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Sustainable investing – a trend that’s here to stay

| Investments

By Jason Liddle, head of Institutional Distribution at Sanlam Investments

In less than two months the next decade will be ushered in. While it presents us with an opportunity to examine the decade that passed, it also allows us to look forward and consider which trends will transform the local and global asset management industry. There is growing consensus that sustainable investing is going to become a mainstream discipline and a key trend in the 20’s. Regulators across the world have already set their expectations for the industry’s players with requirements of greater transparency, investment process integration and reporting. Sustainability factors have also shown evidence of enhancing performance within integrated investment processes over those that do not, while avoiding risks that may not have been avoided otherwise.

The FSCA clarifies that ESG factors also relate to the advancement of B-BBEE

In June 2019 the FSCA issued Guidance Note 1 of 2019: Sustainability of Investments and Assets in the context of a Retirement Fund’s Investment Policy Statement. In conjunction with Regulation 28 it states that a fund should consider all factors that may materially affect the long-term performance of any asset it invests in. Environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors, alongside economic drivers, do not form the exhaustive list of sustainability factors. The Guidance Note states that, in respect of domestic assets, ESG factors also relate to the advancement of broad-based black economic empowerment. The expectations from the regulator are that a retirement fund’s process will be able to test areas of evaluation, monitoring and “active ownership” in pursuit of its sustainable investment objectives.

Trustees need to select fit-for-purpose strategies

There are various strategies that can be called on when implementing a sustainable investing framework. Retirement fund trustees will require a complete understanding to select asset managers and strategies that are fit for purpose:

  • Negative screening: An investor purposefully filters out the companies / entities that they deem to have a negative effect on society. This approach may exclude industries involved in tobacco, thermal coal, arms or gambling. Norms-based screening is related in approach but excludes companies that break international conventions.
  • ESG integration: This approach is the most commonly used. Traditional investment analysis and decision making at the individual instrument level is augmented with ESG performance indicators. Another related approach, the “best-in-class” ESG overlay, tilts towards specific ESG scores relative to the overall market or industry peers within a quantitative or index approach.
  • Thematic investing: As the name suggests a specific sustainability theme is selected, such as climate, housing or water, based on a financial / economic motive or clients’ need to align the portfolio with their specific values.
  • Impact investing: This approach places money with entities that intentionally target measurable social or environmental projects with direct impact.

Asset managers need to take active ownership

While the challenges are significant, the leading sustainable asset management practitioners will develop an authentic and credible approach articulating how sustainability is rooted in their investment philosophy. Evidence-based proof of its integration in their investment approach, process and outcomes should support their credibility. “Active ownership” is a key area within the framework where engagement, intervention and voting act as the voice of the investor. While comprehensive proxy voting guidelines / policies and a disciplined and robust engagement approach are the table stakes, influence over the decision-making of the company’s board is the ultimate desired outcome. Sanlam has continued to provide a respected “voice” on behalf of our clients for many years targeting better outcomes. Trustees need to avoid thinly-resourced functions that focus more on compliance and instead employ authentic practitioners that drive a mandate to activate, enable and equip investment professionals in making better decisions, using a sustainable investing lens. Sanlam Investments has and continues to invest in new tools and the right talent to harness ESG data and drive our internal research. Asset managers will also look to differentiate themselves by expanding their ESG investment process reach to all asset classes – an important requirement or expectation from the regulator.

Sustainable investing can change the face of SA

The much publicised failures of corporate governance in certain South African companies have led to significant and impaired losses shared by retirement fund members. The improved and focused lens of a disciplined sustainability framework should limit the likelihood of a similar experience. Addressing the domestic socio-economic imbalances is another area in which sustainable (impact) investing can play a strong role. At Sanlam Investments, we are committed to our investors in helping them achieve their sustainable investing objectives.

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