September 30, 2023

Passive environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investing has change into more and more energetic. It’s time for a rethink.

Property have poured into passive ESG indexes lately. As extra traders look to align sustainability targets with their investments, world ESG belongings beneath administration (AUM) have soared from $2.2 trillion in 2015 to $18.4 trillion in 2021.

But ESG belongings aren’t all that’s on the rise. With ever-changing methodologies and increasing exclusion lists, the energetic danger of common ESG indexes can be climbing. This begs the query: Does the time period “passive” even apply to ESG investing?

Given the shortage of consensus on sustainability standards and the evolving information units and exclusions, the reply isn’t any. ESG investing is inherently energetic and traders ought to consider ESG methods accordingly. Meaning specializing in the drivers of danger and return.

However simply what’s propelling the rise in index monitoring errors and the way can funding managers combine elements and ship risk-efficient portfolios with confirmed sources of return that aren’t present in “passive” choices?

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Passive indexes are common as a result of they observe broad market benchmarks at low value. With comparable inclusion standards and development methodologies, such capitalization-weighted indexes share widespread options and are constructed round a broad consensus. Passive ESG indexes do not exhibit the same characteristics. Certainly, 4 common ESG indexes show vastly completely different ranges of ESG uplift and monitoring error, as Exhibit 1 demonstrates.


Whereas the drivers of energetic danger differ amongst indexes, most are sourced from idiosyncratic danger. Exhibit 2, which lists the highest 5 overweights and underweights of every index, illustrates this.


The MSCI US ESG Leaders Index has a 5.3% chubby to Microsoft and -7.0% underweight to Apple. Such energetic weights resemble conventional energetic administration greater than passive investing.

Related divergence even happens throughout the identical index household. The MSCI US ESG Leaders and MSCI US ESG Common indexes, for instance, share solely Nvidia amongst their prime 5 overweights. Alphabet, with mixed Class A and Class C shares, in the meantime, contains the second largest chubby in Leaders and the third largest underweight in Common though the indexes use the identical ESG rankings.

The variations are much more dramatic throughout index suppliers. Three of the highest 5 overweights within the S&P 500 ESG Index are among the many prime 5 underweights within the MSCI US ESG Leaders Index. Two of the latter’s prime holdings — Tesla and Johnson & Johnson — are underweights within the former. Apple is probably the most excessive instance, with an absolute distinction between the 2 indexes of almost 10% — -7.0% vs. +2.8%. By comparability, Apple’s weight within the cap-weighted MSCI US and S&P 500 indexes differs by fewer than 10 foundation factors (bps) during the last 5 years. No marvel the MSCI US ESG Leaders and S&P 500 ESG indexes have a 2.5% relative monitoring error, 3 times greater than their cap-weighted counterparts.

The dearth of overlap amongst ESG indexes and the extensive dispersion in danger ranges signifies that traders should be diligent in aligning their ESG targets with their chosen technique. They have to additionally be sure that the extent of ESG is commensurate with the energetic danger taken. They usually need to do not forget that the evolving ESG panorama requires fixed oversight.

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Much less ESG for Extra Threat?

Whereas larger ESG content material has all the time necessitated larger energetic danger, current tendencies have exacerbated this trade-off. Exhibit 3 plots the combination cap-weighted ESG rankings of the MSCI World and MSCI US indexes together with the variety of exclusions for the MSCI World ESG and US ESG Leaders indexes. The broad-based ESG score enhancements over the previous 5 years counsel that firms are addressing their ESG dangers.

However over this identical time interval, increasingly firms are being excluded from ESG indexes. These tendencies are tough to reconcile, as larger mixture ESG rankings should result in fewer exclusions no more. In follow, the exclusions have confirmed simple so as to add but tough to take away.


These adjustments, together with quite a few methodology revisions, have elevated “passive” ESG index monitoring error ranges over the previous 5 years. Exhibit 4 demonstrates the more and more energetic nature of those passive ESG benchmarks. Whereas the COVID-19 disaster is an element on this improvement, it doesn’t totally account for the rise in monitoring error. Monitoring error jumped in late 2018, effectively earlier than the onset of pandemic-related market turmoil in 2020. The ESG score uplifts additionally declined in response to the upper rankings of the underlying indexes, as proven in Exhibit 3.

What all of it provides as much as is extra concentrated portfolios with decrease ESG uplifts and extra energetic danger. The irony in fact is that the mixing of ESG information is usually promoted as a strategy to lower portfolio danger.

The important thing to capturing ESG advantages, and capturing them effectively, lies in trendy portfolio development methods.

Ad tile for ESG and Responsible Institutional Investing Around the World: A Critical Review

Enhancing ESG Effectivity

How can we enhance a portfolio’s effectivity when integrating ESG content material? First, we have to set up a baseline. In Exhibit 5, we plot the achievable energetic danger ranges at various levels of ESG uplift based mostly on every index supplier’s distinctive ESG rankings and after excluding these firms flagged by MSCI controversy standards. As we will see throughout the chart, every ESG index falls effectively exterior of what can be thought of environment friendly.


The space of every index from the environment friendly frontier is a product of two developments: further enterprise involvement exclusions and suboptimal portfolio development. To quantify the impact of every, we plotted a hypothetical ESG portfolio throughout the MSCI World ESG frontier in Exhibit 6. The ESG Portfolio excludes the identical set of firms because the MSCI World ESG Leaders Index, whereas concentrating on a better (20%) ESG score uplift and comparable ranges of carbon discount.

Given the gap of the ESG Portfolio from the environment friendly frontier, we see that a number of ESG targets will be achieved with a minimal improve in energetic danger. The ESG Portfolio has lower than half the energetic danger of the MSCI World ESG Leaders Index. We attribute that 76 bps vs. 198 bps divergence to portfolio development. Though the X-axis of the environment friendly frontier represents predicted danger, the five-year backtest simulation yields a discount in monitoring error better than 50% for the hypothetical ESG Portfolio in comparison with the MSCI World ESG Leaders Index.


Attaining larger ranges of ESG content material with much less energetic danger than passive ESG indexes would possibly tempt some to declare victory. Nevertheless, ESG’s continuously evolving nature means the upper monitoring error could change into unavoidable even with the assistance of portfolio optimizers. Whereas some imagine larger ESG content material results in larger returns, such relationships are tough to show empirically. Certainly, extra return targets are conspicuously absent from the prospectus of most passive ESG indexes. The dearth of consensus highlighted in Exhibit 2 additionally suggests the funding trade will not be completely satisfied of the ESG funding thesis. For traders involved with the return potential of their fairness portfolio, allocating some energetic danger to confirmed drivers of return is a prudent transfer.

So how can we combine ESG content material with fashion elements and construct a portfolio with the potential for extra return and decrease danger?

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To satisfy the ESG and extra return targets, we analyzed the connection between fashion elements and ESG on the safety degree. Exhibit 7 plots pairwise observations between worth and two widespread ESG traits — rankings (MSCI ESG rating) and carbon depth. The scatter plots present vital dispersion and delicate trendlines, indicating that the worth issue displays no sturdy bias to both ESG dimension. Whereas worth is highlighted for the aim of illustration, the vary of slope coefficients over the previous 5 years for worth, momentum, low volatility, and high quality are reported within the accompanying desk (See Reveals A and B within the appendix for corresponding scatter plots).

Collectively, the info reveals no proof of persistent problematic bias. This means fashion elements will be built-in with ESG targets to boost the funding thesis with relative ease.


Having evaluated fashion elements and ESG within the cross part, we subsequent analyze the connection from a returns perspective. Exhibit 8 charts lengthy/brief and energetic return correlations over the previous 5 years. All correlations are inside +/-0.5, implying that fashion elements have enticing diversification potential for ESG traders. These results are consistent with previous studies.


Lastly, based mostly on the evaluation in Exhibit 6, we constructed a hypothetical portfolio that comes with vital multi-factor content material. The ESG + Issue Portfolio displayed in Exhibit 9 incorporates balanced, materials publicity to worth, momentum, low volatility, and high quality whereas preserving the ESG profile of the ESG Portfolio.

Whereas passive alternate options are sometimes thought to have much less danger than an actively managed multi-factor ESG technique, the ESG + Issue Portfolio demonstrates that assembly a sturdy set of ESG targets, with much less danger, whereas incorporating confirmed sources of extra return that aren’t included in passive ESG indexes, is feasible.

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What’s Subsequent?

The combination of ESG information requires traders to make energetic selections, together with which rankings supplier to make use of, what sorts of companies to exclude, how you can successfully mitigate carbon danger, and so on. These selections should be revisited continuously as the info improves, new frameworks are put forth, and as investor preferences change. These dynamics level to the inherently energetic nature of ESG investing, regardless of the (fairly profitable) makes an attempt to color them with a passive brush.

Whereas higher information and forward-looking materiality frameworks have delivered new instruments for extra knowledgeable portfolio development, whether or not they enhance portfolio efficiency has but to be confirmed. Buyers ought to due to this fact strategy ESG methods by asking the identical query they might of any actively managed technique, specifically: What are the drivers of return? A passable reply to this query will ship an answer that stands by itself deserves amongst friends, not one merely categorized beneath an “ESG” subheading.




Methodology Notes

Environment friendly Frontier Optimizations Goal operate

Topic to the next constraints

  • Firms flagged with controversy standards as outlined by MSCI are ineligible
  • Minimal ESG uplift (specified for every level alongside the frontier)1

Hypothetical Environment friendly ESG Portfolio Optimizations Goal operate

Topic to the next constraints

  • Firms flagged with controversy standards as outlined by MSCI are ineligible
  • Minimal 20% ESG uplift1
  • Minimal 50% carbon emissions discount1,2
  • Minimal 75% carbon reserves discount1,2
  • Firms flagged with enterprise involvement standards as outlined by the MSCI World ESG Leaders Index methodology are ineligible3
  • Minimal +0.2 energetic issue publicity for worth, momentum, low volatility, and high quality1,3

Backtest simulation parameters

  • Quarterly rebalance frequency
  • Turnover to not exceed 60% annualized


1. Relative to the underlying benchmark

2. MSCI carbon information used

3. The place denoted as having been utilized

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All posts are the opinion of the writer. As such, they shouldn’t be construed as funding recommendation, nor do the opinions expressed essentially replicate the views of CFA Institute or the writer’s employer.

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Rob Lehnherr, CFA

Rob Lehnherr, CFA, is head of quantitative fairness analysis at Northern Belief Asset Administration. He’s answerable for NTAM’s factor-based analysis and product improvement. Previous to becoming a member of Northern Belief, Lehnherr was a member of the asset allocation analysis staff at Allstate Investments, LLC. He obtained an MBA from the College of Chicago as an Amy and Richard F. Wallman Scholar, with concentrations in analytic finance and econometrics. Lehnherr has a bachelor’s diploma from the College of Iowa the place he studied pc science. He’s a member of the CFA Society Chicago.

Di Wang, PhD

Di Wang, PhD, is a senior quantitative analysis analyst at Northern Belief Asset Administration. On this function, she works on NTAM’s factor-based analysis, supporting the fairness platform of the Quantitative Methods Group. Previous to becoming a member of Northern Belief, she labored on the Worldwide Financial Fund (IMF) and the World Financial institution Group in Washington, DC, the place she authored a variety of publications and dealing papers. Wang obtained her PhD in economics from the College of Maryland, with a focus in worldwide finance. She additionally holds an MA in worldwide political financial system from Stanford College.

Pete Zymali

Pete Zymali is a senior portfolio supervisor at Northern Belief and is answerable for portfolio administration for the agency’s High quality ESG technique. He serves as a member of the Northern Belief Sustainable Investing Council in addition to the Proxy Voting Committee. He presently is the lead supervisor of the Northern US High quality ESG mutual fund. Previous to becoming a member of International Fairness at Northern Belief in 2007, Zymali was an funding marketing consultant throughout the agency’s International Household Workplace Group answerable for designing asset allocation methods utilizing an open structure platform. He joined Northern Belief in 2002. Zymali obtained a BS in finance from the College of Arizona and an MBA in finance, economics, and managerial and organizational conduct from the College of Chicago Sales space Faculty of Enterprise. He’s a Licensed Monetary Planner skilled.