Our ESG focus is winning new clients
According to a recent survey by Schroders, the number of financial advisers who include ESG factors in their fund selection process is now 74%. That represents an increase of more than 30% over a 12-month period. Schroders describes it as a “sea change”.
Over the next few months, we’re going to be featuring a number of financial planning firms which have decided to take the ESG route, and asking them about their experiences.
One of the first UK planning firms to embrace ESG was RockWealth.
Headquartered in Cheltenham, RockWealth also has offices in Leamington and Norwich.
In this interview, RockWealth partner MARK VAIL discusses the journey the firm has been on, and explains how its focus on sustainability is helping to win new business.
This article is sponsored by Global Systematic Investors, an evidence-based fund management company that combines systematic factor investing with an ESG overlay.
Mark, when and why did RockWealth start to take a close interest in ESG?
It’s been on our agenda for a number of years now. There are two main reasons. Firstly, intuitively and morally, it just felt like the right thing to do. We’ve always viewed ourselves as disruptors and truth-seekers, always looking to challenge the status quo.
Secondly, while the popularity of ESG has been increasing over recent decades, I think it has now reached a sort of inflection point. Any lingering reservations we had about ESG investments — about performance, for example, data, analytics, cost and choice — now seem to have largely been resolved.
How did you go about choosing an investment solution?
Our challenge was to incorporate ESG into RockWealth’s evidence-based investment philosophy. We had to ensure that the principles of diversification, buy-and-hold and low cost were in no way compromised.
Over the past decade, investors have been inundated with ESG funds. Typically they’ve arrived in concentrated, expensive fund offerings. There’ve been inconsistent and flexible definitions around ESG, and debates over the terminology used and data. Combined with the explosion in choices, I think that’s created more confusion than conviction.
In the early days, we were simply hampered by a lack of suitable product choice. This began to change, I guess, two or three years ago. We met Max Tennant from Global Systematic Investors and he explained how they were combining systematic factor investing with allocating more to companies with a sustainable vision. For us it was a lightbulb moment and, from that point onwards, we’ve not looked back.
How have you built ESG into your financial planning process?
I suppose we had a number of alternatives, from offering it as an option on one end of the scale, through to going all-in at the other end of the scale. I think the more we looked at ESG, the more compelling the arguments became.
Pretty early on in that process, we decided that this wasn’t going to be a tick-box option, a nice-to-offer component for our clients’ portfolios. We realised it would be a must-have ingredient in every portfolio. So we’ve gone all-in.
We’ve had to build a suite of new ESG portfolios; and all new clients to the business, over the last 12-to-18 months, have been invested into these ESG portfolios. There is no alternative. We don’t believe there needs to be an alternative, if truth be told.
The processing and repositioning of existing clients’ investment portfolios is well underway — I’m tempted to say nearing completion, but the events of last year have tempered that somewhat! We’re pretty much three-quarters of the way through, having had discussions with existing clients and repositioned their portfolios.
What do new clients typically tell you when you raise the subject of ESG? Have you had any say they don’t want to invest sustainably?
I’ll answer the last part of that question first. No, we haven’t had a single client saying they didn’t want to invest sustainably. The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive.
We spend quite a bit of time getting to know our clients, and understanding their motivations and their values. We also like to articulate a consistent message, so people are clear on our values as a business, and what we stand for. So that has resulted in us attracting similar, like-minded individuals as clients, and explains why, as I say, everyone so far has been happy to invest in evidence-based ESG portfolios.
In fact, interestingly, several of our newest clients have sought us out. They’ve chosen us not just because of our evidence-based approach to investing, but also because we incorporate ESG into that proposition.
And how do you actually raise the issue of ESG with your clients?
To begin a conversation about ESG, we’ve simply been asking the question, What do you want for society and the world at large? Typically, the responses revolve around the more obvious concerns for the environment, but also wider social issues, and how the pandemic has clearly exposed some very real health, financial and political inequalities around the world.
From the conversations that we’ve been having with clients over these past 12 months, it’s very clear to us that they are increasingly ready and willing to take a stand with their investment choices.
There’s been much debate about the wisdom of sustainable investing from a purely financial point of view. Some say it’s good for returns, while others say it could harm returns. Who’s right?
That’s a really interesting question, and I’m not sure there’s an obvious answer. RockWealth’s evidence-based approach to investing does away with trying to guess where markets are heading, so postulating about unknowns is always an uncomfortable activity for us.
I think there are many riskier activities that investors can be engaged in than choosing between mainstream investing and ESG investing. Chasing individual stocks and sectors that are on the up is an example of that.
That said, I do believe that sustainable businesses will emerge even stronger from the current pandemic crisis. You might expect companies with stronger governance, and with better risk management practices and labour standards to outperform. But I think many investors — and this has been borne out in the conversations that we’ve been having with clients over the last year — wrongly believe that incorporating ESG data negatively impacts their portfolio’s performance.
There’ve been many, many studies on this. There was a Morningstar study last year which concluded there’s no evidence that investors need to sacrifice returns when they invest in good ESG companies globally compared with bad ESG stocks.
There are other studies that have identified a positive link between ESG integration and measures of corporate performance factors.
There’s also a well-known meta-study from 2015, which aggregated evidence from more than 2000 empirical studies. 90% of those studies showed a non-negative relationship between the incorporation of ESG factors and corporate financial performance. 63% actually identified a positive link.
Yes, some clients have expressed concerns that because ESG investing means deviating from benchmark, that they might end up with sub-par returns. But these fears have so far proved to be unfounded.
So, from a risk management perspective, I think backing companies with good ESG scores instead of those with bad ones is logically the right decision to make. From a financial point of view, there appears to be no reason not to embrace ESG either.
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