Impact Investing: A New Investing Paradigm

A large group of CFA charterholders and other interested investment professionals gathered at the Palmer House Hotel to hear the latest thoughts and techniques in Impact Investing from a distinguished panel on June 5. The moderator, Priya Parrish, is a leading proponent of impact investing in the Chicago community of investment managers and managing partner at Impact Engine, a venture capital and private equity manager with a focus on investments that generate positive outcomes in education, health, economic empowerment, and environmental sustainability. Prior to the event Parrish joined us for a quick podcast which can be found on the CFA Society Chicago website and SoundCloud. Her panelists at the event included:

  • Susan Chung CFA, Managing Director of Investment Management at Wespath Institutional Investments, the investment arm serving the United Methodist Church, and other faith-based investors.
  • Andrew Lee, Managing Director and Head of Sustainable and Impact Investing for UBS Global Wealth Management
  • Charles Coustain, Portfolio Manager of Impact Investments at the MacArthur Foundation

Parrish kicked-off the program with an introduction describing the development of impact investing across nearly fifty years of history. The first generation was Socially-Responsible Investing (SRI) dating as far back as the 1970s. Its primary objective was aligning investments with the owner organization’s mission or values. Popular originally with religious organizations, this version relied primarily on negative or positive screening to either exclude companies involved in businesses that were objectionable to the investor (e.g., alcohol, tobacco, or gambling) or to include firms pursuing something the investor sought to encourage. Investment returns often took a back seat to mission alignment. SRI evolved to incorporate consideration of environmental, sustainability, and governance (ESG) factors in an attempt to improve risk-adjusted performance. The reasoning being that companies that excelled on ESG factors were more likely to out-perform lower scoring peers. Impact investing is the latest generation of the model.  It seeks investments that not only generate strong financial returns, but also contribute to positive changes on social matters. Parrish provided a list of seventeen such social matters with education, health care, economic empowerment, and the environment, being the most important ones to Impact Engine.

Parrish noted that, while many people are aware of the social ills often blamed on corporations, the profit motive also gives corporations the power to change society for the better. They only need to recognize this and make it their intention to improve society while pursuing their profit-generating goal.  The element of intentionality is what defines impact investing. The challenge for the impact investor is to identify, select, and manage those firms that intend to make a positive social impact in their businesses, and do so successfully. The audience heard the panelists refer to this element of intentionality repeatedly throughout the event.

Before bringing the panel on stage, Parrish presented a graphic depiction of the spectrum of impact investments. Its vertical axis showed modest return expectations with market return at the top and declining down through return of capital to complete loss. Across the horizontal access ran the approach to impact, beginning with None, and including stages such as Passive, Intentional, and Evidence-based.  The body of the matrix listed the investment products and strategies used to apply the approach toward achieving the return goal.

Parrish then invited the panelists up on stage and asked each to make a brief statement about the involvement of their firms with impact investing. Susan Chung pointed out that Wespath is part of a religious organization and invests for both the church as well as for pension plans for church employees.  The former is primarily done in an SRI style (meaning exclusionary) because they are less concerned with the returns than avoiding investments that conflict with the organization’s values. The qualified funds are more return-seeking so they have adopted impact investing. Engagement with corporate management is their primary tool for effecting change. They sometimes partner with other investors with a like mind to increase their leverage.

Andrew Lee of UBS Wealth Management said the firm sees impact investing as a major trend with a lasting impact so they have embraced it very broadly.  This is driven both internally, by the Wealth Management CIO who is committed to the style, and externally by clients.

The MacArthur Foundation, being a philanthropic organization, takes a different approach. Its primary purpose is effecting positive social change to begin with, and it pursues that objective with direct grants to institutions working in its areas of choice. These aren’t intended to generate a financial return, however as far back as 1983, the foundation began investing in public banks that address special social needs (such as affordable housing) that were underserved by the market. Their involvement was trailblazing in that it encouraged regular, for-profit, banks to invest in the same manner to the point that they now provide more funding than philanthropic organizations. MacArthur’s impact investing has grown to encompass a separate carve out of the foundation’s endowment that seeks return-generating impact investments that further the goals of its grant program.

As to how to select managers who best align with the investor’s goals, both Chung and Lee stressed the need for vigorous research to understand a manager’s process and determine how committed they are to impact investing. Wespath uses a detailed assessment survey to help with this.

Chung outlined how Wespath found a way to incorporate impact investing into passive strategies. By partnering with Blackrock, they were able to access data to score companies on ESG factors. Searching for indicators of either positive or negative correlation to performance, they identified factors used to make slight adjustments to the index components and thereby, drive alpha. As an example, Chung said they discovered that the rate of decline in carbon emissions was a better performance indicator than the gross amount of emissions. So, firms demonstrating the greatest decline, even if from a high base amount, out-performed firms showing lesser declines (or increases) even if from a very low base. The resulting strategy is very neutral on sector and industry metrics, while benefiting from relatively small mis-weights in the individual stock positions. Indexing purists would consider this to be enhanced indexing (if not a quantitative active strategy) rather than true indexing.

All three panelists stressed the importance of collaboration with other firms interested in impact investing to stretch their resources and increase their leverage with managements. This is especially important in the governance area where engagement with company management has proven to be an especially effective way to effect change. Wespath joins with other investors (or asset managers) when they engage with firms to discuss corporate governance. 

Lee added that UBS has determined that engagement with management is the best way to bring about change—far more so than simply voting proxies against management recommendations. This is especially true in the public equity markets. The firm sets an engagement goal at the outset when making a new investment.  

MacArthur collaborated with the Chicago Community Trust (CCT) and Calvert Research and Management to increase the scale and focus of its impact investing. The CCT brought a local focus to the investing to assure that funds were invested where the investors intended them to be.  MacArthur brought its institutional funds and Calvert added funds raised from their individual investors interested in the strategy. 

The Q&A session that followed the discussion lasted for half an hour, indicating the high level of interest from the audience. The first question asked the panelists to identify some impact investments that had not worked out as expected. Chung listed emerging market infrastructure, solar power following the removal of government subsidies, and wind farms in the North Sea. Coustan added for-profit education as an example. Lee noted that sometimes an underperforming investment needs to be reassessed to see if the investor can help the organization improve. The panel was in agreement that impact investing was more difficult to apply to fixed income. Chung advised that fixed income managers should borrow the scoring methodologies used on the equity side.  Lee added that UBS has substituted bonds from supranational financial companies such as the World Bank and UN-sponsored development banks in place of sovereign debt in the high-quality portion of fixed income portfolios. Coustan said MacArthur primarily utilizes private debt vehicles for impact investing because of the flexibility in structure and use of the funds. In these cases, however, their return objective is only to preserve capital.

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