Sustainable Investing Trends
Innovation Creates Opportunities for Climate Progress and Investment Returns in 2023
We believe the long-term drivers for sustainable investing remain strong, despite a rapidly changing economic and policy environment and environmental, social and governance (ESG) “pushback.” Even as the physical impacts of climate change drive costs higher, we see innovations in products and services creating significant opportunities for progress and investment returns.
In the short term, we believe the current energy and food crisis will drive up global emissions. But the need for energy independence and rapid innovation should accelerate the transition to renewable energy and may generate attractive investment opportunities.
Don’t Mess With Texas
While the comptroller of Texas has become persona non grata in the sustainable investing arena, we will boldly assert that the United States and the entire world (including sustainable investing leaders) must recognize that the path to decarbonizing must involve Texas. Despite being the most vocal state in the “anti-ESG” debate, Texas is leading the way to decarbonizing in the U.S.
Texas leads in terms of renewable power. It has a massive and growing fleet of renewable vehicles, and zero-carbon electricity sources (wind, solar and nuclear) powered about 38% of the state’s power in 2021, rivaling natural gas at 42%.¹
Texas is the largest producer of wind power in the U.S. (more than the next three states combined) and has surpassed California to become the largest producer of solar energy. Texas (and neighboring states like Louisiana) also has the skilled-worker base needed to increase offshore wind power, given its experience with offshore oil rigs.
We believe Texas is misunderstood. It is neither “anti-ESG” nor anti-environment. The “E” it finds offensive is exclusion. We get it. We are steadfastly committed to the principles of a “just transition” and believe support for these principles will increase in 2023.
We believe this transition must be a “down escalator,” not a “down elevator.” We must commit to reskilling workers and supporting communities and countries most impacted (and often the least responsible) as the world decarbonizes. That is our investment stewardship approach, particularly concerning portfolio decarbonization.
From Best in Class to Best in Progress
Historically, sustainable investing has focused on ESG integration, best in class, exclusions or a combination of the three. A recent survey by the research firm Kirstein in partnership with American Century Investments shows that leading asset owners in the Nordics and the Netherlands are shifting away from best-in-class investing toward best-in-progress investing.
We believe this shift is occurring for two reasons: Exclusionary approaches haven’t achieved much in terms of real-world outcomes, and best-in-class strategies often emphasize growth stocks, which was good until it wasn’t.
A recent study, Decarbonizing Institutional Investor Portfolios, highlights hiccups in widely used portfolio decarbonization approaches, historically a combination of exclusions and portfolio tilts (best in class). The authors’ conclusion: “Overall, our paper raises the concern that addressing the steep challenge posed by climate change and energy transition requires more than portfolio tilts. Institutional investors that decarbonize their portfolios via tilting may just be pushing away the problem to other investor groups that might be even less motivated to tackle corporate carbon emissions.”²
We believe best-in-progress approaches will increase as sustainable investors realize that diversification and engagement are crucial to meeting long-term return, risk and sustainability goals.
From Quicksand to Concrete?
During the first half of 2022, I often said we were standing on sand about the regulatory environment. But given the rapidly changing global conditions in the year’s second half, I switched to saying quicksand. And noting that sand is a primary ingredient in concrete, we’re optimistic that markets will gain regulatory clarity in 2023.
Nonetheless, asset managers will face a balancing act as various regulatory jurisdictions may be at odds with each other regarding goals and implementation. We remain concerned that rather than just tackling greenwashing, this may have the unintended consequence of stifling innovation.
Sustainability Trends Beyond Carbon
Decarbonizing will remain a hot topic in 2023, but we think other themes will also gain traction.
Food and Biodiversity. Both food and biodiversity were areas of focus for us in 2022, and we believe the intersection of the two will gain momentum in 2023. It became clear to investors in 2022 that as over half (55%) of the world’s gross domestic product (U.S. $41.7 trillion) depends on healthy biodiversity and thriving ecosystems, biodiversity risks and opportunities should be considered when assessing environmental impact and innovation opportunities in a portfolio.³
Combine that with a global food crisis and the knowledge that agriculture and food production harm the environment by depleting natural resources and contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. Investors will have to balance the short-term need to feed people against the long-term goals of decarbonizing and restoring healthy, sustainable ecosystems.
Workers Back in the Spotlight. We see an interesting dichotomy as inflation soars and many countries are either close to or in a recession. Workers are starting to feel the impact of large scale layoffs and hiring freezes in specific industries, especially technology. At the same time, other industries still can’t find enough workers, particularly for lower-paying roles.
We believe companies that treat their employees as assets rather than liabilities will be more durable over time. Companies that not only offer competitive pay and benefits, flexibility and training but also demonstrate compassion during turbulent times will likely be rewarded with less turnover, a stronger corporate culture and greater employee engagement. Consumers may also reward them. All this has been shown to support shareholder value over time.
Cyber. In our view, the relentless growth in digitalization, globalization and the ability to work remotely (accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic) mean that every company is now a technology company. The world becomes more connected daily and the increasing frequency of cyberattacks makes it more critical than ever for companies, communities and governments to have strong cyberdefenses to protect against exposures that could result in fines, reputational damage or cyberwarfare.
Achieving True Sustainability Depends on Innovation
“If you are standing still, you are falling behind.” This statement is truer in sustainable investing today than ever before. Geopolitical tensions, rising inflation, a global food and energy crisis and other emerging trends make it increasingly critical for investors to avoid managing these issues using a siloed E-S-G or exclusionary approach. Instead, we must view them holistically to ensure a more just and sustainable economy for the future.
View Glossary Definitions
A form of securitized debt that represents ownership in pools of mortgage loans and their payments.
Asset-backed securities (ABS)
A form of securitized debt (defined below), ABS are structured like mortgage-backed securities (MBS, defined below). But instead of mortgage loans or interest in mortgage loans, the underlying assets may include such items as auto loans, home equity loans, student loans, small business loans, and credit card debt. The value of an ABS is affected by changes in the market's perception of the assets backing the security, the creditworthiness of the servicing agent for the loan pool, the originator of the loans, or the financial institution providing any credit enhancement.
BB and BBB credit rating
Securities and issuers rated AAA to BBB are considered/perceived “investment-grade”; those rated below BBB are considered/perceived non-investment-grade or more speculative.
Entity responsible for oversight of a nation’s monetary system, including policies and interest rates.
Collateralized loan obligations (CLOs)
A form of securitized debt, typically backed by pools of corporate loans and their payments.
Short-term debt issued by corporations to raise cash and to cover current expenses in anticipation of future revenues.
Commodities are raw materials or primary agricultural products that can be bought or sold on an exchange or market. Examples include grains such as corn, foods such as coffee, and metals such as copper.
Consumer Price Index (CPI)
CPI is the most commonly used statistic to measure inflation in the U.S. economy. Sometimes referred to as headline CPI, it reflects price changes from the consumer's perspective. It's a U.S. government (Bureau of Labor Statistics) index derived from detailed consumer spending information. Changes in CPI measure price changes in a market basket of consumer goods and services such as gas, food, clothing, and cars. Core CPI excludes food and energy prices, which tend to be volatile.
Corporate securities (corporate bonds and notes)
Debt instruments issued by corporations, as distinct from those issued by governments, government agencies, or municipalities. Corporate securities typically have the following features: 1) they are taxable, 2) they tend to have more credit (default) risk than government or municipal securities, so they tend to have higher yields than comparable-maturity securities in those sectors; and 3) they are traded on major exchanges, with prices published in newspapers.
Correlation measures the relationship between two investments--the higher the correlation, the more likely they are to move in the same direction for a given set of economic or market events. So if two securities are highly correlated, they will move in the same direction the vast majority of the time. Negatively correlated investments do the opposite--as one security rises, the other falls, and vice versa. No correlation means there is no relationship between the movement of two securities--the performance of one security has no bearing on the performance of the other. Correlation is an important concept for portfolio diversification--combining assets with low or negative correlations can improve risk-adjusted performance over time by providing a diversity of payouts under the same financial conditions.
Coupon interest rate
The coupon interest rate is the stated/set interest rate that is assigned to each interest-paying fixed-income security when it is issued. It is used to calculate the security's periodic interest payments to investors; the coupon rate is applied to the security's principal value to generate interest payments.
Credit quality reflects the financial strength of the issuer of a security, and the ability of that issuer to provide timely payment of interest and principal to investors in the issuer's securities. Common measurements of credit quality include the credit ratings provided by credit rating agencies such as Standard & Poor's and Moody's. Credit quality and credit quality perceptions are a key component of the daily market pricing of fixed-income securities, along with maturity, inflation expectations and interest rate levels.
Measurements of credit quality (defined below) provided by credit rating agencies (defined below). Those provided by Standard & Poor's typically are the most widely quoted and distributed, and range from AAA (highest quality; perceived as least likely to default) down to D (in default). Securities and issuers rated AAA to BBB are considered/perceived to be "investment-grade"; those below BBB are considered/perceived to be non-investment-grade or more speculative.
A debt instrument, including bonds, certificates of deposit or preferred stocks.
Duration is an important indicator of potential price volatility and interest rate risk in fixed income investments. It measures the price sensitivity of a fixed income investment to changes in interest rates. The longer the duration, the more a fixed income investment's price will change when interest rates change. Duration also reflects the effect caused by receiving fixed income cash flows sooner instead of later. Fixed income investments structured to potentially pay more to investors earlier (such as high-yield, mortgage, and callable securities) typically have shorter durations than those that return most of their capital at maturity (such as zero-coupon or low-yielding noncallable Treasury securities), assuming that they have similar maturities.
The eurozone is sometimes referred to as the euro area and represents the member states that participate in the economic and monetary union (EMU) with the European Union (EU). The eurozone currently consists of: Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Spain.
Federal Reserve (Fed)
The Fed is the U.S. central bank, responsible for monetary policies affecting the U.S. financial system and the economy.
A floating rate is associated with payments that fluctuate with an underlying interest rate level, as opposed to paying fixed-rate income.
Investment "fundamentals," in the context of investment analysis, are typically those factors used in determining value that are more economic (growth, interest rates, inflation, employment) and/or financial (income, expenses, assets, credit quality) in nature, as opposed to "technicals," which are based more on market price (into which fundamental factors are considered to have been "priced in"), trend, and volume factors (such as supply and demand), and momentum. Technical factors can often override fundamentals in near-term investor and market behavior, but, in theory, investments with strong fundamental supports should maintain their value and perform relatively well over long time periods.
General obligation (GO) bonds
One of the biggest sectors in the municipal securities (defined below) market. Typically, these bonds are secured by the full faith and credit pledge (defined above) of the issuer and usually supported by the issuer's taxing power (tax revenues provide the means by which most interest payments are made). GO bonds can be issued by states, counties, cities, towns and regional districts to fund a variety of public projects, including construction of and improvements to schools, highways, and water and sewer systems.
Gross domestic product
Gross domestic product (or GDP) is a measure of the total economic output in goods and services for an economy.
High-yield bonds are fixed income securities with lower credit quality and lower credit ratings. High-yield securities are those rated below BBB- by Standard & Poor's.
Inflation, sometimes referred to as headline inflation, reflects rising prices for consumer goods and services, or equivalently, a declining value of money. Core inflation excludes food and energy prices, which tend to be volatile. It is the opposite of deflation (see Deflation).
Debt securities that offer returns adjusted for inflation; a feature designed to eliminate the inflation risk.
Investment-grade corporate bond or credit
A debt security with a relatively low risk of default issued and sold by a corporation to investors.
Liquidity describes the degree to which an asset or security can be quickly bought or sold in the market without affecting the asset's price.
Mortgage-backed securities (MBS)
A form of securitized debt (defined below) that represents ownership in pools of mortgage loans and their payments. Most MBS are structured as "pass-throughs"--the monthly payments of principal and interest on the mortgages in the pool are collected by the financial entity that is servicing the mortgages and are "passed through" monthly to investors. The monthly and principal payments are key differences between MBS and other bonds such as Treasuries, which pay interest every six months and return the whole principal at maturity. Most MBS are issued or guaranteed by the U.S. government, a government-sponsored enterprise (GSE), or by a private lending institution.
These are long-term municipal securities (defined below) with maturities of 10 years or longer.
Municipal securities (munis)
Debt securities typically issued by or on behalf of U.S. state and local governments, their agencies or authorities to raise money for a variety of public purposes, including financing for state and local governments as well as financing for specific projects and public facilities. In addition to their specific set of issuers, the defining characteristic of munis is their tax status. The interest income earned on most munis is exempt from federal income taxes. Interest payments are also generally exempt from state taxes if the bond owner resides within the state that issued the security. The same rule applies to local taxes. Another interesting characteristic of munis: Individuals, rather than institutions, make up the largest investor base. In part because of these characteristics, munis tend to have certain performance attributes, including higher after-tax returns than other fixed income securities of comparable maturity and credit quality and low volatility relative to other fixed-income sectors. The two main types of munis are general obligation bonds (GOs) and revenue bonds. GOs are munis secured by the full faith and credit of the issuer and usually supported by the issuer's taxing power. Revenue bonds are secured by the charges tied to the use of the facilities financed by the bonds.
Net Asset Value (NAV)
The total value per share of all the underlying securities in a portfolio.
For most bonds and other fixed-income securities, nominal yield is simply the yield you see listed online or in newspapers. Most nominal fixed-income yields include some extra yield, an "inflation premium," that is typically priced/added into the yields to help offset the effects of inflation (see Inflation). Real yields (see Real yield), such as those for TIPS (see TIPS), don't have the inflation premium. As a result, nominal yields are typically higher than TIPS yields and other real yields.
Non-agency commercial mortgage-backed securities (CMBS)
MBS that represent ownership in pools of commercial real estate loans used to finance the construction and improvement of income-producing properties. Non-agency CMBS are not guaranteed by the U.S. government or a government-sponsored enterprise.
Nationally recognized statistical rating organizations assign quality ratings to reflect forward-looking opinions on the creditworthiness of loan issuers.
Real estate investment trusts (REITs)
Real estate investment trusts (REITs) are securities that trade like stocks and invest in real estate through properties or mortgages.
Russell 1000® Growth Index
Measures the performance of those Russell 1000 Index companies (the 1,000 largest publicly traded U.S. companies, based on total market capitalization) with higher price-to-book ratios and higher forecasted growth values.
Russell 1000® Value Index
Measures the performance of those Russell 1000 Index companies (the 1,000 largest publicly traded U.S. companies, based on total market capitalization) with lower price-to-book ratios and lower forecasted growth values.
S&P 500® Index
The S&P 500® Index is composed of 500 selected common stocks most of which are listed on the New York Stock Exchange. It is not an investment product available for purchase.
Debt resulting from the process of aggregating debt instruments into a pool of similar debts, then issuing new securities backed by the pool (securitizing the debt). Asset-backed and mortgage-backed securities (ABS and MBS, defined further above) and collateralized mortgage obligations (CMOs, defined above) are common forms of securitized debt. The credit quality (defined above) of securitized debt can vary significantly, depending on the underwriting standards of the original debt issuers, the credit quality of the issuers, economic or financial conditions that might affect payments, the existence of credit backing or guarantees, etc.
A security that has a higher priority compared to another in the event of liquidation.
A country's own government-issued debt, priced in its native currency, that can be sold to investors in other countries to raise needed funds. For example, U.S. Treasury debt is U.S. sovereign debt, and would be referred to as sovereign debt when bought by foreign investors. Conversely, debt issued by foreign governments and priced in their currencies would be sovereign debt to U.S. investors.
Spreads (aka "interest-rate spreads", "maturity spreads," "yield spreads" or "credit spreads")
In fixed income parlance, spreads are simply measured differences or gaps that exists between two interest rates or yields that are being compared with each other. Spreads typically exist and are measured between fixed income securities of the same credit quality (defined above), but different maturities, or of the same maturity, but different credit quality. Changes in spreads typically reflect changes in relative value, with "spread widening" usually indicating relative price depreciation of the securities whose yields are increasing most, and "spread tightening" indicating relative price appreciation of the securities whose yields are declining most (or remaining relatively fixed while other yields are rising to meet them). Value-oriented investors typically seek to buy when spreads are relatively wide and sell after spreads tighten.
Spread sectors (aka "spread products," "spread securities")
In fixed income parlance, these are typically non-Treasury securities that usually trade in the fixed income markets at higher yields than same-maturity U.S. Treasury securities. The yield difference between Treasuries and non-Treasuries is called the "spread" (defined further above), hence the name "spread sectors" for non-Treasuries. These sectors--such as corporate-issued securities and mortgage-backed securities (MBS, defined above)--typically trade at higher yields (spreads) than Treasuries because they usually have relatively lower credit quality (defined above) and more credit/default risk (defined above), and/or they have more prepayment risk (defined above).
Stagflation describes slowing economic growth combined with high inflation.
Treasury inflation-protected securities (TIPS)
TIPS are a special type of U.S. Treasury security designed to address a fundamental, long-standing fixed-income market issue: that the fixed interest payments and principal values at maturity of most fixed-income securities don't adjust for inflation. TIPS interest payments and principal values do. The adjustments include upward or downward changes to both principal and coupon interest based on inflation. TIPS are inflation-indexed; that is, tied to the U.S. government's Consumer Price Index (CPI). At maturity, TIPS are guaranteed by the U.S. government to return at least their initial $1,000 principal value, or that principal value adjusted for inflation, whichever amount is greater. In addition, as their principal values are adjusted for inflation, their interest payments also adjust.
A treasury note is a debt security issued by the U.S. government with a fixed interest rate and maturity ranging from one to 10 years.
The yield (defined below) of a Treasury security (most often refers to U.S. Treasury securities issued by the U.S. government).
A quantitative estimate of a company or asset’s value.
For bonds and other fixed-income securities, yield is a rate of return on those securities. There are several types of yields and yield calculations. "Yield to maturity" is a common calculation for fixed-income securities, which takes into account total annual interest payments, the purchase price, the redemption value, and the amount of time remaining until maturity.
A line graph showing the yields of fixed income securities from a single sector (such as Treasuries or municipals), but from a range of different maturities (typically three months to 30 years), at a single point in time (often at month-, quarter- or year-end). Maturities are plotted on the x-axis of the graph, and yields are plotted on the y-axis. The resulting line is a key bond market benchmark and a leading economic indicator.
Ella Nilsen, “Wind and solar power are ‘bailing out’ Texas amid record heat and energy demand,” CNN, June 14, 2022.
Vaska Atta-Darkua, Simon Glossner, Philipp Krueger and Pedro Matos, “Decarbonizing Institutional Investor Portfolios,” September 7, 2022. Available at SSRN.
World Economic Forum, “Half of World’s GDP Moderately or Highly Dependent on Nature, Says New Report,” News Release, January 19, 2020.
Many of American Century's investment strategies incorporate the consideration of environmental, social, and/or governance (ESG) factors into their investment processes in addition to traditional financial analysis. However, when doing so, the portfolio managers may not consider ESG factors with respect to every investment decision and, even when such factors are considered, they may conclude that other attributes of an investment outweigh ESG considerations when making decisions for the portfolio. The consideration of ESG factors may limit the investment opportunities available to a portfolio, and the portfolio may perform differently than those that do not incorporate ESG considerations. ESG data used by the portfolio managers often lacks standardization, consistency, and transparency, and for certain companies such data may not be available, complete, or accurate.
ESG Integrated: An investment strategy that integrates ESG factors aims to make investment decisions through the analysis of ESG factors alongside other financial variables in an effort to deliver superior, long-term, risk-adjusted returns. Therefore, ESG factors may limit the investment opportunities available, and the portfolio may perform differently than those that do not incorporate ESG factors. Portfolio managers have ultimate discretion in how ESG issues may impact a portfolio's holdings, and depending on their analysis, investment decisions may not be affected by ESG factors.
ESG Focused: An investment strategy that focuses on ESG factors seeks to invest, under normal market conditions, in securities that meet certain ESG criteria or standards in an effort to promote sustainable characteristics, in addition to seeking superior, long-term, risk-adjusted returns. This investment focus may limit the investment opportunities available to a portfolio. Therefore, the portfolio may underperform or perform differently than other portfolios that do not have an ESG investment focus. ESG-focused investment strategies include but are not limited to impact, best-in-class, positive screening, exclusionary, and thematic approaches.
References to specific securities are for illustrative purposes only, and are not intended as recommendations to purchase or sell securities. Opinions and estimates offered constitute our judgment and, along with other portfolio data, are subject to change without notice.
International investing involves special risk considerations, including economic and political conditions, inflation rates and currency fluctuations.
Investment return and principal value of security investments will fluctuate. The value at the time of redemption may be more or less than the original cost. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.
Historically, small- and/or mid-cap stocks have been more volatile than the stock of larger, more-established companies. Smaller companies may have limited resources, product lines and markets, and their securities may trade less frequently and in more limited volumes than the securities of larger companies.
Diversification does not assure a profit nor does it protect against loss of principal.
Generally, as interest rates rise, bond prices fall. The opposite is true when interest rates decline.
Past performance is no guarantee of future results. Investment returns will fluctuate and it is possible to lose money.
The opinions expressed are those of American Century Investments (or the portfolio manager) and are no guarantee of the future performance of any American Century Investments' portfolio. This material has been prepared for educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide, and should not be relied upon for, investment, accounting, legal or tax advice.