Say what you will about ethics in finance, but a big change sweeping through large chunks of this industry is the shift towards investing with a social conscience.
Under pressure from consumers, more superannuation funds and government money managers, such as the Future Fund, are taking steps to incorporate social, environmental and other non-financial criteria into their investment processes.
Excluding “sin stocks”, such as gambling companies, would not have harmed returns from the Australian market over the very long term. Photo: Arsineh Houspian
Most super funds also allow you to choose a socially responsible or ethical option, which will tend to exclude certain stocks or industries altogether.
But does investing with a conscience come at the cost of lower returns?
This age-old debate was explored in recent research from Australian Centre for Financial Services, and its overall conclusion is that no, it probably doesn’t.
That is not always the case, of course, but the general finding is also supported by the country’s largest super fund.
There are many versions of responsible investment, but let’s look at the approach whereby certain types of stocks are excluded based on their social or environmental impact.
You might assume that excluding “sin stocks”, such as tobacco, gambling or weapons, from a portfolio would hit returns because it shrinks the investment opportunity.
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However, the ACFS paper, by Martin Foo and supported by National Australia Bank, said the “balance of empirical evidence” suggested this did not damage returns.
The report also used a detailed set of Australian data on our stockmarket’s performance, going all the way back to 1926. It constructed hypothetical portfolios that excluded alcohol, tobacco, gaming and explosives, and tested these against an unrestricted portfolios.
Their conclusion from 90 years of investment history? There was very little difference in the annual returns between the two types of funds, and the responsible investment portfolios actually performed slightly better.
The average portfolio that excluded “sin stocks” returned 7.95 per cent a year, compared with 7.65 per cent for an average “unrestricted portfolio.”
It also noted that excluding mining stocks would have made a much bigger difference, as the materials sector had performed worse than the broader index in every decade since the second world war.
Over a shorter time frame, evidence from SuperRatings presents a different story.
Its index of 21 sustainable investment options have performed worse than normal balanced funds over the past 1,3, 5, 7 and 10 years. A likely reason they have underperformed in the last year is increase in miners’ share prices.
But this isn’t the case for all funds – AustralianSuper’s “socially aware” fund posted better returns of 13.1 per cent last financial year, higher than the 12.4 per cent for the most popular “balanced” option.
Chief investment officer Mark Delaney also says responsible investment shouldn’t result in lower returns in the long term.
Delaney says that because socially aware funds have a more narrow portfolio, their performance tends to be more volatile – but it shouldn’t be worse.
“I don’t expect it to be a better or a worse performer, but it may well be a bit more volatile,” Delaney says.
Exchange traded funds (ETFs), bought on the stock exchange, also offer a way to invest with a conscience.
Betashares this year launched the Global Sustainability Leaders ETF, consisting of global companies that have a carbon impact at least 60 per cent lower than the industry average.
It is very early days, but since its launch in January this fund has returned 12 per cent, beating the local market and the average for global shares.
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