Two major hurdles to the broader adoption of impact investing are being cleared by structural changes in the capital markets and new guidance issued by the Department of Labor that makes it easier for retirement plans to offer environmental, social and governance (ESG) solutions to investors planning for retirement.

In a new whitepaper, “Impact Investing: The Performance Realities,” Merrill Lynch analyzes these structural changes and the growing body of evidence showing that investors can do well financially by investing in organizations that are doing what’s right for the environment and society. The paper tracks key developments in the impact investing arena, pointing to rapid growth and innovation that are due largely to growing client demand over the past decade, as well as the improving quantity and quality of ESG data.

A recent Merrill Lynch client survey of 1,500 U.S. investors found that awareness and education about impact investing are also among the keys to its continuing growth.

“More of our clients want their portfolios to reflect their beliefs on issues such as social mobility, climate change, women’s rights and other key issues,” said Anna Snider, author of the paper and head of Global Equity and Impact Investing Due Diligence, Merrill Lynch Wealth Management. “Many investors have held back because of a commonly held belief that investing for a better world requires a trade-off in performance. We believe that a combination of more reliable data, enhanced portfolio construction techniques and innovation in structures and investment approaches will start to turn that outdated assumption on its head.”

“Impact Investing: The Performance Realities” assesses the real state of impact
In developing the whitepaper, Merrill Lynch analyzed proprietary, academic and industry data to gain insight into the impact investing landscape. Key findings include:
• Many impact investments can be used in a market-based portfolio without a significant increase in risk, and can serve to lower overall portfolio volatility and aid in the risk adjusted profile of portfolios.
• The risks of many impact investments are not necessarily greater than their traditional counterparts, but they often are different – and understanding those risks is critical for investment decision-making.
• Most impact-oriented, diversified public equity and fixed income strategies can provide market-like returns – and some more-targeted public and private strategies may even outperform.
• Merrill Lynch found wide recognition that companies lacking good governance, which fail to consider environmental risks or disregard community impacts, are ignoring risks to their bottom line.
• New public-private financing structures are gaining interest from not-for-profit organizations, policy makers and government issuers, and there’s been a marked increase in social impact partnerships, green bonds and direct capital investments in thematic ventures such as health and energy.
• Institutional investors, who were among the first to incorporate impact investing criteria into their mandates, still account for the largest share of assets. Recent substantial growth in indexes, network services and other collaborative or aggregative sources of social responsibility data are now making it possible for all investors to use ESG data, along with traditional financial analysis, to make informed decisions about investing in sustainable companies.

Supporting client survey points to need for education and awareness
Merrill Lynch’s client survey of 1,500 U.S. investors found that awareness and education about impact investing are also among the keys to its continuing growth. The survey found:
• Younger investors – millennials under the age of 35 – are leading the way in the demand for impact investing investments. More than any other age group, they are interested in investing in companies that share similar values and are more likely to believe they can achieve competitive returns (59%).
• Millennials also place greater importance on the issues they consider important than on financial returns (47%).
• Nearly one-half (48%) of the 1,500 investors surveyed would be more likely to incorporate impact investing strategies into their portfolios if assured it didn’t mean sacrificing returns.
• Three in five (62%) investors aren’t yet convinced that impact investing investments can deliver competitive returns.
• Approximately half of investors would be spurred to add ESG investments to their portfolio if they better understood them.
• Fewer than 25% of investors are aware of the impact investment options available to them.

Global Wealth and Investment Management and impact investing
Bank of America’s wealth and investment businesses launched their impact investing platform in August 2013 with a range of investment offerings across asset classes and themes, extensive insight and thought leadership, and a major commitment from Bank of America totaling more than $70bn in lending, financing and other investments, as well as $100mn in grants, over a 10-year period.

As of September 2015, Bank of America’s investment businesses had more than $9.7bn in assets with a clearly defined impact investing approach. Of these assets, approximately $8.1bn are assets under management and $1.6bn are advised assets. These businesses include Merrill Lynch Wealth Management, U.S. Trust, Merrill Edge and the institutional investment business.

While there are many impact strategies that have long track records, as the investment approach is expanding, there are many strategies that may have limited performance history. Data availability and standardized frameworks are still evolving for the private and public impact investments industry and will be subject to multiple improvements in coming years. As such, reporting around the particular impacts of impact investing strategies are subject to the manager’s definition of those results, and investors should be aware of these issues prior to investment. Finally, as impact investing approaches are being more widely integrated into investment processes, it is important for investors to acknowledge that certain portfolio managers and other investors offering solutions in this space are still in their developmental stage, and investors need to be aware of these risks. 

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