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The Reluctance To Embrace ESG: Why Some Wealth Managers Lag Behind

In recent years, Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) criteria have risen to the forefront of the investment landscape, allowing investors to support sustainable and responsible practices while still aiming for meaningful returns. While many wealth managers have embraced ESG wholeheartedly, there remains a segment of the industry that lags behind. Blacktower Financial Management delves into some of the reasons for this reluctance and why it’s essential for the future of wealth management to understand and overcome these challenges.

Historical Context: The Evolution of ESG in the Investment Landscape

The journey of Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) in the world of investments has been both transformational and evolutionary. To appreciate the significance and prominence of ESG today, it’s crucial to trace back its roots and understand its progression over time.

The genesis of what we now recognize as ESG investing can be traced back to ethical investing. In its early iterations, ethical investing was largely shaped by religious beliefs. For instance, the Quakers, a religious group, prohibited members from participating in the slave trade, translating this moral stance into their financial activities. Similarly, Islamic finance principles that date back centuries discourage investments in businesses that are inconsistent with Islamic teachings, such as those involving alcohol or gambling.

These initial efforts were not just about making money; they were about ensuring that one’s financial practices were in harmony with one’s ethical or religious beliefs.

As the concept of ethical investing evolved, it primarily took the form of exclusionary practices in the 20th century. Investors would deliberately avoid so-called “sin stocks” or industries that were perceived as harmful, be it morally, environmentally, or socially. Tobacco, alcohol, and weapons companies often found themselves on these exclusion lists.

However, by the latter half of the 20th century and the early 21st century, a more proactive approach began to emerge. Rather than just avoiding the “bad” stocks, investors started to actively seek out and promote “good” ones—companies that were taking positive steps towards environmental stewardship, social responsibility, and robust governance. This shift marked the beginning of what we now recognize as ESG integration, where investments are made with a clear focus on these three critical pillars.

The push towards ESG wasn’t just a result of evolving investment philosophies; real-world events played a crucial role in this shift. Environmental disasters, such as the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, brought glaring attention to the environmental risks and responsibilities of corporations. These events were watershed moments, forcing investors to reckon with the tangible and often devastating consequences of neglecting environmental considerations.

Similarly, corporate scandals, like those involving Enron and WorldCom, underscored the importance of sound governance and transparency. These events eroded public trust and highlighted the financial risks associated with poor governance.

The public outcry and the financial repercussions from these events were instrumental in catalysing the ESG movement. They served as stark reminders that Environmental, Social, and Governance issues were not just ethical concerns—they had real, tangible impacts on investors’ bottom lines and the broader world.

Misperceptions about Performance

One of the primary reasons for hesitation is the long-standing myth that ESG investments inherently offer lower returns than their non-ESG counterparts. Some wealth managers hold onto dated beliefs that prioritising ESG equates to sacrificing profits. However, numerous studies have debunked this myth. In many cases, companies with strong ESG policies outperform their peers in the long run, largely due to better risk management and a more forward-thinking approach.

Lack of Standardised Metrics

The ESG landscape has, for many years, lacked a consistent set of metrics or standards. This has led to confusion about what constitutes a “true” ESG investment, with some wealth managers uncertain about how to effectively evaluate ESG opportunities. While strides have been made, such as the introduction of the Sustainable Finance Disclosure Regulation (SFDR) in Europe, there’s still work to be done to create a universally accepted set of criteria.

Inertia and Tradition

The financial world is one that values tradition and stability. Many institutions have long-established methods and mindsets that resist change. Introducing ESG criteria into portfolios may seem like a drastic shift for managers steeped in traditional investment philosophies. Overcoming this inertia requires both education and a demonstration that ESG can align with their fundamental goals of generating returns for clients.

Complexity and Time Investment

ESG integration can be a complex endeavour, requiring time and expertise to understand the nuances of each criterion. Some wealth managers may be hesitant to commit the resources needed to gain this expertise, especially if they do not see immediate benefits. However, as demand for ESG grows and the potential risks of ignoring ESG become more apparent, it will become increasingly essential for managers to invest in this knowledge.

Client Demand and Awareness

In some regions or demographics, client demand for ESG may not be as pronounced. If wealth managers aren’t fielding regular inquiries about ESG from their clients, they might not see the immediate need to incorporate it. However, as global awareness about sustainability and corporate responsibility grows, client demand is set to rise, and managers will need to adapt.

ESG Across Different Asset Classes: Challenges and Opportunities

Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) criteria are no longer limited to a niche segment of the investment landscape. As the importance and understanding of ESG factors have grown, their integration has spread across various asset classes. Let’s explore how ESG is being woven into the fabric of diverse investments and the unique challenges and opportunities they present.

Equities

For equities, the primary challenge is the sheer volume of data. With thousands of publicly traded companies worldwide, evaluating each one based on ESG metrics can be overwhelming. Moreover, greenwashing — where companies exaggerate or misrepresent their ESG practices — can make it difficult to discern genuine ESG commitment from mere marketing.

Equities offer a direct way to influence corporate behaviour. Shareholder activism, where investors use their equity stakes to push for change, can be a powerful tool. Furthermore, companies with strong ESG practices are increasingly seen as better long-term bets, offering both competitive returns and reduced risk profiles.

Fixed Income (Bonds)

For fixed income investments, especially sovereign bonds, ESG factors can be more abstract. How does one quantify a country’s social responsibility or governance? Additionally, with corporate bonds, there may be a disconnect between the bond’s yield and the issuer’s ESG practices.

Green bonds and sustainable bonds are on the rise. These bonds finance projects with environmental or social benefits, providing a clear way for fixed income investors to support ESG initiatives. Moreover, considering ESG factors can help in assessing a bond issuer’s creditworthiness, as companies with poor ESG practices might face regulatory fines or reputational damage, affecting their ability to service debt.

Alternative Investments (Real Estate, Commodities, Hedge Funds, Private Equity)

Alternative investments can be less transparent than traditional asset classes, making ESG evaluation harder. For instance, assessing the ESG practices of a private company or a hedge fund strategy can be complex due to limited public disclosures.

Real estate investors can drive sustainability by investing in green buildings or retrofitting properties to be more energy efficient. Commodities, especially those linked to agriculture, offer avenues to promote sustainable farming practices. Hedge funds and private equity can utilise ESG factors as part of their investment and due diligence strategies, identifying undervalued assets or potential risks that might be overlooked in traditional analyses.

The integration of ESG across different asset classes underscores its growing importance in the investment landscape. While challenges abound, driven by data volume, complexity, and transparency issues, the opportunities are equally compelling. As ESG becomes more ingrained in investment philosophies, its influence will shape not just portfolios but also the broader world, driving positive change across industries and geographies.

Global Perspective: ESG Integration Across Regions and Cultures

The rise of Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) considerations in investments isn’t solely a Western or developed-market phenomenon. Across the globe, regions and cultures are integrating ESG into their financial systems, albeit at varying paces and with distinct nuances. Let’s take a journey across continents to understand the unique challenges and opportunities they present in the realm of ESG.

North America

Historically, the primary focus in North America has often been on financial returns. Convincing traditional investors of the long-term benefits of ESG can be challenging. There is also a wide diversity in ESG reporting standards, making it difficult to compare and analyse companies consistently.

The increasing awareness of climate change, especially with events like hurricanes and wildfires, has boosted interest in ESG. Additionally, a growing socially-conscious younger generation is driving demand for responsible investment. Regulatory shifts are also on the horizon, with potential for stricter ESG reporting standards.

Europe

While Europe has been at the forefront of ESG, the challenge lies in harmonising standards across various countries with diverse economies and regulatory environments.

The European Union has been proactive in integrating sustainability into its financial system. The Sustainable Finance Disclosure Regulation (SFDR) and the EU Taxonomy are notable efforts to standardise ESG practices. Europe also has a mature market for green bonds, and many European investors view ESG as integral to risk management.

Asia

Asia presents a vast landscape with wide disparities in ESG adoption. While countries like Japan have embraced ESG, others may lag due to lack of awareness or regulatory support. Cultural perceptions of corporate responsibility can also vary widely.

Rapid economic growth in many Asian countries presents a unique opportunity to integrate ESG from the ground up. Initiatives like China’s commitment to becoming carbon neutral by 2060 indicate a significant shift towards sustainability. Moreover, the Asian investor base is showing increasing interest in responsible investments, driven both by recognition of global challenges and local issues such as air and water quality.

Emerging Markets

Emerging markets often grapple with pressing economic and social issues, which can sometimes overshadow ESG considerations. Infrastructure for ESG reporting and evaluation may also be underdeveloped.

Emerging markets offer immense potential for ESG-driven growth. Investments in sustainable infrastructure, clean energy, and social initiatives can drive both economic development and ESG goals. Furthermore, as many of these countries are most vulnerable to climate change, there’s an inherent motivation to adopt sustainable practices.

ESG is truly a global movement, transcending borders and cultures. While each region has its unique challenges, be it regulatory complexities, varying levels of awareness, or economic priorities, the opportunities are universal. As the world becomes more interconnected, the harmonisation of ESG standards and practices will not only benefit investors but will also steer nations towards a more sustainable and equitable future.

Looking Forward

At Blacktower Financial Management, we believe in the power and potential of ESG investing. While it’s essential to understand the reasons for reluctance among some wealth managers, it’s even more crucial to address these concerns head-on.

The financial landscape is changing, and ESG is no longer a niche interest but a central tenet of modern investing. By recognizing and challenging the reasons for reluctance, the wealth management industry can move forward, better aligned with the values and demands of today’s global investors.

This communication is for informational purposes only and is not intended to constitute, and should not be construed as, investment advice, investment recommendations or investment research. You should seek advice from a professional adviser before embarking on any financial planning activity. Whilst every effort has been made to ensure the information contained in this communication is correct, we are not responsible for any errors or omissions.

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