Partner Content by Royal London

Low-carbon investing in credit markets

People are becoming increasingly aware of their impact on the planet according to Matt Franklin, Fund Manager at Royal London Asset Management. And as legislative requirements bound on, and bond prices increasingly reflect perceived environmental performance, investors are keen to be the right side of future market moves.

Use a range of metrics

There are a variety of metrics that you could use to build a picture of an issuers relative carbon performance. Firstly, we can use ‘weighted average carbon intensity’, or WACI, which compares a company’s carbon emissions to its revenues – however revenues can fluctuate, which skews results. We also use the ‘financed emissions’ metric, calculated by comparing a company’s emissions to the proportion of its enterprise value (EV) that an investor owns: If a company has issued £50m of debt and £50m of equity, for example, its enterprise value is £100m – an investor holding £1m of equity, for example, would therefore be responsible for 1% of the company’s overall emissions.

But EV-based measures are not perfect either and can be much more difficult to calculate for private companies, where the equity part of the calculation is more difficult to ascertain. For public companies their market capitalisation represents a market assessment of value, but for private companies we have to take the equity value of the business from its balance sheet – this value often diverges materially from a company’s true market value. As a result, private companies are often penalised significantly by EV measures. Given around 60% of sterling bonds are issued by private companies this can have a material impact across an entire portfolio.

We should perhaps be moving towards forward-looking measures instead, such as ‘implied temperature rise’. The measure considers the total emissions a company will generate from now until reaching ‘Net Zero’, and then estimates the potential for global warming should the company’s carbon reductions be replicated worldwide. But while conceptually elegant, the measure is based on the promises of management and an array of subjective assumptions, using potentially low quality and highly inconsistent data. This gives us little confidence in the accuracy and analytical value of these measures. Hopefully, quality will improve over time, but in the meantime, a full bottom-up analysis of a company’s ability and willingness to transition remains essential.

Widen the scope beyond carbon

Building a credit portfolio solely focused on carbon will risk skewing funds towards certain sectors. This might see them favour financial services, which historically have been more volatile, and avoid areas such as utilities companies, which not only have stable cashflows, but may also be key enablers of the energy transition.

Another risk of simply focusing on carbon is that you can miss other important environmental, social and governance (ESG) risks and opportunities. A great example of this is a bond issued by the Thames Tideway Tunnel, a £3bn super sewer being constructed under the River Thames. The bond is secured on the project, benefits from highly regulated cashflows, and offers an attractive credit spread for the fundamental credit risks. The WACI of this bond is very high, at around 15x the average for the index. However, not only do we have good visibility on emissions falling following construction, but the tunnel provides a fantastic environmental benefit beyond carbon. Currently, London’s Victorian sewer system cannot cope with heavy rainfall, which sees excess rainfall, together with sewage, pumped directly into the river. The tunnel will remove this last significant source of pollution for the Thames – a fantastic environmental and credit opportunity that a carbon-only approach may have missed.