ESG investing stands out during COVID-19 volatility

Environmental, social and governance initiatives have gained traction in many companies

Advocates of environmental, social and governance (ESG) investing have long maintained that strong ESG practices contribute to strong businesses. COVID-19 has put that thinking to the test, and over the past few months, we’ve seen several bright spots in terms of ESG engagement and performance.

ESG engagement: Companies seek meaningful changes during crisis

The United Nations Principles for Responsible Investing (UNPRI) has historically experienced above-average growth in membership during times of crisis, like during the financial crisis of 2008-09. The current crisis is no exception. The UNPRI has seen a 28% increase in the growth of its signatories already this year, making 2020 the best year since 2010 — and we’re not even halfway done.1 Companies are using this crisis to make meaningful changes, not just to adapt to COVID-related challenges, but also to improve their environmental, social and corporate governance policies; to increase technological investments that improve their resiliency; to build trust with employees, customers and shareholders; and to ultimately come out of this crisis stronger and better positioned.

From an environmental perspective, nature has been one of the biggest beneficiaries from a global pause in travel and movement. Pictures of typically smoggy cities around the world now show clear, clean air. While some level of activity will undoubtedly return over time, many companies and employees are learning how productive home offices, remote meetings and virtual conferences can be.  Moreover, the work-from-home transition has accelerated the transformation towards paperless offices, helping many break the habit and dependency of printed material.

Socially, there have been two big areas of change this year. The first is COVID-related: Many companies have had to reimagine their working conditions — ensuring a healthy work-life balance for employees working from home, as well as creating a safe environment for employees and customers at the office or job site. The second relates to social justice. It’s become increasingly clear that not enough has been done to close racial gaps and disparities that have existed for decades, and it’s been encouraging to see the new or renewed public declaration of initiatives by various companies to help address this issue.  

ESG performance: Comparing results by company engagement

What about performance? Advocates believe that companies with better ESG practices and engagement are well-positioned to outperform peers with lower levels of ESG engagement. One of the hardest parts about evaluating whether this is true over the long term is that ESG has only taken off in broad scale in the US within the last 10 years. The past decade has also been one of the best decades for stock market returns, so there hasn’t been a meaningful pullback to try and identify whether the aforementioned was actually true: Do companies with higher levels of ESG engagement outperform their peers?

While the markets have certainly been turbulent this year, we believe it’s still worth exploring the returns of highly engaged ESG companies and their peers. Let’s look at the 12 months ending June 30, 2020 and compare the performance of S&P 500 Index constituents from the top-ranked ESG companies (Quintile 1) through the lowest-ranked (Quintile 5).

Source: Factset and Sustainalytics (equal number of securities in each quintile) Sustainalytics’ ESG Rating is a proprietary rating system that offers investors in-depth and timely ratings and analyses of corporate ESG performance. Investors use their research for various applications, including corporate engagement, enhanced risk analysis, due diligence, exclusionary screens, best-in-class analysis and portfolio management. For more information on Sustainalytic’s ESG ratings, please visit their website at sustainalytics.com/esg-research-ratings. Past performance does not guarantee future results. An investment cannot be made directly into an index.

It’s clear that the Quintile 1 companies outperformed the other groups. At a granular level, these companies were less volatile through the turbulent March-April period, which helped overall performance. Looking at the rest of the list, the other quintiles almost fall in perfect line (in terms of higher ESG scores equating to higher performance) with one exception — the lowest quintile group ranked in second place in terms of performance over the past year. Why? That group’s performance was dominated by one of the largest companies in the S&P 500 Amazon — which contributed over half of the return for that group.2 But besides that exception, the higher-ranked companies from an ESG perspective have outperformed lower-ranked companies.

When you pause for a minute and peel back the ESG layers to try and understand why it is that these companies tend to outperform, I believe it lies with the management teams – the often-overlooked non-financial component of fundamental analysis. The quality of a management team can quickly be overshadowed by artificial intelligence, machine learning and algorithmic trading. However, it’s the management teams making key decisions with the long view in mind that drive the E, S and G forward, ultimately for the betterment of not just shareholders, but the world.

Talk to your advisor

Interested in the opportunities that ESG investing can provide? Talk to your financial advisor and explore the ESG Opportunity Portfolio from Invesco Unit Trusts, a portfolio of common stocks of companies demonstrating highly favorable ESG practices.

1 Source: UNPRI

2 Amazon was not a holding of the ESG Opportunity Portfolio as of June 30, 2020

Important information

Blog header image: Appolinary Kalashnikova / Unsplash

There is no assurance the trust will achieve its investment objective. An investment in this unit investment trust is subject to market risk, which is the possibility that the market values of securities owned by the trust will decline and the value of trust units may therefore be less than what you paid for them. This trust is unmanaged and its portfolio is not intended to change during the trust’s life except in limited circumstances. Accordingly, you can lose money investing in this trust. The trust should be considered as part of a long-term investment strategy and you should consider your ability to pursue it by investing in successive trusts, if available. You will realize tax consequences associated with investing from one series to the next.

An issuer may be unwilling or unable to declare dividends in the future, or may reduce the level of dividends declared. This may result in a reduction in the value of your Units.

The financial condition of an issuer may worsen or its credit ratings may drop, resulting in a reduction in the value of your Units. This may occur at any point in time, including during the initial offering period.

You could experience dilution of your investment if the size of the Portfolio is increased as Units are sold. There is no assurance that your investment will maintain its proportionate share in the Portfolio’s profits and losses.

The Portfolio invests in securities of companies demonstrating favorable ESG practices. The companies may not have applied favorable ESG practices in the past and there is no guarantee that the companies will continue to apply favorable ESG practices over the life of the Portfolio.

The opinions referenced above are those of the author as of July 22, 2020. These comments should not be construed as recommendations, but as an illustration of broader themes. Forward-looking statements are not guarantees of future results. They involve risks, uncertainties and assumptions; there can be no assurance that actual results will not differ materially from expectations.

Nathan Miller is a Unit Trust Equity Portfolio Manager and is responsible for research and security selection for equity unit trusts.

Mr. Miller has been with Invesco since 2015. He entered the industry in 2004 and has held roles in research, product development, product management and sales. Prior to joining Invesco, Mr. Miller served as a credit analyst with First Trust and as an assistant vice president of unit investment trusts with Guggenheim.

Mr. Miller earned a BS degree in finance from the University of Illinois at Chicago. He holds the Series 7, 24 and 63 registrations and is a Chartered Financial Analyst® (CFA) charterholder.

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