Not everyone’s sold on ESG just yet.
While investing around environmental, social and governance-friendly companies has been exploding as investors embrace a sustainable slant to their strategies, the space has faced pushback in recent months from some influential voices.
Among the latest to join in the eyebrow-raising is the investor Burton Malkiel, wo is the author of the classic finance book “A Random Walk Down Wall Street” and is known as the father of the passive investing revolution.
Malkiel,a professor emeritus of economics at Princeton University, wrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal in mid-September titled “‘Sustainable’ Investing Is a Self-Defeating Strategy.” In it, he questioned the sometimes stark differences in various issuers’ ESG scoring systems.
While he acknowledged that ESG investing could be used as a side strategy to passive indexing, Malkiel emphasized one of its biggest criticisms: Investors can’t always be sure their ESG holdings are having the desired do-good impact.
Earlier this year, Barclays analysts questioned whether an ESG focus actually leads to better financial outcomes, and the U.S. Department of Labor proposed a rule meant to remind retirement plan providers that financial gains can’t legally be sacrificed in favor of social or political causes.
Armando Senra, head of iShares Americas at BlackRock, which runs a suite of popular ESG-based ETFs including the iShares ESG Aware MSCI USA ETF (ESGU), said ESG is evolving past these concerns.
“Sustainable has really gone from being about values to being about investment risk and investment performance,” he said last week on CNBC’s “ETF Edge.”
“The fact is that ESG-related risks have an important consideration to asset pricing and ultimately to returns. So, that’s the big change that we have seen in the conversations with all types of clients, whether it’s wealth clients or institutional clients, and that’s the big change that is driving all types of investors to begin to incorporate ESG considerations in their portfolios.”
BlackRock’s sweeping suite of products affords clients the advantage of not having to deviate from their benchmarks if they’d like to preserve performance, or focusing on the values and deviating more, Senra said.
“This is not about not making money,” he said. “Ultimately, we have a fiduciary responsibility with our investors. It’s not our money, it’s our clients’ money, and therefore performance comes first. And that’s what we need to offer and that’s why we also have dramatically increased our offering of products for investors so that we can work with them along the spectrum of different options as to how they want to incorporate ESG into their portfolios.”
“The fact is … these ESG-related risks are not necessarily new, but now we have a much better way, much better technology and data, to be able to account for them, to quantify them, and therefore to be able to take them into consideration when we are building portfolios.”