How Serious Should We Take ESG Investing in 2020?

Eight of the largest 10 U.S. sustainable funds have plenty of oil and gas investments.

Sustainable funds are hardly sustainable based on their carbon footprint. The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday that eight of the largest 10 sustainable funds in the U.S. have oil and gas investments.

This news comes as a way of criticism has hit the newest – and perhaps surprising fad in institutional investment. ESG funds are booming. They’ve taken in a record $13.5 billion in new money over the first three quarters of the year. That figure comes from Morningstar. But how sustainable are the investments in these funds?

Barron’s notes that the funds have ditched gambling stocks, tobacco companies, and gun manufacturers. However, oil-and-gas continues to remain the portfolios of several major funds. It’s no secret that a lot of these companies have strong cash flow. But Barron’s cites BlackRock and its ESG MSCI USA ETF. Although the fund invests in firm’s with “positive environmental, social and governance characteristics.” That said, it holds shares of Exxon Mobil, which is facing a trial over climate change. Meanwhile, Vanguard Group’s Social Index Fund invests in Occidental Petroleum.

The Trend of Unsustainable, Sustainable Funds

The Barron’s report complements another piece this week from Institutional Investor.

While asset managers have crawled over themselves to promote their ESG holdings, it’s clear that they forgot to include the language in their product descriptions. Amy Whyte cites an interesting study from Cerulli Associates that tracked the disconnect between pledges to use ESG criteria and their incorporation into product descriptions. Cerulli Associates estimates that 88% of total U.S. public market assets are tied to a signatory if the United Nation’s Principles for Responsible Investment.

Cerulli notes that 905 of PRI-affiliated firms talk about ESG on their websites or in other marketing tools. But if you dig into the official product documentation like a prospectus, you find a different story. Just 4.5% of the investment decisions factor ESG criteria.

“Many asset managers shy away from documenting that ESG factors inform investment decisions,” Cerulli director Michele Giuditta said in a statement.

These are just two stories – two studies – on the state of ESG. While this area remains hot for investors, the implementation leaves a lot to be desired.

If this trend continues, we’ll be looking at more vague regulations in the near future.

Related: Brown Advisory Launches Global Leaders Sustainable Fund

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