ESG in Strategic Asset Allocation (SAA)
Most of us have an SAA process which requires estimation of the return and risk of each available investment category. Since ESG factors impact the return and risk of investment securities, an ESG-aware process has the potential to improve our estimates. We believe any ESG-related improvement in assumptions for either the risk or the return dimension would be worthwhile to pursue. But these ESG adjustments are difficult to validate, and there is more potential benefit from differentiating among companies than differentiating among asset classes.
To include ESG in the SAA, one needs estimates for how much asset class risks or returns will be impacted by ESG considerations. How accurately can these be predicted? For instance, suppose one wants to make proper adjustments for the impact of climate change on investment returns. To help investors with this, the UN PRI has commissioned a project called The Inevitable Policy Response (IPR). The premise is that it is inevitable (or at least quite likely) that global governments will take coordinated action to achieve the ambition from the Paris Accord to limit global temperature increases to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. The IPR work recommends that allocators adjust forecasted asset class returns based on the specific policy measures anticipated by the IPR project. But what if governments make different choices than the ones expected, or fail to agree on a coordinated response to climate change?
Recommendations for integrating ESG into Strategic Asset Allocation can lead to similar impulses, such as a tilt away from carbon-intensive industries. An April 2020 report indicated that 1,192 institutions and 58,000 individuals, representing over $14 trillion in assets, had begun or committed to a divestment from fossil fuels. The long-term impact of these shifts by large allocators should be to raise the cost of capital for energy companies. Raising the cost of doing business for energy companies is probably a desired impact of these portfolio shifts, because this will get the attention of corporate management. However, a higher cost of capital for these businesses also means a better entry price for the investors who remain, so the classic economic conclusion would be that the shunned sectors will eventually be poised to deliver relatively favourable returns.
What about the companies in the Energy sector with positive ESG practices? On average, the ESG ratings from Sustainalytics are much higher for Information Technology companies than Energy companies. But one-third of the companies in the Energy sector of the S&P 500 have higher ESG scores from Sustainalytics than the average InfoTech company. Using ESG screens to avoid whole sectors punishes saints and sinners alike. It is more effective to implement ESG through active managers who can make informed and targeted ESG choices company by company.
If one could be confident that carbon-intensive industries would deliver low returns, then standard portfolio optimization would naturally lead to a low weight to the energy sector. The conundrum for fiduciaries is the possibility that categories which are being avoided for ESG reasons will (because of the avoidance) become high expected return categories, leading to a potential conflict between the goal of maximizing risk-adjusted returns and the goal of advancing ESG interests. This is an area of ongoing debate, with some research suggesting better ESG practices lead to higher risk adjusted returns, on average, and other research saying the opposite. These conflicting research results indicate the difficulty of being confident when one applies ESG-related shifts to return or risk assumptions utilized in Strategic Asset Allocation.
ESG Index Funds
Implementation of ESG considerations via index funds looks like a step in the right direction for those (like us) who believe that application of ESG tilts at the SAA level lacks a strong foundation in research evidence. The ESG evaluators whose ratings inform these index funds, including Sustainalytics, MSCI and S&P/RobecoSAM, deserve a great deal of credit. Their efforts have been instrumental in raising the priority of ESG concerns among corporate boards and investors. However, there are shortcomings in the index investment strategies which rely on these ratings alone.
One drawback in applying the ESG ratings is comparability. The rating providers use different criteria with different weights, which can result in a corporation scoring well with one system and poorly on another. For instance, Apple Computer currently has a favourable “Low Risk” ESG rating from Sustainalytics and a top-notch governance rating from ISS, and yet a low BBB rating from MSCI and a quite unfavourable rating from S&P/RobecoSAM. An OECD survey of different ESG rating providers found an average R-squared of only about 0.20 for predicting the ESG ratings from one provider using the ratings of another, where an R-squared of 1.0 would mean the ratings from different providers were perfectly in alignment.
Furthermore, only the large companies have ESG ratings, and these large companies also have more resources to manage their ESG profile and outcomes. The chart to the right shows the average ESG scores for the S&P 500 organized by market cap, using Bloomberg’s reporting of the ESG rankings from Sustainalytics and S&P/RobecoSAM. The companies in the top 100 by equity market capitalization have much more favourable ESG scores than the bottom 100. This is in part due to the prevalence of technology stocks (which have higher ESG scores, on average) among the largest companies. In general, reliance on these ESG ratings providers will tend to bias investments towards the larger capitalization companies.
In addition to the large-cap bias, ESG index funds tend to imbed sector biases. For instance, the FTSE USA All Cap Choice Index has about a 5% combined overweight to Information Technology and Health Care, with a matching 5% underweight to Energy and Industrials. Those have been fortuitous tilts, particularly in 2020, and in general ESG-related funds have had better performance than the capitalization-weighted indices in recent years due to the huge gap between the performance of tech stocks versus energy stocks, as well as the outperformance of large cap vs. small cap stocks. Yet it is unclear (and likely impossible to determine accurately) how much of the recent performance edge of ESG-oriented equity index funds can be attributed to the tilt towards better ESG practices, rather than to other factors. Of course, it is also unclear whether the bias towards large cap tech will continue to reward investors in these ESG index funds going forward, given the currently elevated valuations of that group of companies.