Under the hood - ESG integration across asset classes

David Corris, CFA®

Head of Disciplined Equity, Portfolio Manager

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Responsible investing (RI) has evolved tremendously over the past decade, moving beyond a stylish trend to represent a material structural change. Institutional investors worldwide are making more thoughtful decisions about capital allocation and investment managers have responded by adopting environmental, social and governance (ESG) practices into their fundamental processes. What does this integration look like across the various asset classes?

In this issue of IQ, we’ve conducted a roundtable discussion where portfolio managers and representatives from BMO Global Asset Management’s full suite of strategies share their perspective: Jennifer So, Fundamental Canadian Equities; David Corris, Disciplined Equity; Adam Phillips, U.S. Fixed Income; and Angus Henderson, BMO Real Estate Partners.

Part 1: The evolution across asset classes

Jennifer: There’s definitely been an evolution in terms of how we integrate ESG on our fundamental equities team in Canada. It started with us acquiring data from a third-party service provider, and our London-based RI team would generate their own score based on their expert views. And although we still use this score in our analysis, previously it was used as a springboard for follow-up discussion, whereas today, we focus on ESG risks and opportunities, and consider all stakeholders. Our five-stakeholder lens includes not just shareholders, but also customers, employees, suppliers and the industry in general, and examines the relationship and role within all five of these groups. It’s still qualitatively-based, but there’s also a quantitative component which is integrated into our evaluation. And finally – the last piece – which is incredibly important to our process, is engagement, and directly helping management improve long-term outcomes through the consideration of key ESG issues.

David: Our investment process is somewhat different from Jennifer’s in that we’re more quantitatively driven, in combination with fundamental analysis as it relates to ESG. Over time, we’ve moved from an exclusionary approach to a full integration approach, and the other big thematic change is the move from external data sources to relying on our internal London-based RI team, which is differentiated from other managers.

Adam: There are a couple of different factors at play for us in fixed income. The first is that even the idea of ESG integration itself is a little bit newer compared to equities, and hasn’t fully permeated the market yet. There’s this notion that fixed income is secondary in the RI field to equities, where an investor can vote proxies and opine on the direction of the business. However, that is not our view at BMO Global Asset Management, as we believe ESG is very much a fixed income consideration – as it is across all asset classes. As a bond investor, you’re funding a company’s new initiatives and that means you have the ability to impact their actions.  If we reflect on ESG as a factor in our evaluation of credits, then it can have a significant impact on the cost of capital for a given security. While there is now growing acceptance from the broader market in our asset class, this wasn’t always the case. But on our fixed income team, we’ve weighed these considerations as a distinct factor within our credit analysis dating back to 2014, complemented by BMO’s rich history in the RI world. It’s incumbent on us to continue to be active on this front and stay ahead of the curve.

Angus: As a real estate manager, we have both the ability – and at times the regulatory requirement – to ensure direct implementation of our strategic ESG focus. While we all have a responsibility to improve our interaction with ESG factors in everything that we do, there’s a focus on ensuring that we future-proof assets to create market-leading sustainable properties. Notably, the ESG world is not a steady state – it’s something we must keep improving, with goalposts and benchmarks consistently shifting, and investors have had a much stronger appreciation of this. For my team, we’ve been working towards this both in terms of launching new products and integration into existing assets. Not only is this doing right by our investors and occupiers, but if we neglect these factors, there is risk of obsolescence because investors increasingly want to see a greater level of ESG within their chosen strategies, and we’re only too happy to work with them to fulfill their goals.

Part 2: Integration into our processes

Adam: In our credit research process, ESG is incorporated as a distinct standalone factor in analyzing the fundamentals of a company. This is important because ESG can identify additional risks and rewards as we think about what their ability and willingness to repay debt looks like. If a company has poor ESG metrics, that can be a crucial determinant in them having difficulties repaying their obligations. For instance, this is clearly evident in terms of governance, and in some ways that’s the most common, but you can also see this reflected from an environmental standpoint if a company takes on a huge liability, and sub-standard environmental practices impinge on their ability to execute on business plans. It’s a similar story if a company is not meeting guiding social principles; they can quickly fall out of favour with the market and rising reputational risk could impact their market share. . Sometimes, ESG is viewed as an outside factor, but really it poses fundamental risks, and it is an integral component to the evaluation of credit risk to our team. Importantly, our process is oriented around relative value. We believe we can understand the risks on  specific issuers better than the market and third-party providers, which allows us to buy mispriced bonds and capture potential upside and additional value for our clients.

David: In Disciplined Equity, there are now four parts of our process where we fully integrate ESG, including stock analysis (where we use a proprietary quantitative model to which we’ve recently added additional factors); portfolio construction (where we look at portfolio-level ESG exposures); overall portfolio monitoring and automated review of whether any companies have been downgraded on their rating, which would ultimately impact our buy/sell decisions; and active ownership in relation to proxy voting and engagement with management. The difference vs. the Fundamental Canadian Equities team is that we centralize this latter part through the RI team in London – we don’t do the engagement ourselves because of our largely quantitative approach.

Adam: As David mentioned, we similarly incorporate our own research into our proprietary scoring system, and don’t rely on third parties for what they believe are the fundamental risks of an issuer. We’re aware of their views because of the potential technical impact, similar to how we view credit ratings from the ratings agencies, but our scoring is based on our own work and input from our RI team, which has certainly been additive to how we think about ESG within credit.

Angus: At BMO Real Estate Partners, ESG is integrated into all our activities, across all professional property disciplines and throughout the lifespan of the asset – or at least our period of stewardship – from the planning stage. It’s incorporated in a variety of ways – from looking at the current ESG characteristics of an individual property asset and their context within the built environment and retrofitting approaches to understanding the embodied carbon, engagement through  green leases and creating better solutions for the occupiers  in an economically sustainable process. As a group, we ensure ESG factors are embedded throughout the organization through our defined framework, right down to the property management level and within the asset business plan through a strategic perspective. It’s engagement at every level to create enhanced practices in the buildings that your occupiers operate. And from a landlord perspective, with intervention, these practices can lead to outcomes that benefit the bottom line. An example of our innovation and impact is ensuring that our suppliers pay their employees at least the real living wage. We’re  the first manager in the UK to have one of our funds accredited on this basis. In addition to the obvious benefits to the employees, the funds see a more motivated, committed and loyal service provider, which is of further benefit to the building users. At BMO GAM, we have such a great history of RI engagement and that’s the most exciting part of it – the opportunity to learn from each other and improve outcomes.

Part 3: ESG examples from the field

Jennifer: A good example is Waste Connection, the third largest solid waste company in North America. Workforce turnover is very high for the industry because hauling garbage is hard work. Particularly, before COVID, there were many years where competition for labour was fierce, specifically in the U.S., which only exacerbated the turnover problem. Five years ago, the company took a hard look at their practices, and improved employee retention through hiring processes and creating an accountable environment where people could provide feedback on their managers. As a result, their turnover percentage lowered significantly and is now less than their peers, which has a huge impact not only socially, but to the bottom line.

Adam: I think a great example from my perspective is Volkswagen, which went from the darling of ESG while they were falsifying data to a company with the absolute worst scoring after they were caught. What’s interesting is that our RI team engaged with them after the scandal, and observed they were doing the right things on the margin to improve their forward score, which is a factor to consider, and exemplifies our approach of relying on our own research rather than third-party data. This was a company moving forward in the right direction, which gave them a better score in our books.

David: A company that we hold in several of our portfolios is CMS Energy – a Michigan-based utility business – and we like it because of its history of peer-leading growth, profitability, and consistency, with a long runway for that to continue. Not coincidentally, ESG integration is integral to its strategy and helps to bolster the investment case, no matter the target audience. It has committed to reducing carbon emissions by 90% over the next 20 years, with tangible near-term evidence they are moving in that direction. I expect ESG-focused investors will gravitate towards companies like CMS in the future, especially in the utilities sector where U.S. companies are far behind their European peers in working towards energy transition. But you don’t need to be ESG-focused to value its industry-leading financial characteristics.

Angus: For us, the answer would be the housing strategy we launched recently in the UK. The product could in fact work in numerous jurisdictions, as at its core, it has a strong focus on mass market, affordable living and discounted rent for key workers. It creates a financially independent solution to a key societal problem and creates alignment between stakeholders. This is a project we truly believe in with a strong social requirement, which can be replicated across different markets. We’re actually in the process of launching new living strategies across Europe right now. Investors are increasingly looking for both sustainable income in real assets and for product with impactful credentials – we believe this is a solution that provides both.

Part 4: Greenwashing – the firsthand impact

Adam: In the context of fixed income, there have been a lot of issuers realizing that there’s now an active bid for green and sustainable bonds, so there is an incentive for companies to label their debt that way. We have to acknowledge that money is fungible, so if a company issues a bond, it may in one pocket be achieving something sustainable while not adhering to ESG principles in another pocket. There isn’t really consensus on green bonds yet. There is nuance that has to be applied, and really examining the issuers and the bond – and not just accepting what they say at face value – is key, in the same way we wouldn’t accept financial projections without doing our own homework.

Jennifer: I think greenwashing has definitely impacted our conversations in the Canadian equity market. Institutional investors are digging deeper to understand processes and to weed out those managers who are using a green spin for marketing purposes. It’s really important to look under the hood, and how managers define ESG integration. What exactly does it mean?  I think if you’re only looking at ESG, and not at the investment characteristics, whether it’s from a fundamental, or disciplined equity, or factor-based lens, it’s doing a disservice because ESG is one input into the investment decision.

David: I agree – on the one hand, asset owners are wanting to understand how we achieve ESG investing, but I actually think we see it even more on the consultant side. Many have recently said they’re going to include a formal ESG rating framework, where they rate managers according to their team, process, performance, vehicle lineup, pricing and all these different dimensions. Anecdotally, they’re also asking, “How do you integrate ESG?” What data sources are you using?” “How does it affect your buy/sell decisions?” We’re also receiving requests to talk through our fundamental hypothesis as to why a company with a good ESG rating could outperform the rest of the market. They want to hear our thinking behind why we think it makes sense.

Angus: In the context of real estate, it’s about looking forward and understanding that when you’re building assets, do you have the metrics in place to capture performance? It’s not just paying lip service – it’s thinking about what will be important in the future and ensuring your assets are on the right path to engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) strategies. And not just that, but within the context of a zero carbon strategy,   how can you assess your approach to ensure you are in line with the strategic objective? We align to real estate industry association requirements and have received independent awards for the standards of disclosure met, which is crucial to providing investors with the confidence they deserve. This philosophy of building the good and the accountability it comes with is ingrained in BMO’s culture of honesty and integrity. It’s a natural fit with our bottom-up approach at BMO Real Estate Partners.

Adam: Absolutely. There’s no question that ESG is a hot topic, and what that means is that many are newcomers to the party, and whether it’s outright greenwashing, or adding one to two people and calling it a capability, that’s not equal to the depth of RI work BMO GAM has accomplished and our 30 plus-year legacy. Similar to what we think about broader credit markets, if you don’t do it with the right depth, talent and fundamental processes, you’re not going to get the results that you want.

Part 5: What makes BMO Global Asset Management different

Adam: For our team, there’s a difference between integrating ESG within a specific corporate evaluation, and how we think about ESG more holistically. When building a portfolio, exclusion is one easy path, but the next stage of evolution is active inclusion and engagement. So, not only do we have a portfolio that factors in the individual corporate risk/reward ESG analysis, but also considers which companies we will hold in an effort to make an impact on the margin through the relationship we build as an investor.

Jennifer: Agreed. I think the act of ownership with respect to engagement and proxy voting is a differentiator for our process. Because we take a global approach, we can see different jurisdictions that are leaders on certain issues and we’ll take those principles and apply them more broadly for a more stringent governance lens, for example. Having our large 21-person RI team is also a game changer because of their expertise on a wide range of ESG issues – whether it’s ocean plastics, gender diversity or governance – and that can help us identify emerging trends early on. We’re also able to reliably turn to them at any time for their knowledge base once we get into the weeds with a company.

David: The size and scale of our RI team is important. I’ll also add in the heritage of how long they’ve been doing this. My impression is that ESG has been most evolved in Europe, followed by Canada and then by the U.S. I think in the U.S., the big concern is that all managers want to portray themselves as ESG-focused, but which ones are greenwashing vs. legitimate? Our long RI track record lends significant credibility, and our team’s ability to leverage that expertise helps us stand out, rather than promoting ourselves as standalone leaders within the region.

Angus: I would say our ability to innovate and create solutions that fit the mould of sustainable investing – either existing product or new – and deliver strong, risk-adjusted returns. The fact that we are all looking at ESG criteria throughout the organization is what makes us think differently about both the opportunity, and the solution. This will ensure we find new ways of enhancing existing, and finding new, strategies with strong ESG credentials.

Jennifer: Adding to that, there are numerous ways for investors to access exposure to ESG within our suite of BMO strategies – whether in a more balanced format, or pure equity.

To learn more about our steadfast commitment to ESG investing, including our dedicated RI approach and solutions suite, please contact your Regional BMO Asset Management Institutional Sales & Service Representative.

Disclosures

This material is intended for institutional/professional investors; and is being provided for informational purposes only. The investments and investment strategies discussed are not suitable for, or applicable to, every individual.

Certain of the products and services offered under the brand name BMO Global Asset Management are designed specifically for various categories of investors in a number of different countries and regions and may not be available to all investors. Products and services are only offered to such investors in those countries and regions in accordance with applicable laws and regulations.

BMO Global Asset Management is a brand name that comprises BMO Asset Management Inc., BMO Investments Inc., BMO Asset Management Corp., BMO Asset Management Limited and BMO’s specialized investment management firms.

Any statement that necessarily depends on future events may be a forward-looking statement. Forward-looking statements are not guarantees of performance. They involve risks, uncertainties and assumptions. Although such statements are based on assumptions that are believed to be reasonable, there can be no assurance that actual results will not differ materially from expectations. Investors are cautioned not to rely unduly on any forward-looking statements. In connection with any forward-looking statements, investors should carefully consider the areas of risk described in the most recent simplified prospectus.

This article is for information purposes. The information contained herein is not, and should not be construed as, investment, tax or legal advice to any party. Investments should be evaluated relative to the individual’s investment objectives and professional advice should be obtained with respect to any circumstance. All investments involve risk, including the possible loss of principal. Past performance is not a guarantee of future results. The mention of specific securities and/or portfolio holdings is not intended as a recommendation to buy, sell, or hold such securities. The returns on a portfolio consisting primarily of Environmental, Social and Governance (“ESG”) aware investments may be lower or higher than a portfolio that is more diversified or where decisions are based solely on investment considerations. Because ESG criteria exclude some investments, investors may not be able to take advantage of the same opportunities or market trends as investors that do not use such criteria.

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