Sustainable investment

Sophia Grene

One in three Americans believes aliens have landed on Earth and are dwelling among us. There are quite a lot of things they do not believe in, however, including the importance of the fluffy stuff in investment.

Parallel reports from the European and US social investment forums on the perception of environmental, social and governance issues among investment consultants seem to show American consultants are much less comfortable with the concepts and less inclined to see them as a natural part of investment consultancy. This despite a general belief (expressed by 88 per cent of respondents) that client interest in these matters will increase in the next few years.

Pauline Skypala

If any fund manager deserves an award for trying to change the world, or at least start a real debate, it must be Hermes.

The fund manager, owned by the BT pension scheme, the UK’s biggest, today co-hosted a conference with the lengthy title: Creating sustainable wealth through responsible asset management and ownership.

Last week, it handed out awards for transparency in governance, in collaboration with the Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators (ICSA).

Ruth Sullivan

Hand cradles a globe above the cracked earth

Half of UK consumers would like to check the ethical credentials of their next investment

Post credit crunch, most people would expect investors - or would-be ones - to focus on how to gain returns from any financial product, while other considerations such as ethical concerns have headed out of the door.

Not so, it seems. An Ipsos Mori/Eiris consumer survey that dropped into my email box today, showed nearly half of UK consumers are keen to find out about the ethical credentials of their next investment. Given that most of those polled are already investors, they are likely to have some relevant views.

They felt banks and other financial institutions should prioritise concerns such as protecting human rights, investing in fair trade, protecting the environment and tackling climate change. These are now the hot issues rather than the more traditional ones of manufacturing relating to alcohol, tobacco and gambling, says Eiris, the Ethical Investment Research Service.

But there is still a long way to go. Awareness of ethical financial products is low as is trust, with more than a third not believing claims made by financial providers. But only 15 per cent thought ethical products were likely to underperform similar standard products.

They might want to take a look at a report brought out this week by Mercer, the consultant, that lays out volumes of academic research on how taking account of environmental, social and corporate governance issues can have a positive impact on portfolio returns.

One thing is sure. Green, social and ethical funds have grown considerably in number and size in Europe over the past year, in spite of the fall-out from the financial crisis.

The number of retail funds increased over the year to the end of June to 683 from 537, or by 27 per cent, according to Vigeo, a corporate social responsibility ratings agency, and Morningstar.

Sophia Grene

The Irish National Pensions Reserve Fund is getting a rough ride at the moment. Having been forced to pick up the tab for the recapitalisation of the Irish banks (some €7bn worth of preference shares in Bank of Ireland and Allied Irish Banks), it is about to lose its chief executive, John Corrigan, who moves upstairs to replace his boss, head of the National Treasury Management Agency, the NPRF’s parent body.

This will not be a pleasant job, but nor will running the NPRF. As well as easing in a new chief executive, it has to work on reconciling its responsible investment policy (it has signed up to the UN Principles for Responsible Investing and is a member of the Carbon Disclosure Project) with its legal mandate to “secure the optimal total financial return provided the level of risk to the moneys held or invested is acceptable”.

According to human rights advocate Mark Cumming, the contradiction between this and the NPRF’s own stated intention to “incorporate ESG factors into investment research, analysis and decision making” stands in the way of its developing coherent policies.

If the Irish government can push through amending legislation requiring the NPRF to bail out the banks, surely it should be able to rewrite the NPRF’s mandate in order to allow it to take long term non-financial risk factors into account and ensure Irish pensioners will not profit from destructive corporate practices such as human rights abuses or uncontrolled environmental damage.

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Ruth Sullivan

One meeting to watch out for today is the sustainable stock exchanges event in New York, hosted by several United Nations’ bodies including the the UN Principles for Responsible Investment.

The aim of the gathering is to take stock of how the world’s exchanges can work together with investors, regulators and companies to increase corporate transparency and encourage responsible long-term investing.

This will involve tackling environmental, social and corporate governance issues. Eiris, the Ethical Investment Research Services, says one of the key drivers will be to include ESG disclosure into listing rules and corporate governance standards.

Paul Abberley, chief executive of Aviva Investors London says little support from listing authorities “who play a crucial role in setting out what companies report to the market” has come so far.

Many present today will be hoping to discuss measures to encourage best practice among companies through sustainable indices. Some exchanges such as Johannesburg Stock Exchange Socially Responsible index or the Deutsche Borse Daxglobal Alternative Energy Index, and the Indonesian exchange have already done this but there is plenty of scope for others to follow.

Global stock exchanges are likely to hear some challenging calls to take action.

Ruth Sullivan

Norway’s Government Pension Fund seems to have it all. Oil wealth, decent returns and a responsible approach to investment.

The decision to put part of its oil wealth to work for the country’s pension pot is one that makes many pension savers in other parts of the world gnash their teeth in envy, particularly if they happen to live in a resource-rich country that has not invested its black gold in the same way, such as the UK. 

Sophia Grene

Fund managers are in the unhappy position of being able to see the oncoming train but unable to move because their hands are tied. Even though they think climate change is a source of investment risk, their short-sighted clients are not letting them do anything about it.

According to research by FairPensions, nearly 90 per cent of fund managers think climate change is an investment issue, but feel they can’t do anything because of short-term analysis and lack of demand from pension funds.

Sophia Grene

Investing in solar panels this year generated a loss

Investing in solar power this year generated a loss

Investing in a climate change fund is usually seen to be a responsible thing to do, so surely offering a climate change fund is something a responsible investment manager might do.

Not according to RCM, a fund manager with a long track record in sustainable management and a very successful (in assset-gathering terms) Ecotrends product. It does not, however, offer a climate change fund, because of concern it does not make sense as an investment strategy.

Pauline Skypala

Pension saving is too expensive. According to a report from the Royal Society of Arts, up to 40 per cent of pension savings disappear in fees and costs under the UK’s current system of private pension provision.

Personal accounts, the national scheme to be rolled out in the UK from 2012, are designed to tackle this problem. People will be automatically enrolled into the scheme, removing the marketing and selling costs that have helped make personal pensions so expensive.

But the £3,600 annual limit on contributions to personal accounts is too low, says the RSA report.

About the blog

FTfm is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

FTfm's specialist writing team offer their insights into the global fund management industry.

About the authors

Pauline Skypala has been editor of FTfm for four years having previously been deputy personal finance editor. She joined the FT in 1999 and has been writing on savings and investment issues throughout her career.

Steve Johnson, FTfm deputy editor, has been a journalist for 17 years, 10 of which have been with the FT.


Sophia Grene, reporter on FTfm, has been a financial journalist in print and online for 12 years.

Ruth Sullivan has worked as a financial/business journalist and foreign correspondent and for the past 10 years has been at the FT.

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