Investing with environmental, social and governance (ESG) strategies historically has not meaningfully helped or hurt long-term performance, according to Northern Trust Wealth Management research.
That said, ESG-focused funds can have a different balance of factors driving risk-adjusted returns—and those differences may cause ESG-investing strategies to diverge from conventional benchmarks.
Investment Factors and ESG Funds
Investment factors are specific, quantifiable characteristics, such as size, value and profitability, that drive an investment’s risk and returns. Every portfolio has a mix of exposures to investment factors, and the mix tends to differ between ESG funds that have an ESG mandate and conventional funds that do not.
Northern Trust Wealth Management analyzed a universe of over 900 U.S. equity mutual funds to better understand how investment factors differ between ESG funds and conventional funds. The research showed that:
ESG funds tend to have greater exposure to:
- Larger investments, as measured by market capitalization
- Growth investments, by which expected earnings of the company increase at an above-average rate compared to their sector or the overall market
- Higher quality investments, typically described as companies with a strong balance sheet that are consistently profitable and growing*
This clear difference in investment factor exposure is important to understand, especially when evaluating performance. It may cause ESG investing portfolios’ returns to diverge from the broad markets at times. For example, ESG portfolios may lag when smaller, more value-oriented, less-profitable stocks lead the market—or they may hold up better during times of crisis.
Our latest portfolio research finds no evidence of outperformance when incorporating ESG criteria into an investment strategy. But at the same time, we find no meaningful underperformance either (at least on average), which is good news for investors with strong ESG preferences.
If you’re interested in learning more about ESG investing options, consult your financial advisor about the ways incorporating ESG might affect your factor exposures and what that could mean for your portfolio.