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Asia Global ESG Summit: Focus on corporate behaviour

With allocations to ESG funds increasingly aligned with investors’ own values, they are paying closer attention to the social policies of companies, said speakers at ESG Clarity’s recent Global ESG Summit.

In line with the unprecedented growth in public awareness and interest in ESG issues, investors are ever-more vocal about wanting to see their capital foster positive sustainability practices.

For portfolio managers, this means assessing corporate behaviour, for example in terms of diversity at board level and inclusivity in the workforce. From the perspective of fund selectors, meanwhile, the focus is on how fund houses embed diversity into their culture and investment processes.

These were some of the key take-aways from a panel discussion on seismic shifts impacting investment habits, held at the recent Global ESG Summit hosted by ESG Clarity.

“A lot of the earlier discussions [about ESG] seemed to sit with governments. Now, companies and, increasingly, private individuals, are taking responsibility for achieving alignment of investment goals alongside the world moving in the right direction,” said Julie Koo, head of Citi investment management sales in Asia Pacific.

This reflects the growing expectation among investors that their philosophies are reflected in the funds made available to them and in the portfolios that fund selectors build for them.

“Investors are more willing to say that if the investment doesn’t reflect their beliefs and values, then they are not willing to hand over fiduciary duty,” said Isaac Poole, chief investment officer at Oreana Financial Services.

Committed capital

This dynamic has become more acute partly in response to the fact that the physical effects of climate change are more apparent than ever – such as the Australian bushfires in early 2020, the severe droughts in Latin America and the freeze in Texas.

Furthermore, said Abbie Llewellyn-Waters, head of sustainable investing at Jupiter Asset Management, the humanitarian crisis arising from Covid-19 has unveiled deep fragility around the inclusivity of the world’s economic framework.

“How companies respond to these systematic changes will be critical,” she explained. “Investors are aware that their capital has a role to play, so we, as allocators, need to think about the effect a company’s product on the planet and people.”

Regulators also need to play a bigger part. By giving greater clarity about what constitutes a “sustainable” fund, investors will garner more comfort about the impact they can have.

The need for this in Asia is pressing, said Paul Milon, head of stewardship for BNP Paribas Asset Management in Asia Pacific, given that the level of penetration into ESG funds is still relatively low despite the surge in interest and flows over the past 18-to-24 months.

“More and more regulators in Asia are looking at this issue. Hopefully, this will lead more money towards sustainable solutions,” he said.

In Koo’s opinion, financial institutions also need to play a more significant role. She said that the low base from which capital allocations to ESG have grown suggests a lot more education is needed, followed by discussions on how to implement solutions.

Driving corporate diversity

In the meantime, corporate behaviour will remain under the microscope of many asset managers.

According to Llewellyn-Waters, a balance of all stakeholders is critical. “Aside from a low-carbon portfolio, social factors are sometimes overlooked within the ESG landscape.”

In addition to the direct impact of the company’s products, she sees an opportunity in terms of supporting efforts to reduce social inequalities. This can be seen by her fund’s strong structural allocation to preventative healthcare, such as vaccines, diagnostics and related equipment.

From a diversity standpoint, she looks beyond board representation to inclusivity within the workforce in terms of gender and race. Important factors include policies for parental leave and internal promotions, and the extent to which companies support such policies.

Ultimately, companies with more sustainable practices can help deliver better performance, added Milon.

Evaluating asset managers

When it comes to fund selectors reviewing their external managers, meanwhile, culture is a good indicator of commitment to ESG.

“We think about people, philosophy and processes as good ways to frame the diversity and culture story [of fund managers],” said Poole.

The pandemic has also added a new dimension, said Koo, in terms of retention rates of key talent and support shown to staff in a difficult and changing environment.

“As we consider how we build out our sustainable investment platform, we look at how our asset managers embed diversity into their overall culture, and at whether the people involved in the process believe in what they do, rather than take a tick-the-box approach,” she explained.

The full Asia-focused event can be viewed after free registration. The US-based and the UK/Europe-based event also are available on demand.

Part of the Mark Allen Group.