Growing numbers of people are choosing to invest sustainably as a means of aligning their long-term financial goals with a desire for their money to be put to work in a way that will benefit society and the environment.
There is of course also an expectation that investing in this way will deliver solid returns. Following a strong run of performance, many sustainable investment strategies have faced headwinds this year which may have led investors to question their allocation to such funds.
There are sound macroeconomic reasons why sustainable investments have been challenged this year. Inflation has soared and central banks have countered this by increasing interest rates. At the same time, rhetoric around recession has increased, and uncertainty clouds the future. This has led to a sell-off in growth assets in favour of more defensive, value and inflation-aligned investments.
Does this mean that the secular trends that have supported the case for sustainable investment and the progress of our societies to a cleaner, healthier and safer future have stalled permanently? The dismal news on the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, China-US tensions, and UK politics could lead people to subscribe to this view, while the positivity generated by last year’s COP26 conference on climate change also seems a distant memory.
Despite such concerns, however, sustainable themes have persisted for decades and are well-embedded. And while individual themes may reach the end of their road, the overall direction of travel remains intact.
Energy is a case in point. The attractiveness of renewable energy and energy efficiency has only increased over recent months as the insecurity of fossil fuel supply is exposed by events in Europe.
But with more than 80 per cent of global energy still coming from fossil fuels, many still understandably question whether this transition is overplayed. We believe not: change is rarely linear, and when a cheaper, better solution is developed, it can displace the old at an exponential rate. Yes, progress has been slow, but we are confident the rapid growth in renewables and adoption of electric vehicles is exactly one of these exponential transitions.
Renewables plodded for years along supported by regulation and subsidies. Then came a tipping point where, in region after region, it became the cheapest form of new energy generation. Since 2010, the price of solar energy production has fallen by 90% and onshore wind by 60%. As a consequence, fossil fuels are becoming increasingly obsolete, starting with coal.
What does all this mean in the context of the recent market sell-off? Renowned economist and investor Benjamin Graham once said that the market is a voting machine in the short-term but a weighing machine in the long run.
We wouldn’t disagree, but would say that looking further out, markets can still be very wrong in assessing the value a company will deliver. We believe the recent sell-off has been indiscriminate and overlooks the potential for future returns from many compelling investment opportunities.
Take Trainline: it is the UK’s market leader in train ticketing with strong growth prospects in Europe. It facilitates a cleaner, more efficient and less congested transport system and we believe it will benefit from strong growth over the long-term.
While Covid lockdowns saw near-term revenues disappear and a dramatic fall in its share price, within a longer-term context, the events of any particular year become insignificant over the course of a company’s lifetime. The loss of one year’s worth of revenues should not have led to such a decrease in the value of the business.
There are many other compelling businesses that have been similarly hit by this sell-off. For example, Spotify’s shares remain weak based on concerns around user numbers and the performance of comparable businesses like Netflix. Nonetheless, Spotify is a company which we believe exhibits excellent operational performance, with user numbers still increasing, albeit less quickly than before, and signs of monetising this growing base.
These are just two examples of compelling businesses with the potential for solid profitability over the longer-term horizon that investors in equity markets should have. We remain confident that the trends supporting the transition to a cleaner, safer and healthier future will benefit a broad spectrum of companies whose prospects, due to short-term negative sentiment, are significantly underestimated by the market.
Peter Michaelis is head of the Liontrust sustainable investment team