401(k) ESG Investing: Should You Include Socially Responsible Funds In Your Retirement plan?

November 20, 2017 by Alex Goldberg

If you think you’re hearing more about ESG and sustainable investing, you’re right. Assets are growing in mutual funds and ETFs that seek out companies exhibiting the values shared by their investors. According to the Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment, assets categorized as sustainable, responsible and impact investments accounted for 21% of professionally managed assets in 2016. If you don’t know what ESG investments are, ESG stands for Environmental, Social and Governance – and ESG funds follow a set of standards for a company’s operations and only invest if in a company’s stock if it meets those standards.

So should you consider including ESG funds in your 401(k) or 403(b)?

Like value or growth styles, responsible investing means different things to different investors. Socially responsible investing (or SRI) has been around at least since the 1970s. This approach “screened out” companies that clashed with the values of the investor. Tobacco, liquor and gambling stocks often fell into this category.

Today the term “ESG investing” has become a common way to describe investments with certain socially conscious attributes. Rather than to screen out companies, ESG investors are looking for companies with favorable environmental, social and governance factors. A qualifying company may efficiently use water in their manufacturing process, invest in environmentally friendly technology, or actively seek locations for new businesses in underserved communities. An often overlooked aspect of ESG attributes is sound corporate governance – practices like ethical behavior and sound financial reporting.

Different funds may have different mandates when it comes to seeking out sustainable or ESG companies. Some may exclude entire industries while others may look for the best practices within each industry. Some funds label themselves as ESG funds. Others don’t adopt the label but do seek out companies with Environmental, Social and Governance attributes.

Quantifying ESG fund managers for your 401(k) or 403(b)

There are even third parties that rate companies based on sustainability or ESG practices. Fund data provider Morningstar now includes a sustainability rating among its fund metrics. The rating, which Morningstar says “provides a reliable, objective way to evaluate how investments are meeting environmental, social and governance challenges,” is available for 20,000 funds worldwide. Only a small percentage of these funds actually label themselves as socially responsible. The ratings reflect the business practices of the underlying companies.

How do ESG funds perform?

Advocates of ESG investing argue that the approach does not require a tradeoff between socially responsible behaviors and investment performance. Rather, they argue that ESG companies are often better than average investments given their commitment to sound governance and an appreciation for the long-term implications of their actions.
Morningstar’s head of sustainability research says there is little evidence there is a penalty to sustainable investing by mutual funds. In fact, there may even be a performance advantage. A 2014 study by Oxford researchers concluded that the body of research on ESG investing reveals that sustainable companies are more likely to have a lower cost of capital, better operational performance and even better stock price performance. It is important to note that at ForUsAll, we do not suggest that ESG funds have superior performance vs. other low-cost 401(k) investments, but do will evaluate ESG funds – especially if the company or nonprofit we are advising so requests.

ESG investing and your firm’s retirement plan

Despite the growing awareness of Environmental, Social and Governance investing, explicitly labeled ESG funds are rarely found in 401(k)s and 403(b)s. That’s largely due to the cold shoulder the Department of Labor has given these funds over the years. In 2008 the DOL indicated that plan sponsors should only rarely consider fund attributes other than risk and return. That sentiment scared off plenty of plan sponsors interested in adding an ESG fund to the lineup.

But it seems the DOL has softened its approach, and ESG funds may soon become more common in 401(k) and 403(b) accounts. The DOL issued new guidance in October 2015 saying that funds shouldn’t be considered suspect just because they take into consideration ESG factors.

But so far adoption has not been widespread. In 2016, just 8% of Vanguard defined contribution plans offered funds to participants labeled “socially responsible.”

Percentage of Vanguard Plans Including Various Equity Fund Offerings (%)

Active Domestic 94%
Index Domestic
99%
Large-Cap Value 90%
Large-Cap Growth 90%
Large-Cap Blend 97%
Mid-Cap 89%
Small-Cap 88%
Socially Responsible 8%
Source: “How America Saves, 2017,” Vanguard

So, should you include an ESG fund in your retirement plan? The best answer is “it depends.” If your employees have been inquiring about Environmental, Social and Governance investment alternatives you may want to consider including them in your lineup. If you are seriously considering ESG investments (there are even ESG bond funds) you may want to amend your 401(k) investment policy statement to reflect your refined approach to investing. Also, you should confirm that any ESG fund you choose meets other criteria spelled out in your IPS. These characteristics might include low fees, adequate diversification, capable management, and a solid track record. It should also be clear to employees that an ESG equity fund is still an equity fund, and as such should be a part of the equity allocation, not an addition to it. And don’t forget to include the ESG fund(s) in your regular investment reviews.

So, it’s up to you if you want to include an ESG option in your plan. If you need help thinking through you investment lineup options, or if you just want to spend less time thinking about plan investments and more time on your small business, contact us! We’ll even provide a free 403(b) or 401(k) plan review and show you how a low-cost passive fund lineup can drive employee success.

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Alex Goldberg
Alex is a behavioral economics buff and a firm believer in the power of smart default settings. He envisions a future in which Americans don't have to be proactive about saving for a comfortable retirement. As an early member of ForUsAll’s marketing team, Alex leads demand generation efforts, building awareness and enticing plan sponsors with the promise of lower fees, less work, and reduced liability. After graduating from UC Berkeley with a degree in economics, Alex joined an early-stage start up and built their marketing engine from scratch, helping the company grow from twenty or so employees to over a hundred. In his free time, Alex loves to play soccer, listen to podcasts, watch documentaries, try new crockpot recipes, and sample Japanese whiskey. He has no plans of ever retiring, but looks forward to having more time to travel the world.
Alex Goldberg

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