Mar 06, 2019 Equities

Sustainable investment funds: clear conscience and returns

Increasing numbers of investors are backing ESG (Environment, Social, Government) funds which select investments according to ethical and ecological criteria. Their main attraction is that they aim to generate strong returns without harming the environment or exploiting people in the process.

  • ESG = Environmental, Social, Governance
  • Investing ethically and sustainably
  • Genetic engineering out, climate-friendly companies in: Strategies for sustainable investment funds
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"Invest like King Harald of Norway!"

While this might sound like an investment tip from the pages of a tabloid, it is based in sound thinking. The thousand-billion-dollar Government Fund of Norway, which has been receiving government revenues for more than 20 years, is one of the most prominent pioneers of environmentally-friendly and ethical investments. Moreover, the state of Norway, which owes its prosperity to its bubbling oil and gas wells, also practices ethical divestment. In other words, its asset managers are consciously withdrawing from investments which don’t pass muster.[1] For the past three years, the Norwegian fund has been cleansing its portfolio to weed out companies that do not adhere to environmental standards: for example, businesses where more than 30 percent of their revenues are derived from coal power plants. Arms and tobacco companies are also taboo for the socially-conscious Norwegians moving forward.

Products for choosy investors

What the Norwegians buy and what they tend to avoid is attracting worldwide attention – after all, the state sits on 1.5 percent of all shares traded worldwide.[1] But even private investors with modest savings can decide which companies, sectors or states they support financially, and which they consciously ignore. The ESG label – which stands for the key investment criteria: Environmental, Social and Governance – is becoming increasingly common. ESG-compliant investment vehicles must consider (1) the environmental and (2) the social impact of investing, and (3) scrutinize the behaviour of the corporate management team. ESG products reflect the progressive mind set of select investors and the mood of the times. To use a restaurant analogy, diners get to pick which ingredients, additives or allergens they would prefer not to have in their meal.

Categorical exclusions or cherry picking: investors can choose between sustainability strategies

Investors flock to sustainable investment funds

The ESG principle has been well-received. In 2017 alone, investors in Germany invested 171 billion Euros into sustainable investments, according to figures from the Sustainable Investment Forum (FNG). The volume of ethical funds rose by 30 percent compared to the previous year.[2] Compared with the overall market, the products are still niche, but gaining momentum. Several factors might account for the boost in demand: increased global awareness of green issues, growing scrutiny of manufacturers by consumers, more stringent laws against polluters and political alliances for climate protection, and, not least, plain common decency.

The ESG offer is expanding. Investors can now apply a wide range of sustainability strategies. One of the most prominent ESG strategies for funds is investment according to exclusion criteria. In other words, from the outset fund managers exclude certain companies which do not meet their ethical and environmental standards – much like the Norwegian sovereign wealth fund. This principle can be applied to entire industries, such as the nuclear industry.

Investing broadly across industry – but only in the most suitable companies

Another strategy follows the so-called ‘best-in-class-approach’. ESG funds of this type invest in principle in all sectors, but look for specific indicators, i.e. companies that perform best within their peer group but are more sustainable than the direct competition. Another variant is ‘best-of-class-products’. Here managers invest only in the most sustainable industries but choose a broad range of companies within that category. The funds share similarities with theme funds, for example for renewable energy or water (see element).

Sustainability and returns go hand in hand

In any event, ESG selection filters always complement the usual tools fund managers use to look for attractive investment goals. And in many instances, carefully considered ESG criteria even can improve the performance of a fund. This virtuous circle can be seen in the Government Fund of Norway which is a role model not only in terms of sustainability, but also in terms of decent returns.

Saying "No!" to labour and human rights violations and corruption

Many sustainability funds exclude investments in companies that do not meet certain ethical requirements. The key exclusion criteria in company selection (in the German market).

All statements of opinion reflect the current assessment of DWS International GmbH and are subject to change without notice. Forecasts are not a reliable indicator of future performance. Forecasts are based on assumptions, estimates, opinions and hypothetical performance analysis, therefore actual results may vary, perhaps materially, from the results contained here. Past performance, actual or simulated, is not a reliable indication of future performance.

DWS International GmbH as of March 06, 2019

CRC 065426 (03/2019)

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