for more than $30trn-worth (£23trn) of assets globally.
More companies are embracing sustainability in their business models, while government regulation is also driving this trend.
Hughes says that, with a sustainable fund, one can still access a very wide variety of countries, sectors and companies, but a lot will come down to the criteria the manager is using.
He says: “I do not see any reason why this would impact an investor’s overall diversification. However, different managers employ stricter or more relaxed approaches, so it might impact the universe of investments.
“But does it have an overall impact on diversification to the point ESG cuts down diversification? Absolutely not.
“Sustainable investing used to be more about screening out large chunks of the index, but as the weight of sectors has fallen over the years that sort of screening has a much lower impact.”
Beckett says sustainable investing encompasses a broad spectrum spanning multiple asset classes.
He says: “A couple of years ago, it would be fair to say the sustainable investment conversation had not broken out of equities, but now it is harder to find a sector in equities where sustainability is not being brought up.
“The reality is you can construct almost any portfolio allocation you wish and still be able to add some sort of sustainable tilt to it.”
‘There is a huge amount of diversity
across sustainable managers’
As the demand for sustainable investments grows, so does the need for reliable information for advisers. Incoming regulation next year also means advisers will have to be far more aware of their clients’ needs in this area.
While the information provided by fund managers on sustainable funds is growing, comparison can still be difficult as there is not a single set of criteria between funds.
Tilney managing director Jason Hollands believes that some information available from fund managers is not clear enough.
He says: “It is often the case that, beyond the headline information about particular funds, you have to dig quite deep and find out the exact policies. The better fund management groups do provide quite detailed policy documents, but that information is not always widely available.”
Chelsea Financial Services managing director Darius McDermott says one can obtain reliable off-the-shelf information but, because this is an emerging area, there are few good sources.
He says: “While a number of companies have been disclosing sustainable investment information for many years, both on specific funds and on company engagement, the industry as a whole is grappling with appropriate labels for different products and ways of showing information clearly to clients. As this area matures, so too will the information available improve and become more consistent.”
You can’t get reliable off-the-shelf information on sustainable investment
Clients don’t care about sustainable investment
An increasing number of investors regard a company’s sustainability as important to their investment decisions. Research by Natixis Investment Managers shows that seven in 10 investors want to invest in companies that have a positive social impact and a strong environmental record.
Interest in sustainable investing is not limited to wanting to address issues such as climate change and pollution. How well a company manages its sustainability considerations is also becoming an important part of risk management.
“In the past, sustainability issues were not always raised with clients, but this is changing now because of the direction of regulation,” Hollands says. “The public awareness of green and social issues is also more widespread now and they want to apply this to their investments.”
Association of Investment Companies communications director Annabel Brodie-Smith notes that sustainability-related themes have been some of the most popular investment strategies in recent years across a variety of sectors.
‘There is more willingness from fund managers to disclose how they meet sustainable criteria’
When it comes to sustainable investment management, there is no one-size-fits-all.
Some managers blacklist whole industries based on moral grounds, while others use a negative screening process to exclude problem companies. Managers may do all their own research in-house or choose to employ a third party.
The difference between fund managers often comes down to how strictly they employ their sustainability criteria and how they go about it, says Hughes.
“There is a huge amount of diversity across sustainable managers, and it points to a really important reason why investors have to look under the bonnet so they know that the investment strategy fits with their understanding,” he says.
“There is a very real risk in the explosion of sustainable funds that investors might think certain kinds of companies are being excluded from their portfolio, when actually the criteria being followed include them. Investors really need to tread carefully here.”
Moeller adds: “A lot of the inputs are the same and many sustainable managers may use the same data providers, which can create a common-looking class, but we see a lot of different strategies and approaches.
“There is more willingness from fund managers to disclose how they meet sustainable criteria – making voting records public, for example – so there is a greater willingness to add to the narrative.”
All sustainable investment managers are the same
Advisers are not interested in sustainable investment
Intermediaries have long been criticised for lacking knowledge on sustainable products or failing to identify which clients are interested. Some advisers may have a preference to deal only with passive funds, which has previously limited their selection.
But, from next year, advisers who previously resisted offering sustainable investing options to clients will have to consider them because of changes to Mifid II. Hollands says most advisers have now recognised that there is a genuine demand for sustainable investing, particularly among younger clients.
“It is not a passing fad, as they have grown up in a world where there is a greater awareness of pollution and climate change,” he says. “The struggle for advisers is that it is a more complex area because, on top of the normal due diligence, they have to understand the screening criteria being used.”
Brodie-Smith says: “We have seen a sustained rise in enquiries from advisers interested in the sustainable credentials of investment companies.
“The job of a financial adviser is to help clients meet their financial goals; and, as more and more investors become interested in sustainable investing, it is only natural that the stewards of their savings become more interested too.”
‘You can construct almost any portfolio allocation and still be able to add some sort of sustainable tilt to it’
The most successful asset managers often work with companies to improve their governance.
While they may not be able to bring about change on their own, by collaborating with other investors in the industry they are able to exert at least some influence.
Most companies today are aware that sustainability issues can badly impact their share price and reputation, so they are willing to engage with shareholders.
Brodie-Smith says sustainable fund managers can help create change in a number of ways.
“They can back companies that are making a positive difference to sustainability-related issues, such as recycling or clean energy. They can exclude companies that don’t fit their sustainable criteria and they can engage with companies to stimulate change,” she explains.
“BP’s and Shell’s commitments to become carbon-neutral by 2050 and 2060 respectively, BHP Billiton announcing [it] will sell [its] coal mines within the next two years, and voting against executive pay are just a few examples of where managers’ engagement is making a difference.”
McDermott adds: “Many asset managers are now reporting in detail about their company engagement and their impact. Some choose to focus on three to four companies per year in pursuit of deeper, outcome-oriented engagements.”
Sustainable fund managers can’t get companies to improve
Sustainable investing isn’t suitable for emerging markets exposure
There is a view that sustainable investing is not a pressing concern in emerging markets. Some say this is because these markets are still developing, so they are focused on growth rather than sustainability issues, or information is just too unreliable at this stage.
While there may be some truth in this, sustainability issues are rapidly becoming a key priority for companies in emerging markets.
Moeller says: “There is less coverage and disclosure in some emerging markets, though it is getting better. For example, corporate governance is an issue as they don’t have the regulatory tailwinds you find in places like the UK.”
Beckett notes, however, that there are still a number of emerging market economies, such as Latin America, that have incredibly poor sustainability track records.
He says: “The problem here is the long-term legacies of complex structures like state-controlled enterprises, and high levels of corruption. But we have seen a number of Asian economies take the lead.”
‘We have seen a sustained rise in enquiries from advisers interested in the sustainable credentials of investment companies’
Interview with Mike Fox
Head of sustainable investments
at Royal London Asset Management
Having performed well against conventional strategies throughout 2020, sustainable funds are witnessing solid investor interest. Mike Fox, head of sustainable investments at Royal London Asset Management, says Covid-19 may change the way we invest forever.
By Stephen Little
Mike joined Royal London Asset Management in August 2013 following the acquisition of The Co-operative Asset Management by the Royal London Group. He is head of sustainable investments at RLAM. Mike became a fund manager in November 2003 when he took over managing the RL Sustainable Leaders Trust. Mike originally trained and qualified as a chartered accountant with Ernst & Young in Manchester.
Go to... Sustainable investing
In March this year the stockmarket crashed, driven by falling oil prices and the emerging Covid-19 crisis.
So far, it appears sustainable funds have managed to weather the storm, with some actually exhibiting growth during the market turmoil.
Throughout the pandemic, companies with stronger sustainability credentials have tended to outperform those without. This can be seen clearly in the performance of sustainability indices compared with conventional ones.
For example, between the beginning of 2020 and the end of August, the FTSE 100 fell 19 per cent, but the sustainable equivalent of the same index – the FTSE UK 100 ESG Select Index – lost less ground, down
by 16.7 per cent.
Mike Fox, head of sustainable investments at Royal London Asset Management, says the crisis has been a “game changer” for people’s perceptions of sustainable investment.
“More mainstream investors have become interested in sustainable funds, attracted by the outperformance,” he says. “The coronavirus crisis has changed people’s understanding of how investing can have an influence on the environment and society, and how over time they can
According to figures from Morningstar, sustainable funds saw inflows of $71.1bn (£53.6bn) globally between April and June this year. A look at Royal London’s Sustainable Leaders Trust may offer some explanation as to why.
As the largest fund managed by Fox, Royal London Sustainable Leaders has some £2bn* in assets under management. Over the past five years, it has returned 66 per cent*, compared with 15.8 per cent* for the IA UK All Companies benchmark, according to FE Trustnet.
When equity markets started to recover from losses witnessed in the first quarter of 2020, Fox’s fund performed strongly – once again outperforming its benchmark. In the second quarter, it delivered net returns of 15.6 per cent* – compared with the FTSE All Share Index, which rose 10.2 per cent*.
Fox believes the strength of the fund’s stock selection underpinned its growth coming out of the crisis.
He says: “The capital disruption in March going on in areas such as leisure, retail and commercial property hit mainstream funds hard, with the realisation that certain businesses were just not coming back.”
RLAM says the fund benefited from its 18 per cent allocation to overseas equities, which outperformed UK equities. For Fox, companies providing solutions to problems of the pandemic are all of a sudden looking like much better investments.
He says: “A number of companies we invest in are developing vaccines and treatments for Covid, while cloud computing is a massive beneficiary of working from home.”
He points to Texas Instruments – a US company that produces semi-conductors – and the UK speciality chemicals company Croda as two firms that are worth more because of the Covid crisis.
“The crisis has not changed the way we approach sustainable investing, and the performance of our funds has confirmed we are on the right track,” he says. “I expect more traditional, mainstream managers will be looking to change their perspective, as a lot of sectors that do not have strong sustainable credentials have struggled.”
Fox says he is seeking companies that have a positive impact on the environment and society.
Technology and healthcare stocks play a central role in the funds that Fox manages, and he avoids businesses in the tobacco, oil and mining sectors.
His largest holding is AstraZeneca, with a weighting of 5.11 per cent*, followed by Rentokil, at 4.79 per cent*.
Understanding the approach
Fox uses a screening process that takes into account two factors: first, the company’s products and services have to help the transition to a more sustainable society; second, he will look for firms with sustainability standards embedded in their culture.
“We will always pick the renewable energy producer over the carbon-based one,” he says.
“We are very interested in the products and services of the company and whether [they] are on the right side of environmental and social trends. We look at each industry and company to understand what the key sustainable issues they face are, and score them on how well they do against them.”
He explains that the approach is a combination of assessing both products and services, and then looking at the sustainability standards in the business.
Fox started out in the Co-operative’s asset management division in 1999, before moving to take charge of the Sustainable Leaders Trust in 2003. The other funds he manages are the £1.7bn* Sustainable Diversified Trust and the £1.5bn* Sustainable World Trust.
He is also co-manager with George Crowdy on the Global Sustainable Equity Fund, which was launched
earlier this year.
‘I expect more traditional, mainstream managers will be looking to change their perspective’
Beware the bandwagons
Greenwashing – where companies make claims about their green credentials through marketing rather than actually implementing green practices – has become increasingly common and more sophisticated. Concerns have been raised that a lack of standardised reporting methods between funds and investee companies could allow some to appear greener than they actually are.
With companies increasingly greenwashing so they are seen in a positive light by consumers, this can make it more difficult for fund managers to critically assess companies.
“The problem of greenwashing arose in the industry after firms strategically repositioned their funds to make them appear more sustainable, when in fact they were not,” Fox explains. “This was a problem up until last year, but the issue is fading as it is becoming more difficult for fund managers to greenwash.”
The RLAM portfolio manager says regulators have become much more clued up on sustainability approaches in recent years, meaning fund firms need to work harder to get their strategies accepted as sustainable. Levels of sophistication among investors are also improving, he says.
He admits that the whole market has been learning, joking that he could write a book on what he has discovered about sustainable investing over the past 17 years but he actually prefers that investment professionals keep things simple.
He says: “If you buy good-quality companies with trustworthy and talented management teams that operate on the right side of environmental and social trends, and they are appropriately remunerated, that will work.
“There are certain nuances to it but, if you can get the fundamental philosophy and principle of what you are doing right and act [on] it in a simple way, I believe, that’s your best opportunity to deliver good investment returns.”
A structured approach
Fox says his team has a straightforward approach where each holding has to meet key criteria. His team actively engages with the companies in which it is invested, and is happy to challenge these businesses on issues of environmental policy and corporate governance.
“With every company we invest in, we do an environmental assessment of the business to understand whether it is doing everything it possibly can to mitigate its environmental impact. Equally, we take into account factors such as net zero and energy transition,” he says. “It is all about doing the research and understanding what the company is doing with its environmental performance.”
He recognises that the volume of sustainability information from corporates is significantly better than it was a decade ago, and this allows his team to make more informed decisions around selection.
But with the market volatility and economic fallout from the global pandemic forecast to be with markets for some years to come, investors will be looking to Fox and his team for guidance in what is shaping up to be a critical period for sustainable portfolios.
For professional clients only, not suitable for retail investors.
The views expressed are the contributor’s own and do not constitute investment advice.
George joined Royal London Asset Management in February 2020 as a fund manager on the Sustainable Investment team and is co-managing the Global Sustainable Equity Fund alongside Mike. Prior to this, George worked as an investment manager on the Global Sustainable Equity Team at Janus Henderson having joined Janus Henderson in 2010 as a graduate. George is a CFA Charterholder and has a BSc Economics and Finance from the University of Southampton.
Co-manager, Global Sustainable Equity Fund
*Figures from FE Trustnet, 3 September 2020
We offer a full range of sustainable products, to meet varying risk, capital and income requirements. Our range covers 100% equity to 100% fixed income, with mixed asset funds in between. Asset allocation is relatively fixed. We also offer bespoke, segregated solutions across global equity, fixed income, and combinations of the two.
Past performance is not a reliable indicator of future results.
Over 100 years of combined investment experience
For illustrative purposes – reflects approximate percentage asset allocation, weightings may vary. Past performance is not a reliable indicator of future results. The value of investments and the income from them is not guaranteed and may go down as well as up and investors may not get back the amount originally invested.
Source: RLAM as at 31 August 2020.
Our key strengths
Source: RLAM and FE as at 31 August 2020. Percentile rankings are for main units only, for the appropriate sector. All Fund Performance shown is based on the C Acc share class, which is the clean share launched post RDR except for Sustainable Diversified Trust which is C Inc share class.
Past performance is not a reliable indicator of future results. The value of investments and the income from them is not guaranteed and may go down as well as up and investors may not get back the amount originally invested.
Source: RLAM as of 31 August 2020. All figures supplied are net of fees and of tax. All Fund Performance shown is based on the C Acc share class, which is the clean share launched post RDR except for Sustainable Diversified Trust which is C Inc share class and for Global Sustainable Equity which is M Acc share class. All IA Sector performance shown is for the median. * The inception date of the RL Sustainable Leaders Trust is 29 May 1990, inception figures shown are since 1 January 2004 when we implemented the sustainable investment process.
Experienced and diversified team with long track record
Managing Sustainable funds since 2003
Experienced over market, economic and social cycles
Detailed due diligence
Consistent scorecard approach
Equity, debt, UK and Global
Pooled and bespoke solutions
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Find out more at www.rlam.co.uk/sustainable
All information is correct at September 2020 unless otherwise stated. Issued October 2020 by Royal London Asset Management Limited, Firm Reference Number: 141665, registered in England and Wales number 2244297; Royal London Unit Trust Managers Limited, Firm Registration Number: 144037, registered in England and Wales number 2372439; RLUM Limited, Firm Registration Number: 144032, registered in England and Wales number 2369965. All of these companies are authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority. Royal London Asset Management Bond Funds Plc, an umbrella company with segregated liability between sub-funds, authorised and regulated by the Central Bank of Ireland, registered in Ireland number 364259. Registered office: 70 Sir John Rogerson’s Quay, Dublin 2, Ireland. All of these companies are subsidiaries of The Royal London Mutual Insurance Society Limited, registered in England and Wales number 99064. Registered Office: 55 Gracechurch Street, London EC3V 0RL. The Royal London Mutual Insurance Society Limited is authorised by the Prudential Regulation Authority and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority and the Prudential Regulation Authority. The Royal London Mutual Insurance Society Limited is on the Financial Services Register, registration number 117672. Registered in England and Wales number 99064. Telephone calls may be recorded. For more information please see our Privacy Notice at www.rlam.co.uk. AL RLAM P 0024
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