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THIS TIME IS DIFFERENT

Investing irresponsibly

Taken together, history shows that the two biggest anti-ESG sectors - tobacco and alcohol - have significantly outperformed the market

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ASKING whether one should invest in a socially responsible way seems like a trivial question with an obvious answer. Socially responsible investing (SRI) has a long history. One of the successes often cited is its role in ending apartheid in South Africa in the 1970s. US companies drafted a code of conduct for doing business in the country, which - coupled with increasing political pressure - caused more institutional investors to avoid companies that were operating in South Africa.

In our modern era, SRI has evolved by taking into account three factors: environmental, social and governance (ESG). And who wouldn't invest this way, especially if you can do it for the same returns that you would get otherwise? Or better yet, even improve your investment returns by adopting ESG? This movement has gained such momentum that even credit rating agencies are building ESG considerations into their agendas, and there are already a number of funds that focus on investing in companies that score well under these metrics. The target result is that we would favour companies that benefit society, while companies that harm society would be shunned by investors, and would eventually be forced to change their ways. This utopian target is worthy but not achievable, for two primary reasons.

First, it is easy enough to define companies that do not meet the ESG criteria. Tobacco, alcohol, and guns are cited as obvious examples. So is the "big oil" sector due to the pollution caused by its business. Defining companies that score well on ESG metrics is a whole different story.

Taking a look at the biggest holdings in the largest ESG exchange-traded fund (ETF), we see in order of allocation: Microsoft, Facebook, Google, Intel and Cisco. I had to do a double take to make sure that I hadn't loaded the Nasdaq technology ETF instead. The second largest ESG ETF also lists Microsoft as its largest holding. Who knew that Microsoft was such a paragon of environmental, social and governance criteria? Going down the list, we see Coca-Cola as the eighth largest holding. It would not be too difficult to create an argument that peddling fizzy sugar drinks does not rank very high in a list of socially responsible qualities.

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Or Facebook (No 2) with its recent public relation woes over its use of user data without consent? Interestingly one big oil company, ConocoPhillips, is also in the ETF (No 33).

My view of a company that benefits society may not match your view. Big oil companies cause pollution, which causes global warming, which is bad. But all the uses of all that oil have tremendously improved our quality of life. The carbon footprint for building an electric car is significantly higher than a normal car. It produces no pollution when being driven, but the energy needed to charge the car may be coming from unclean sources like coal. Who is right? The ESG criteria is subject to so much interpretation that it becomes difficult to objectively rank companies.

Investment performance

The second reason to consider whether to use ESG in an investor's allocation criteria is more practical: investment performance.

With the broadening acceptance of ESG globally, a significant amount of research shows that adopting ESG results in similar investment performance. In other words, you can expect about the same investment performance by adding your ESG criteria. A smaller subset of this research actually shows that performance improves after screening for companies that score highly on ESG. Being good for the environment and society turns out to be good for business too!

This research makes adopting ESG a no brainer. If you can at least achieve a similar investment performance, it is perfectly logical to choose to invest in companies that will leave the planet cleaner for our children and grandchildren, compared to the alternative.

A closer look at the evidence points to a different conclusion. Reducing the investable universe by a set criteria (say, ESG) will result in periods of underperformance when shares of the weak ESG companies are doing better. Since ESG is relatively new, the historical analysis is short and often extrapolated to a longer time period to arrive at far-reaching conclusions. A better method to assess ESG's investment performance merits can be arrived at by looking at the best long-term performing stock in modern history.

The best performing stock over the long run has been Philip Morris (now renamed Altria). This was not a stock-specific story, as the broader tobacco sector also significantly outperformed the overall equity markets over the last century, at 14.6 per cent versus 9.6 per cent per annum. A dollar invested in Philip Morris 50 years ago would now be worth $8,751, while the same dollar put into the S&P500 would now be worth $118.

Bottom end

Philip Morris and the tobacco sector should clearly be at the bottom end of the ESG performance list. For investors who do not put much weight on historical data, saying that the past is the past and the future is different, should note that this consistent outperformance was achieved during a century when the number of absolute smokers fell every single decade. To make things worse, once the link between smoking and cancer was established, there was the constant risk of crippling lawsuits against the whole industry. The outperformance was not due to any specific benevolent market conditions, but was instead achieved in spite of the negative environment for the industry.

We can see a similar conclusion in another weak-ESG sector: alcohol. This sector also showed a similar large outperformance compared to the overall stock market, though we do not have a full century of data due to the prohibition era during the 1920s in the US. Taken together, history shows that the two biggest anti-ESG sectors significantly outperformed the market. Excluding them would have resulted in lower, not higher, investor returns.

ESG is conceptually a great framework to reduce the negative impact of business on social and environmental performance measures, and its adoption will improve society, a very worthwhile goal in itself. Investors however need to be aware that this will most likely happen with lower investment returns. It would be fantastic if this were not the case, but pure economic interests are too often achieved at the expense of the environment - unless there are very strong economic disincentives, which are usually within the mandate of governments to establish.

Proponents of ESG will make the case that accepting a slightly lower return in pursuit of ESG's underlying goal is the right choice. Many investors will agree if we are talking about one per cent lower annual returns. But if this entails accepting 5 per cent lower annual returns, each investor will need to make their own choice on whether to adopt this additional investment selection criteria.

  • The writer is co-founder of AL Wealth Partners, an independent Singapore-based company providing investment and fund management services to endowments and family offices, and wealth-advisory services to accredited individual investors