Pressures are converging globally in one way or another on corporations to engage in better business practices; protect the environments in which they function, or from which they source raw materials; heed customer concerns over safety or employment practices; or even just to improve tarnished images.
Investors and their investments are following suit, with increasing interest in activism of one sort or another informing choices both at home and around the world. One particular region that has given some investors cause to hesitate, despite its explosive growth, is Asia—because much of that growth has come heedless of the cost to future generations. But now there’s a new option for socially responsible investors: the Matthews Asia ESG Fund.
ESG stands for environmental, social and governance—the three pillars on which the fund is built and choices are made. Vivek Tanneeru, portfolio manager of the fund, pointed out that the resolution of issues connected with all three of these is critical to continue growth in the region. To emphasize their necessity, he highlighted three dimensions of the problems Asia faces: carbon emissions, pollution and health care.
“If you are a global investor focused on addressing climate change,” said Tanneeru, “you have to address it in Asia first, where the bulk of emissions growth happened in the past and [will happen going] forward.” Asia as a whole emits more than twice the carbon of North America. In 2010, China’s per capita GDP was where the U.S.’s was in 1941; however, China’s economy was already eight times that of the U.S. Continued growth and GDP expansion could make the situation much worse, not just in China but globally, absent a push by industries and government to cut emissions.
Then there’s pollution—both air and water. China’s already been through at least one “Aha!” moment, in 2013 when Beijing famously suffered “Airpocalypse”—a days-long virtual shutdown because of air pollution so thick people could barely see or breathe. In the same year Beijing started to crack down on pollution—although the problem is very far from solved.
Still, China has made strides that India has yet to take, with the World Health Organization stating that Delhi now holds the unhealthy title of the world’s most polluted city. Nine of the countries with the worst air quality in the world, said Tanneeru, are in Asia, and of the 7 million global deaths related to pollution reported in 2012, 85% were in Asia Pacific. As governments and companies respond to that, he said, it represents a “huge opportunity for investors.”
And that’s just air pollution. When it comes to water, he said, “more than half of Asian households do not have access to piped and safe drinking water.” With more than 2 billion people expected to join the Asian middle class, the need to develop safe and efficient water supplies presents “a very interesting long-term opportunity in Asia.”
The third thing to consider, health care, also illustrates the potential for growth. India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, combined have a population of 1.5 billion people. Of that number, he said, maybe one of those 1.5 billion could afford the pricetag for Gilead’s Hepatitis C drug,Sovaldi. In March reports appeared of a $10-per-pill version already available in Bangladesh, which of course makes the drug far more accessible compared with its present cost in the U.S.: $84,000 for the 12-week course of treatment, about $1,000 per pill.
And although Gilead has negotiated arrangements with generic drugmakers in India to produce the medication at a comparable price to the Bangladesh-produced version, there is widespread speculation that countries that do not allow Gilead to license the drug will no doubt drive the price even lower. Still, said Tanneeru, Asian countries “need companies that are able to provide very effective solutions to those people [who can’t afford medication’s high prices],” and there’s “money to be made doing that.” In fact, there are “profitable companies doing this successfully.”
That’s where the new fund comes in—to watch for companies that are not only working to reverse pollution and reduce emissions in a wide range of fields, but also to provide health care to the millions and millions of people in the region.
Matthews, said Tanneeru, has been focused on governance issues from the beginning, and has been in Asia for nearly 25 years. “You don’t want to get into bed with a corporation you can’t trust,” he said, and the new fund is adding environmental and social factors to its considerations.
“In Asia you’re increasingly seeing the middle classes demanding good quality of life,” said Tanneeru; “[reduction of] pollution, companies they can trust, product safety.” Such scandals as melamine in milk have made consumers demand that government and companies respond, he said. The need to address these concerns more formally means that companies are responding, but the addition of environmental and social screens to Matthews’ already-in-place governance reviews allows investors access to a different group of companies than through other ESG rankings.
“If you’re investing in ETFs,” said Tanneeru, “you’re essentially leaving out 90% of the names [in the available universe]…. You need to be able to understand companies, meet them, see how they feel about the issues; it calls for an Asia-focused specialist.”
There’s a perception, he said, that Asia is not ready for ESG and is not on a par with other markets. However, “Look at corporate social responsibility. Seventy-one percent of Asian companies do that, but in Malaysia, 98% [of companies] are reporting more [of that] than the U.S. Subtleties get lost when looking at Asia; [some] standards are not good but fast improving, and in some cases they’re much higher than in the U.S. You might be surprised to know that in Thailand, there are one or more female members on boards; that’s on a par with developed markets.”
Companies ranked by other scales than that used by Matthews, he said, for instance in Europe and in the U.S., “tend to be large cap, and we see that in Asia too.” Nonetheless, some big names in Asia haven’t been officially ranked for ESG. In addition, he said, smaller companies fall through the cracks.
Some companies practice ESG, but don’t talk about it; while they present good opportunities based on what they do, including “some risk mitigation techniques that are good from a cost reduction standpoint,” they aren’t “sophisticated” about the language in which they describe their ESG practices in quarterly and annual reports. That makes others overlook the long-term opportunities they present.
“Honestly,” Tenneeru said, “any globally minded investor would be leaving a gaping hole in the portfolio if he’s not addressing these issues in Asia; that’s where the problems are.”