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BlackRock Commentary: Tectonic shift to sustainable investing

Jean Boivin, Head of BlackRock Investment Institute and Brian Deese, Global Head of Sustaiability Investing within BlackRock together with Vivek Paul, Senior Portfolio Strategist and Mike Pyle, Global Chief Investment Strategist within the BlackRock Investment Institute share their insights on global economy, markets and geopolitics. Their views are theirs alone and are not intended to be construed as investment advice.

It’s important to keep a long-term perspective amid market volatility – such as the extraordinary moves of recent weeks. One enduring trend we see is a move to sustainable investing: a structural shift in investor preferences leading to large and persistent flows into assets perceived as more resilient to sustainability-related risks such as climate change. Investors rebalancing portfolios after the risk asset selloff may consider leaning into sustainable assets.

Article Image 1 30.03.2020

Sources: BlackRock Investment Institute, as of March 25, 2020. Notes: Global sustainable ETFs as any exchange-traded funds that pursue a dedicated sustainable objective, whether using a broad ESG, thematic, impact, or exclusionary strategy. Traditional ETFs are any other ETFs that are not directly focused on sustainability.

We see a sustainable investing wave playing out in financial markets over the coming decades, remaking economies and industries as capital is reallocated to sustainable assets. This year’s fund flows may offer a miniature version of this shift. Sustainable exchange-traded funds (ETFs) have kept attracting assets this year, while traditional ETFs have seen heavy outflows in the market selloff. See the chart above. Net inflows into sustainable ETFs totaled $14 billion as of March 24, already more than half of 2019’s full-year figure, our data showed. To be sure: The total assets under management of sustainable ETFs are just 1% of that of total ETFs, and flows to sustainable funds are still very small compared with those to traditional funds. Yet the growing interest offers a glimpse of what may lie ahead: a significant structural shift toward sustainable investing, driven by broad societal preferences. As a result, we see portfolio rebalancing in the current environment as an opportunity to substitute some traditional assets with sustainable ones, with an eye on potential long-term benefits.

How should we expect sustainable investing strategies to perform over the long term? Skeptics have long argued the following:

1) Financial markets are efficient, so if sustainability matters it should already be reflected in market prices;
2) if investors care about sustainability, they should be willing to accept lower returns by paying a premium for “green assets”;
3) conversely, investors will earn a greater return as compensation for owning higher-risk “brown assets.”

This logic leads to the conclusion that we can simply ignore sustainability: Tilting toward green assets will be costly and owning brown assets will offer relatively higher expected returns. We disagree.

Why? Financial markets are imperfect at pricing information about the far-off future, even when the structural shifts are well understood. Think of slow-moving demographic trends such as population ageing and its implications for asset prices. When we complete the transition to a low-carbon economy in which sustainability will be fully embedded in marketing pricing, assets backed by high sustainability will be more expensive – while other assets will have become cheaper or disappeared altogether, in our view. Sustainable assets should earn a return benefit during the long transition to this state, in addition to greater resilience against risks such as physical disruptions from climate change. This implies the conclusion that sustainable investing requires sacrificing returns is a myth, in our view. Sustainable investing will likely carry a return advantage over years and decades.

This phenomenon could already be playing out to some extent this year. We studied the performance of the MSCI World SRI Select Reduced Fossil Fuels Index as a proxy for sustainable global equities since late January, when China first acknowledged the coronavirus outbreak. This index outperformed its parent (MSCI World) over the period, likely due to its reduced exposure to the hard-hit energy sector. Our analysis of MSCI’s back-tested data suggests the index outperformed during the market selloffs of mid-2015 and the fourth quarter of 2018. Moreover, other broad ESG equity indexes slightly outperformed their traditional counterparts in developed equity markets over the recent market plunge, we find.

Bottom line: Flows into sustainable assets are still in their early days, and we believe that the full consequences of a shift to sustainable investing are not yet in market prices. This implies a return advantage may be gained over the long transition.

Market Updates


Article Image 2 30.03.2020

Past performance is not a reliable indicator of current or future results. It is not possible to invest directly in an index. Sources: BlackRock Investment Institute, with data from Refinitiv Datastream, March 2020. Notes: The two ends of the bars show the lowest and highest returns versus the end of 2019, and the dots represent year-to-date returns. Emerging market (EM), high yield and global corporate investment grade (IG) returns are denominated in U.S. dollars, and the rest in local currencies. Indexes or prices used are: spot Brent crude, MSCI USA Index, the ICE U.S. Dollar Index (DXY), MSCI Europe Index, Bank of America Merrill Lynch Global Broad Corporate Index, Bank of America Merrill Lynch Global High Yield Index, Datastream 10-year benchmark government bond (U.S. , German and Italy), MSCI Emerging Markets Index, spot gold and J.P. Morgan EMBI index.

Fiscal and monetary policy action to bridge the economic impact of the coronavirus is starting to take shape as the outbreak and related containment measures propagate across the globe. The past week’s historic U.S. policy actions initially helped stabilize markets. We believe they are paving the road for an eventual – and strong – economic and market rebound, once we better understand the scale and impact of the outbreak.

Week Ahead


  • Tuesday: Flash purchasing managers’ index (PMI) for the euro area, U.S., UK and Japan
  • Wednesday: Manufacturing PMI for the euro area, U.S., Japan, South Korea
  • Thursday: European Central Bank General Council meeting; U.S. factory orders
  • Friday: U.S. nonfarm payrolls, ISM non-manufacturing PMI

Markets will keep an eye out for more signs of the impact of the pandemic disruption on growth, from manufacturing activity to consumer confidence. Last week’s flash PMI data for a number of economies including the U.S. and euro area hit record lows, showing the sharp contraction in activity that we had expected. We see activity ultimately returning with limited permanent damage – with the help of an overwhelming fiscal and monetary policy response.


BlackRock’s Key risks & Disclaimers:

This material is not intended to be relied upon as a forecast, research or investment advice, and is not a recommendation, offer or solicitation to buy or sell any securities or to adopt any investment strategy. The opinions expressed are as of March 30, 2020 and may change. The information and opinions are derived from proprietary and non-proprietary sources deemed by BlackRock to be reliable, are not necessarily all-inclusive and are not guaranteed as to accuracy. As such, no warranty of accuracy or reliability is given and no responsibility arising in any other way for errors and omissions (including responsibility to any person by reason of negligence) is accepted by BlackRock, its officers, employees or agents. This material may contain ’forward looking’ information that is not purely historical in nature. Such information may include, among other things, projections and forecasts. There is no guarantee that any forecasts made will come to pass. Reliance upon information in this material is at the sole discretion of the reader.

The information provided here is neither tax nor legal advice. Investors should speak to their tax professional for specific information regarding their tax situation. Investment involves risk including possible loss of principal. International investing involves risks, including risks related to foreign currency, limited liquidity, less government regulation, and the possibility of substantial volatility due to adverse political, economic or other developments. These risks are often heightened for investments in emerging/developing markets or smaller capital markets. 

Issued by BlackRock Investment Management (UK) Limited, authorized and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority. Registered office: 12 Throgmorton Avenue, London, EC2N 2DL

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