The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agreed in September 2015 are causing an uproar in the world of responsible investment. These are the 17 SDGs that were agreed and adopted by world leaders as the means to mobilise all efforts to end poverty, fight inequalities and climate change while ensuring that no one is left behind. While the goals are not legally binding, governments are expected to take ownership and put in place specific frameworks for their achievement.
One of the stamps of approval to this framing of important social and environmental issues has come from the investment world, including major institutional investors such as Dutch pension funds now proclaiming that a major portion of their assets will require investment returns as well as a direct link to specific SDGs.
Mainstreaming ESG and impact investing
This endorsement by major global investors is laudable. In our view it represents another clear example of the mainstreaming of ESG (environmental, social and governance factors) and impact investing. However, it also presents a direct risk for cynicism by the beneficiaries of their assets if investors dilute the SDGs too much in their approach in order to link their investments to specific outcomes.
Therefore, we applaud and at the same time remain cautious as we look across asset classes and how to best link them to the specific goals identified by the UN. The most tangible asset classes to achieve demonstrable social and environmental outcomes thus far have been in alternatives as evidenced by green real assets or social impact investing in private equity.
Growing investor demand further driven by the SDGs
While impact investing and SDGs are still new on the horizon, investor demand is quickly growing and moving into larger, more liquid asset classes. For example, green bonds have provided larger tickets and liquidity for the measurement of SDGs such as Clean Water (6), Clean Energy (7) and Climate Action (13). The direction of travel is clear and the next phase of responsible investment evolution is impact investing.
The traditional area for ESG investors has been in public equities. For impact investing, it has been in alternatives. The demand for SDGs in public equities is now starting to emerge and will bridge these two worlds. In order to maintain integrity, products and services should be considered that go beyond a simple analysis of a carbon footprint compared to a benchmark. This will become the standard for client expectations, but will not necessarily meet the needs of sincerity around SDG outcomes.
SDGs create a doorway to impact investing in public equities
Two illustrations come to mind in how to make public equities relevant around SDGs and in line with an impact investing philosophy. If we take quantitative equity, one can imagine a portfolio construction process which focuses on holdings that can demonstrate how they are contributing to a lower carbon future through their products and services and business operations. Metrics such as carbon emissions saved and green share of portfolios can be used for this analysis. These are steps to demonstrate that it’s not just business-as-usual portfolio construction, and not just about following a low carbon index. This is active portfolio management towards an SDG outcome while ensuring financial returns.
Kathryn McDonald, Head of Sustainable Investing at AXA IM Rosenberg Equities, commented: “We believe that publically traded equity investing can act as complement to traditional impact investing. The breadth of the publically traded market, and the capacity offered by quantitative equity investing in particular, allows asset owners to put significant AUM to work to really move the needle on impact goals.
“Looking carefully at several of the SDGs, we believe that we can build targeted, listed equity portfolios that speak directly to specific investor goals. Importantly, compelling financial returns are a must – without those investors will not stick with ‘listed impact’ approaches for long.”
So too, in a more conviction based approach, we can imagine a portfolio that has high active share and engagement as a key basis. A focus on both environmental and social impact with metrics and information provided by companies around access to improved livelihoods, clean water and improved healthcare allows to build a concentrated portfolio in public equities, particularly with a focus on the underserved and the developing world.
Ian Smith, Portfolio Manager at AXA IM Framlington Equities, added: “At Framlington Equities, we have developed the know-how to be able to adhere to what we believe will be the common requirements of a public equity impact fund in relation to monitoring impact metrics, promoting better disclosures and aligning to the UN SDGs.
“For many companies, there can be a strong symbiotic relationship between generating tangible positive societal change and meaningful long term shareholder value – we are looking to identify the companies that have business models and strategies that extol this. We need to be thoughtful when it comes to the many grey areas in impact investment decision making and this is where our deep understanding of and relationships with businesses are critical. We like to focus on who the end beneficiaries of a company’s impact approach are and how their lives are truly being changed. This framework helps us determine which companies fit into our impact portfolios.”
All of this shows that the arrival of SDGs has created a built-in framework for investors to connect the worlds of responsible investment and traditional investment in a meaningful and measurable way.
In order to ensure SDGs, impact investing and traditional asset management prosper, integrity, care and humility are needed. The ultimate goal is for asset management to bring more colour into the equation of money and done right, SDGs can be a tool across asset classes ranging from illiquid alternatives to highly liquid public equities to truly mainstream impact investing.
By Matt Christensen, Global Head of Responsible Investment at AXA Investment Managers (AXA IM)