Will Silly Sanctimony Sink ESG Fund Sales?

Big benefits from ESG, SRI and impact, but insufferable tone won't help with adoption

ESG funds, retirement, 401kSkies are clearing, birds are singing.

Europeans are just better than us.

Apparently, they’re publicly shaming their asset managers into investing more in environmental, social, and governance (ESG) concerns, and both the asset management firms and the companies in which funds invest have therefore “raised their game.”

“Soft power, to some extent facilitated by social media, is putting ever more pressure on companies to do the right thing, such as pay their taxes and not pollute,” says Barbara Wall, Europe managing director at research and consulting firm Cerulli Associates.

“Sometimes, there is clearly no conflict between profit and morality,” she high-mindedly adds.

Cerulli notes that a raft of data and research—including Deutsche Asset Management’s meta-study—has emerged that goes a long way to allay investors’ concerns that ESG funds carry too high a price in terms of performance, something ESG managers often claimed was never an issue in the first place.

One hindrance, however, is the absence of universally agreed definitions of relevant terms such as sustainability (which, when one thinks about it, is kind of central to the business model).

And, of course, investors’ priorities differ.

“Managers tell Cerulli that some clients want to emphasize the E, some are interested in the S, and some the G,” she notes. “Just as fund managers do not agree on the best shares to buy, no one can agree on exactly how to score ESG.”

In this regard, bespoke services (which in limey lingo for customized) aimed at satisfying granular demands from some clients may be the solution, albeit for a higher fee.

“However, there may be more growth in low-cost ESG compliance, achieved through passive funds,” Wall concludes. “Knowing that complete agreement is not realistic, for many investors, it will make sense to accept a consensus view of what should be in an ESG fund, as decided by the likes of MSCI.”

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