It sounds simple enough: invest in things that are good for the planet and society. Investing sustainably should be that simple, but in practice things are a lot less straightforward.

Confusion quickly sets in when we try to navigate the different approaches to sustainable investing. Much of this confusion stems from the plethora of industry terminology and definitions, and a general lack of understanding about how different product issuers approach questions around sustainability. Advisers with clients serious about taking an ethical and sustainable approach to their investment decisions are often left to un-muddy the waters.

Sustainable investing is a simple concept, but it’s not always simple to implement. The following three steps will help you clarify the sustainability issue and find an investment solution that genuinely meets your needs and expectations.

1. Understand the product issuer’s frame of reference

Not everyone thinks of sustainability in the same way. Some may think of it as actively avoiding certain industries, while others may see it as a way of mitigating the risk of out-dated industrial processes, bad PR, or the threat of disruption.

This can lead to a number of misunderstandings that can be detrimental to your objectives. Before we begin comparing different sustainable investment offerings, it’s necessary to nail down some terms:

ESG (environmental, social and governance) investing: The ESG approach to investing involves taking into account ESG factors (i.e. impact on climate change, board composition, or relations with employees, suppliers and the community) as they relate to a particular business, using a systematic research process. ESG factors are used to enhance traditional financial analysis by assessing the risk these factors pose to a company’s business model and using this information to optimise their portfolio.

Impact investing: The aim of impact of investing is to make a positive difference by investing specifically in businesses, non-profits or other organisations that are seeking to improve the world through the development of new technologies (e.g. clean energy or sustainable agricultural practices), the provision of essential community services (e.g. open banking, micro-finance, medical services), or the construction of critical infrastructure. The bulk of impact investing is done at scale by institutional investors and major philanthropic organisations.

Sustainable investing: The sustainable investing approach specifically targets sustainable themes (e.g. low carbon industries, Paris or UN SDG-aligned outcomes) and avoids certain harmful businesses and industries (e.g. tobacco, fossil fuels, gambling, weapons manufacturing). Sustainable investing may incorporate elements of ESG and even impact investing, but with the goal of achieving investment goals while considering the activities and practices of the underlying companies in the portfolio.

Each of these types of investing fall under the broader rubric of ‘Responsible Investment’ (RI). While these definitions are similar, they also differ in some important ways. For example, ESG, in contrast to sustainable investing, tends to be more focused on process than outcomes. While investment decisions may be informed by a sustainable overlay, an ESG fund manager may invest in unsustainable companies if it makes sense from a risk and return perspective.

ESG is a perfectly valid process, but it is important to understand the framework used by individual fund managers and how it aligns with your own values and expectations.

In Lonsec’s experience, ESG is interpreted and implemented in different ways. A survey of Lonsec’s financial advisers revealed a wide variety of responses when it comes to defining ESG. Half of advisers surveyed believed that a strong ESG framework means using a range of filters or screens on the portfolio. While this might seem like a reasonable assumption, for most fund managers, what really defines an ESG product is simply whether ESG risks are considered when making investment decisions. It doesn’t speak to the actual outcome, i.e. the companies and activities the product invests in.

Lonsec’s adviser survey revealed some confusion about the meaning of ESG


Source: Lonsec

This highlights the importance of digging deeper to find out what the product issuer means when they label a product ‘responsible’, ‘ethical’, ‘ESG’, or ‘sustainable’. It might not mean what you think it means, and it may be something different from what your client is looking for.

2. Determine what your client’s expectations are

We all have different values, priorities, and objectives. When we aim to invest sustainably, we will naturally be forced to make trade-offs. Investing in financial markets means accepting that we’ll end up with some exposure to things we don’t like. Even a company with impeccable green credentials will leave some carbon footprint. And environmental considerations may be only part of the equation. Some companies might be investing in green energy but still be lagging on gender equality and other social indicators. There is no perfect company, and likewise no perfect portfolio.

This is where individual, subjective values come into play. It’s up to the adviser to work with the client to determine their investment objectives—including risk and return preferences—while thinking about the types of exposures they are comfortable with from a sustainability perspective.

For this reason, not all self-described ESG or sustainable investment products will suit. For example, an ESG product may still invest in industries like tobacco and coal if it makes sense from a pure risk and return perspective. While this would suit some investors, it would not be appropriate for someone who is looking specifically to avoid investing in these industries.

When Lonsec assesses an investment product’s sustainability, it considers both sustainability and ESG. We seek to understand the effectiveness of the fund manager’s ESG process, but ultimately we’re interested in the product’s underlying portfolio: the companies, industries, and activities the product invests in.

If your clients are serious about investing sustainably, you should have a full discussion about exactly what it is they’re looking for so you know which products can best meet their needs. As regulations and standards become more stringent, we also need to be more cognisant of our obligations. The FASEA Code of Ethics Standard requires advisers to act in the best interests of their clients, which means product recommendations must be appropriate to meet the client’s objectives while considering their broader, long-term interests. This includes any social or ethical preferences the client might have.

The Financial Planning Association (FPA) guidelines on the FASEA Code of Ethics states: “Financial advisers should ask their clients if there are any environmental, social or ethical considerations that are important to them”. This involves having the sustainability conversation, determining the approach that works for you as the client, and recommending a solution that meets your needs and expectations.

3. Cut through the piles of data

Once you’ve established what the client is looking for, the next step is to identify suitable investments that fit our criteria. If you’ve picked up an ESG research report lately, you’ll know these tend to be stuffed full of metrics, some of which may not even be directly relevant to us. It’s difficult to know who these reports are designed for, because most investors and many advisers would suffer a severe bout of MEGO (‘my eyes glaze over’) if they tried to read through it.

Data is central to sustainable investing. Without the right data—and without the right quality of data—we can’t make good investment decisions. But the key is bringing this data together in a way that’s clear and actionable. A data dump is next to useless, even if the data itself is perfectly good.

Effective sustainability research is able to look through an investment product’s portfolio to assess sustainability at the security level, taking account of each company’s production methods, their role in the supply chain, and any second- and even third-order effects resulting from their activities. It also needs to summarise this in a digestible format that can be read and understood by advice clients, providing a clear rationale for why the product was recommended for them.

As an example, Lonsec’s sustainability reports are only two pages long, but they bring together a vast array of data to enable better decision making. The reports show the product’s exposure to and alignment with the United Nation’s 17 Sustainability Development Goals (SGDs), as well as ten controversial industries like fossil fuels, gambling, and tobacco. The product’s overall sustainability is presented in a single Sustainability Score, measured between one and five bees (a widely recognised symbol of sustainability given the critical role they play in our ecosystem).

Good sustainability research goes beyond product labels to tell clients exactly what they are investing in. It should also make it easier for you as the adviser to demonstrate the value of your advice and recommendations in a tangible way, without a deluge of extraneous metrics that confuse your message and make it harder for investors to understand the real benefit of your investment solution.

Keep communicating the benefits

Regular communication is the key to client retention. We all know this, but in reality maintaining both the frequency and relevance of our communications can divert us from other necessary business operations, including winning new clients and growing our advice practice. Having a suite of managed portfolios can help scale not only your investment process but also your portfolio communications, making the task of portfolio reporting and the generation of individual client communications significantly easier.

Once we have the right investment solution in place, we need to be proactive in communicating the benefits. Again, the right research and reporting is crucial. The sustainability conversation doesn’t end once the client’s portfolio is place. It will need to evolve over time, just as community expectations and client preferences change. But if we can do this successfully, we can create even more value for our clients, and add a whole other dimension to the value of our advice offering.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: This document is published by Lonsec Investment Solutions Pty Ltd ACN 608 837 583, a Corporate Authorised Representative (CAR 1236821) (LIS) of Lonsec Research Pty Ltd ABN 11 151 658 561 AFSL 421 445 (Lonsec Research).  LIS creates the model portfolios it distributes using the investment research provided by Lonsec Research but LIS has not had any involvement in the investment research process for Lonsec Research. LIS and Lonsec Research are owned by Lonsec Holdings Pty Ltd ACN 151 235 406. Please read the following before making any investment decision about any financial product mentioned in this document.

DISCLOSURE AT THE DATE OF PUBLICATION: Lonsec Research receives a fee from the relevant fund manager or product issuer(s) for researching financial products (using objective criteria) which may be referred to in this document. Lonsec Research may also receive a fee from the fund manager or product issuer(s) for subscribing to research content and other Lonsec Research services.  LIS receives a fee for providing the model portfolios to financial services organisations and professionals. LIS’ and Lonsec Research’s fees are not linked to the financial product rating(s) outcome or the inclusion of the financial product(s) in model portfolios. LIS and Lonsec Research and their representatives and/or their associates may hold any financial product(s) referred to in this document, but details of these holdings are not known to the Lonsec Research analyst(s).

WARNINGS: Past performance is not a reliable indicator of future performance. Any express or implied rating or advice presented in this document is limited to general advice and based solely on consideration of the investment merits of the financial product(s) alone, without taking into account the investment objectives, financial situation and particular needs (“financial circumstances”) of any particular person. Before making an investment decision based on the rating or advice, the reader must consider whether it is personally appropriate in light of his or her financial circumstances or should seek independent financial advice on its appropriateness.  If the financial advice relates to the acquisition or possible acquisition of a particular financial product, the reader should obtain and consider the Investment Statement or the Product Disclosure Statement for each financial product before making any decision about whether to acquire the financial product.

DISCLAIMER: No representation, warranty or undertaking is given or made in relation to the accuracy or completeness of the information presented in this document, which is drawn from public information not verified by LIS. The information contained in this document is current as at the date of publication. Financial conclusions, ratings and advice are reasonably held at the time of publication but subject to change without notice. LIS assumes no obligation to update this document following publication. Except for any liability which cannot be excluded, LIS and Lonsec Research, their directors, officers, employees and agents disclaim all liability for any error or inaccuracy in, misstatement or omission from, this document or any loss or damage suffered by the reader or any other person as a consequence of relying upon it.

Copyright © 2021 Lonsec Investment Solutions Pty Ltd ACN 608 837 583 (LIS). This document may also contain third party supplied material that is subject to copyright.  The same restrictions that apply to LIS copyrighted material, apply to such third-party content.

Market Overview, Portfolio Performance & Positioning Update

Given the recent market conditions – increased volatility, fear of inflation, rotation away from growth and quality stocks towards cyclical and value stocks – we asked Lonsec’s Chief Investment Officer Lukasz de Pourbaix to give us an update on his views of the market and how Lonsec’s portfolios are positioned for the environment ahead. In this video, Lukasz provides an overview of Lonsec’s current asset allocation positions following the most recent Asset Allocation Investment Committee meeting, and explains how Lonsec’s portfolios are positioned to manage risk and recovery.


Transcript:

Hello, my name is Lukasz de Pourbaix, I’m the Executive Director and CIO of Lonsec Investment Solutions. Today, I wanted to give you an interim performance update on our managed account portfolios, and specifically in relation to market events, which has certainly caused increased volatility in markets.

What has occurred in markets during the last 12 months?

So what have we been seeing in markets over the course of this year? And I guess the one thing I’d point to is, we’ve seen US 10-Year Treasuries go up from about 0.9% at the end of last year to above 1.6%. So what does that mean? It means that, on the positive side, signals that the economy is recovering, and our view would be that we are seeing signs of economic recovery, we’re seeing improved payroll data, we’re seeing improved productivity numbers. So there’s a lot of things that are pointing to the right direction in terms of economic recovery. But at the same time, what the market has been factoring in is the prospect of inflation. So with all the stimulus, we’ve just seen the US approve $1.9 trillion worth of stimulus coupled with all the other stimulus we’ve seen over the course of the last 12 months, the market is worried that all of this stimulus and the accelerated recovery, will cause inflation. So from a market perspective, we’ve seen, and it started probably in November last year, a big rotation away from those parts of the market that are more growth focus, towards more of your value, your cyclical type of exposures, and the rotation has been very sharp and very pronounced. So if you think about the Australian market, for example, resources, and banks were up about 30% over the course of November last year. Conversely, sectors such as healthcare were down over that same period. So we’ve seen a very abrupt rotation. And if you sort of step back and think that for the last 10 years or so those cyclical and, in particular, value stocks have really struggled.

How have our Lonsec portfolios been positioned?

So from a portfolio perspective, if we look across the board, so the Listed diversified portfolios, certainly did have a bias towards that quality end of the market. So in terms of stocks, those stocks that have had solid balance sheets, have navigated the COVID environment very strongly. So if you think about some of those stocks, we actually had no stocks in the portfolio that needed to raise capital over that period, which goes to point out how strong some of those companies are. But what has performed well since November are some of those stocks that arguably are not in that quality part of the market, as well as some of your cyclical exposures. So the portfolios all in all have had underperformance notably, I’d say over the last three months. Now, we’re very well aware of this underperformance. And we recently had our investment selection committee, along with our asset allocation committee. And from a broad portfolio positioning perspective, so if you think back in terms of from an asset allocation perspective, how we’ve been positioned, we continue to think that risk asset, so equities, are where you want to be at this point in time, relative to bonds. And that equities still provide a reasonable risk premium to bond assets. So we’ve been underweight bonds, and we’ve been overweight risk assets. And we continue to believe that, over the medium term, that’s where you want to be positioned and the portfolios remain positioned in that way.

How are we diversifying our portfolios by investment strategy?

From a bottom-up perspective, in terms of investment selection, as I noted, we have been hurt over the last three months because of that bias towards some of the quality and defensive positions. And those positions have been there, from the perspective that while we think that markets and risk assets, in particular, are going to do well, we also note that there is the risk that the recovery may not be as strong, and we may see some stumbling blocks. So we do still want some of the defensiveness within the portfolios. Having said that, we are reviewing the portfolios at the moment and if you look at the Listed portfolios, where we’re focusing on is – do we add some more cyclical type of exposures just to balance some of the risks within the portfolio. So that is an area that we are exploring, particularly on the global equity side. We have already incrementally been doing that on the Australian equity part of the portfolio. And the other key area we’re focusing on is the bond part of that portfolio, which does have significant exposure to the duration or be it, we are underweight fixed interest. And we are looking at ways to further diversify the portfolios away from duration or interest rate risk within that defensive part of the portfolio. So, you recall, we did add Ardea back in January of this year, and that has proven to be a really good diversifier in this market environment. And we’re looking to further broaden that out. One of the challenges is obviously just identifying products because, in that bond space, the non-duration type of exposure is a little bit more limited. But we will be looking to adjust that part of the portfolio as well.

Are we making changes to our asset allocation positions?

So from a Listed portfolio perspective, overall, we’re relatively comfortable where we’re positioned. If you think about beyond these last three months, longer-term we still think that we will be in a lower rate environment. While we think inflation will go up marginally over the coming months, our base case is that we’re not going to see out-of-control inflation. So if you think about an environment where all things being equal, rates are still low, inflation is under control, and central banks are continuing to support markets, whether it be through monetary policy or fiscal policy, that type of dynamic is still conducive to having that long term quality exposure within the portfolios. So we are cognizant of the recent performance. Over the long term, though, we do think the portfolios are well-positioned in terms of the market environment we’re heading into. And we are making some adjustments just to limit some of those risks within the portfolios. If I just touch on very briefly in the other portfolios, our Multi-Asset portfolios, just by nature of the construct, and the ability to use different types of funds, have had a little bit more of that cyclical exposure, that value exposure, notably, managers like Allan Gray, for example, we have had less duration risk within those portfolios. One of the things we are looking at also in those portfolios is again reducing some of those more defensive exposures, keeping some in there because that is part of our process, as part of managing risk. But also just adjusting that given that our view on equities has become more constructive. And certainly, as I said before, we think that relative to bonds, equities will continue to look attractive.

We are here to support you.

So thank you for taking the time today to listen to this video. We will be coming out with more material to help you with your conversations with your clients relating to the portfolios. We’re working on a frequently asked questions document, which will delve a little bit deeper into some of the things I spoke about. And as always, we’ll do our quarterly update on our portfolios which again will provide an update on the performance and positioning. And with that, I hope you found today’s video useful and I want to thank you again for your support for the portfolios, and if there are any questions, please get in contact with our BDM team.


IMPORTANT NOTICE: This document is published by Lonsec Investment Solutions Pty Ltd ACN 608 837 583, a Corporate Authorised Representative (CAR 1236821) (LIS) of Lonsec Research Pty Ltd ABN 11 151 658 561 AFSL 421 445 (Lonsec Research).  LIS creates the model portfolios it distributes using the investment research provided by Lonsec Research but LIS has not had any involvement in the investment research process for Lonsec Research. LIS and Lonsec Research are owned by Lonsec Holdings Pty Ltd ACN 151 235 406. Please read the following before making any investment decision about any financial product mentioned in this document.

DISCLOSURE AT THE DATE OF PUBLICATION: Lonsec Research receives a fee from the relevant fund manager or product issuer(s) for researching financial products (using objective criteria) which may be referred to in this document. Lonsec Research may also receive a fee from the fund manager or product issuer(s) for subscribing to research content and other Lonsec Research services.  LIS receives a fee for providing the model portfolios to financial services organisations and professionals. LIS’ and Lonsec Research’s fees are not linked to the financial product rating(s) outcome or the inclusion of the financial product(s) in model portfolios. LIS and Lonsec Research and their representatives and/or their associates may hold any financial product(s) referred to in this document, but details of these holdings are not known to the Lonsec Research analyst(s).

WARNINGS: Past performance is not a reliable indicator of future performance. Any express or implied rating or advice presented in this document is limited to general advice and based solely on consideration of the investment merits of the financial product(s) alone, without taking into account the investment objectives, financial situation and particular needs (“financial circumstances”) of any particular person. Before making an investment decision based on the rating or advice, the reader must consider whether it is personally appropriate in light of his or her financial circumstances or should seek independent financial advice on its appropriateness.  If the financial advice relates to the acquisition or possible acquisition of a particular financial product, the reader should obtain and consider the Investment Statement or the Product Disclosure Statement for each financial product before making any decision about whether to acquire the financial product.

DISCLAIMER: No representation, warranty or undertaking is given or made in relation to the accuracy or completeness of the information presented in this document, which is drawn from public information not verified by LIS. The information contained in this document is current as at the date of publication. Financial conclusions, ratings and advice are reasonably held at the time of publication but subject to change without notice. LIS assumes no obligation to update this document following publication. Except for any liability which cannot be excluded, LIS and Lonsec Research, their directors, officers, employees and agents disclaim all liability for any error or inaccuracy in, misstatement or omission from, this document or any loss or damage suffered by the reader or any other person as a consequence of relying upon it.

Copyright © 2021 Lonsec Investment Solutions Pty Ltd ACN 608 837 583 (LIS). This document may also contain third party supplied material that is subject to copyright.  The same restrictions that apply to LIS copyrighted material, apply to such third-party content.

As always there will be many different opinions on what might happen to markets in the coming year, but by and large most will agree it is unlikely to top the volatility and uncertainty of 2020. Amid the stimulus packages, lockdowns, PPE and politics, COVID-19 also brought to an end one long running market cycle and ushered in a new one, offering investors new opportunities with the potential for new risks and returns.

We believe understanding and navigating both will be more important than ever.

One of the main risks that still carries over from the last few years is the concentration of the index in just a few mega-capitalization companies. In fact, when considering the S&P 500, the top 10 companies still account for around 28% of the index, and as of late December 2020 the top 6 were worth more than the bottom 372 companies.

 

 

Why is this a problem?

Well if you’re buying the index you’re buying very expensive companies that have already grown substantially during 2020 such as Apple 86% and Amazon 76%. What’s riskier is Tesla (TLA) is nearly 2% of the index but only joined in late 2020, so index investors didn’t receive most of the benefit of its 700%+ growth, but bear all the downside if the stock were to fall.

Investors usually choose indices for their diversity – perhaps now they need to look again.

In addition, while global stimulus and support packages have helped economies from falling off a cliff, they have also pumped a lot more liquidity (cash) into the system. This, along with low interest rates may well support inflation for the first time in decades which even in small amounts can have a profound effect on stocks. Stocks with high valuations that are dominating the index (technology) are more susceptible to the increase in interest rates that usually accompanies inflation, meaning to get your money back you need to wait years if not decades. This is less the case with other sectors.

Is this likely?

While the potential for inflation is there, so too are signs of a rotation away from the tech stocks to those less highly valued sectors of the economy. From September to mid-December 2020, the S&P500 Value index outperformed Growth by around 8%, driven by more certainty about the real economy restarting on the back of a COVID-19 vaccine. While we can’t predict the future there is precedent here going back to the dotcom bust of 2000, where in the following 5 years Value had a resurgence to the point where it outperformed over the 10 years pre and post the bust.

 

To add to this are current data showing a significant increase in activity in the bellwether ISM New Orders Index which measures manufacturing activity, up 40% since the lows of 2020 and its highest level in over 3 years. The opportunity here lies in those sectors and regions that benefit from this new cycle economy, sectors that have been neglected, and so are cheap, but stand to benefit from the surge of global economic activity as populations slowly become vaccinated. The rewards here could be substantial.

Added benefit of options

Finally, the market is currently experiencing an unusual set of dynamics. Volatility (uncertainty) is higher than the long-term average, but so is the market. Usually the market is lower when volatility is higher.

This represents both heightened uncertainty alongside optimism, which has been fueled by some arguably unsophisticated market participants.

This creates unprecedented opportunity for professional investors, and especially for Talaria’s process of using put options to enter stock positions because:

  • There is a greater contracted rate of return on the put options we sell, which can generate 3-4% p.a. more option premium into the portfolio p.a. all else being equal.
  • The opportunity cost of not being fully invested is materially reduced given low expectations for equity market returns.
  • Heightened volatility allows us to widen our buffers against loss and maintain our risk credentials.

As we like to say, certainty empowers you.

Markets continued their upward trajectory in November. When you look at the returns across key asset classes over the last 12 months most asset classes have generated double digit returns. Growth assets such as equities and listed real assets generated over 20% for the year ending 30 November, while bonds generated high single digit to double digit returns. This has been a great outcome for investors and certainly well above Lonsec’s long-term expected returns for asset classes.

Part of what has fuelled these high returns, post markets getting the wobbles after the US yield curve inverted in August, can be attributed to markets pricing in the avoidance of a recession and the expectations of a potential recovery in growth. We have witnessed such ‘mini-cycles’ in the past, in 2013 and 2016, however what is different this time is that EPS growth is more muted and other factors which contributed to previous mini-cycles, such as the US or Chinese fiscal stimulus, are less likely to have an impact.

So what does this mean for markets? We think markets may experience a short-term upswing as the ‘mini-cycle’ plays out. We have therefore slightly adjusted our dynamic asset allocation tilts deploying some of the excess cash in our portfolios towards Australian equities. Our overall asset allocation continues to have a defensive skew with the objective of diversifying the portfolios by asset type and investment strategy. This positioning reflects our broader view that asset prices are stretched and that while some economic indicators have stabilised, we believe we are closer to the end of the cycle.

Important information: Any express or implied rating or advice is limited to general advice, it doesn’t consider any personal needs, goals or objectives.  Before making any decision about financial products, consider whether it is personally appropriate for you in light of your personal circumstances. Obtain and consider the Product Disclosure Statement for each financial product and seek professional personal advice before making any decisions regarding a financial product.