The steady rise of ESG investment in emerging markets

Recently we wrote here about a number of reviewsreports and studies that highlight the growing importance of environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors in investment decisions, equity valuation and company reporting. It is therefore not very surprising that an increasing number of investment products have been appearing. In fact, index providers like FTSE, MSCI and Standard & Poor’s have been offering ESG indices for developed markets for a number of years.

Emerging markets have been lagging in the development of ESG investment and investment products though. However, it seems that the time has come for the systematic incorporation of ESG risk assessments into emerging market investment decisions.  Three major trends are responsible for bringing emerging markets and ESG investing together, until recently separate investment specialty areas, although two of the fastest growing:

1. Emerging markets growth is diversifying and is not predominantly based on infrastructure investments anymore. In addition, a rising middle class represents a new class of consumers increasingly paying attention to sustainability concerns. Both developments lead to an increasing role for sustainability considerations in emerging markets.

2. Many emerging market companies are entering their mature growth phase, consolidating and affording the ability to focus more on management quality and corporate responsibility. These companies also are also facing increasing challenges such as resource constraints, demand for more corporate accountability and compliance with global best practices such as labor standards and reporting guidelines. Companies that embrace the challenge can truly differentiate themselves from companies that do not and offer attractive investment opportunities.

3. Information on ESG practices of emerging markets companies was very difficult to obtain only a few years back. This has changed significantly in a short time span. An increasing number of emerging market companies today publish sustainability reports, a growing number of them in compliance with the guidelines of the Global Reporting Initiative. In addition, for investors willing to purchase rating reports, GMIRatings has increased its ESG rating service for emerging market companies from 688 in June 2012 to 998 as of April 2013.

Indeed, underlining these developments, two commercial emerging market ESG indices have been launched in the past two months.

In February, RobecoSAM, a sustainable investment specialist and S&P Dow Jones Indices launched the Dow Jones Sustainability Emerging Markets Index with 69 companies. The companies are selected based on RobecoSAM’s annual corporate sustainability assessment, which evaluates companies’ sustainability performance based on economic, environmental and social criteria.

In March, asset manager Northern Trust announced the first emerging markets custom index based on MSCI ESG Research and Institutional Shareholder Services’ (ISS) governance screens. The design of the fund applies three screens to the MSCI Emerging Market (EM) Index universe, followed by a sequence of checks on governance and executive independence. The first screen eliminates constituent companies of the MSCI EM Index that have been found to be in breach of the UN Global Compact’s ten principles. The second screen removes manufacturers of controversial weapons ant he third tobacco manufacturers. Following these exclusions a filter is applied targeting companies lacking sufficient independence across ownership, board representation, key corporate committees and audit and remuneration committees.

In addition to these indices representing select companies from a variety of emerging markets, stock exchanges in a number of emerging markets had already launched ESG indices over the past decade. Prominent examples are the Johannesburg Stock Exchange Socially Responsible Investment Index and Sao Paulo’s BM&FBOVESPA’s Corporate Sustainability Index, launched in 2004 and 2005 respectively.

While these are encouraging signs, much work still needs to be done. Two reports published late last year, EIRIS’ “Evolving markets: what’s driving ESG in emerging economies?”, and the Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment “Lessons Learned: The Emerging Markets Disclosure Project, 2008 – 2012” found that poor corporate environmental and social governance disclosure remains the number one challenge to investing in emerging markets. The reports also highlighted that knowledge of sustainability reporting practices and international norms varied widely between markets.

As investors are integrating ESG risk factors into their investment decisions in emerging markets, it is clearly time for emerging market companies to take the sustainability challenge serious.