ESG Investing  

Is there really an ESG bubble?

Is there really an ESG bubble?
 Pexels/Singkham

Environmental, social and governance-focused investment is on the upswing like no other investment trend.

In the first half of 2021, of 80 exchange-traded funds and mutual fund launches in the UK, 37 were ESG vehicles. Of these, 19 were equity funds, 16 mixed assets, and one each for bond and alternatives (chart 1). Bonds showed rather better last year with 12 launches, but whatever the year, equity launches dominate.

This compares with 207 launches in 2020, of which 59 were ESG, up from just 17 ESG launches in 2017 (chart 2). ESG launches have gone from 7 per cent of the total in 2017 to 46 per cent year-to-date, with no sign of the trend abating. Indeed, institutional investors are becoming increasingly reluctant to touch any product that does not have an ESG tag on it.

This sits within the context of an overall growth in ESG mutual fund and ETF assets globally – now at about $4.5tn (£3.3tn). Overall assets, including government and occupational pension funds and sovereign wealth funds, are said to be about $40tn.

There is a lot of talk about an ESG bubble. The plethora of ESG launches would seem to indicate this. “ESG is just another old-fashioned stock market bubble,” reckons one pundit, and even the former chair of the board of governors of the world’s largest pension fund, Japan’s Government Pension Investment Fund – which has spearheaded ESG both in Japan and throughout Asia – has expressed misgivings. In the UK, flows to ESG assets are strongly positive, while ‘conventional’ assets are often negative. Indeed, Refinitiv Lipper analysis has often identified just this trend.

But hold on a minute: compare this to the level of investment the world needs to achieve a carbon-neutral transition.

According the UN Environmental Programme Finance Initiative, the transition to low-carbon and climate-resilient economies needs an investment of at least $60tn until 2050 – $35tn to decarbonise the world’s energy system, another $15tn to adapt man-made infrastructure to the changing climate, and another $2tn to reorganise global land use in ways that meet growing demands for agricultural commodities while stopping tropical deforestation. And that is not a comprehensive list.

Investment is patchy. While certain renewable sectors, such as power generation, are popular investment options, and the electrification of transport is starting to pick up pace, “renewables are growing too slowly in major energy-consuming sectors like buildings and industry”, reckons the International Renewable Energy Agency. This is despite buildings being the “largest potential for delivering long-term, significant and cost-effective greenhouse gas emission reductions”, according to the UN Environment Programme.

Overall, the UN has identified “significant financing shortfalls in getting [countries] to the stage where they provide real protection against droughts, floods, and rising sea levels”.

Squaring the circle

How do we square this circle of ballooning ESG asset flows alongside too little financing? One answer is to be found in where ESG investments are going. The world’s largest ESG-flagged ETF’s top holdings are Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, and Alphabet. The world’s largest 'conventional' ETF, however, has the same five stocks in the same order, albeit with slightly different weightings.