Despite rising energy costs and economic uncertainty caused by the Ukraine crisis, interest in environmental, social and governance (ESG) investing options among the wealthy is only likely to increase in the coming years.
A survey of millionaires by Savanta has found that providing ESG investing options is extremely important to one in four UK millionaires.
Investment providers recognise the choice their customers are making, with 41 per cent of wealth managers completing this year’s Private Client Wealth Management survey stating that they believe offering ESG options is extremely important, 44 per cent very important and 15 per cent moderately important. This suggests that sustainability should be high on the agenda for wealth management companies.
In particular, there are few signs that the current economic and political climate is causing the interest in environmental issues to wane — despite claims from energy companies and governments that Moscow’s attack on Ukraine highlights a need to diversify oil and gas supplies away from Russia.
At a personal level, wealthy individuals clearly contribute disproportionately to climate change through higher-than-average carbon dioxide emissions and are the least likely to suffer from its effects. They are uniquely positioned to have an impact in reducing emissions as the UK pursues net zero.
The importance of ESG to the wealthy suggests that there is a desire to contribute to a more sustainable future. This is most welcome.
This year’s survey of wealth managers has further positive signs in this regard: 79 per cent of the 27 companies we spoke to believe interest in ESG among wealthy clients will increase in the next 12 months.
Admittedly, there is a minority of rich people who are not as interested in ESG investing options, with 13 per cent of millionaires saying it is not important to them and a further one in 10 stating that it is only slightly important.
But these individuals tend to be older, and the three in five figure of wealthy individuals who told the millionaires’ survey that ESG is either moderately, very, or extremely important to them is driven by those who are younger. This suggests that, with time, interest in ESG investment is likely to increase, as family wealth is transferred to younger generations in the coming decades and new young entrepreneurs join the ranks of the wealthy.
For such investors, the Ukraine crisis has highlighted the fact that sustainable practices are as pertinent as ever, with governments in Europe planning to move away from Russian gas and accelerate their shift to green energy.
When we at Savanta have spoken to wealth managers over the past two years, it’s been clear that proving their commitment to sustainable practices is at the forefront of their strategy. This is undoubtedly good marketing by wealth companies.
However, very few wealth advisers stand out when it comes to delivering effective and transparent ESG-focused asset management.
EY, the management consultancy, raised questions about the industry in its 2021 Sustainability Report, an annual global review. It reported on a lack of environmental disclosures among wealth managers, along with a failure to organise external audits of their sustainability reports. The lack of transparency around sustainability does not reflect well on the industry.
Meanwhile, accusations of greenwashing over ESG investment offerings have increased dramatically. Difficulties exist in measuring the impact of ESG at company levels and in deciding which companies are included in ESG indices and on what criteria. The arguments have become very public, for example over the role of index providers in compiling ESG indices.
Even enforcement agencies have become involved in ESG questions, with DWS, the wealth manager controlled by Deutsche Bank raided by German police over claims it made misleading statements in its 2020 annual report and to potential clients concerning the amount of assets in ESG funds. DWS says it’s co-operating with the probe and stands by its reports.
Unless wealth managers respond to the interest in ESG in practical and measurable ways, investors may become increasingly sceptical when investment providers talk about sustainability. There are plenty of ways they can improve their internal reporting standards on matters such as the share of ESG-focused assets under management or inviting external scrutiny of their sustainability reports.
Decisive action would in the long run benefit those wealth managers who move first as potential clients learn to distinguish between managers who implement ESG standards properly and those who don’t.
When it comes to ESG, the time is right for wealth managers to put words into deeds in transparent, meaningful and measurable ways.
Chris Stocks is a consultant at Savanta
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