There’s an argument in the world of impact investing that goes something like, “impact happens only through private investments; there is no real impact, apart from shareholder engagement efforts, in public equity investing.” An associated perception is that investment impact means capitalizing an enterprise beyond what would happen otherwise, meaning private equity alone has the power to provide real impact. But is this true?
Publicly traded corporations are the largest and most visible social and environmental bellwethers of the global economy, and the high allocation to public equities in most investor portfolios means public equity investing is and must remain one of our key opportunities for impact. To cause a positive impact, families, institutions, and individuals can invest in public companies whose primary businesses activities address pressing social, economic, and environmental challenges at scale.
This does not mean companies with a pretty sustainability report or that are incrementally making their operations less carbon-intensive, but firms that have made it their purpose to enable a better world with an indefinitely sustainable economy. Skipping traditional investment practices to focus on buying these companies sends the clear signals that markets do value solutions, and that markets will devalue businesses that are the leading causes of our most pressing risks. In addition, flexible, go-anywhere public equities strategies may invest in micro and small cap firms where there may be limited liquidity, and we can have meaningful impact just by being there.
Clearly, how we invest in public equities matters.
A growing number of public markets strategies are being developed to meet investor demand for solutions-focused investing. These strategies (including Green Alpha’s own) are pushing boundaries in terms of how managers define risk, and are challenging preconceptions from traditional portfolio theory in order to invest in the best solutions to the dangers presented by the business-as-usual economy. Public equity portfolios can have real impact, and yet we must acknowledge that the perception that they do not exists. But why is that?
The Index Trap for Impact
Most investment managers have been trained to think about risk-adjusted returns in the same way, and in the case of equity strategies, that means making sure to exhibit correlation with your self-identified and/or assigned benchmark, usually the S&P 500 or other broad-market index. A competitive absolute return can still be considered a poor risk-adjusted return if you have more volatility along the way than your underlying benchmark. This can be traced back to the near-universal indoctrination into Markowitzian modern portfolio and efficient-markets theories, popularized by Jack Bogle etc.
Bogle’s saying, “Why look for the needle when you can buy the haystack,” has come to mean “if you vary from the haystack, you may be punished.” This index-supremacy has been institutionalized to the point that rating agencies have a hard time imagining risk defined any other way than relative benchmark correlation, or how much a portfolio looks like the broad market.
Morningstar, for example, determines its star ratings for equity funds on the basis of absolute return vs. the peer group bench, less any deduction for higher volatility than the peer group. In this way, some funds can and do beat their peer group’s performance over time, yet receive a rating of two or three stars (out of five) despite overall superior returns. Thus fund managers, fearing for their retail sales, try very hard to mimic their benchmark, ideally outperforming it by a little but not enough to be considered “volatile.”
The overall result of all this is too many dollars chasing the same benchmark constituent companies, leading to unintended consequences such as, for example, the average S&P 500 firm right now having negative 12 month forward earnings per share (EPS) growth rate, yet at a high average price-to-book value near 3. Not great, from a value point of view, which to me shows this culture of index-homogeneity is causing market distortions.
Moreover, indexing and index-mimicking generally ignore a lot of interesting innovation that occurs outside of index constituent companies, which is unfortunate because this innovation is where a lot of economic growth occurs, and also where we confront and solve the realities our most pressing systemic risks.