ETFs and Funds Investing

Buyer Beware: The Different Types of ESG Funds

The problem is that “ESG” is becoming a catch-all for “doing good”, and this is a big mistake.

As the ravages of climate change become increasingly apparent, investor interest in sustainable investing (aka ESG – Environmental, Social, Governance) is growing at an exponential rate. Seeing this trend, asset managers are launching a ton of ESG products.

The problem is that “ESG” is becoming a catch-all for “doing good”, and this is a big mistake. Investors see brochures with pretty pictures of trees, windmills and solar panels and assume that their investment in ESG products will help save the planet.

Trending Up for ESG

I hate to say it, but greenwashing in the investing business is rampant.

The twist is that a lot of it is unintentional.

You see, there are very few people within the asset management industry that truly understand the mechanics of what they’re building and selling. Many industry participants might have an above-average (i.e. more than the general population) understanding, but not deep enough to really get the nuances.

Consequently, product features and benefits can be misrepresented and many investors buying these products don’t have a complete understanding of what they’re buying.

Of those who are more knowledgeable about investing, many appear quite skeptical of the real value of ESG products. A recent informal survey shows this:

The goal of this article isn’t to rip anyone a new one (I’ll save that for other articles). Most people – asset managers and investors – have the best intentions. So instead, I’d like to provide a quick summary of major types of ESG investment products.

Values-Based ESG Funds

Most ESG investment funds use a set of screens to filter out sin stocks, like tobacco, energy and gambling companies. Some use a sweeping approach that removes entire sectors. Others look at revenue sources for individual companies to determine exposure. Regardless of the stringency of the filter, the general idea is to eliminate exposure to companies and industries that don’t align with an investor’s values.

These strategies were originally created to service religions endowments and foundations with strict values-based rules. The purpose is to avoid values conflicts and the effects are largely superficial.

Risk-Based ESG Funds

Similar to Values-Based ESG funds, these funds exclude certain companies or industries based on a set of pre-determined factors. The types of companies or sectors that are excluded might closely resemble those of values-based ESG funds. The main difference is the intent of the fund. While values-based funds seek to align with a set of morals, risk-based ESG funds seek to reduce exposure to risk.

While values-based funds seek to align with a set of morals, risk-based ESG funds seek to reduce exposure to risk.

Companies with poor ESG practices may theoretically be exposed to greater regulation, litigation or reputation risk. These potential challenges affect the ongoing profitability and financial position of certain companies, negatively changing their risk-return profiles. A devastating announcement, for example, could push a the stock of one of these companies down 5, 10, 20% or more. Many ESG funds seek to avoid exposure to these risks.

Conceptually, this is something all fund managers have been doing regardless of whether or not their funds are labeled ‘ESG’. Risk management is part of the investing DNA and ESG risks are simply one of many that are evaluated. Given this, drawing particular attention to ESG risks is more-or-less a outward manifestation of what was already taking place, but perhaps to a more explicit degree.

Values-based and Risk-based ESG funds generally avoid exposure but don’t create change.

Values-based and Risk-based ESG funds generally avoid exposure but don’t create change. This is because the market is not heterogeneous. There are investors that care about ESG considerations and others solely focused on profitability. Therefore, there will always be a class of investors willing to invest in companies with profitable business models, regardless of their ESG practices.

With that said, if a large enough cohort of investors avoids an ESG-offending company its cost of capital could rise. This may prompt company executives to alter business practices (if possible) if company stock trades at a persistent discount. However, avoiding prime offenders like oil producers might only create a market where energy companies trade at a discount, but with little fundamental change to the underlying business. After all, an oil producer exists to produce oil. As long as it has access to capital – which has been proven the case with both the energy and tobacco industries – business will go on with little change (or worse, corporate window dressing).

It is important to understand cause and effect. Cigarette smoking has declined significantly over the decades, but not because Altria’s cost of capital has risen. Altria hasn’t changed its primary business model because many investors have avoided tobacco stocks since the 1990s. Rather, regulation, taxation, education and litigation forced dramatic change to both supply and demand, reduced smoking rates in the developed world.

Impact ESG Funds

The vast majority of ESG funds provide some combination of values-based and risk-based filtering. However, what many ESG investors believe they are actually getting (and what many asset management companies believe they are providing) are Impact ESG Funds.

Most ESG fund investors want to make a difference, but most ESG funds don’t make any difference at all.

Contrary to popular belief, investment funds that seek to make change must actually buy shares of ESG offenders.

Contrary to popular belief, investment funds that seek to make change must actually buy shares of ESG offenders. The recent proxy challenge started by activist investor Engine No. 1 is a perfect example of an investment manager actually making change. Via an activist approach, Engine No. 1 was able to secure 3 seats on Exxon’s board. This could only be done because Engine No. 1 owned Exxon shares, made a shareholder proposal and rallied other shareholders around its cause. These directors will help push Exxon to transform its business to address the risks of climate change. Engine No. 1 recently launched an ETF (VOTE) that will continue with these types of challenges.

How to Choose an ESG Fund?

Before you invest in an ESG fund you must first know what you’re trying to achieve. A good starting point is determining whether you want to align with personal values, mitigate specific risks or create positive change.

From there, look at the company that manages the fund. Who are the portfolio managers and what is their history with respect to environmental, social and governance issues?

What is the company’s historical environmental practices, beyond specific product offerings? Do executives fly in private jets, for example? Does the company have other business lines (e.g. investment banking) that services clients with opposing interests and how will the company overcome these conflicts?

Perhaps most importantly, use of ESG funds doesn’t absolve one of personal responsibility, nor does it replace government regulation and policy. To reduce carbon emissions, communities – individuals, businesses, governments – must work together to achieve common goals.


MSCI Webcast: Foundations of Climate Investing

MSCI Webcast: Foundations of Climate Investing


How has climate risk been priced into equity markets?

How can we model climate risk in preparation for net-zero targets?

What are the Climate Paris Aligned Indexes and how can they help investors seeking a net-zero strategy? (MSCI)

EU urged to end ‘doom loop’ with tougher climate finance rules

European Union policymakers faced a call on Wednesday to break a ‘climate-finance doom loop’ by making banks hold up to three times more capital to cover risks from fossil fuel activities.

Finance Watch, which campaigns to make finance work better for society, has written to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, urging the EU to toughen capital rules for banks and insurers involved in environmentally damaging activities.

“The longer the European Union waits, the higher the chances mount that it will face a financial crisis induced by the climate crisis,” Finance Watch said in the letter. (Reuters)

Future shock. Absent decarbonization shock treatment, humans will be wedded to petroleum and other fossil fuels for longer than they would like.

Future shock. Absent decarbonization shock treatment, humans will be wedded to petroleum and other fossil fuels for longer than they would like. Wind and solar power reach new heights every year but still represent just 5% of global primary energy consumption. In this year’s energy paper, we review why decarbonization is taking so long: transmission obstacles, industrial energy use, the gargantuan mineral and pipeline demands of sequestration, and the slow motion EV revolution. Other topics include our oil & gas views, Biden’s energy agenda, China, the Texas power outage and client questions on electrified shipping, sustainable aviation fuels, low energy nuclear power, hydrogen and carbon accounting. (JP Morgan)

Download Paper

Listen to Podcast

ETFs and Funds Investing

Does ESG Investing Actually Achieve Anything?

Typical ESG investing (aka socially responsible investing, SRI investing, responsible investing, etc.) is a waste of time. It doesn’t achieve what many hope and believe.

ESG investment funds may be counterproductive and actually worsen the issues they are meant to fight.

Instead, many ESG funds only serve to pacify anxious investors who wish to decorate their portfolios with feel-good products. It’s sad to say because both ESG investment product manufacturers and investors usually have the best intentions. They want to do the right thing. Unfortunately, many fail to recognize their efforts are probably counterproductive and likely worsen the issues they are meant to fight.

As global interest in ESG investing rapidly grows, it is critical that investors understand how many ESG investment funds fall short of their implied objectives. trends.embed.renderExploreWidget(“TIMESERIES”, {“comparisonItem”:[{“keyword”:”esg”,”geo”:””,”time”:”2004-01-01 2021-04-02″}],”category”:0,”property”:””}, {“exploreQuery”:”date=all&q=esg”,”guestPath”:””});

What is an ESG fund?

ESG funds are investment products (like mutual funds or exchange traded funds) that are constructed to feature environmental, social and corporates governance factors into their investment process.

Many ESG investment funds attempt to do this by excluding certain categories of sin stocks: guns, tobacco, porn, and so on. With growing concern about climate change, oil is increasingly at the top of the sin list.

The first problem with oil company exclusion is it’s very limited in scope. Oil companies don’t operate in a vacuum and are highly integrated within all sectors of the economy. They are financed by banks. They supply petroleum to chemicals and plastics manufacturers. Plastics are used in the production of millions of products. If boycotting oil companies, why not also their best customers and financiers?

It’s true that oil companies are at the heart of CO2 emissions and shutting down oil companies would stop the flow of petroleum based products throughout the economy. But excluding oil companies from ESG portfolios fails to shut anything down.

Companies have always had to work with various strata of investors who exclude certain investments based on a variety of characteristics. Value investors shun momentum stocks. Most of the world doesn’t invest in Canadian companies. Tobacco and gun stocks have been excluded from many large portfolios for decades. Yet, tobacco stocks, gun stocks and Canadian stocks have continued to perform as expected. Altria (formerly Phillip Morris) has a stellar long-run track record.

Is ESG investing profitable?

The exclusion of companies or sectors doesn’t affect performance. Research from South Africa’s period of Apartheid has shown that boycotting certain companies, sectors or countries is ineffective at altering share price performance.

Companies simply don’t need 100% of investors to be interested in their stock. There will always be a class of investors who don’t care about what they invest in as long as the returns are good.

In fact, the exclusion of certain companies from ESG portfolios may actually improve return prospects for those excluded companies. Perversely, if 80% of investors shunned Altria, for example, causing its share price to decline Altria’s expected future return would rise, attracting the remaining 20% of investors. A smaller pool of potential investors doesn’t change a company’s business prospects, and thus its intrinsic value. There will always be investors willing to capitalize on this. Moreover, without the burden of ESG-related business expenses, Altria’s intrinsic value may actually rise relative to other ESG-friendly companies.

Does ESG investing make a difference?

As conscientious investors abandon a company, the remaining class of financiers care less-and-less about the company’s practices. All things equal, this leaves the offending company to continue as it pleases, perhaps even creating a disadvantage for the ‘good’ companies that must operate under greater constraints.

Investors looking to force change would do better by adopting methods used by activist investors, like Carl Icahn. Activist investors take large stakes in companies they want to change. Shareholders, as company owners, have a right to board representation. The board hires company executives who then run the company.

To create change, investors must not distance themselves from companies with weak ESG practices. Instead, they must directly engage the companies they wish to change.

Research by the European Corporate Governance Institute shows that shareholder activism can create real change:

We study the nature of and outcomes from coordinated engagements by a prominent international network of long-term shareholders cooperating to influence firms on environmental and social issues. A two-tier engagement strategy, combining lead investors with supporting investors, is effective in successfully achieving the stated engagement goals and is followed by improved target performance. An investor is more likely to lead the collaborative dialogue when the investor’s stake in and exposure to the target firm are higher, and when the target is domestic. Success rates are elevated when lead investors are domestic, and when the investor coalition is capable and influential.

Abstract, “Coordinated Engagements”. January 2021

Given this perspective, ESG scores for investment funds (provided by various rating agencies) can be totally misleading. Based on current methodologies at many ratings agencies, to get a high score a fund must have minimal exposure to offending companies. As shown above, this can have a counterproductive result.

Don’t divest. Engage.

None of this is easy. However, if institutional investors (which represent individual investors) combine efforts and own enough of a company to engage the board they can enact real change. This is not an unusual practice, as investors have banded together many times in the past.

As public concern over climate change grows, there will likely be enough energy to make a real difference. However, it is critical that efforts are directed correctly, away from feel-good ESG products and into activist ESG funds.