ESG Investing Keeps Pace With The S&P 500 In 2021

    Investors Are Proving That Companies That Serve All Stakeholders Can Do Just As Well If Not Better Than Those That Focus Solely On Profit

    ESG investing continues to perform well even as the US stock market hovers around an all-time high. In 2020, the largest ESG exchange-traded fund (ETF), the Parnassus Core Equity Institutional ETF, beat the total return of the S&P 500. Total returns include both capital gains and dividends. In 2021, the ESG ETF came just one percentage point shy of matching the total return of the S&P 500.

    Sector 2020 Total Return Rank 2021 Total Return Rank
    Technology 43.6% 1 34.7% 4
    Consumer Discretionary 29.6% 2 27.9% 6
    Communication Services 26.9% 3 16% 13
    Parnassus Core Equity Institutional ETF 21.5% 4 27.8% 7
    Materials 20.5% 5 27.5% 8
    S&P 500 18.4% 6 28.7% 5
    Health Care 13.3% 7 26% 9
    Industrials 11% 8 21.1% 10
    Consumer Staples 10.2% 9 17.2% 12
    Utilities 0.6% 10 17.7% 11
    Financials (1.7%) 11 34.8% 3
    Real Estate (2.1%) 12 46.1% 2
    Energy (32.5%) 13 53.3% 1

    Data Source: Yahoo! Finance

    The Dawn Of ESG Investing

    In late September 2020, the 120 companies that had gathered at the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) annual meeting in Davos published a near-100-page document detailing new reporting standards (see “An Introduction To ESG,” First Quarter 2021 ESG Review, p. 2). Titled “Measuring Stakeholder Capitalism Toward Common Metrics And Consistent Reporting Of Sustainable Value Creation,” the report presented new ways to align mainstream reporting with ESG reporting, effectively normalizing ESG in the business world. The core and expanded set of “stakeholder capitalism metrics” and disclosures are based on four pillars: people, planet, prosperity, and principles of governance.

    The term “ESG” was first introduced in a 2004 report titled “Who Cares Wins.” The report took the long-term view that if capital markets addressed environmental, social, and governance the same as revenue, profits, and dividends then the market itself would become more sustainable and beneficial to society.

    Money Talks

    In just 15 years, ESG went from a new idea to a pivotal component in international standardization. Money followed. In 2012, US ESG-mandated funds totaled US$3.7 trillion, comprising just 11% of professionally managed assets. By 2018, it was 26%. Deloitte Insights estimates ESG-mandated assets are hitting their big growth spurt right now and could reach US$34.5 trillion or 50% of US professionally managed assets by 2025. But that’s just professionally managed money.

    Regular people looking to manage their own money are investing in ESG ETFs or ESG index mutual funds. Although the funds vary in their specific criteria and investing strategy, the core approach is the same. That instead of selecting investments solely to strive for above-average returns, companies are chosen for their positive influence on the world around them, adherence to social responsibility, ethical governance, and a sustainable business model. Only after those criteria are met is traditional financial analysis applied.

    The Breakout

    The core belief that ESG investing and reporting would benefit capital markets is coming to fruition. From 2018 to 2020, several notable ESG funds have grown their assets under management (AUM) while also outperforming the general market. Consider that from 2018 to 2020, the S&P 500 returned roughly 45% compared to the following returns for some of Bloomberg’s highest-rates ESG funds.

    Fund Name Nasdaq Exchange Ticker Assets Under Management 3-Year Growth In AUM 3-Year Total Return
    Parnassus Core Equity Fund PRILX US$22.7 billion 40% 56%
    Morgan Stanley Institutional Fund – Global Opportunity Portfolio MGGPX US$7.1 billion 290% 97%
    Putnam Sustainable Leaders Fund PNOPX US$5.8 billion 32% 70%
    Calvert Equity Fund CSIEX US$5.7 billion 158% 75%
    Brown Advisory Sustainable Growth Fund BIAWX US$4.6 billion 831% 94%
    Morgan Stanley Institutional Fund – International Advantage Portfolio MFAPX US$4.4 billion 1,300% 60%
    Morgan Stanley Institutional Fund – International Opportunity Portfolio MIOPX US$4.1 billion 564% 83%
    Amana Growth Fund AMAGX US$2.8 billion 62% 78%
    iShares MSCI KLD 400 Social ETF DSI (NYSEArca) US$2.6 billion 155% 50%
    AllianzGI Focused Growth Fund PGWAX US$1.3 billion 29% 86%

    Data Source: Yahoo! Finance. Data as of December 2020.

    State Street Global Advisors, owner of the SPDR brand of index funds, released a report in July 2020 titled “From Tipping Point to Turning Point.” In the report, the firm forecasted that the amount of money invested in these regularly available ESG index mutual funds and ETFs would increase from US$170 billion in 2020 to US$1.33 trillion in 2030, a near eight-fold increase. Last year tested the resilience of this theory. After notching record ESG inflows in the first quarter of 2020, institutional and retail investors continued to invest more money into ESG financial products throughout the pandemic. This is all the more impressive considering financial markets experienced net outflows as stocks were sold and the market tanked during the spring of 2020. The fact that ESG products attracted dollars when the broader market was losing them bodes well for the future of ESG investing.

    Full Circle

    At its core, ESG centers around time-intensive reporting. Although laborious, these detailed reports offer transparency and duty to a company’s communities, employees, customers, and shareholders. They also provide a level of accountability that has never existed before in that companies are now judged against non-financial benchmarks. ESG reporting makes the motive not just about generating shareholder returns, although that has so far been an added bonus. It forces companies large and small to think decades ahead, not just about the next quarter. It may seem unfamiliar at first, but ESG reporting and investing have proven that companies can reduce their negative effects on society and the environment without sacrificing financial performance.