Virtuous Investing Finally Starts to Pay Off

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- For investors trying to take into account environmental, social and governance concerns, the best response seems to have been to adopt a version of St. Augustine’s prayer: “Oh Lord, make my strategy pure, but not too quickly.” For whenever the issue of socially responsible stock-picking arises, so too does the suspicion that doing good comes at a price.

A study published this week by Amundi SA, Europe’s biggest money manager with 1.5 trillion euros ($1.7 trillion) of assets, suggests that ESG’s first movers have been subject to a disadvantage, but the tide is turning in favor of the virtuous.

The Paris-based fund manager’s analysts took the stocks in various MSCI equity indexes and applied proprietary ESG scores to divide the constituents into quintiles. The research found that being at the head of the ESG crowd in recent years has indeed come at a cost — though that is changing.

Virtuous Investing Finally Starts to Pay Off

In the euro zone, Amundi calculates that investors buying shares of the companies that ranked in the top 20 percent for ESG and selling the bottom 20 percent would have suffered an annualized loss of 1.2 percent between 2010 and 2013. Following the same strategy from 2014 to 2017, though, generated a positive annualized return of 6.6 percent.

Virtuous Investing Finally Starts to Pay Off

In North American equities, buying the best-in-class stocks and selling the worst from 2014 to 2017 would have produced an annualized return of 3.3 percent. From 2010 to 2013, the strategy would have cost investors 2.7 percent per year.

What explains both the discrepancy in ESG-inspired returns over the different time periods and the wider outperformance of the euro region in recent years? The best answer may be the bandwagon effect. As more money gets allocated to ESG strategies, companies with higher scores attract more investment, while those deemed to be less compliant are shunned, and the shifts become self-reinforcing. Europe has led the way in socially responsible investing, but other regions are fast catching up.

Virtuous Investing Finally Starts to Pay Off

If the trend continues, momentum may well be on the side of the righteous — and investors will be able to talk about the positive effect that doing good has on returns.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Mark Gilbert is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering asset management. He previously was the London bureau chief for Bloomberg News. He is also the author of "Complicit: How Greed and Collusion Made the Credit Crisis Unstoppable."

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.