Does it pay to be an ethical investor?

Ethical investing – also called socially responsible investment (SRI) – is an approach that attempts to balance financial return with social good. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s one of the most controversial topics in fund management today – in part because experts are divided about whether ethical funds do better or worse than the overall market.

One group argues that shares in companies that act responsibly should outperform on average, because they tend to be better run. Their opponents argue that stocks in despised sectors are likely to provide better returns to compensate for the “stigma” of holding them.

A recent study by Elroy Dimson, Paul Marsh and Mike Staunton for the Credit Suisse Global Investment Returns Yearbook implies that the cynics are right. The researchers found that the Vice Fund (VICEX), a US-based fund that focuses on “vice” sectors, such as defence and tobacco, has consistently outperformed the Vanguard FTSE Social Index Fund, which tracks the FTSE4Good US Select index.

An initial investment of $10,000 in the Vice Fund in 2002 would now be worth $33,655, while the same invested in the Social Index Fund would be worth $26,788. The performance of the S&P 500lay roughly halfway between the two.

However, you could argue that it’s unfair to compare an active fund to an index that essentially just strips what it sees to be the worst ethical offenders out of the S&P 500 as a test for SRI as a whole. And supporters of ethical investing can point to the Friends Life Stewardship Fund.

This launched in June 1984 as the UK’s first ethical fund and has done very well. From launch to the end of 2014 it returned 2,408%, around a third better than the UK largecap market over the same period.

More broadly, indices that select firms that actively try to be responsible have a reasonable record. For example, the KLD 400 (a US index of socially responsible firms) has returned 10.54% a year since it was created in May 1990, compared to 10.18% from the wider MSCI USA.

The MSCI World ESG has returned 3.88% a year since September 2007, versus 3.86% for the MSCI World. We’d argue that it’s hard to invest truly ethically without getting deeply involved in your own stock-picking, as everyone has a different idea of what’s ethical.

However, the data suggest it’s possible to opt for SRI without crushing your returns. One low-cost ETF is the UBS MSCI World Socially Responsible UCITS ETF (LSE: UC44), with a total expense ratio of 0.38%.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *