The idea of investing in a way that is consistent with your values is continuing to gain traction, maybe even more so through the pandemic. Beyond values, there is also an understanding that investing in a way that is socially, environmentally and ethically aligned also delivers market-like (or potentially even better than market) financial results. According to the US SIF Foundation’s 2020 Trends Report from which this week’s chart is taken, more than $17 trillion of the $51.4 trillion in professionally managed assets in the US as of year-end 2019 were aligned with the principles of ESG investing. Even deeply discounting that figure leaves an enormous quantity of assets and a steep growth curve. Investors who do not cleave to ESG or related disciplines still must take note of a market move of this magnitude. Stakeholders have spoken and ESG is part of the mainstream market conversation.
Bloomberg’s most recent update on economists’ expectations for the US Federal Reserve to begin tapering its asset purchases found that 45% of those surveyed believe the Fed balance sheet will begin to contract in Q4 of 2021. This is important because expectations are moving forward, as the previous month survey (March) had only 27% of respondents foreseeing the Fed tapering beginning in Q4 2021. The main difference between the April and March reports was a shift from Q1 2022 to Q4 2021. The Fed is not expected to alter policy in this week’s FOMC policy statement release and will likely maintain highly accommodative monetary conditions. But, the shift in expectations may turn out to be critical for capital markets. Benign Fed policy has been one of the main factors supporting asset prices over decades and especially in recent years. The shift in expectations may become a headwind for risk assets in the months ahead.
Another trip around the sun leading to another Earth Day, our second of the pandemic. Amid all the trauma, last year we got a brief glimpse of what hitting the pause button on our use and overuse of the planet would yield. Fresher air, cleaner water, wildlife in the canals and in the streets. We conducted an unintended (and unwanted), all-in global experiment, and graphically demonstrated that the environment does have the capacity to respond to behavioral change on the part of humans.
Stopping everything isn’t the answer. But changing everything could be. This planetary test case provided strong evidence against the argument that global systems are too vast and too complex, and changing human patterns wouldn’t result in any sort of improvement. A change from extractive to regenerative processes in food, energy, materials, housing, and transportation among others not only can help address the challenge of sufficiency but also manage our footprint so we live with rather than just on Earth. There is still time to stop and possibly even partially reverse the mounting damage to atmospheric, oceanic, littoral, arborial and other global systems. The risk of not taking those steps is existential for humanity, and it is also bad capitalism. Wildfire, inundation, desertification, loss of pollinators, extreme weather, even glacial collapse have real economic consequences from interrupting supply chains to destroying value in the billions and trillions of dollars.
Moving to more regenerative businesses and communities will mitigate or even prevent some of these risks from manifesting, and will be more equitable and inclusive and result in more financial opportunity for individuals and entire markets. The best possible investment is one that both reduces risk and catalyzes growth at the same time. Caring for the planet we live with is also the best possible free option to get on that trade.
The European Central Bank’s net purchase of bonds through March 19th surpassed 21 billion Euros, the most since December, in an attempt to halt the rise in continental bond yields. According to Bloomberg, the yield on the Generic 10-year Euro Government Bond has risen from -0.67% in mid-December last year to -0.3% currently. Granted, Euro yields from 2-to-10 year issues are still negative but the pace of escalation has many concerned given the economic headwinds caused by the pandemic and the recent resurgence of infections and “re”closings. ECB President Christine Lagarde arguably faces a tougher challenge than her central bank counterparts because the EU does not have the fiscal flexibility of other major economies. That constraint may turn out to be a blessing for them as the US, for instance, implements yet another round of fiscal stimulus amounting to $1.9 trillion while the economy across the pond shows signs of accelerated economic activity.
UN SDG 5 – “Achieve Gender Equality and Empower All Women and Girls”. During Women’s History Month we again turn our attention to equal access to economic opportunity for women in the American workforce. COVID has further exposed one of the ongoing issues with fair and equal compensation, which is the wage gap between women (and particularly women of color) who are mothers and men who are fathers in the same roles. The National Women’s Law Center gathered data pre-pandemic (2018) assessing the compensation picture for frontline occupations which turned out to be the exact roles hurt worst through the last year of COVID, including housekeepers, retail, wait staff, childcare, home health and nursing. Between 15 and 35% are working mothers, and of those as much as 74% of color. The gap between working mothers and fathers ranged from 36 cents down to 13 cents per hour. That is a bit of an abstraction. This week’s chart, taken from the NWLC and the 2018 American Community Survey, illustrates that gap much more starkly in real dollars on an annual basis, and points to the downstream economic drag on food, housing, education, job training and other expenditures and investments families make for healthy living and vibrant communities and economies.