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Why ESG Investing Might Never Recover

The appeal of the moniker is waning, probably because it is trying to serve too many interests at once

By JON SINDREU
Tue, Mar 26, 2024 7:00amGrey Clock 3 min

The ESG brand probably has its best days behind it.

Following a three-year craze for investment products focused on environmental, social and corporate-governance concerns, the percentage of newly created funds in the U.S. and Europe with ESG in their name has fallen from a peak of 8.3% to just 3.3%, according to an analysis of quarterly data by Morningstar Direct.

Likewise, online searches for “ESG investing” have plummeted back to mid-2019 levels, according to Google Trends. Mentions of the term in company analyst calls have dropped 59% from their quarterly peak in 2022, FactSet data suggest.

One explanation is the collapse of the clean-energy stocks most readily associated with the ESG movement. Flagging growth in electric-vehicle sales has hit sector behemoth Tesla . The S&P Global Clean Energy index, which lists solar-panel maker First Solar and Danish wind-turbine giant Vestas among its top constituents, has lost 31% since the start of 2023 as renewable-energy projects have been shelved. That compares with returns of 27% for global stocks.

The rise of ESG investing between 2019 and 2022 coincided with a surge in clean-tech valuations, and now the reverse is happening. Investors have pulled $2.2 billion from funds dedicated to decarbonisation since the start of the year, according to EPFR, and the outflows are getting larger every week.

There is a risk that ESG was an investment fad rather than a financial revolution extending across all industries.

The term was the product of an uneasy three-way alliance. On one side were ethically driven investors, who are particularly widespread in Scandinavia and include pension funds, universities and religious organisations united in wanting to shun contentious firms. On another were institutions such as the United Nations that aimed to channel money to industries that benefit society. Finally, there were investors who wanted to profit from the green revolution.

Asset managers jumped at the chance to cater to all three simultaneously. ESG allowed them to differentiate their products, revitalise the case for active management and, at a time of declining fees, charge more for stock screens that often lead to only small changes in allocations . Among U.S. equity funds, ESG strategies have an asset-weighted average fee of 0.52%, compared with 0.33% overall, Morningstar Direct data shows.

But the confusion of motivations made for contradictions and a lot of doublespeak. Neither ethical objectives nor bets on decarbonisation square logically with fund managers’ claims that ESG is a broad path to higher, safer returns.

Yes, an ESG focus can help active managers account for risks such as a regulatory backlash or governance blow up, which in some cases might be highlighted by new company disclosures. This month the European Union cleared the way toward requiring firms to better report and address sustainability impacts.

However, the assumption that integrating ESG criteria into their screening will lead to better stock picking seems flawed . The very popularity of ESG makes it unlikely that the market is under appreciating the risks. The rush of money into firms like Vestas, whose stock hit a price-to-earnings ratio of 534 in 2022, illustrates the risk that shares with high sustainability scores can get too expensive, leading to lower returns.

Ethical investors might be fine with this, but that just shifts the focus to what counts as ethical. Tellingly, interest in ESG has dropped more in the U.S., where the politicisation of EVs and culture wars surrounding Bud Light beer show how easily corporations can become ideological battlegrounds.

ESG ratings aren’t much help in navigating these issues. Different providers give wildly different scores to the same companies, even within the specific “E,” “S” and “G” factors, according to a February paper by the Leibniz Institute SAFE. Researchers also found that environmental concerns tend to explain most of the overall score.

This is another hint that the ultimate driver of the pandemic-era ESG craze might have been a hunger for thematic investment. It has since found better sources of sustenance, as demonstrated by the breakneck growth of firms such as Global X, which is delivering increasingly granular offerings such as tracker funds for electric batteries, cloud computing and ageing populations.

Buyers of these products can be fickle and jump to the next theme—often too quickly for their own good, a Morningstar analysis showed last November. It is possible that the overly generic ESG brand will never recover its appeal, with the different parts of it eventually rebranded to suit their specific client bases. BlackRock , the world’s largest asset manager, has already dropped it and is now emphasising transition themes over ethical stewardship of companies.

Sustainable investing isn’t going anywhere. But a broad tent covering too many interests serves none of them well.



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Some chocolatiers and coffee makers say they will have to pass on the extra cost to consumers

By JOSEPH HOPPE
Sun, Apr 14, 2024 4 min

Global prices for cocoa and coffee are surging as severe weather events hamper production in key regions, raising questions from farm to table over the long-term damage climate change could have on soft commodities.

Cultivating cocoa and coffee requires very specific temperature, water and soil conditions. Now, more frequent heat waves, heavy rainfalls and droughts are damaging harvests and crippling supplies amid ever growing demand from customers worldwide.

“Adverse weather conditions, mostly in the Southern Hemisphere, have played an important role in sending several food commodities sharply higher,” said Ole Hansen , head of commodity strategy at Saxo Bank.

The spikes in prices are a threat to coffee and chocolate makers across the globe.

Swiss consumer-goods giant Nestlé was able to pass only a fraction of the cocoa price increase to customers last year, and it may need to adjust pricing in the future due to persistently high prices, a spokesperson said.

Italian coffee maker Lavazza reported revenue of more than $3 billion for last year, but said profitability was hit by soaring coffee bean prices, particularly for green and Robusta coffee, and its decision to limit price increases.

Likewise, chocolatier Chocoladefabriken Lindt & Spruengli said in its 2023 results that weather and climate conditions played a major role in the global shortage of cocoa beans that led to historically high prices. The company had to lift the sales prices of its products and said it would need to further raise them this year and next if cocoa prices remain at current levels.

Hershey ’s chief executive, Michele Buck , said in February that historic cocoa prices are expected to limit earnings growth this year, and that the company plans to use “every tool in its toolbox,” including price hikes, to manage the impact on business.

In West Africa, where about 70% of global cocoa is produced, powerhouses Ivory Coast and Ghana are facing catastrophic harvests this season as El Niño—the pattern of above-average sea surface temperatures—led to unseasonal heavy rainfalls followed by strong heat waves.

Extreme heat has weakened cocoa trees already damaged from heavy rainfall at the end of last year, according to Morningstar DBRS’s Aarti Magan and Moritz Steinbauer. The rain also worsened road conditions, disrupting cocoa bean deliveries to export ports.

The International Cocoa Organization—a global body composed of cocoa producing and consuming member countries—said in its latest monthly report that it expects the global supply deficit to widen to 374,000 metric tons in the 2023-24 season, from 74,000 tons last season. Global cocoa supply is anticipated to decline by almost 11% to 4.449 million tons when compared with 2022-23.

“Significant declines in production are expected from the top producing countries as they are envisaged to feel the detrimental effect of unfavourable weather conditions and diseases,” the organisation said.

While the effects of climate change are severe, other serious structural issues are also hitting West African cocoa production in the short- to medium-term. Illegal mining poses a significant threat to cocoa farms in Ghana, destroying arable land and poisoning water supplies, and the problem is becoming increasingly relevant in the Ivory Coast, according to BMI.

The issues are being magnified by deforestation carried out to increase cocoa production. Since 1950, Ivory Coast has lost around 90% of its forests, while Ghana has lost around 65% over the same period. This has driven farmers to areas less suited to cocoa cultivation like grasslands, increasing the amount of labor required and bringing further downside risks to the harvest, the research firm said.

The Ivory Coast’s cocoa mid-crop harvest—which officially starts in April and runs until September—is expected to fall to 400,000-500,000 tons from 600,000-620,000 tons last year, with weather expected to play a crucial role in shaping the market balance for the season, ING analysts said, citing estimates from the country’s cocoa regulator. Ghana’s cocoa board also forecasts a slump in the harvest for this season to as low as 422,500 tons, the poorest in more than 20 years, according to BMI.

Neither regulator responded to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, extreme droughts in Southeast Asia—particularly in Vietnam and Indonesia—are resulting in lower coffee bean harvests, hurting producers’ output and global exports. Coffee inventories have recovered somewhat in recent weeks but remain low in recent historical terms. Robusta coffee has seen a severe deterioration in export expectations, while Arabica coffee is expected to return to a relatively narrow surplus this year, said Charles Hart, senior commodities analyst at BMI.

The global coffee benchmark prices, London Robusta futures, are up by 15% on-month to $3,825 a ton. Arabica coffee prices have also surged 17% over the last month to $2.16 a pound in lockstep with Robusta—its highest level since October 2022. Cocoa prices have more than tripled on-year over these supply crunch fears, and risen 49% in the last month alone to $10,050 a ton.

“Cocoa trees are particularly sensitive to weather and require very specific conditions to grow, this means that cocoa prices are especially vulnerable to extreme weather events, such as drought and periods of intense heat, as well as the longer-term impact of climate change,” said Lucrezia Cogliati, associate commodities analyst at BMI.

Cogliati said global cocoa consumption is expected to outpace production for the third consecutive season, with intense seasonal West African winds and plant diseases contributing to significant declines.

Consumers hoping for a return to cheaper prices for life’s little luxuries in the midterm may also be in for a bitter surprise.

“There is no sugarcoating it—consumers will ultimately be faced with higher chocolate prices, products that contain less chocolate, and/or shrinking product sizes,” Morningstar’s Magan and Steinbauer said in a report.

“We anticipate consumers could respond by searching widely for promotional discounts, trading down to value-based chocolate and confectionary products from premium products, switching to private-label from branded products and/or reducing volumes altogether.”

The record-breaking rally for cocoa and coffee is likely more than just a flash in the pan, according to Citi analysts, as adverse weather conditions and strong demand trends are likely to support prices in the months ahead. The U.S. bank estimates Arabica coffee futures in a range of $1.88-$2.15 a pound for the current year, but said projections could be lifted if the outlook for 2024-25 tightens further.

At the heart of it all, climate change is set to play a major role, as the impact of extreme weather events could exacerbate the pressure on cocoa and coffee supplies, according to market watchers.

“I don’t expect prices to remain at these levels, but if we continue to see more unusual weather as a result of global warming then we certainly could see more volatility in terms of cocoa yields going forward, which could impact pricing,” said Paul Joules, commodities analyst at Rabobank.