Responsible Investing

Why responsible investment is here to stay

Amy M. O' Brien
Head of Nuveen Responsible Investing
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In this article
  • Why politics matter, but won't dominate responsible investing
  • Key growth drivers of responsible investing
  • The future for the category

We’re now over two months into Donald Trump’s administration, and investors are wondering how the shifting political backdrop might affect the growth in the responsible investment (RI) landscape. In our view, politics are significant, but aren’t the driving force behind this important investment discipline. What follows is a look at the main growth drivers behind RI, and some key themes that we expect to emerge over the coming year.

Politics matter, but don’t dominate responsible investment

Given all the changes in Washington, it’s natural to wonder how the landscape for environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues (and RI more broadly) will be affected.

First and foremost: While it’s true that President Trump has staked out a far-reaching agenda— marking a clear shift from President Obama’s initiatives—we believe federal policy and regulatory priorities are not a driving force of growth in RI. Relating to ESG, these changes include rolling back a range of climate change objectives while reviving previously stalled efforts to expand fossil-fuel energy production. At the same time, as part of his economic agenda, President Trump intends to lighten regulation in crucial areas of business, including banking, pharmaceuticals, technology and other sectors.

It’s still too early to know to what extent his agenda will be implemented and what the subsequent investment effects might be. Experience tells us that federal policy has, at most, an indirect or even marginal impact on investors’ desire to incorporate ESG factors into their financial decision making. Instead, growth in RI has always been led by investor demand.

As one of the fastest-growing areas in asset management, RI has proven its viability through increasing investor interest, competitive performance and—with one of every five investment dollars associated with an RI strategy—its undeniable scale.1 The shift in tone from Washington is unlikely to change this.

Key growth drivers of responsible investment

In our view, RI growth will continue to come from the private sector, state and local governments and public-private partnerships. In particular, we would point to the following factors that are likely to drive asset growth in this area.

2017 Trends worth watching: In short, we believe that no matter what happens in Washington, responsible investment is necessary, popular and here to stay. Given its likely sustained momentum, here are some of the most important RI developments we think investors should monitor this year.

Demand for RI remains high

Despite anecdotal evidence of recent selling in clean-energy exchange-traded funds (ETFs), demand remains strong and should continue to be the prevailing driver of growth in RI. Investors need not jump to conclusions regarding short-term flows—particularly in ETFs, which are more frequently traded than other investment vehicles.

Asset flows both in and out of ESG-focused investment vehicles have been relatively modest so far this year, but the medium-term trends remain positive. Nearly half of the approximately 50 ESG-focused ETFs now being traded were launched in 2016. These new products raised $725 million in assets in an ETF universe that today totals approximately $3.5 billion.5 We see no signs that suggest demand is likely to fade.

RI is becoming increasingly mainstream

RI has taken its rightful place as a prominent and recognized investment discipline. Over the past four years, U.S. assets under management (AUM) categorized with some sort of RI label have grown by 133%, from $3.7 trillion in 2012 to more than $8.7 trillion in 2016.6 RI is no longer a niche area of investing.

Climate change is king

Environmental and climate-related initiatives have expanded quickly over the past few years, highlighted by the 2016 launch of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, a global framework for investors to track the impact of their investments. While environmental considerations are the most widely incorporated of ESG factors, “climate change is the most significant,” according to the Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investing (US SIF). Since 2014, institutional investments in environmental or climate change/ carbon emission-focused assets have grown to $2.15 trillion, while asset managers have expanded their asset base to $1.42 trillion in AUM, representing four- and five-fold increases, respectively.7 Moreover, this commitment to climate change-related investing remains a dominant focus among investors, corporations and other key influencers, regardless of potential headwinds in the policy sphere.

RI product options should expand

We are seeing material growth in ESG-focused products including ETFs as well as smart-beta and fixed-income strategies motivated by clear investors’ needs.

ETFs still represent a small slice of overall AUM within ESG-incorporated investment vehicles, but it’s a promising market—one that by some estimates is expected to triple over the next four years.8

ESG overlays are increasingly being applied to smart-beta strategies. For example, some managers favor securities with strong ESG scores and weight their allocations accordingly. In April 2016, Standard and Poor’s and Dow Jones introduced joint indexes that incorporate smart-beta strategies with ESG criteria—the first of their kind.

Fixed income has also become a major growth area in RI around the world, with multiple firms entering the market. New green-bond issues expanded by a notable 40% in 2016 in the U.S. and Europe, but the lion’s share of growth came from China, which accounted for over one-third of volume last year. In addition, both Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s launched green bond frameworks in 2016.9

Responsible investment should experience ongoing growth

Jon Hale, Head of Sustainability Research at Morningstar, recently said there is mounting evidence that companies that handle ESG issues well tend to be “high-quality” and are “good long-term investments.”10 We share this view, and believe a wider embrace of this perspective will continue to add to the momentum driving RI.

With such rapid growth, many investors no longer view RI as a “nice-to-have” addition to their portfolio and instead are making it a cornerstone of their long-term investment objectives. At the same time, many traditional large-scale financial services firms have recognized the need and are developing an expertise in RI, whether through internal expansion, or through mergers and acquisitions. We expect growth in RI will expand over the coming year—and beyond.

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1 The Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment, 2016 Report
2 U.S. Department of Energy
3 Environmental Finance
4 U.S. General Services Administration
6 The Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment
7 The Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment
8 PwC
9 Environmental Finance
10 Jon Hale, “Sustainability-Focused Funds Garner Positive Flows in 2016,” Morningstar Manager Research report, January 19, 2017

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Risks and other important considerations

Investing involves risk; principal loss is possible. This information represents the opinion of TIAA Investments and is not intended to be a forecast of future events and this is no guarantee of any future result. It is not intended to provide specific advice and should not be considered investment advice of any kind. Information was obtained from third party sources which we believe to be reliable but are not guaranteed as to their accuracy or completeness. This report contains no recommendations to buy or sell specific securities or investment products. Prices of equity securities may change significantly over short or extended periods of time. Debt or fixed income securities are subject to market risk, credit risk, interest rate risk, call risk, derivatives risk, dollar roll transaction risk and income risk, including the possible loss of principal. The value of the portfolio will fluctuate based on the value of the underlying securities. As interest rates rise, bond prices fall. All investments carry a certain degree of risk, including possible loss principal and there is no assurance that an investment will provide positive performance over any period of time. It is important to review your investment objectives, risk tolerance and liquidity needs before choosing an investment style or manager.

Nuveen, LLC delivers the expertise of TIAA Investments and its independent investment affiliates.