Avoid ESG tail risks to help generate alpha

August, 2019 Print

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New research by Allianz Global Investors has found that avoiding environmental, social and governance (ESG) tail risks is a more effective strategy to help generate alpha over a full market cycle, than tilting a portfolio towards top ESG ratings.

The research, undertaken in house, looked at three different areas related to ESG risk factors including their effect on risk and reward; type of ESG risk; and value-add of active investing and stewardship through corporate engagement and proxy voting.

Steffen Hörter, global head of ESG at AllianzGI and co-author of the study, commented: “Even though our findings indicate that ESG risk can signal material financial downside, overall avoidance of ESG risk per se is not the answer either.” He added that while accounting for ESG factors in an investment portfolio may not boost its upward performance, it could be an effective source to generate alpha by helping to manage downside risks. “Avoiding large portfolio draw-downs by ESG risk management can help contribute to better risk-adjusted returns,” he noted.

The research found that ESG factors matter for downside risks. The findings confirm academic research on ESG that simply skewing portfolios to better ESG risk scoring holdings does not generate higher returns. AllianzGI’s research showed that portfolios skewed to a worse ESG risk profile can show significantly more financial portfolio tail-risk versus the benchmark.

The study also showed that investments with a higher ESG risk scoring delivered a very similar risk profile when compared to the benchmark. But this is not the case when it comes to low ESG risk-rated portfolios, with a significant difference in the lower tranche, indicating the need to address ESG as a source of tail risk through fundamental research and active management. Managing low ESG-rated holdings is more relevant for compound returns than tilting towards high ESG-rated companies in portfolios, Hörter explained.

The research provided further evidence that investors should not solely rely on investing in companies with high ESG ratings or avoiding high ESG risk holdings. It demonstrates that a simple passive or tilted ESG strategy would actually overpay by concentrating assets without an additional return. Hörter said that to fully address ESG risks, there are a host of ESG factors that investors must pay attention to in the future, including constantly changing macro and regulatory dynamics, as well as corporate fundamentals, market and political events.

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