When it comes to assessing the risks around fixed-income investments, environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors have traditionally been viewed through the rear-view mirror, when something has already gone wrong.

This article explains why we believe it makes sense to employ a forward-looking assessment of ESG-related credit risks, to help reduce the chances of potential future hazards.

Having integrated ESG considerations into credit analysis for a number of years, we have always believed that considering the materiality and impact of ESG factors on companies and countries is crucial to risk assessment. In our view, it results in better decision making, and should, if done with diligence and consistency, result in superior risk-adjusted returns because ESG factors can have a material impact on credit risk, and therefore performance.

In our engagement with companies, the environmental or ‘E’ factor often comes to the fore, with conversation increasingly focused on trying to limit the environmental impact of climate change. In time, ‘S’ and ‘G’ factors may also become more regularly considered in a more explicit manner (at Newton they already form an important part of our ESG assessment for companies and countries). However, in fixed-income investing, it is probably fair to say that ‘E’ factors are the most tangible factors to perceive and quantify – although this is not to suggest that measurement is easy.

Fixed income and equity: how the ESG approach differs

Another question we are often asked is how an ESG engagement approach differs between fixed income and equities, given that bondholders do not get to vote on corporate policy. Owing to the risk asymmetry between bonds and equities, downside risk mitigation is more important for fixed income (bonds have limited upside but similar downside risk to equities).

Generally speaking, a company with a strong ESG profile should benefit both equity investors and bondholders; differences will be driven by management’s financial policies and decisions about whether to prioritise debt holders or shareholders.

Another key difference is that bondholders have a variety of relevant ESG-themed areas available for investment that are not available to equity investors, such as green financing, universities, development agencies and social housing. Debt investors can also invest in private companies – one of the most powerful engagement areas for fixed income.

When engaging with issuers that have weaker credit ratings and/or are private (especially in the high-yield sector where bondholders often provide a company’s only access to capital), we find that our questions, views and recommendations on ESG issues are increasingly being heard, which affords us the greatest chance of effecting positive change.

Companies are having to answer more bondholder questions relating to ESG strategy, and investors are taking an increasingly dim view of those that are ill-prepared.

If you take the 100 most fossil-fuel intensive companies, it’s only 40 or 41 of them that have listed equities. All of them are in the debt markets.

Knut Kjaer, Founding chief executive of Norway’s sovereign wealth fund

This perspective (and the powerful role bondholders can have in driving better corporate behaviour) was underlined by Knut Kjaer, the founding chief executive of Norway’s sovereign wealth fund, who said at a recent conference in London that debt investors could have a more meaningful impact on the world’s biggest carbon emitters than equity investors.

Opportunities

Credit investing with an ESG lens is about more than simply risk mitigation; it is about seeking out opportunities. Identifying issuers that we expect to receive an improved ESG assessment over time, often through engagement, can result in capital appreciation as the transition is reflected in rating upgrades and a lower cost of capital over time.

We have for many years worked with both our in-house equity and responsible investment analysts when analysing and engaging with companies from a fixed-income perspective.

Those companies that do engage successfully can find themselves upgraded by ratings companies, and some are now using their improving ESG rating to their advantage.

In situations where we hold both the equity and debt of an issuer, it can provide a powerful tool with which to focus a management team on enhancing its ESG credentials. Those companies that do engage successfully can find themselves upgraded by ratings companies, and some are now using their improving ESG rating to their advantage by securing more attractive bank-loan terms.

Asset managers and asset owners can no longer afford to focus solely on maximising short-term returns if doing so comes at the expense of other stakeholders.

Finally, this is not just about returns to investors, but also about responsible investment. Asset managers and asset owners can no longer afford to focus solely on maximising short-term returns if doing so comes at the expense of other stakeholders, as the associated bad publicity and longer-term negative consequences can testify.

At this point, we cannot say for sure whether ESG factors are properly factored into credit pricing, but it seems highly likely that, as ESG concerns rise up the agenda for society, governments and investors, we will start to see growing pricing bifurcation between the strong and the weak ESG performers.

Your capital may be at risk. The value of investments and the income from them can fall as well as rise and investors may not get back the original amount invested.

1 Source: https://www.ipe.com/news/esg/use-bond-markets-to-challenge-heavy-emitters-says-nbim-founder-kjaer/10033794.article – 11 October, 2019.

Important information

This is a financial promotion. These opinions should not be construed as investment or any other advice and are subject to change. This document is for information purposes only. Any reference to a specific security, country or sector should not be construed as a recommendation to buy or sell investments in those countries or sectors. Please note that portfolio holdings and positioning are subject to change without notice.
Issued in the UK by Newton Investment Management Limited, The Bank of New York Mellon Centre, 160 Queen Victoria Street, London, EC4V 4LA. Registered in England No. 01371973. Newton Investment Management is authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority, 12 Endeavour Square, London, E20 1JN and is a wholly owned subsidiary of The Bank of New York Mellon Corporation. Newton Investment Management Limited is registered with the SEC as an investment adviser under the Investment Advisers Act of 1940. Newton’s investment business is described in Form ADV, Part 1 and 2, which can be obtained from the SEC.gov website or obtained upon request.
‘Newton’ and/or the ‘Newton Investment Management’ brand refers to Newton Investment Management Limited.

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