In the end, regulatory labels can indicate what type of fish an investor might expect to catch in a given location when told by their adviser or the fund manager its classification, so to speak.
Using required disclosures to make better fund comparisons
Historically, fund managers did not have to publish or explain how they invested sustainably, making it difficult to compare funds.
Now, managers must disclose various aspects of their sustainability policies, processes, and outcomes to merit a regulatory label. Investors can use these disclosures to more effectively compare funds’ approaches and portfolios.
For example, under Article 8, fund managers apply a wide range of approaches to promote environmental or social characteristics. One manager could screen for holdings based on ESG ratings. Another might target the portfolio to have a higher/lower score on sustainability-related metrics, like carbon intensity. Or a manager could exclude companies that violate UN Global Compact criteria. Another may combine several of these approaches.
EU regulation now requires detail on selected fund characteristics, how these are attained, and indicators and measurements to demonstrate the process. Although data availability does remain an issue, investors can use this enforced transparency to evaluate funds more easily.
Clarifying and challenging fund managers’ investment process
Thus far, fund managers have self-determined their fund’s regulatory classification.
This means making a conscious decision, as well as internal approvals within their organisation. Some managers and firms have been cautious, others ambitious. Ultimately, though, the final decision needs to be defensible against future regulatory scrutiny.
Investors can use these self-selected categories to ask about the investment holdings and the investment process. Again, to the EU context, considering an Article 8 fund, an investor could ask:
- Can you explain the decision to classify as an Article 8 fund?
- Which approach(es) are you taking to incorporate environmental or social characteristics?
- Why these? And why not any others?
- How are you assuring your fund maintains alignment with your selected sustainability criteria?
- How does your classification compare with other funds within your organisation, or competitors with similar/different classifications in the same asset class or thematic sector?
- What would cause you to change the classification (to become an Article 6 or 9 fund)?
- What evidence are you providing to substantiate the classification?
Moving from labels on the outside, to intentions from the inside
Around the world, financial regulators are establishing frameworks to classify funds. Beyond the EU, the UK, US, Singapore, and others are soon to launch their own systems. Their aim is to encourage greater investment to address social and environmental challenges while also reducing greenwashing.
This is laudable in principle. In practice, the frameworks and their application are embryonic. So investors can’t be sure of labels. However, they can still be useful if you know how to read, and look beneath, them.
More importantly, this reinforces our view that investors should not permit regulatory labels to determine their sustainability ambitions. Instead, begin deciding what you want from your portfolio, then use the frameworks to help with selection and portfolio construction. This inside-out approach focuses attention on where it should be – on your intentions, both financial and sustainable, to maximise the value of your investments to you and the wider world.