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Impact investing in public fixed income markets

Impact investing in public fixed income markets

Our goal: positive outcomes and benchmark-beating returns 

Across Nuveen, our commitment to responsible investing (RI) is based on three core principles:(1) integration of environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors into our investment processes and decision-making; (2) proactive engagement with issuers and other industry stakeholders on a variety of ESG-related topics; and(3) impact, the ability of our investment practices to deliver competitive financial performance and document the intended environmental and social outcomes.

Our team incorporates all three principles into the RI fixed income strategies we manage. With respect to integration, we seek to emphasize issuers that embody ESG leadership, and issues that provide environmental and social benefits.

On matters of engagement, we are proactive and collaborative partners with issuers, underwriters, rating agencies and asset owners. We are also actively engaged with global industry organizations to create and promote market wide standards.

Leadership and collaboration in responsible investing graphic

We believe our investment process as it relates to the third principle — impact — is what differentiates us the most from other managers of RI assets: Nuveen’s proprietary approach seeks to deliver and quantify environmental and social benefits while outperforming well-known bond market benchmarks. Our record of success in meeting these dual objectives dispels the myth that impact investing is concessionary, i.e., that it requires investors to sacrifice financial performance in order to achieve the desired nonfinancial outcomes. This is the #1 misconception about impact investing and other RI strategies, and it persists despite a significant body of empirical research indicating that such strategies have the potential to add alpha, lower risk and achieve positive, measurable results.2

The public fixed income advantage

Tapping the potential of public fixed income markets can be a highly effective way to drive positive outcomes in our communities and around the world. Our goal is to lower the cost of capital for borrowers financing impact projects and initiatives. Relative to private investments, public securities offer daily pricing and liquidity, as well as exposure to impact opportunities with a far lower minimum investment.

The perception that impact objectives can be pursued only through private strategies is inherently false. Public markets offer vast opportunities to finance positive outcomes, whether it’s clean energy alternatives like wind and solar power, protecting oceans and marine wildlife while promoting a more sustainable economy or directing capital to promote affordable housing.

We intentionally target and seek to maximize exposure to such investments, but not at the expense of performance. In other words, we don’t buy bonds exclusively for their potential environmental or social impact. They must also represent attractive relative value and appropriate levels of risk. Thus, they are subject to our intensive fundamental credit analysis and portfolio construction considerations, just as any non-impact investment would be. Moreover, we don’t maintain an explicit target allocation to impact investments in our portfolios, as doing so may undermine our ability to beat our benchmarks and manage sector-level risk.

Nuveen’s proprietary approach seeks to deliver and quantify environmental and social benefits while outperforming well-known bond market benchmarks.”

Our approach to impact investing: direct and  measurable

There is no industry-wide definition of terms like “sustainable,” “responsible” or “impact” investing. This lack of consistency has made it challenging to understand how such disciplines are practiced and how performance  should be gauged. Against this backdrop, in 2007 Nuveen’s fixed income and  responsible investing teams proactively created clearly defined impact standards. The essence of these standards was the requirement that our impact investments be  “direct and measurable.” Our criteria exceed the high standards set in voluntary industry guidelines such as the Green Bond Principles and Social Bond Principles.3

  • Direct: This refers to the explicitly stated use of the bond’s proceeds. The capital raised must fund specific projects or initiatives that deliver a clearly defined environmental or social benefit, including pure-play issuers. Typically, general purpose debt does not meet this standard, whether it is issued by a corporation, government or municipality. 
  • Measurable: On at least an annual basis, the issuer must be able and willing to disclose key performance indicators (KPIs) through impact reporting for the project or initiative. Such disclosure enables us to assess both the financial and impact efficacy of the capital expenditure, informing our ongoing evaluation of the investment’s potential risk and providing transparency to our clients about specific impact outcomes. 

We believe our direct and measurable impact investing standards are  among the most rigorous and comprehensive in the asset management industry. At the same time, they enable clients to clearly understand  the wide range of environmental and social impacts we seek. They have also proven to be a useful tool for communicating expectations with issuers and underwriters.

Since implementing our approach in 2007, we’ve seen increases in the number of impact issuers, security types and projects being financed with fixed income instruments. This growth and diversification is a positive trend because it increases opportunities in which impact investors(both asset managers and asset owners) can participate. This, in turn, helps lower the cost of capital for issuers, thereby bolstering the long term viability of projects and initiatives that aim to deliver positive outcomes.

We make impact investments across a range of public fixed income  sectors where proceeds can be tied to specific projects or initiatives or are used to fund entities fully engaged in such efforts. To date,  we’ve invested in impact securities in the following sectors: agency debt, asset-backed securities, mortgage-backed securities, commercial mortgage backed securities, corporate bonds and municipal bonds (both taxable and tax-exempt).

A reputation for innovation

Nuveen is one of the world’s largest fixed income managers4 and a recognized leader and innovator in impact investing. As such, we have far-reaching access to management teams, lenders, policymakers and elected officials seeking to finance environmental and social projects in public markets. We also maintain strong relationships with underwriters to ensure new deal allocations and gather ongoing intelligence in secondary markets. Our team meets frequently with prospective issuers to discuss how to structure bonds, what characteristics are needed to satisfy investor demand and the appropriate level and quality of impact disclosure and reporting.

Engagement is an essential feedback loop in Nuveen’s modern approach to responsible investing. It transcends purely exclusionary processes that eliminate bad actors but provide no incentive for issuers to modify their actions. In contrast, consultative engagement between issuers and experienced impact investors — like Nuveen — encourages issuers to finance projects with meaningful outcomes using public markets.


Nuveen’s innovation and engagement help finance impact outcomes 
Our impact framework

Alignment with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

Created in 2015, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) represent guidelines and targets necessary to achieve sustainable development at a global level by 2030. We have mapped our impact themes to the SDGs to demonstrate how our investments may contribute to the achievement of those goals. For more information about UN SDGs, please visit www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment.

Four intentional investment themes

We constructed our impact framework based on engagement with our clients and evaluation of direct and measurable impact investment opportunities in public fixed income markets. The resulting framework emphasizes four themes, supporting a multitude of positive environment and social outcomes:

Affordable housing
  • Low- and moderate-income housing loans
  • Transit-oriented development
  • Walkable communities
  • Mixed-use development projects

Alignment with SDGs:

SDG 1 and 11 images

Renewable energy and climate change
  • New, expanding or existing renewable energy projects (including hydroelectric, solar and wind).
  • Smart grid and other projects designed to make power generation and transmission systems more efficient.
  • Energy efficiency projects resulting in the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions

Alignment with SDGs:

SDGs 7 and 13 images
Community and economic development
  • Benefits under serviced and/or economically disadvantaged communities 
  • Services: financial, hospital/medical and educational 
  • Urban revitalization: community centers, reconstruction activities
  • Humanitarian activities: disaster and international aid

Alignment with SDGs:

SDGs 3,4,8,9 and 11 images

Natural resources
  • Sustainability projects: forestry and agriculture; waste management; certified green buildings; blue bonds
  • Remediation and redevelopment of polluted or contaminated sites
  • Improvement of clean drinking water supplies and/or sewer systems infrastructure
SDGs 6,11,12,14 and 15 images

Beyond impact criteria: ESG quality and risk management

While maximizing exposure to direct and measurable impact holdings that  meet our relative value criteria, our team seeks to balance benchmark-relative biases that include duration, credit quality, sector concentrations and liquidity. We achieve such balance exclusively through investments in ESG leaders. This combination of impact investments and ESG leadership helps ensure that the portfolio’s general risk profile and performance patterns align with client expectations. In other words, we strive to generate out performance and improve risk-adjusted results relative to benchmarks while emphasizing impact investments, and we aim to manage overall risk and minimize tracking error through investing in ESG leaders.

Any holding that doesn’t meet our definition of an impact investment must be an ESG leader,  initially defined by Nuveen’s eligibility criteria.10 By starting with an opportunity set of ESG leaders, we mitigate significant event risk and potential volatility relative to a universe that contains both ESG leaders and laggards. We believe  this also provides transparency into the methodology for our baseline leadership criteria. For ongoing security selection, our team assesses leaders and laggards using ESG factors that are most relevant to their respective industries, (see examples in the table below).

Issuers we identify as ESG leaders have demonstrably superior operational and management qualities that make them less likely to encounter acute financial  distress over time —and thus less likely to detract from the portfolio’s investment performance. In our view, avoiding losers is equally as important as picking winners. This is a facet of risk management that helps us in periods of fixed income market volatility. Three examples of corporate issuer behaviors we’ve intentionally targeted for inclusion in our portfolios are highlighted on the following page.

Beyond corporates, we intentionally prioritize ESG leaders through active  security selection and portfolio construction. For example, to the extent they fit our relative value assessment at a given time, we favor Ginnie Mae  securities over those issued by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac because of Ginnie Mae’s explicitly stated mission to promote low-income housing affordability.

ESG leadership standards apply to sovereign issuers as well, including  the United States. The United States ranks above average among sovereign issuers for ESG performance, reflecting alignment with its peers on governance factors, underperformance on social factors and outperformance on environmental factors. Sovereigns are evaluated using both external and internal ESG research covering the following factors:

  • Natural resources
  • Environmental externalities and vulnerability
  • Human capital
  • Financial governance
  • Political governance


Key ESG considerations for select industries 



8184_Figure 4_v2 


Why Nuveen for Impact investing in public fixed income markets?

Impact investing in public fixed income has the potential to add alpha and achieve direct, measurable environmental and social benefits. As one of the largest responsible investing organizations in the world,7 Nuveen has the depth of experience, scale and dedicated resources to offer proven leadership in this discipline. Our team currently manages nearly $10 billion8 in actively managed fixed income strategies using the distinctive approach.

Impact reporting

Annual disclosure of measurable outcomes is on the leading edge of industry practice and demonstrates our commitment to transparency.

View a representative example of how we measure impact in public fixed income.

Investors have two ways of judging our impact investing results:
  • Conventional total return and risk-adjusted performance metrics relative to widely used bond market benchmarks and traditional peer groups.
  • Impact reporting in which we publicly disclose the measurable outcomes of our fixed income impact strategies every year.
Contact us
Profille image of Dimitrios Stathopoulos
Dimitri Stathopoulos
United States

1  Membership or other participation may be through Nuveen’s TIAA Investments affiliate.
2  Further details on this research can be found in the white paper Responsible investing in actively managed fixed income portfolios, Nuveen, January 2019.
3  The Green Bond Principles establish voluntary metrics for project categories that include renewable energy, energy efficiency, and sustainable water and wastewater projects,
    among others. The Social Bond Principles create similar voluntary metrics for project categories that include affordable housing, job creation, food security, access to essential
    services and socioeconomic advancement and empowerment, among others.
4  Pensions & Investments, 27 May 2019. Rankings based on institutional tax-exempt assets under management as of 31 Dec 2018 reported by each responding asset manager.
5  LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), administered by the nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council, is the world’s largest green building certification program,
    providing benchmark criteria for efficiency, cost savings and environmental sustainability.
6  Nuveen’s responsible investing team and the joint corporate governance & social responsibility committee of the TIAA and CREF boards established eligibility requirements
    in 2007 for corporate, government, and agency securities based on third-party ratings. Eligibility is based on ESG leadership relative to peers using best-in-class third-party
    research from MSCI (corporates and sovereigns) and Sustainalytics (private issuers and others not rated by MSCI). This provides an objective investment universe that can be
    applied consistently and establishes a baseline level of ESG leadership in portfolios. Each investment team has discretion to select individual securities and further emphasize
    material ESG considerations as part of the day-to-day portfolio management process. Since third-party ratings are not broadly available for municipal and securitized sectors,
    the investment teams conduct in-house analysis to determine eligibility for portfolios.
7  Nuveen is a top-10 manager among ESG mutual funds, ETFs and variable insurance managers based on rankings sourced from Morningstar Direct as of 31 Mar 2019.
8  AUM data is as of 31 Mar 2019.

This material is provided for informational or educational purposes only and does not constitute a solicitation of any securities in any jurisdiction in which such solicitation is unlawful or to any person to whom it is unlawful. Moreover, it neither constitutes an offer to enter into an investment agreement with the recipient of this document nor an invitation to respond to it by making an offer to enter into an investment agreement. 

This material may contain “forward-looking” information that is not purely historical in nature. Such information may include projections, forecasts, estimates of yields or returns, and proposed or expected portfolio composition. Moreover, certain historical performance information of other investment vehicles or composite accounts managed by Nuveen may be included in this material and such performance information is presented by way of example only. No representation is made that the performance presented will be achieved, or that every assumption made in achieving, calculating or presenting either the forward-looking information or the historical performance information herein has been considered or stated in preparing this material. Any changes to assumptions that may have been made in preparing this material could have a material impact on the investment returns that are presented herein by way of example.

This material is not intended to be relied upon as a forecast, research or investment advice, and is not a recommendation, offer or solicitation to buy or sell any securities or to adopt any investment strategy. The information and opinions contained in this material are derived from proprietary and non-proprietary sources deemed by Nuveen to be reliable, and not necessarily all-inclusive and are not guaranteed as to accuracy. There is no guarantee that any forecasts made will come to pass. Company name is only for explanatory purposes and does not constitute as investment advice and is subject to change. Any investments named within this material may not necessarily be held in any funds/accounts managed by Nuveen. Reliance upon information in this material is at the sole discretion of the reader. Views of the author may not necessarily reflect the view s of Nuveen as a whole or any part thereof. 

Past performance is not a guide to future performance. Investment involves risk, including loss of principal. The value of investments and the income from them can fall as well as rise and is not guaranteed. Changes in the rates of exchange between currencies may cause the value of investments to fluctuate.

This information does not constitute investment research as defined under MiFID.

A word on risk

All information shown is historical and represents the views of Nuveen. It is provided for informational
purposes only and should not be deemed as a recommendation to buy or sell any security or asset.

Because ESG criteria exclude some securities, investments in ESG-focused products may not be able to take advantage of the same opportunities or market trends
as products that do not use such criteria. Investment products in general may be subject to market and other risk factors. Please visit Nuveen.com for more details.

The investment advisory services, strategies and expertise of TIAA Investments, a division of Nuveen, are provided by Teachers Advisors, LLC and TIAA-CREF Investment
Management, LLC. Nuveen Securities, LLC, Member FINRA and SIPC.