Register For Our Mailing List

Register to receive our free weekly newsletter including editorials.

Home / 391

Why ESG assessment must now consider active ownership

In 2020, as COVID-19 caused markets to whipsaw in response to economic recovery, vaccine and immunity hopes, the job of analysts assessing long-term asset value became far more complex and fast-moving.

The accelerated rate of change brought on by COVID also sped up critical investment decisions, highlighted the importance of Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) considerations and expanded the discussion to include responsible investing and active ownership.

Social risk and active ownership questions

The year began with the enormous loss and hardship associated Australia’s bushfires. Summer brought another wave of COVID and more lockdowns. Not surprisingly, client interactions throughout 2020 touched on one, if not all, aspects of the ever-growing ESG issues. Questions on social risk, such as human welfare, supply chain and climate, as well as reputational risks, are now at the forefront of the investment discussion.

This has moved the ESG conversation beyond E, S and G factors and their application and integration into valuation models to what they need to be anchored to in order to drive change, which is active ownership.

The Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI) defines active ownership as the ‘use of the rights and position of ownership to influence the activities or behaviour of investee companies’, that is to say, the use of ESG engagement and proxy voting.

Regardless of how an investor chooses to own an asset, ownership is ultimately an undertaking to knowing a company’s business, and how the company is positioned for growth is essential to understanding its sustainability over the long term.

This was truer than ever in 2020 as businesses found ways to help their stakeholders deal with multidimensional crises such as COVID that overnight turned the world virtual, forcing individuals, families, communities, organisations, states and markets to interact in ways and on a scale never seen before.

The role of passive and active managers

Both passive (index) and active managers have an important role to play in realising the potential value that thoughtful engagement and proxy voting can create. While large passive managers have the size to influence voting on broad issues, their ability to effect nuanced engagements with companies is likely hindered simply because they own so many companies. Index investors generally have to buy all the companies in the relevant benchmark.

Typically, active managers are better positioned to look into businesses, industry operations and management. They use all the available information, including non-financial information (which is becoming increasingly mandated), to determine what will have a material impact on those businesses.

If they do not know the business well enough, they cannot tell the difference between one that is sustainable and socially responsible or not. Nor are they able to effectively challenge company management on how to deal with ESG risks and take advantage of ESG opportunities.

Active investors with deep research capabilities are able to perform 'materiality discovery' similar to price discovery and engage in a sustained way with investee companies to instigate change.

Research from Cambridge University shows that:

"ESG engagements generate cumulative size-adjusted abnormal return of +2.3% over the following year on the initial engagement. Cumulative abnormal returns are much higher for successful engagements (+7.1%)."

The research found no market reaction to unsuccessful engagements.

Investment organisations that manage sustainable investing through ESG integration, proxy voting and engagement are more likely to create sustainable value over the long term.

In addition, these active ownership attributes improve their ability to achieve their client’s objectives and meet their fiduciary responsibilities. We have yet to be convinced that offering products with ESG screens or overlays can do the same, perhaps it ticks a short-term box, but true long-term stewards should demand more.

ESG risk assessment a blunt tool

In our experience, investors want to know what longer-term, sustained improvement in the relevant ESG areas a company has made. Whilst we understand why transparency and measurement is important, we caution against an over reliance on narrow or blunt measurement tools, which cannot be expected to capture the nuance and range of the ESG risks faced by, and opportunities available to, companies.

The chaos in the marketplace in relation to assessing companies for ESG is well illustrated below. The world’s largest rating agencies, FTSE and MSCI, are virtually uncorrelated when it comes to ESG materiality. This creates an opportunity for managers such as MFS to engage with clients on how the criteria that we, ourselves, have been building can potentially drive long-term performance on their behalf.

 

ESG must include active ownership

Client alignment is at the heart of active ownership, so a critical part of the ESG discussion is to understand whether your investment manager is aligned with your views and how sustainability is factored into the investment process undertaken.

Active ownership will become a necessity and the norm for all managers, both active and passive. There is a chance that that passive owners, not passive managers, will get punished if they do not use their voting power to build more sustainable practices at companies.

At a time when we are facing more pressure and complexity than ever before, the managers who survive will be those that align with their clients' long-term needs and support the transition to a more sustainable society. This philosophy fuels our beliefs as an active manager.

 

Marian Poirier is Senior Managing Director, Australia for MFS Investment Management. The views expressed are those of the author(s) and are subject to change at any time. These views are for informational purposes only and should not be relied upon as a recommendation to purchase any security or as a solicitation or investment advice. No forecasts can be guaranteed. This article is issued in Australia by MFS International Australia Pty Ltd (ABN 68 607 579 537, AFSL 485343), a sponsor of Firstlinks.

For more articles and papers from MFS, please click here.

Unless otherwise indicated, logos and product and service names are trademarks of MFS® and its affiliates and may be registered in certain countries.

 

RELATED ARTICLES

Amid vaccine hope and skepticism, testing is key

The role of financial markets when earnings are falling

10 lessons from Larry Fink's 2022 Outlook

banner

Most viewed in recent weeks

Is it better to rent or own a home under the age pension?

With 62% of Australians aged 65 and over relying at least partially on the age pension, are they better off owning their home or renting? There is an extra pension asset allowance for those not owning a home.

Too many retirees miss out on this valuable super fund benefit

With 700 Australians retiring every day, retirement income solutions are more important than ever. Why do millions of retirees eligible for a more tax-efficient pension account hold money in accumulation?

Is the fossil fuel narrative simply too convenient?

A fund manager argues it is immoral to deny poor countries access to relatively cheap energy from fossil fuels. Wealthy countries must recognise the transition is a multi-decade challenge and continue to invest.

Reece Birtles on selecting stocks for income in retirement

Equity investing comes with volatility that makes many retirees uncomfortable. A focus on income which is less volatile than share prices, and quality companies delivering robust earnings, offers more reassurance.

Comparing generations and the nine dimensions of our well-being

Using the nine dimensions of well-being used by the OECD, and dividing Australians into Baby Boomers, Generation Xers or Millennials, it is surprisingly easy to identify the winners and losers for most dimensions.

Anton in 2006 v 2022, it's deja vu (all over again)

What was bothering markets in 2006? Try the end of cheap money, bond yields rising, high energy prices and record high commodity prices feeding inflation. Who says these are 'unprecedented' times? It's 2006 v 2022.

Latest Updates

Superannuation

Superannuation: a 30+ year journey but now stop fiddling

Few people have been closer to superannuation policy over the years than Noel Whittaker, especially when he established his eponymous financial planning business. He takes us on a quick guided tour.

Survey: share your retirement experiences

All Baby Boomers are now over 55 and many are either in retirement or thinking about a transition from work. But what is retirement like? Is it the golden years or a drag? Do you have tips for making the most of it?

Interviews

Time for value as ‘promise generators’ fail to deliver

A $28 billion global manager still sees far more potential in value than growth stocks, believes energy stocks are undervalued including an Australian company, and describes the need for resilience in investing.

Superannuation

Paul Keating's long-term plans for super and imputation

Paul Keating not only designed compulsory superannuation but in the 30 years since its introduction, he has maintained the rage. Here are highlights of three articles on SG's origins and two more recent interviews.

Fixed interest

On interest rates and credit, do you feel the need for speed?

Central bank support for credit and equity markets is reversing, which has led to wider spreads and higher rates. But what does that mean and is it time to jump at higher rates or do they have some way to go?

Investment strategies

Death notices for the 60/40 portfolio are premature

Pundits have once again declared the death of the 60% stock/40% bond portfolio amid sharp declines in both stock and bond prices. Based on history, balanced portfolios are apt to prove the naysayers wrong, again.

Exchange traded products

ETFs and the eight biggest worries in index investing

Both passive investing and ETFs have withstood criticism as their popularity has grown. They have been blamed for causing bubbles, distorting the market, and concentrating share ownership. Are any of these criticisms valid?

Sponsors

Alliances

© 2022 Morningstar, Inc. All rights reserved.

Disclaimer
The data, research and opinions provided here are for information purposes; are not an offer to buy or sell a security; and are not warranted to be correct, complete or accurate. Morningstar, its affiliates, and third-party content providers are not responsible for any investment decisions, damages or losses resulting from, or related to, the data and analyses or their use. Any general advice or ‘regulated financial advice’ under New Zealand law has been prepared by Morningstar Australasia Pty Ltd (ABN: 95 090 665 544, AFSL: 240892) and/or Morningstar Research Ltd, subsidiaries of Morningstar, Inc, without reference to your objectives, financial situation or needs. For more information refer to our Financial Services Guide (AU) and Financial Advice Provider Disclosure Statement (NZ). You should consider the advice in light of these matters and if applicable, the relevant Product Disclosure Statement before making any decision to invest. Past performance does not necessarily indicate a financial product’s future performance. To obtain advice tailored to your situation, contact a professional financial adviser. Articles are current as at date of publication.
This website contains information and opinions provided by third parties. Inclusion of this information does not necessarily represent Morningstar’s positions, strategies or opinions and should not be considered an endorsement by Morningstar.

Website Development by Master Publisher.