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Engagement Report
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July 07, 2021

Tapping the power of ESG in emerging markets

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July 07, 2021

Tapping the power of ESG in emerging markets


Engagement Report

Tapping the power of ESG in emerging markets

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July 07, 2021

 
 

Even as demand rises for sustainable investing solutions, emerging markets present unique challenges, such as lower levels of ESG disclosure and weaker corporate governance norms. It is our belief that active engagement can help overcome these hurdles and even go further by tapping the potential of emerging markets where the impact of ESG integrated investing can make the biggest difference.1 For this reason, ESG engagement and active ownership have been central pillars of the Emerging Markets Leaders (EML) strategy. Here, we share some examples of our recent engagements and outcomes.

 
 

Governance is a cornerstone of sustainability

One of the key investment criteria of the EML strategy has been evidence of strong corporate governance for the companies we own. We believe strong governance has contributed positively to the strategy’s risk adjusted performance. Our investment philosophy has focused on cash-generating businesses with structural advantages that can deliver sustainably high returns on capital with low to no-debt on the balance sheet. As a result, we have not owned many asset-heavy (less resource intensive) businesses. By focusing on ESG issues, we have gained a deeper understanding of managements’ long-term goals. Our view is that, if management is not focused on addressing sustainability issues, then they will likely face challenges to their underlying business.

A multi-year journey toward ESG adoption

Emerging market companies have been slower to adopt ESG targets and policies than their counterparts in developed markets, where investors, customers and regulators have exerted influence. The lack of significant regulatory push in emerging markets has given companies little incentive to adhere to ESG policies. But we are starting to see many of the corporates become more proactive in their targets and engagements.  And regulators in emerging markets have begun to outline sustainability and ESG disclosure requirements, as seen in some parts of Europe and the Americas.

While the increased adoption of ESG goals, sustainability reports and better disclosures will likely be a multi-year journey, positive signs are already showing from those companies we own and from those on our radar screen. We have been assisting some of the companies in establishing the framework, adoption and capability to evolve with regulatory and market changes. We target one-on-one interactions with our corporates to discuss the most material issues for that company and the industry. These detailed one-on-one engagements are carried out on regular basis. For these meetings, we leverage Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) standards that are publicly available. We also collaborate and share our ESG engagements and analyses with the wider Emerging Markets team.  

Engaging for tangible results

Data Privacy & Cyber Security (S, G): is a high impact factor for the portfolio as many of our companies in consumer, fintech, e-commerce and delivery businesses are impacted by this issue. We need to have a clear understanding of the companies’ policies and targets to ensure that the protection of data and cyber security will be one of the most crucial factors. In our recent discussions with a Brazilian fintech disruptor, the company was receptive to our suggestion of providing both the qualitative details of cyber-security strategy and the actual trend of spending so that we are better able to monitor those data points at ongoing intervals. We expect an initial disclosure to be made during the first half 2021 ESG report. In general, we expect complete transparency, both quantitative and qualitative, around this aspect from our companies. This will help us track our companies' progress in data privacy and security.  It will also contribute to building further confidence in our investment thesis.

Employee Engagement (S): is a key aspect for many of our companies as human capital is the key asset for most of our asset-light businesses. On this count, we have seen meaningful progress with one healthcare company. The company had a high attrition rate of ~36% in 2017, implying significant room for improvement. Since our initial meetings with the company and our discussion surrounding the high turnover rate, the company has focused on several retention plans, increased training & development, instituted employee friendly policies along with other initiatives which have lowered the attrition rate to ~27% in 2018 and ~31% in 2019. While we would like to see more improvement, we think the company is progressing in the right direction.

Business Ethics (E, S, G): has wide-ranging effects across all ESG issues. One of those issues involves production practices and raw material sourcing. If done ethically – without child labor, adherence to fair labor practices and sustainable sourcing – it can lead to improved sales and profitability. One of our athleisure theme companies has established best-in-class sourcing compliance globally. Their code of conduct is already fully applicable to their Tier 1 suppliers, they are increasingly expanding this to their Tier 2 suppliers. We use this company as the benchmark to engage a Chinese firm that was looking to improve its practices. In our initial meetings, the company only had vague plans with no formal policies. Since then the company now has working plans on environmental management and increased sourcing of sustainable and recycled materials in their product mix. As consumer awareness of these practices has increased, the company has been able to command premium pricing on apparel and footwear using these materials. The company has shared some key matrixes that we can monitor and to provide further engagement as additional policies are introduced. These adopted practices should help minimize potential risks to the brand which give us greater comfort in our investment positions.

Energy Usage & Sustainability (E): is key for various companies but particularly so for a local brand champion. This issue of energy and sustainability is very relevant given manufacturing and supplier arrangements. We engaged with the company to encourage their intention to implement a detailed 3-5 year plan, covering environmental management, energy usage, discharge and waste management, along with sustainability efforts and recycling. They are also overhauling operational practices to bring ESG into all facets of their work. To effectively drive the adoption, the company also intends to align numeric targets with employee KPIs. Understanding ESG initiatives in such detail affords us insight into cost trends, brand impact and ways to deliver sustainable sales growth over our investment time horizon of 3-5 years.

An ongoing quest

We continue to engage companies, advising them on what we are seeing from other companies across a variety of industries and offering advice on best practices. In addition, the ability to maintain our regular connection and dialogues will be key. And finally, we are constantly evaluating how these factors will affect how we assess companies’ investment values. We see an abundance of opportunity for emerging market companies to unlock value by adopting and improving their ESG practices over the next several years. We look forward to sharing our progress with you, our clients and partners, along the way.

 
 

1 Strategies that incorporate impact investing and/or Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) factors could result in relative investment performance deviating from other strategies or broad market benchmarks, depending on whether such sectors or investments are in or out of favor in the market. As a result, there is no assurance ESG strategies could result in more favorable investment performance.


 
 

Risk Considerations

There is no assurance that a portfolio will achieve its investment objective. Portfolios are subject to market risk, which is the possibility that the market values of securities owned by the portfolio will decline. Market values can change daily due to economic and other events (e.g. natural disasters, health crises, terrorism, conflicts and social unrest) that affect markets, countries, companies or governments. It is difficult to predict the timing, duration, and potential adverse effects (e.g. portfolio liquidity) of events. Accordingly, you can lose money investing. Please be aware that this portfolio may be subject to certain additional risks. In general, equities securities’ values also fluctuate in response to activities specific to a company. Investments in foreign markets entail special risks such as currency, political, economic, market and liquidity risks. The risks of investing in emerging market countries are greater than the risks generally associated with investments in foreign developed countries. Investments in securities of Chinese issuers, including A-shares, involve risks and special considerations not typically associated with investments in the U.S. securities markets or foreign developed markets, such as heightened market, political and liquidity risk. Stocks of small- and medium capitalization companies entail special risks, such as limited product lines, markets, and financial resources, and greater market volatility than securities of larger, more established companies. Derivative instruments can be illiquid, may disproportionately increase losses and may have a potentially large negative impact on the Portfolio’s performance. Illiquid securities may be more difficult to sell and value than publicly traded securities (liquidity risk). Non-diversified portfolios often invest in a more limited number of issuers. As such, changes in the financial condition or market value of a single issuer may cause greater volatility. Privately placed and restricted securities may be subject to resale restrictions as well as a lack of publicly available information, which will increase their illiquidity and could adversely affect the ability to value and sell them (liquidity risk).

 
vishal.gupta
Managing Director
Portfolio Manager, Emerging Markets Leaders Strategy
 
arun.kapoor
Vice President
 
steve.sun
Executive Director
 
 
Featured Funds
 
 
 
 
 

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“ESG” investment: Environmental Social and Governance based investment is an investment approach which takes explicit account of the environmental, social and corporate governance aspects of all proposed investments.

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