No reliable evidence that ESG investing produces above-average returns

Printer-friendly version
Appeared in the Financial Post, July 3, 2024
No reliable evidence that ESG investing produces above-average returns

Despite growing skepticism among investors, as evidenced by their withdrawal of billions of dollars from ESG equity funds so far in 2024, many finance industry leaders continue to claim that ESG-focused investing produces above-average returns.

But is that true?

Environmental, social and governance (ESG) is a movement designed to pressure businesses and investors to pursue larger social goals. According to ESG theory, firms that receive poor ratings from ESG rating agencies should lose investment dollars. Yet the claim that ESG-focused investing can help investors do well by doing good has received surprisingly little empirical support from academic studies.

However, according to a new study published by the Fraser Institute, which tracked 310 companies listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange from 2013 to 2020, neither ESG rating upgrades nor downgrades were related in a statistically significant way to the stock market performance of companies.

Moreover, because the study finds that ESG ratings changes—which, when released, are effectively new information for investors—are not consistently related to financial returns, ESG ratings are likely not relevant to the expected future profitability of publicly listed companies in Canada.

This of course raises the question—if new information (i.e. ratings changes) about a company’s ESG-related practises is not statistically related to equity returns from investing in that company, why do money managers pay for the services of ESG rating companies?

One possible reason is that managers pass a substantial share of the costs along to customers who are willing to sacrifice financial returns (due to higher management fees) to express their commitment to environmental sustainability and other social causes. Another possible reason is that promoting ESG-focused investment alternatives appears to have been, at least until recently, an effective marketing tool.

But again, the empirical evidence suggests there’s no reliable statistical relationship between ESG-focused investing and the risk-adjusted returns earned by investors. And since asset managers typically charge higher fees for ESG-focused mutual funds, ESG investment strategies are more likely to underperform than overperform conventional investment strategies.

Certainly, if some percentage of investors choose to pursue ESG-related investment strategies, even at the cost of lower risk-adjusted investment returns, there should be no legal or regulatory restrictions on doing so. However, securities regulators should closely monitor the investment industry to ensure it provides reliable and up-to-date information about the financial performance of ESG-focused investment products that portfolio managers market to the public.

At the same time, when ESG advocates push for more government-mandated ESG disclosures from companies in Canada, policymakers should be wary of any claims that greater disclosure mandates will improve the financial performance of companies.

Subscribe to the Fraser Institute

Get the latest news from the Fraser Institute on the latest research studies, news and events.