Until recently, socially responsible investing has been a backwater in the investing world. But investors — particularly activist groups — now demand more environmental, social and governance (ESG) responsibility from corporations.=
According to a survey by Brown Brothers Harriman and ETF.com, 51% of investors say ESG carries some level of importance, up 14 percentage points from last year. There are 169 ESG mutual funds and 56 ESG ETFs, according to Morningstar.
“It’s definitely being driven by investor feedback or the appearance that you want to be ahead of the game on this,” said Scott Sacknoff, chief executive of SerenityShares, which manages the ESG-focused SerenityShares Impact ETF (ICAN). ICAN, which launched in April, has $4 million in assets and an expense ratio of 0.5%.
ESG’s increasing popularity has raised questions about whether stock and bond index fund managers could and should be doing more to use proxy votes to steer companies in the indexes toward higher ESG standards.
Morningstar recently published a paper examining the issue, “Passive Fund Providers Take an Active Approach to Investment Stewardship.”
The paper found that while European managers have been active for years through the two stewardship tools of engagement with corporate management and proxy voting, index managers in the U.S. and Japan have only recently begun this process.
Of the five U.S. fund managers surveyed, BlackRock, Vanguard, State Street Global Advisors, and Fidelity Investments said they were increasing their engagement efforts, despite the costs. Only Charles Schwab (SCHW) said it would not.
“While we don’t meet with individual companies, we do engage with issuers in a systematic way through our proxy voting,” a Schwab spokeswoman told IBD. “We have yet to see evidence that with a portfolio as large as ours (by number of companies), direct engagement would provide measurable improvements for shareholders.”
The Morningstar paper addresses the main issue: “It may be tempting to assume that (since) index managers are passive owners (they) have little incentive to devote resources to monitoring companies; after all, they tend to compete on fees and their primary objective is to match the performance of indexes.”
Another issue is that since index managers have no choice in the stocks they hold, why should they care what the companies do?
“That’s why we say they have a duty to influence these companies to promote better ESG policies,” said Hortense Bioy, Morningstar’s director of passive fund research in Europe and the report’s co-author. “Because they are stuck with these companies. They are long-term investors, and they own everyone in the market. So they have a unique responsibility to change these companies for the better. That is the whole argument. As opposed to active managers, who if they disagree with the way a company is run, they could just divest it and not care, and only invest in the ones they believe will outperform the market.”
While for the most part, index managers vote with corporate management, sometimes their huge shareholdings can result in visible change. In 2016, a shareholder proposal asking ExxonMobil to be transparent and disclose its risk to climate change wasn’t backed by BlackRock. Instead, BlackRock held private discussions with the oil company’s management asking for the same thing as the activists. But it saw no results, so in 2017, when shareholders put forth the same proposal, BlackRock publicly voted for it, helping it pass.
“BlackRock believes that engagement is the best way to drive change on important environmental, social and governance issues,” said BlackRock spokesman Ed Sweeney, adding the firm has been doing this since 2011. “As a long-term investor, we are willing to be patient with companies when our engagement affirms they are working to address our concerns. However, our patience is not infinite — when we do not see progress despite ongoing engagement, or companies are insufficiently responsive, we will vote against management. We view a vote against management as a sign of a failed engagement, not as the start of the process.”
While large asset managers are favorite targets of activist groups, their pressure doesn’t always bear fruit. In November, an activist shareholder group proposed that Vanguard Group divest itself of PetroChina and Sinopec Shanghai, two Chinese energy firms doing business in Sudan. The group accused the companies of genocide. Vanguard recommended its shareholders vote against the proposal. The proposal failed.
But what about returns?
“ESG started not to improve the world, it was started by big banks to get a handle on risk,” said Janet Brown, president of FundX, a San Francisco RIA, and manager of the FundX Sustainable Impact Fund.
“Research shows higher ESG scores lead to more efficient, better earning companies,” Brown said. “About 2,000 academic studies show a positive correlation between higher ESG and positive returns.” She was citing a study in the Journal of Sustainable Finance & Investment published in 2015.
It’s not just academic studies. A 2017 survey by State Street found that more than 68% of institutional investors reported that integrating ESG into their process had “significantly improved their returns.”