Reasons to Invest Responsibly

Why would you want to have a portfolio that invests Responsibly?  A typical portfolio could very likely own investments in corporations involved in these or other similar negative impacts:

Mount Polley Mine Tailings Disaster

Outrageous Executive Pay

Countries that Manufacture Landmines and Cluster Munitions

Dangerous and Exploitive Working Conditions

And this list unfortunately could go on for pages.  However Responsible Investments seek to improve the world in many ways.   For Public Stock Companies this can take the form of Shareholder Engagement.  In the case of Mutual Fund Companies they will bring resolutions to the Annual Meetings and will engage the senior company management in ongoing discussions to improve the corporate response to Environmental, Social and Governance challenges.   Here are a few examples of how this works in Responsible Investment Funds:

Goldcorp Discussions – Human Rights in Guatemala and Chile

Say on Pay – Oceanrock Meritas Family of Investments

Negative Screening of Companies involved in Weapons Contracting

Loblaws Engagement in Bangladesh “Joe Fresh” brand

These engagements with Companies are works in progress.  There is generally an emphasis to work toward “best in class” investments.  This recognizes companies that are improving their efforts to be good corporate citizens are better candidates for investment.  If you want your investments to begin to help build a better world, consider investing in Responsible Investments.  As a member of the Responsible Investment Association of Canada I encourage investors to educate themselves on this important subject.  A visit to the RIA Canada website is a good place to start.

“Responsible Investment” Funds – How to choose?

What is a Responsible Investment Fund? Other names for funds of this type might be called Socially Responsible, Sustainable, Green, and other descriptive names. All of them have in common that they use a predefined set of criteria to determine what companies they can and cannot invest in. It is these criteria that shape the important differences between these funds.

In Canada there are quite a few companies that offer Responsible Investment Funds. IA Clarington Inhance Funds, NEI Ethical Funds, Oceanrock Meritas Funds, RBC Jantzi and PH&N funds are some of the better known Funds of this type. Other Companies such as AGF and Investors Group also offer some options in the Responsible Investment area. Though the funds may look similar, if you drill deep enough into their composition and practices you will find important differences.

For example all the funds use ESG (environment, social, governance) performance indicators to determine how well various companies compare in their practices in these areas. Some companies have staff dedicated to this research. Most other companies use third party research services to source their ESG performance data. So is it important for you to know if the company is doing their own research?

Do the funds management have a Corporate Engagement Program? Ethical, Inhance and Meritas Funds all actively engage the companies in their portfolios to influence beneficial changes to corporate policies or practices that reflect negatively on their accomplishment of the ESG criteria. The by now well known “Say on Pay” shareholder resolutions were spearheaded by Responsible Investment Funds with Meritas Funds, president Gary Hawton playing a lead role in this.

So what filters do the Mutual Funds use to align their portfolios with your values? This is where it can become complicated and confusing for the average investor. What type of companies are filtered out of a portfolio? Gambling, Nuclear Power, Weapons Manufacturing are not allowed in most of these portfolios. However gambling activities are allowed in at least one Fund. Many investors are looking for portfolios that minimize fossil fuels based companies. In Canada it is difficult to have a representative portfolio without including some fossil fuel based companies. Mining is also a sector that is challenged by sustainability. In these cases the managers will often use “Best of Sector” in an attempt to create a positive dialogue with companies in these sectors so they will improve their processes or products thus having a more positive impact on the overall environment.

Investors are increasingly concerned about Climate Change and how it will impact their portfolios and more importantly their lives. The Responsible Investment Association of Canada supports the Canadian Investor Statement on Climate Change Policy. Your investment choices will influence the amount of fossil fuels in a portfolio. For example a Global Equity fund would generally have lower % of fossil fuel based corporations in the portfolio compared to a Canadian Equity fund. There are also specialized funds such as the AGF Clean Environment Fund that do not have explicit ESG mandates, however they are often associated with the category of Responsible Investment funds.

Another important item for some investors is a commitment to address poverty and local enterprise. Meritas Funds reserves up to 2% of their portfolio assets to be invested in Community Development Investments (such as Micro Credit) programs. This is not a charitable investment as the loans are expected to be paid back and usually with a fair interest rate. These funds provide much needed capital for projects that normally do not receive much attention from corporations and government. The vast majority of loans are repaid and so this type of investment has proven to be very satisfying for all parties involved.

In depth knowledge is required to match portfolios to needs. The Sustainalytics Jantzi Canadian Index is available for purchase through Meritas or through the RBC Asset Management. The portfolios appear very similar, however Meritas screens out for gambling whereas the RBC index does not. Meritas uses Community Development Investments whereas RBC Asset Management does not. As well, some of these investment funds are also available through Insurance Company Segregated Funds product. Segregated Funds are similar to their mutual fund peers except that they have guarantees associated with them and they can be effective for Estate planning.

In summary if you wish to purchase a Responsible Investment Fund to reflect your personal values you do need to look more deeply into the specific portfolios of the many individual mutual funds in this category. The Corporate Knights magazine 2012 Responsible Investing Guide ranks the various funds. You can build a portfolio yourself, however you may wish to receive expert advice on all of the options available to you. Contact me if you have any questions on this subject or any other interest in “Responsible Investing”.

Are all “Responsible” Mutual Funds the same?

What is the difference between a “regular” mutual fund and a “responsible” mutual fund.  For the average investor it may not be apparent; what makes one mutual fund different from another? All mutual funds including those described as Sustainable, Socially Responsible, Ethical or even Green share many characteristics.

I will use the word “responsible” when speaking generally about these type of funds.  The investments usually consist of stocks or bonds or a combination of both.  The word “mutual” is important.  The individual investor shares the same objectives as other investors in the same fund.  These shared objectives are represented collectively by the investments in the fund.  All of the investors of any specific fund own shares or units of the same fund.  This mutual sharing allows the investor to benefit from the affordability of expertise and portfolios that would typically be beyond their own ability and means.

There are many types of management styles offered by mutual funds.  There are actively managed funds, passively managed funds, exchange traded funds, portfolio funds amongst many types.  This discussion will focus primarily on Actively Managed Funds.  The majority of the responsible funds are actively managed.  Even the responsible funds based on an Index require a level of management beyond the typical index fund.  This is due to the fact that these funds use filters to determine what securities to either include or to exclude from their investment portfolios.

Many mutual funds are equity based.  This means they invest primarily in stocks of publicly traded companies.  Many will invest in large cap stocks, mid cap stocks or small cap stocks.  A few managers will invest in any of these categories within the same fund. There are also fixed income funds (bonds) or a combination of both stocks and bonds in the same fund which would typically be called a balanced fund.  Responsible funds are no different in this way.  Where they are different, however is important to understand if you are considering investing in these funds.

Responsible Investment Funds will use screening to determine which securities are eligible for inclusion in the portfolio based on factors that are not an integral part of a regular mutual fund portfolio.

The companies with the better performance in environmental protection, climate change, alternative energy, human rights, employee relations, aboriginal relations, executive compensation are determined by positive/best-of-sector screening.  Funds will also use exclusionary screening to eliminate shares of companies involved in controversial activities (e.g. weapons manufacturing or tobacco), the screening out of entire sectors, or the screening out of poor-performing companies.

These screens are not the same from one mutual fund company to the next.  For example, the existing responsible funds in Canada do not invest in companies that produce nuclear power due primarily to the problems with radioactive pollution and waste management.  However some funds such as the U.S. Calvert Investments will invest in these companies depending on certain conditions.  So your personal values and your country of residence can impact your investment choices.

How can you sort out which company screens most closely reflect your personal values when you invest?  Part II of this blog will help to clarify some of this for you.  We will look more deeply into the individual fund company screens and how this determines the inclusion or exclusion of specific companies.  This is written for Canadian investors, though others are welcome to share this information.  (*Each country has its own securities regulations and investment environment and investors should seek knowledgeable and qualified advice before purchasing any securities).

Retirement Planning and Sustainability

How does one ensure that their investments and savings can sustain them comfortably in their retirement years?  It is an interesting question and is often at the centre of the client/adviser relationship.

Advisors make estimates of savings, inflation, taxes, growth, interest rates, life expectancy and more.  It is a complex and dynamic process always subject to changes in personal circumstances and is affected by the global forces of economic change.  During most of the previous 20th century we did not directly consider sustainability as a key factor.  The concepts were only beginning to evolve in the 1970’s although by the late 1990’s it was becoming more obvious that the importance of a sustainable investment portfolio, whether it be a pension fund, a foundation or an individual, is a key factor in designing a well diversified portfolio.

This concept is widely accepted in many Pension Funds managing hundreds of billions of dollars in assets.  It is widely accepted in the foundation and endowment portfolios as the stakeholders demand that their investments align with the organization’s mission.  Even the individual investor now has access to professionally managed investment portfolios that better reflect their personal values.  So why don’t more individual investors choose to invest in “sustainable or socially responsible investments”?

To a certain extent it has to do with inertia.  If a portfolio is satisfying one’s current needs for safety, growth, inflation protection, and other factors why would a person add another factor into the risks to be considered?  This is an appropriate question.  The best portfolios reduce risk while ensuring adequate returns above the rate of inflation and taxes.

So really the most important consideration is “Do Sustainable Portfolio’s reduce risk while maintaining return?”  Like many financial and economic analysis there is never one absolutely correct answer.  A review of recent research though has interesting observations regarding these issues.

Ben Caldecott, director of the Stranded Assets Program at Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, University of Oxford, Oxford, England notes that “A confluence of risk factors could erode or destroy the value of polluting and environmentally unsustainable assets.” and “While environment-related risks and how they might result in stranded assets is a new, under researched area, investors can take some steps to manage possible developments.”   http://www.pionline.com/article/20131205/ONLINE/131209943/steps-to-deal-with-emerging-risks-of-stranded-assets

As a result of these developments investors, advisers, analysts and others in the financial industry need to increase their knowledge and skills in assessing these concerns and adapting portfolios to minimize risk from these factors.  Another evolving area in the corporate world is the need for companies to develop and disclose their Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) performance.  The adherence to these criteria are becoming increasingly important.  Companies that do not conform to increased performance in these areas might see their securities become restricted from access to large blocks of investment capital as Pensions, Foundations and Individual investors demand greater disclosure in ESG performance.

The Corporate Knights report “2013 Best 50 Companies in Canada” highlights this growing pressure on corporations.  “This year’s list of Canada’s best corporate citizens shows that companies are raising the bar on sustainability, a recognition that being environmentally and socially responsible is more than just the right thing to do – it’s good for business.”  http://www.corporateknights.com/report/2013-best-corporate-citizens-canada/best-50-2013

How does this impact an investor’s retirement plan?  In the last century advisers had to look ahead to gauge the impact of inflation, growth, taxes, interest rates and other economic considerations.  In the rest of the 21st Century a well designed portfolio should include a Sustainability component, otherwise portfolio risk will be increased.  “New research has found that firms that invest in corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives see less risk in their stock prices during economic downturns, benefiting the company, shareholders and the world.”  http://blueandgreentomorrow.com/2014/01/01/research-links-sustainability-initiatives-to-investment-stability/

So if your investments do not incorporate the latest information and trends in Corporate Responsibility will you experience more risk than necessary?  How can you be sure your investments consider up to date Sustainability analysis?  Talk to a qualified investment advisor.  The SIPC “Sustainable Investment Professional Certification” indicates the adviser has completed a rigorous program of study and is qualified to give advice on Sustainability and Investments. http://www.ifd-fsi.org/sipc

Sustainable Investing and You

How can you ensure that your investment portfolio is helping to improve the world?  Many people rely on the advice of an investment advisor to help guide them to financially sound investments.

The primary role of an Investment Advisor is to assist people in maintaining and growing their wealth.  In the past this was simply a matter of researching and recommending high quality investments that create and maintain capital wealth.  Today this is a much more complex role.  Sustainable Investment Professionals continue to perform the traditional role of protecting and growing capital and in addition to this they require that the investments contribute to increased benefits in the environment, in the social realm and in the governance of corporations and other businesses.  These are also known as the ESG (environment, social, governance).

Most people want to ensure their investments reflect their values, while contributing to a healthy lifestyle.  Money or wealth in and of itself has no intrinsic value.  The value is created by what we do with our wealth.  Do we invest it, spend it, or give it to others?  Every day, decisions are made on how we share our wealth.    These every day decisions can be informed by the ESG performance of the supplier of our product or service.

When you purchase something you should ask yourself the following questions:  Is this item manufactured or supplied  in a sustainable manner (E)?  Does my use of this item harm someone else (S)?  Does the company or supplier of the product or service monitor their impact on a farmers livelihood (G)?  ESG as applied to a specific product, such as coffee might be analyzed somewhat in this manner:

Environment – Is the coffee produced in a sustainable manner respecting the local environment?  Is it organic or is the application of pesticides limited?

Social – Are the workers treated fairly?  Are their wages reasonable relative to their living costs?  Is the work environment healthy and safe?

Governance – Do the corporations or organizations who contract and distribute the coffee have a management that is responsive to stakeholder concerns?  This includes more than shareholder concerns, and it can include many facets such as fair trade, marketing, pay equity, diversity on the board of directors and within management.

So when you are purchasing goods or services you can try to find out how the company rates on an ESG scale.  This is a very important factor in the selection of investment opportunities in Sustainable Investment Funds.  You can be assured that companies included in a “Responsible” investment fund have been reviewed to ensure they perform well in these areas.   Some sectors such as mining and oil and gas have considerable difficulty ranking high in the environmental part of the ESG analysis though some companies rank better than others.  This is called “best of” analysis and accepts that most everyone purchases products produced by companies in these economic sectors.  The “best of” concept works for the continual improvement in environmental performance in these sectors.

Responsible Fund companies in Canada such as Northwest Ethical Funds, Meritas Funds and others continually engage the management of the corporations in their portfolios to improve their ESG performance.  They use strategies such as direct dialogue, shareholder resolutions or proposals, and Proxy voting to encourage a corporate culture that respects and improves on the Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) performance of the holdings in their “socially responsible” portfolios.

http://www.neiinvestments.com/Pages/ESGServices/EngagingCompanies/FocusList.aspx

As an investor in these portfolios you can be assured that your values are well represented in the companies that you hold in your portfolio.  For example Ethical Funds met with the Enbridge Board of Directors to express concerns about the Gateway Pipeline development and the lack of support for the pipeline by First Nation communities.  Due to Enbridge’s unsatisfactory response to these concerns the portfolio divested itself of all Enbridge shares.  There are many examples from the Ethical Funds September 2013 Corporate Engagement Report giving greater detail on the results of the Corporate Engagement.

As an investor, do you wish to support socially responsible corporate behaviour?  If you do then talk to your investment advisor about socially responsible investing.  If the advisor’s level of knowledge is inadequate you may contact me.  I would be pleased to answer your questions.  dwhalen@lighthousemoney.ca

Sustainable Society, What can you do?

In my previous blog the question was posed, “Nuclear Power, Is it Sustainable?”  In fact if we analyze the Nuclear Power generation cycle it is clearly unsustainable.  Sustainable energy is  1) renewable 2) efficient and 3) safeguards future generations access to a clean and healthy environment.  The production of radioactive waste in the mining, processing, generating and disposal of waste eliminates this energy as sustainable.  The only factor that might be considered sustainable is the generation of electric power with minimal CO2 emissions during the actual electric generation.

So what can you do on an individual level to support the generation of sustainable power?  And more specifically how can your investments help to create a more sustainable society?

Almost all residents of developed nations can reduce their consumption of energy without reducing their quality of life.  The resulting reduction in demand will reduce the rationale for new, large centralized electrical generation plants including nuclear plants.  Governments can provide leadership by offering citizens economic benefits to conserve energy and to convert to more sustainable power generation using heat pumps, wind turbines, solar collectors, sustainable small scale hydro projects, biogas and biomass.  It is important that each one of these energy sources be submitted to a sustainability review prior to implementation of the energy project.  Such reviews would be scaled to the impact of the project and would help ensure the project is sustainable.

Changing one’s lifestyle is also a way to help reduce power consumption, energy conservation, using better insulation and more efficient appliances are very effective.  Walking, biking, car pooling or using public transit can reduce the need for increasing consumption of electricity.  Eating local and organic food products, participating in local markets, and growing some of your own food will also foster a sustainable society.  There are many ways to increase sustainability.  These are individual decisions a person can make, though lifestyle changes alone will not assure a sustainable society.  The scale of change needed and the time frames to implement these changes demands leadership.

It is very important for governments and corporations to respond to the demand for a sustainable society.  This demand must become obvious to political and corporate leaders.  The IPCC Fifth Assessment Report is a summary of 600 scientific contributors.  It predicts the likelihood of catastrophic climate change if our societies do not immediately begin to reduce non-sustainable carbon energy use.  The message is clear to our political and corporate leadership:  CHANGE PRIORITIES NOW.  The old style of centralized, demand driven, carbon fuel energy distribution must change.  The enormous economic force of our petro-chemical dependency will make this a very difficult transition and in fact an impossible transition without corporate and governmental commitment to a renewable energy future.

Within finance there is the concept of sustainable investments.  This type of investing ranks corporations and other types of organizations according to their Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) accomplishments.  A corporation that ranks highly in relation to its peers in implementing their ESG program is considered to make a greater contribution to sustainability than a similar company that ranks lower in these assessments.  There is no perfect solution in these rankings.  Instead it is an ongoing and developmental process.  For example, in the past a company’s environmental impact on local wetlands was not considered as relevant to the operations of the company.  Many corporations have destroyed wetlands in their pursuit of business opportunities.  Even where strong regulations exist, many corporations prefer to legally challenge these regulations instead of abiding by them.  If this type of behaviour is encouraged by the management of the company, then it would not be considered a sustainable business venture.  Many companies have improved their approach to conservation of wetlands due to pressure by investors, society and governments.

In terms of investing, many pension funds, foundations, sovereign wealth funds, and individuals are seeking to know more about the ESG accomplishments of their investment portfolios.  This type of investing has benefited from the growth in analysis of ESG accomplishments by researchers such as Sustainalytics.   This research is then used by investors to create sustainable investments pools of capital such as  Ethical Funds.  These “Socially Responsible” investments are working to encourage ethical and sustainable corporate behaviour.

We all have an impact within our environment and upon our neighbours.  The commitment to a more sustainable lifestyle will help us to live more in harmony with our planet and will help us to conserve our environment in a healthy state.  The positive changes we make as individuals will all add to the larger social gains experienced through, healthier lifestyles, and more sustainable social organization.  Take a look at your lifestyle and see what changes you can make to help increase the quality of life for all life on our planet.  Review your investments to see how they might better reflect your desire for health for yourself and for all other living beings.

Nuclear Power? Is it Sustainable?

There is a never ending debate about the sustainability of various forms of power generation.  Only living plants can convert sunlight to energy without technology.   Humans need technology to harness, distribute and convert the energy to electricity or other forms of power. This can be done using a simple sail on a boat as has been done for millennia or it can be done through more complex technology such as wind turbines or nuclear plants to name two.

The choices of what to use as our source of electrical power has major impacts on our society. The non-stop generation of power 24/7 to power our cities as they are currently organized requires large centralized power generation. If our society were based more on generating power by wind or sunshine we would have a very different society. One requires large centralized bureaucracy to develop, maintain and manage the energy cycle. The other would still require a bureaucracy for the same reasons, however the actual production and delivery of energy could be developed at a local level. This could lead to greater decentralization and local input into the production of power.

So the debate is not just about how to generate power, but also how to organize society.

More and more people, businesses, corporations and governments are verbally committing to the ethics of sustainability. The reality of changing to actually accomplish a sustainable lifestyle is far more challenging than simply writing rules of governance, or codes of ethics. The real work is in defining and knowing what is sustainable and what is not. By definition, renewable energy might be sustainable, non-renewable energy is not sustainable. As long as our planet and solar system remain in relative equilibrium we shall always have wind power. The source of energy for nuclear power is primarily from uranium and the uranium deposits will become exhausted or too expensive to mine. Pollution associated with energy generation is also an important sustainability factor.

The wind is freely available whenever it blows. Uranium is only available after it is mined from the earth and processed into a form that can be “burned” in our nuclear electricity facilities. The wind does not create pollution in and of itself. Uranium mining and the processes used to make it useful to generate power creates myriad problems of waste containment, pollution and eventually waste disposal. Uranium will eventually be depleted, however the resulting radioactive waste will be present for thousands of generations (yes generations, not years).

Are there problems created by building and siting wind turbines? Absolutely. Are there problems being created in all aspects of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle?  Yes.  There is no question which of the two technologies is more sustainable.  Wind power.  The real problem is one of vision and lifestyle.  Our current lifestyle demands large amounts of power 24/7. The current electrical infrastructure is designed to deliver that power dependably 24/7.  We need to change our electrical demand needs to sustainable levels and that won’t be easy, however it will be necessary if we are to live in sustainable homes, towns, cities and countries.

To put things in perspective; simply look at the problems created when there is a major breakdown at a wind turbine project such as this one near Goderich, Ontario, Canada Wind Turbine Accident (1) and a nuclear project such as the one in Fukushima, Japan Fukushima Decontamination.(2)  Taking the long view, (hundreds of generations) there is no question that we must develop sustainable society or our planet will become uninhabitable.  Nuclear generated electricity is simply not sustainable.  The damage is occurring now in so many ways.   What can you do to help develop a sustainable society?  Suggestions in my next blog.

(1) http://www.huronnewsnow.ca/2013/04/02/capital-power-investigating-cause-of-turbine-fire/
(2) http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/fukushima-residents-question-radiation-cleanup-effort-1.1856332?cmp=rss