Morgan Stanley
  • Thoughts on the Market Podcast
  • Nov 29, 2022

A New Approach to ESG


Welcome to Thoughts on the Market. I'm Stephen Byrd, Morgan Stanley's Global Head of Sustainability Research. Along with my colleagues, bringing you a variety of perspectives, today I'll focus on our new approach to identifying opportunities that can generate both Alpha and ESG impact. It's Tuesday, November 29th, at 10 a.m. in New York.

On previous episodes of this podcast we've discussed how, although sustainable investing has been a trend over the past decade, it has faced significant pushback from critics arguing that ESG strategies - or environmental, social and governance - sacrifice long term returns in favor of the pursuit of certain ESG objectives. We have done some new work here at Morgan Stanley, suggesting that it is possible to identify opportunities that can deliver excess returns, or alpha, and make an ESG impact.

Our research found that what we call "ESG rate of change", companies that are leaders on improving ESG metrics, should be a critical focus for investors looking to identify companies that meet both criteria. What do we mean by "ESG rate of change"? Traditional ESG screens focus on "ESG best-in-class" metrics. That is, companies that are already scoring well on sustainability factors. But there is a case to be made for companies that are making significant improvements. For example, we find that there are companies using innovative technologies that can reduce costs and improve efficiency. These companies, which we call deflation enablers, generally screen very favorably on a range of ESG metrics and are reaping the financial benefits of improved efficiency. A surprisingly broad range of technologies are dropping in cost to such an extent that they offer significant net benefits, both financial and ESG oriented. Some examples of such technologies are very cheap solar, wind and clean hydrogen, energy storage cost reductions, cheaper carbon capture, improved molecular plastics recycling, more efficient electric motors, a wide range of recycling technologies, and a range of increasingly inexpensive waste to energy technology.

To get even more specific, as we look at these various technologies and the sectors they touch, we think the utility sector is arguably the most advantaged among the carbon heavy sectors in terms of its ESG potential. Why is that? Because many utilities have the potential to create an "everybody wins" outcome in which customer bills are lower, CO2 emissions are reduced, and utility earnings per share growth is enhanced. This is a rare combination. In the U.S. utility sector many management teams are shutting down expensive coal fired power plants and building renewables, energy storage and transmission, which achieve superior earnings per share growth. Many of these stocks would screen negatively on classic ESG metrics such as carbon intensity, but these ESG improvers may be positioned to deliver superior stock returns and play a critical role in the transition to clean energy.

As with most things, applying this new strategy we're proposing isn't simply a matter of looking at companies with improving ESG metrics. It's about really understanding what's driving these changes. Here's where sector specific expertise is key. In fact, we believe that in the absence of fundamental insight, ESG criteria can be misapplied and could lead to unintended outcomes. The potential for enhanced performance, in our view, comes from a true marriage of ESG investing principles and deep sector expertise.

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Traditional ESG investing strategies highlight companies with top scores across ESG metrics, but new research shows value in focusing instead on those companies who have a higher rate of change as they improve their ESG metrics.