Socially Responsible Funds Do Not Deliver Excess Returns

Funds with a socially responsible or environmental, social and governance (ESG) mandate may allow clients to feel good about their investments. But new research shows that they should not expect excess returns.

As background, the popularity of sustainable, or environmental, social and governance (ESG) investing, which now accounts for one of every three dollars of total assets under management in the U.S. ($17.1 trillion) and more than half of all European investment dollars1, has been accompanied by heightened research into the subject. There are more than 1,000 research reports published. Unfortunately, they show mixed results – finding positive, negative and nonexistent correlations between ESG and financial performance. The inconclusive results may stem from the different underlying ESG data used (there is no consensus on what comprises a good company, with different raters using different metrics and measures), the varying methodologies applied (especially insofar as they control for common factor exposures), and the fact that the heightened demand for ESG investments has led to rising valuations of stocks with high ESG scores relative to stocks with low ESG scores. Increased investor demand has two effects. It leads to short-term capital gains. Ultimately, the higher valuations mean that investors should expect lower future returns over the long term.

With the mixed results in mind, Bradford Cornell and Aswath Damodaran investigated the interaction between ESG-related investment criteria and value, both from the perspective of investors wondering whether and how to incorporate social issues into investment choices, as well as from the perspective of companies considering the value effects of being more socially responsible. Their paper, “Valuing ESG: Doing Good or Sounding Good?” was published in the September 2020 issue of The Journal of Impact and ESG Investing. They looked at, “how being a ‘good’ company can make it more valuable, and the drivers of that higher value, and also how being a good company can make it less valuable, casting doubt on the sales pitch of ESG’s most ardent promoters, which is that good corporate behavior will always be rewarded with higher value.”

Cornell and Damodaran began by looking at how good companies perform on growth and profitability measures relative to bad companies. They then looked at the research on how corporate social responsibility and investment returns are related. Following is a summary of their findings:

  • For ESG to increase company value, actions taken to improve ESG ratings have to result in either higher cash flows or lower risk. There is the very real possibility that being good can lower value for some firms. On the central question of whether higher ESG ratings are associated with greater risk-adjusted returns, the results are inconclusive.
  • The evidence that socially responsible firms have lower discount rates, and thereby investors have lower expected returns, is stronger than the evidence that socially responsible firms deliver higher profits or growth. There are clearly firms that benefit from being socially responsible, but there are just as clearly firms where being socially responsible creates costs with no offsetting benefits. Telling firms that being socially responsible will deliver higher growth, profits and value is false advertising. In addition, many of the firms that promote ESG are successful for other reasons.
  • The evidence is stronger that bad firms get punished, either with higher discount rates or with a greater incidence of disasters and shocks. ESG advocates are on much stronger ground telling companies not to be bad than telling them to be good.