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Ethical sector

Ethical sector

The term ‘ethical’ is often used as a catch-all term to describe any fund that is managed with social, environmental, or other ethical criterion in mind.

Dominic Rowles - Investment Analyst
01 April 2017

The term 'ethical' is often used as a catch-all term to describe any fund that is managed with social, environmental, or other ethical criterion in mind. In reality, there are a number of different ethical strategies and a fund manager may employ one or more of these when managing the fund. The main approaches to ethical investing are as follows:

  • Exclusion (negative screening) – this involves avoiding companies not meeting certain criteria or involved in certain activities, e.g. tobacco, alcohol etc.
  • Preference (positive screening) – in this case sectors are not avoided. The manager will assess each sector, looking for the 'best-in-class'.
  • Engagement – managers of these funds will actively engage with the companies they invest in to promote socially responsible business.

An ethical investment fund which has strict negative screening in place could be referred to as having a 'dark green' ethical approach. Funds which focus more on positive screening or engagement could be referred to as 'light green'.

Our view on the Ethical sector

Ethical funds come in many shapes and sizes. It is important to clarify a fund’s approach, particularly towards ethical screening, to ensure it meets your objectives. A strict ‘dark green’ approach, which excludes certain industries entirely will suit some investors, while others will be happy with a ‘light green’ approach, which seeks companies operating in a socially responsible way and striving to improve their industry, regardless of what industry that is.

The in-built biases many ethical funds have will influence performance and potentially make them more volatile. UK smaller and medium-sized companies performed poorly in the wake of the UK’s referendum on EU membership, for example, and this affected funds with a bias to this higher risk area. However, in the few years prior to the referendum a bias to smaller and medium-sized companies was generally positive.

On balance we prefer an unconstrained approach to investment because this gives fund managers the flexibility to invest wherever they see the best opportunities. We believe this should result in the best returns for long-term investors.

Investment notes

Please remember past performance is not a guide to future returns. Where no data is shown, figures are not available. This information is provided to help you choose your own investments, remember they can fall as well as rise in value so you may not get back the original amount invested.

Many ethical funds share certain characteristics that can affect their performance (positively or negatively) when certain areas of the stock market are performing well. These characteristics include:

  • A bias to economically sensitive or ‘cyclical’ companies – many industries excluded by ethical funds, such as tobacco, beverages (alcohol) and some healthcare companies, are considered more 'defensive'.
  • A bias to smaller and medium-sized companies – large companies tend to have more diversified businesses, increasing the likelihood they will be engaged in an activity deemed 'unethical'. This rules out a lot of larger companies and ethical funds tend to invest more in medium-sized and smaller companies, which are higher risk.
  • Lower yields – some of the areas excluded by ethical funds include higher yielding sectors (tobacco, oil & gas etc.). This makes it harder to generate an attractive income and there are not currently many ethical income funds around.

The areas ethical funds tend to have a bias to have generally performed better when the outlook for the economy or stock market was good. In contrast, larger, defensive companies, in a strong financial position, with stable earnings and high dividends have tended to perform better during uncertain times.

Investment notes

Please remember past performance is not a guide to future returns. Where no data is shown, figures are not available. This information is provided to help you choose your own investments, remember they can fall as well as rise in value so you may not get back the original amount invested.

Our favourite funds in the sector

Below we review a selection of funds managed with ethical or socially responsible criteria in mind. They are provided for your interest but are not a guide to how you should invest. If you are unsure of the suitability of an investment for your circumstances seek personal advice. Remember all investments can fall as well as rise in value so investors could get back less than they invest. Past performance is not a guide to the future.

Other funds in the sector

Here we look at some other funds of interest following our most recent sector review. Please note the review period may be over a short time period and past performance is not a guide to future returns.

Source for performance figures: Financial Express

A UK-focused fund with a bias to higher-risk smaller and medium-sized companies and more economically sensitive sectors. We consider it to have a 'dark green' approach.

Tobacco and pharmaceutical companies are excluded from Audrey Ryan’s investment universe, and the fund has limited exposure to mining and oil & gas companies. These companies derive a significant portion of their earnings overseas and comprise a large part of the FTSE 100. They therefore proved resilient in the aftermath of the EU referendum and the fund’s lack of investments in these areas caused some underperformance.

Domestically-focused small and medium-sized companies, to which the fund is biased, fell sharply following the referendum but subsequently rebounded. The fund initially benefitted from the recovery but has underperformed again since.

Despite some short-term setbacks, long-term performance has been impressive. Audrey Ryan has been at the helm of this fund for more than 18 years and, in our view, she is one of the few managers to have handled the constraints of an ethical fund well over the long term.

This fund holds shares in Hargreaves Lansdown plc.

This fund invests predominantly in investment-grade corporate bonds and has 'dark green' ethical screening criteria in place, which excludes sectors such as tobacco, arms and gambling.

The fund has outperformed peers in the corporate bond sector under the tenure of Iain Buckle and Euan McNeil. This is impressive considering the constraints placed on the fund by its ethical investment approach. The managers are backed up by a well-resourced team at Kames which we hold in high regard. We view this fund as a good option for investors seeking an ethically-managed bond fund. Please note the fund also invests in higher risk high yield bonds.

This fund invests globally in companies of all sizes including higher risk smaller companies. The emphasis is on positive, rather than negative, ethical screening – a ‘light green’ approach.

David Gait invests in the shares of companies deemed to have a positive impact on society, the environment and health. This approach means they are unlikely to invest in certain companies (tobacco, alcohol, weapons etc.), but they are not specifically excluded. The track record of this fund is short, but it is managed by a team we have held in high regard for many years and we believe they will do a good job for long-term investors.

A global fund which combines negative and positive ethical screening alongside engaging with company management. This is a "dark green" ethical fund.

Robin Hepworth, the fund’s manager, has maintained a bias towards higher risk Asian and emerging markets. Over a five year period, this has been the wrong call as Asian markets have been blighted by fears of slowing Chinese growth. However, over the past year with Chinese growth concerns having subsided, Asia and emerging markets have performed well to the benefit of the fund. The manager continues to believe Asian and emerging markets have good long-term growth prospects and should ultimately reward investors although short-term performance is likely to be volatile.

This is an investment-grade corporate bond fund using a ‘lighter green’ approach which seeks companies aiming to make a positive impact, as well as excluding those in industries such as alcohol, gambling and pornography.

The main attraction of this fund is that it is managed by the experienced Eric Holt and his team. They are willing to look for opportunities off the beaten track, in areas under-researched by other investors. This has helped them deliver impressive long-term returns, although it has been more volatile at times.

Invests in FTSE 350 Index companies selected according to ethical and environmental guidelines meeting Ethical Investment Research Services (EIRIS) criteria.

Companies significantly involved in water pollution, intensive farming, gambling, adult entertainment, weapons manufacturing and tobacco sales are filtered out of the FTSE 350 index. The fund then aims to track the performance of the remaining companies. To achieve accurate tracking of the performance of this modified index, it invests in a broad spread of representative companies from the index.