Impact Investing Gains Momentum

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16 February 2017
Kelley Byrnes

The polarizing political climate appears to be serving as an impetus for some firms to take socially responsible investing more seriously. At today’s Impact Investing conference hosted by The Economist in NYC, Audrey Choi, Chief Executive of Morgan Stanley’s Institute for Sustainable Investing, said there is research that shows that 70% of investors want to align their investments with their values.

Not surprisingly millennials are interested in impact investing. Audrey Choi also referenced research that that millennials are two times as likely to buy or divest stocks based on their personal beliefs.

Most speakers throughout the day were aligned in that they wanted to see impact investing become more than just a sleeve of an investor’s portfolio; impact investing should be mainstream as suggested by the full name of the conference, “Impact Investing: Mainstreaming purpose driven finance.” Jackie VanderBurg, Managing Director and Investment Strategist of US Trust and co-author of “Gender Lens Investing: Uncovering Opportunities for Growth, Returns and Impact,” explained that gender lens investing, like other responsible investing should not operate in a silo.

Another common theme throughout the conference was that impact investing is smart investing. Understanding sustainability and opening one’s eyes to the different geo-political risks that face our world, is wise and exposes a company to less risk. For example, Audrey Choi, shared a statistic from the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB), which found that 93% of companies stand to be impacted by climate change or the need to defend against it, but only 12% of companies are disclosing the risk.

A roadblock in the world of socially responsible investing is proving to investors that they do not have to compromise return when investing according to their beliefs. As Jackie VanderBurg said in reference to gender lens investing, “Gender lens investing is not small, soft and pink. It is smart investing. Gender lens investing is the deliberate, intentional integration of gender-based data into financial analysis with the expectation of finding additional opportunities and mitigating risk”. Money managers and personal investors must apply the same rigorous process to impact investments as they would with any type of investment.

Joshua Levin, co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer of OpenInvest, a robo-advisory that permits clients to choose investments supported by their personal beliefs, brought up another challenge: intermediaries. He gave the example that when people first started out investing, people invested to have an impact; that impact may have been to start a factory or own part of a company to influence a company’s decisions. Now with so many intermediaries, investors no longer think of investments as having an impact. Now people invest for diversification. With a platform like OpenInvest, people can have an impact by choosing not to invest in a company if the company is not aligned with their personal beliefs.

Many speakers were also in agreement on other challenges facing impact investing: reliable metrics, more products across asset classes, and more education for consumers and advisors alike. After attending this conference, I am hopeful that firms are working to address the roadblocks to impact investing. While perfect solutions may not be possible this should not impede the value that can be added from investing in a socially responsible way.

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