With spring returning after a long hard winter, it’s a good time to take stock and see what has been growing. While we survived multiple lockdowns that have left the economy teetering, there was a silver lining to the fresh hell of this past year: sustainable investing went mainstream.
It feels like years have passed, but I have a clear memory of January 2020. Brush fires were burning in Australia, and I was watching CNBC in the morning. I spat out my coffee in astonishment when Jim Cramer, an animated host on the investment news channel, declared, “I’m done with fossil fuels … we’re seeing divestment all over the world … the world has changed.” The acronym ESG (referring to environmental, social and governance indicators) was on the lips of every investment expert.
The COVID-19 crash came on suddenly. Investors panicked when they realized the severity of the situation, and there was talk that we could be headed into a depression. Central banks including the Bank of Canada and the U.S. Federal Reserve stepped in quickly, providing liquidity to prevent the bond market from collapsing. Many of us were afraid that it would be a repeat of the 2008/09 crash, when sustainability got thrown on the back burner. Fortunately, it feels like this time is different, as leading economies around the globe are baking social and environmental concerns into their economic recovery strategies.
It’s fair to assume that more of that baking lies ahead in Canada, with the appointment of impact investing maven Michael Sabia as deputy finance minister in November. The Canadian government is also in the midst of creating a Sustainable Finance Action Council to help ratchet up action on that front, and the Bank of Canada is launching a pilot project with major banks and insurance companies to assess and understand climate risk.
South of the border, things are looking even more optimistic. After four years of a White House that dismissed climate science, we’re seeing an administration that actually treats climate change like the crisis it is. The nomination of Janet Yellen to the role of Treasury secretary is encouraging, since she just co-chaired the G30 Working Group on Climate Change and Finance with Mark Carney, former governor of the Bank of Canada. Yellen has made her position clear: “Carbon must be priced appropriately to internalize the costs of polluting the planet.” A carbon tax in the U.S. would be a catalyst for further sustainable investment gains.
Sustainable investors are happy right now. According to the most recent report from the Responsible Investment Association, 80 per cent of responsible investment funds have outperformed the average of their asset classes this year. The biggest winners have been the “doing more good” funds that invest in sustainability themes like clean tech and renewable energy. Electric car shares have been particularly impressive, with Tesla up eightfold (it’s now worth two and a half times more than ExxonMobil) and Chinese EV maker NIO up 20-fold.
Investors should be cautious since it’s unlikely that green sectors will continue to grow at such a rapid pace, but it does indicate markets have accepted that a green transition is underway and explains why sustainable investments have performed so well.
In addition to terrific financial performance, we’ve also seen the sustainable investment ecosystem mature considerably. Corporations are tripping over each other pledging to be net zero by 2050, and 2020 saw the launch of a record number of new sustainable investment funds, including new exchange-traded funds (ETFs) from BMO, BlackRock and Wealthsimple. Sustainable investors now have more choice than ever, and demand is growing. A global report from Morningstar shows that more than $347 (U.S.) billion poured into sustainable funds in 2020, eclipsing 2019’s record $160 billion of inflows. Much of that growth was in Europe, but in Canada, 41 new sustainable funds and ETFs were launched in 2020 alone, more than double 2019.
According to the 2020 RIA Investor Opinion Survey, 75 per cent of respondents want their financial services provider to show them sustainable investment options, but only 28 per cent of respondents have been asked if they are interested. For those of you who have been dragging your feet on switching your investments, consider this a kick in the butt to get it done ASAP. Almost every bank and financial advisor now has sustainable investment products on the shelf, and the myth that sustainable investments underperform financially has been thoroughly busted. If your advisor isn’t up to speed on these options, it’s time to find a new advisor (RIA has a marketplace for investment advice) or explore do-it-yourself investing. I’m hopeful that the 2021 Eco-Fund Ranking will be a helpful resource as you evaluate the options and decide which approach is right for you.
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