Signatory Letters for Impact

By Danya Liu, Associate & Pat Addeo, Senior Associate

The power of a united voice cannot be overstated. This has been particularly evident over the past few months, during which we have witnessed a wave of political, social, and environmental activism. Some voices we agree with, some we don’t. But what we can all recognize is that standing up for your values is important. In that spirit, we would like to share how Veris is exercising its voice on behalf of clients through what is known in the investment world as a “signatory letter.”

Signatory letters are a way for shareholders, stakeholders, and any other concerned parties to voice their opinion about a particular issue. Signatory letters can express support or opposition for a given government policy or corporate rules/regulations/actions that impact our environment and society. Veris collaborates with people across the country to deliver clear, strong messages targeting the values and causes shared by our clients and the firm.

These letters can originate from nearly anyone, including investors, religious groups, academics. It’s important to note that the general public is an extremely important stakeholder in any company or policy decision. Often, a lead investor will author an opinion letter on a certain issue, and interested parties will join as signatory to amplify the message.

Earlier this year, we were signatory to a letter urging the Securities and Exchange Commission to reconsider the suspension of the Dodd-Frank Conflict Minerals Rule. This rule, which requires U.S. companies to address conflict mineral risk in their supply chains, has already positively impacted the mining sector in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and reduced the flow of money to militia groups in that region. Conflict minerals disclosure is integral to risk assessment and needs to be enforced not only for the good of the investor, but for the good of the communities affected. Eliminating the Conflict Minerals Rule will energize our community to push back further.

Child miners as young as 11 in eastern Congo – Kaji *

We also participated in a letter to the Trump administration to express continued support for key benefits of the Affordable Care Act, namely the expanded coverage for millions of previously uninsured Americans. Access to reliable, affordable health care is essential for vibrant, productive communities, and we urged the administration to expand quality care coverage to all Americans.

Paris marches for climate justice as COP21 concludes **

And finally, in August of 2016, we were signatory to a letter urging the G20 leaders to commit to climate action. Veris was one of 130 businesses and investors to re-affirm its deep commitment to addressing climate change through the implementation of the historic Paris Climate Change Agreement. We asserted that governments have a responsibility to work with the private sector to ensure the expedient transition to a low-carbon, clean-energy economy.

As we come across other social or environmental issues, we will continue to raise our voices and advocate for our values.

 

Photo Credits:

*Lezhnev/ENOUGH Project. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

**Takver. CC BY-SA 2.0

Uncommon Conversations: Rich and Timely

By Patricia Farrar-Rivas, CEO

A while ago, I had a provocative conversation with two good friends: Rha Goddess, founder of Move the Crowd, an organization that supports entrepreneurial training for next generation movers and shakers, and Jessica Norwood, founder of Runway Project, aiming to solve the “friends and family” seed funding gap for African American entrepreneurs.

We talked about how many of the issues we face in our country today stem from inequality, lack of inclusion, and biased narratives around people of color. By the end of the conversation, we all recognized these types of reflective conversations are vital in moving us toward inclusivity.

We also felt compelled to create opportunities where this kind of dialogue could happen more frequently.

So Rha, Jessica and I began hosting Uncommon Conversations, a series of intimate gatherings over dinner to discuss how to reshape the prevailing cultural narratives and determine what active part impact investing can play.

Uncommon Conversations tries to bring in a range of diverse voices, including artists, investors, entrepreneurs, and community leaders. Together, over a shared meal, we explore new ideas and discuss the importance of resilient, inclusive cultures.

 

Tackling Big Issues

Our series began in Baltimore, during the 2015 Social Venture Network Gathering. We convened an amazing group of change-makers and influencers to answers questions like:

  • What is the potential of transforming culture through impact investing?
  • How do we begin to see culture as part of our strategy for impact?
  • What does a society that embraces cultural differences look like?
  • What does it mean to shift real power to the voices and experiences that shape our culture?

The words of the phenomenal author and social activist the late Grace Lee Boggs centered our conversation and provided true inspiration for the group. Grace led a life infused with critical conversations and demonstrated that they are an important thread of movement building. Guided by her extraordinary legacy, we used our time to enjoy the process of new ideas and new meanings being formed.

Next, we moved to New York and Los Angeles, where we asked guests to reflect on our responsibility to shape and mold the country’s culture. We viewed a beautiful video of Nina Simone, who talked about the role we can all play in making progress to inclusiveness. We also reviewed the work of the renowned artist, Frida Kahlo. Her story of strength in creativity is still relevant today, and it provided inspiration for the evening. Frida managed a life of complexity, while embracing the duality of self. These two cultural icons anchored our conversations as we shared ideas and reflected on these questions:

  • How will we be responsive to culture in a way that reflects the imperatives of our times?
  • Are we supporting meaningful financial and entrepreneurial lanes that open up space for the molders and shapers or are we requiring assimilation?

 

Food Is Love

Nothing illuminates culture quite like food, which was our focus for Uncommon Conversations San Francisco. Our venue for the evening was 18 Reasons, a community cooking school supporting individuals and families discovery good, healthy, affordable food. The food we eat tells the story of where we come from and where we’re going. It determines our health and how we survive. As the demand for more local, organic food increases, we can’t ignore that the people who bring us our food from factories, kitchens, and fields often can’t afford to eat the food themselves. We challenged ourselves to consider:

  • What is our responsibility to making the country’s food system equitable for workers in the industry?
  • How do we provide broad ownership and advancement opportunities in food systems?

More recently, we convened Uncommon Conversations at the Confluence Philanthropy annual gathering in New Orleans, cohosted with Dillard University’s Ray Charles program in African American Material Culture. Our conversations centered on supporting women and girls through the arts, and touched on themes including some of the controversy around artistic expression and how to keep stories alive with art. Big Chief Delcour from the Mardi Gras Indians shared his experiences as a cultural leader with us. Another artist, B Mike, stunned us with his larger than life artworks capturing African American heroes and New Orleans locals (see title image).

We feel, and have felt for a while, there has been an accelerating cultural shift cultural shift towards inclusiveness with regard to gender equality, equity, and agency for people of color. Lately, we’ve all witnessed a very quick and rapid change in the predominant narrative around this hard-fought progress. It is our belief that the underlying cultural shift towards inclusivity is still happening, and it is strong. The question we need to answer is this: “How do we shift the predominant narrative?”

 

Pressing Ahead

The richness of the Uncommon Conversations is a treat in and of itself. But our goal is for these conversations to inspire more individuals, especially impact investors. We want them to think about how they can support cultural entrepreneurs and movements. Ultimately, we want to build frameworks that integrate culture, inclusiveness, freedom, and agency into economic analyses.

We are in an unprecedented moment of change. As we explore the intersection of impact investing and culture, we deepen our collective understanding of what impact really means. We can identify new ways to disrupt our cultural norms and invest in equitable and culture shifts that are equitable and inclusive.

Economic Update Q1 2017

By Jane Swan, CFA, Senior Wealth Manager

Equity market returns in the first quarter were very strong. Investors were seemingly unfazed as political commentators vacillated between exuberance and doubt over the potential for the Trump presidency to advance tax cuts and other pro-business policies. The S&P 500 (U.S. large cap) was up 6.1 percent. The Russell 2000 (small cap) was positive at 2.5 percent. The MSCI EAFE (developed international equities) rebounded and were up 7.4 percent. Strongest of the major equity benchmarks was the MSCI Emerging Markets index, up 11.5 percent in the quarter.

2017 Q1 Asset Class Returns

Within equity markets, the strongest performance came from the technology sector, up 12.6 percent. After technology, the best-performing sectors were consumer discretionary, health care, and consumer staples up 8.45 percent, 8.37 percent, and 6.36 percent respectively. Only two of the ten sectors were negative. Telecom was down 4 percent and energy was down 6.7 percent. Positive earnings forecasts for the year are largely dependent on growth in earnings from the energy sector. The declining price of oil and weakness in the energy sector ordinarily casts a more negative pallor over the market.

2017 Q1 Sector Returns

Fixed-income markets were positive despite the interest rate hike at the March meeting. Tepid but consistent economic growth, low unemployment and a slight increase in inflation compelled the Federal Reserve to raise the Fed Funds rate by a quarter of a percent to the range of ¾ to 1 percent. The statement also foreshadows future rate hikes by year-end. The small rate hike did not impact longer maturities, as the yield curve flattened. This flattening reflects a disagreement between the bond market and stock market about the likelihood of a significant economic expansion. Fixed-income markets ended the quarter just barely positive after negative returns in the end of 2016. Treasuries were up 0.8 percent. The yield on the 10-year Treasury was almost unchanged at 2.39 percent from 2.45 percent at the end of 2016. Corporate bonds were up 0.8 percent. Intermediate munis were up 1.9 percent. High-yield bonds were up 2.7 percent in the quarter.

As we look at market behavior and reaction to political environment, there are a number of factors we carefully consider. Thus far, the majority of investors appear to react favorably to political statements and promises by the Trump administration that are business-friendly. At the same time, investor reaction has been muted to setbacks in the administration’s agenda. The market rallied in early March as debate began over a bill repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act (ACA), but was flat the week the bill died without reaching a vote. Many business-friendly tax reforms are dependent on cost savings from the rollback of the ACA. However, the lack of reaction suggests that the market still believes significant tax reform can be achieved. Likewise, with a significant portion of earnings growth expected from the energy sector, declines in the price of oil and related earnings expectations for energy companies have not yet caused a drag on the market. Many of our clients have limited direct exposure to the energy markets, but a significant shock in this sector would have repercussions across the market.

With the initiation of many expected rate hikes, fixed-income investors are anxious about their portfolios. Interest rates have an inverse relationship with bond prices. This means that when interest rates go up, the prices of previously issued bonds declines. The decline in prices occurs because the increase in rates enables new bonds to pay higher rates than the previously issued bonds.  The sooner a bond matures (the shorter the bond’s duration) the less likely the bond will experience a price decline when interest rates rise. Conversely, the further away the maturity, (the longer the bond’s duration), the greater decline in the bond prices when interest rates rise. Bonds with a longer duration pay a higher current yield than bonds with low duration, but they also carry more risk and suffer more when interest rates rise.

Many investors look to the bond portion of their portfolios primarily for stability and preservation of capital. Declines in this asset class can be uniquely disconcerting. In the persistently low interest rate environment of the past decade, many investors have grown frustrated by low yields and have turned to longer durations or lower credit quality (high yield, also known as “junk” bonds) to increase income from bonds. Because these bonds have greater potential to fall in value as interest rates rise or credit quality declines, understanding this risk is important.

For investors using bond funds, there is a possibility that a decline in prices of existing bonds from interest rate hikes will cause panic selling among investors. Investors using laddered bond portfolios (a series of bonds over a spread of years that are held until the bonds mature) may have more control than bond fund owners. Fluctuations may not have a real impact on the investor. As we consider the options for bond investments for our clients, we look to find the best fit for their financial and impact objectives. Where individual bonds have the benefit of allowing the investor to limit realized losses by holding bonds to maturity, individual bond portfolios are almost always less diversified than bond funds. While bonds can theoretically be traded at any time, bond trading is significantly less efficient than stock trading. Transaction expenses for small bond denominations are expensive. Remembering that the primary purpose of a bond allocation is preservation of capital, the diversification through a bond fund should be balanced with the ability to control against losses from rising interest rates. For investors who do not have a large enough bond allocation to appropriately diversify their bond holdings, bond funds are often a better choice than owning an insufficiently diversified bond portfolio.

Your Veris team knows that uncertain times are unsettling to investors. While we continue to keep abreast of possible and unpredictable impacts from policy changes, we focus on our clients’ long-term goals. Our sustainability core-values help filter short-term noise in the financial markets without losing sight of the long-term risks and opportunities.

Economic Update Q4 2016

By Jane Swan, CFA, Senior Wealth Manager

As the market adjusts and tries to make sense of the results of the U.S. election, financial markets have been mixed. After an initial decline in futures markets on election night, the S&P 500 (U.S. large cap) rose 3.8 percent in the quarter, bringing total return for the year to 12.0 percent. The Russell 2000 index (U.S. small cap) had another strong quarter and was up 8.8 percent for the quarter, or 21.3 percent for the year. International markets were less enthusiastic. The MSCI EAFE (developed international markets) slid 0.7 percent for the quarter, bringing year-to-date to a positive 1.5 percent. Emerging markets, the best performing asset class of the prior quarter, were down 4.1 percent in the final quarter, but were up 11.6 percent for the year.

2016 Q4 Asset Class Returns

PMC Capital Markets Flash Report for periods ending Dec 31, 2016

Investment grade domestic fixed-income markets, which had rallied in the prior quarter, gave back much of their gains. U.S. Treasuries returned a negative 3.0 percent in the quarter, driving down year-to-date returns to a positive 2.7 percent. Corporate bonds fell 2.1 percent for the quarter, but up 2.1 percent year-to-date. Municipal bonds were down 3.7 percent for the quarter and 0.5 percent for the year-to-date. Excluding investment grade issues, high-yield bonds finished the year up 1.8 percent for the quarter and 17.1 percent for the year.

Within the large cap market, the sectors potentially benefitting from deregulation saw the largest gains.  The biggest winners:  Financials (up 21.1 percent for the quarter, 22.8 percent for the year), Energy (up 7.3 percent for the quarter, 27.4 percent for the year) and Industrials (7.2 percent for the quarter, 18.9 percent for the year). Not far behind were Telecom (4.8 percent for the quarter and 23.5 percent for the year) and Materials (4.7 percent for the quarter and 16.7 percent for the year). Each of these sectors have seen progress on environmental or consumer protection regulations in the last eight years. The market suggests that profits have the potential to be higher (at least in the short term) with less government regulation.

Weaker returns came from sectors mostly thought to have less potential benefit from deregulation. These include Consumer Discretionary (up 2.3 percent for the quarter, 6 percent for the year), Technology (up 1.2 percent for the quarter, 13.9 percent for the year) and Consumer Staples (down 2 percent for the quarter but up 5.4 percent for the year. Utilities had almost no change in the fourth quarter after three strong quarters in 2016. They were up just 0.1 percent in the quarter but 16.3 percent for the year. The worst performance came from Health Care sector, which was down 4 percent in the quarter and 2.7 percent for the year. The uncertainty over the fate of the Affordable Care Act triggered uncertainty about profits for the sector.

2016 Q4 Sector Returns

PMC Capital Markets Flash Report for periods ending Dec 31, 2016

Looking Ahead

With a new administration now in place, we look at each sector to understand how markets may be affected by both political and economic forces. The energy sector, heavily impacted by oil-related businesses, is an instructive place to start.

The significant rebound in energy stocks last year happened despite dramatic a year-over-year decline in the sector’s earnings (currently estimated at -66%). Because stock prices tend to express expectations of future earnings, the rise in stock prices is a reflection of the expected significant increase in earnings for companies in the energy sector. The chart below shows current earnings growth forecasts for each sector over the next two calendar years. The estimates for extraordinary forecasted growth in earnings within the energy sector stand out. They are expected to exceed 350 percent. In fact, the forecasted earnings growth has little to do with potential policy or regulation changes under the Trump presidency. The 2017 forecast has changed very little from its pre-election forecast from September 30, 2016.

The anticipated increase in oil stock earnings is instead tied to the expectation that oil will to rise to about $56 by the third quarter of 2017 from a low of $33.69 in the first quarter of 2016. This forecasted increase is expected to boost energy sector earnings from $4.3 billion in the third quarter of 2016 to $14.0 billion in the third quarter of 2017. The price of energy stocks today factor in these expectations. Changes to these expectations, either positive or negative surprises, could further impact the returns of energy stocks. It is important to note that while the current value of energy stocks appears very positive that: 1) globally the majority of new electric generating capacity is solar and 2) grid parity prices for solar and wind are now below fossil fuels throughout Developing world and will at parity in the U.S. over the next 5 years.  Finally Bloomberg’s analysis tags 2020 as the year oil consumption peaks globally.  These are amazing transformations that are not turning back.

Earnings Growth Forecasts by Sector

FactSet Earnings Insight, January 13, 2017

The price of oil is a function of many factors. One key variable is the value of the dollar. (Oil is priced in US dollars.) When the dollar is strong, it weakens the price of oil. An unanticipated change in the strength of the dollar could have a meaningful impact on the current earnings forecasts. Changes to fiscal and monetary policy, as have been hinted at by the incoming administration, could also impact the strength of the dollar.

Oil Prices vs. Strength of Dollar

Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (US), Trade Weighted U.S. Dollar Index: Broad [TWEXB], retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/TWEXB, January 18, 2017.

Another key factor affecting oil prices is supply and demand. Some of price declines in recent years can be attributed to the high supply coinciding with decreases in demand for oil. Supply has been high because OPEC has maintained elevated production levels. Natural gas and energy from renewable resources have taken share of total demand away from both oil (petroleum) and coal. Expectations for oil prices to increase this year rest heavily on assumptions of a weakening dollar and a decrease in OPEC production.

Primary U.S. Energy Consumption by Source

U.S. Energy Information Administration

The impact of tax incentives proposed by the new administration and Congress are uncertain at best. This may not change the business case for renewable. As oil gets more expensive, the interest in sourcing energy from natural gas and renewable energy would be expected to rise. When oil is relatively cheap, as it has been, tax incentives have helped make the financial case for investment in renewable. Moreover, 365 U.S. companies made urged the president-elect to continue participation in the Paris climate deal, citing the business and job creation aspects of climate protection economies. While short-term returns may be volatile and unpredictable for the next few years, there remains a long-term business case for ongoing investments in renewables.

As we look to the broader economy, Veris’ areas of thematic impact focus, and at vulnerable communities, we see important roles for city and state governments, impact investing and philanthropy. Cities and states continue to lead in raising the bar in areas ranging from increasing the minimum wage to addressing climate change. Shareholder advocacy and active investing can replace some of what may be lost by decreased government regulation. Investment in sustainable businesses can address climate change and building healthy communities. With many non-profits relying on government grants for significant portions of their annual budgets, increased reliance on philanthropy is expected. Clearly in this transition in Washington we see the importance of redoubling the effectiveness of impact investing strategies. And we need to remember that for the last 20 years we have collectively been changing the face of business and finance for the better. Impact investing plays an ever bigger role.  We appreciate our opportunity to engage in this work with each of you.

Analyzing The Phenomenal Growth Of Impact Investing

By Michael Lent, Partner, CIO

US SIF: The Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Business released its 2016 Biennial Report on US Sustainable, Responsible and Impact Investing Trends, and there was much good news in it.

The report, issued on Nov. 14, found that over $8.72 trillion in assets – or one in five dollars invested under professional management in the US – are now invested using sustainable, responsible and impact investing criteria.  This total is up 69% from 2014.  There are now hundreds of investment options across all asset classes a trend that has been growing substantially over the past several decades.

This is truly remarkable, but it wasn’t so long ago that things were very different.

When I began my career, Impact investing was in its infancy.  I remember attending a Council on Foundation conference in 1995 with a dozen foundation representatives discussing what we called back then, “Socially Responsible Investing.”  Twenty-one years later, I spoke on a panel at the Mission Investors Exchange conference, presenting to several hundred foundations and close to five hundred attendees focused exclusively on impact investing.

In the intervening 20+ years, Impact Investing went mainstream. Institutional investors are incorporating ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) factors into their investment process, and traditional investment management firms are increasingly offering ESG investment options.

At the same time, companies around the globe are rapidly integrating sustainability into their core business models to increase their competitiveness, innovation and lower risks. We are moving from a time of carrot and stick approach to corporate change.  Increasingly we have sustainable companies receiving investments from impact investors.  This is a virtuous cycle and it is important to put into perspective how far we have come. We’ve come a long way.

Underlying Trends

In my view, three key trends were made abundantly clear in this report.

First is the rapidly growing interest in climate investing. More than $2.15 trillion of institutional assets apply climate change criteria.  This is a manyfold increase, and it reflects a growing awareness among large institutions about climate change risk.  Institutional investors’ increasing focused on this issue could lead companies to track their carbon output, to identify ways to lower it, and to provide innovative, low-carbon products and services.  It is one reason to have optimism about the future of the planet, despite the recent election results.  As a strong supporter of climate change solutions, we help many clients divest from carbon intensive industries and invest in other solutions.

Second is the growth of the community investing field.  The assets invested in Community Development Financial Institutions have doubled from $60 billion to $120 billion in two years.  These are the credit unions, banks and community loan funds that provide financing for critical affordable housing, social services, and small businesses in low-income communities and communities of color.  Historically, CDFIs have received most of their funding and capital from public sources or from banks and insurance companies under the Community Reinvestment Act. On a very hopeful note, private investors significantly increased their assets in community investing. There are great social, environmental and economic challenges in low-income communities. Access to capital is essential to long-term change in these communities.

Third, while a significant number of managers and investors say they are implementing ESG, it is not clear exactly what that means.  As an industry, there is definite room for improvement and transparency. Today, many managers are not specific about how they integrate ESG factors into their investment process. This vague application of ESG criteria is due to the lack of deliberate investment process. Some funds and managers want to be seen as “doing ESG investing to respond to client demand,” but are unsure of what to do.  For investors, you cannot simply pick an “SRI” fund and be satisfied that it actually has social impact. You must also understand what the manager is really doing to create impact.

Where We Go From Here

Looking ahead, I think the US SIF Trends report brings up four things we should think about:

  • While we have made great strides in offering more investment options, we still need more investment solutions across different impact themes, such as Gender Lens Investing, sustainable real assets, and on broader ownership strategies.
  • We need greater transparency from ESG managers and funds, so we can understand if they are actually having any impact. It’s not enough to say we do SRI. Investors need to know what and how managers are creating impact.
  • Investors shouldn’t underestimate the importance of finding a wealth manager or advisor who understands the impact field. There is a fair amount of complexity and a need to sort out the managers and funds that best fit your specific financial and impact goals.

The good news is that we’re making real progress in changing the way people and institutions invest.  Together, we can keep it going and bring about even more positive change.

To read Veris white papers on climate change, gender lens investing and other topics, please visit the Research section of our website.

 

Photo Credit: Ronald Tagra

Economic Update Q3 2016

by Jane Swan, CFA, Senior Wealth Manager

In an election year with no shortage of drama and surprises, the market has been relatively calm and steady. Market volatility often increases during an election year as uncertainty looms over the potential market impact of a new administration. We saw this clearly most recently in 2008. The risk in an investment is considered higher when there is potential for something unpredictable to happen.

Election Year Stock Market Volatility Measured by the VIX

Chicago Board Options Exchange

 

The brief period of high volatility came not from changes in US election forecasts but from the somewhat surprising Brexit results. The lower volatility going into the U.S. election and the steady growth of equity markets in the first three quarters of the year may leave little room for the post election bounce often experienced.

There are no negative numbers to report across major asset classes for the quarter, either fixed income or equity. Low volatility and steady growth contributed to a 2.5 percent increase in the S&P 500 (U.S. large cap) bringing year-to-date growth to 7.8 percent. The Russell 2000 index (U.S. small cap) was up 9.1 percent for the quarter, 11.5 percent for the year. International markets continued to recover from the second quarter Brexit vote with the MSCI EAFE (developed international markets) up 6.5 percent for the quarter, bringing year-to-date to a positive 2.2 percent. Emerging markets were the best performing asset class, up 9.2 percent in the quarter and 16.4 percent for the year.

3rd Quarter  and YTD Growth in Key Asset Classes
PMC Capital Markets Flash Report for periods ending Sept 30, 2016

PMC Capital Markets Flash Report for periods ending Sept 30, 2016

 

Investment grade domestic fixed income markets were the beneficiary of greater market uncertainty earlier in the year. The low volatility of the third quarter was reflected in very quiet returns to fixed income. U.S. Treasuries returned 0.5 percent in the quarter, bringing year to date returns to 5.8 percent. Corporate bonds were up an even smaller 0.2 percent for the quarter, 4.2 percent year-to-date. Municipal bonds were up just 0.1 percent for the quarter, 3.3 percent for the year-to-date. Outside of investment grade, low volatility contributed to a continued surge from high yield with the index up 5.6 percent for the quarter, 15.1 percent year-to-date.

3rd Quarter and YTD Returns by Industry Sector
PMC Capital Markets Flash Report for periods ending Sept 30, 2016

PMC Capital Markets Flash Report for periods ending Sept 30, 2016

 

Sector returns for the quarter trimmed gains from earlier in the year, but left all sectors of the economy in positive territory for the year. Strongest growth in the quarter came from technology which completely recovered from what was a negative first half of the year. While the energy sector remained the strongest sector year-to-date (up 19 percent for the year), the price of oil hit a plateau during the quarter. The results were a 2 percent increase in energy stocks prices for the quarter. Utilities and telecom remain among the greatest contributors to growth for the year despite negative returns in the third quarter.

Price of Oil
Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis

Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis

 

At this time, pollsters have high conviction in the outcome of the presidential election with the greatest uncertainty residing in the outcome of congressional, as well as state and local elections. Less certain is the path towards reconciliation of a deeply divided population. As economists ponder the catalysts to our political divisions, they will point to a shrinking middle class and its stagnant income growth. This is well illustrated by a comparison of two different definitions of ‘average’ Income. The chart below shows historical growth rates of average (also known as “mean”) and median family incomes. The average family income considers all family incomes and takes the mathematical average per family. The median stacks all family incomes and for each time period, finds the number in the middle of the stack. The median measure is often considered a better measure of the typical family because it is less biased by extremely high incomes. The graph below demonstrates this difference. While average incomes have grown considerably since the economic downturn, the typical (median) family had no actual growth in incomes over the last 8 years.

Mean and Median Income
Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis

Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis

 

As they seek to repair our fraying social fabric, we invite the incoming administration and congress to apply the lessons we have learned from various approaches to impact investing. Gender lens investments, for example, demonstrate the improved decision making capabilities of diverse teams.  Men and women working together are more likely to incorporate a broader array of risks and opportunities in their problem solving. Enhanced innovation is more likely when we tap the collective wisdom of people of different races, nationalities, religions, sexual orientations, gender identities, abilities, sizes, and generations. Businesses developing technologies for mitigating climate change have the potential to drive future economic growth. Addressing access to capital in under-resourced communities has the potential to alleviate systemic economic inequality.

In short, impact investing is emerging as a ‘proof of concept’ that diverse and balanced teams are far more likely to deliver our ultimate goals:  inclusive and prosperous economies thriving in healthy and sustainable eco-systems.

What Is Sustainability, Anyway?

By Anders Ferguson, Partner

Most of us dedicated to sustainability tend to think about it terms of the big issues – climate change, food scarcity, clean water and other global environmental and social issues.

After returning from Generation Investment Management’s most recent conference, my perception about creating sustainable businesses and systems evolved markedly.

The major takeaway is that technology has become a key driver in sustainable change. Much like it is driving so much of the economy these days and seemingly will be long into the future.

At the conference, speaker after speaker outlined how technology was the answer. Most of the discussion about the big issues was in the context of innovative solutions: grid-parity solar, long-lasting batteries, green buildings, smart cities, artificial intelligence, robotics, among others.

Technology is the new driver. I wasn’t expecting that.

Efficiency Drives Sustainability

So much of today’s dialogue about sustainability focuses on improving, even revolutionizing, the existing economic infrastructure of commerce and society.

What does that really mean? It means consuming less of the world’s resources and eliminating the hidden costs of industrial production that harm the Earth’s ecosystem. In short, it’s seizing the opportunity to apply technology to be more efficient and re-engineer the business process of the past century.

I think that’s why Generation, a global leader in fully integrating sustainable research into investment strategy, chose to highlight an unlikely company – Intuit – as a model of sustainability.

Intuit builds software that creates tax and accounting solutions; it is all about efficiency. Ultimately, doing these tasks more efficiently and seamlessly interconnected with its business-ecosystem is good for customers, clients, shareholders, and the environment. And the Intuit example certainly was a nonsequitor to what many investors consider when they think sustainable-impact.

Technology vs. Fossil Fuels

It turns out the highest profile issue in terms of sustainability – climate change – is all about technology, too. It’s crystal clear to me that technology is the fastest way to dismantle the fossil fuel stranglehold of the past century.

To that point, we are witnessing a remarkable, perhaps revolutionary pivot in the world’s energy production that has gone largely unnoticed. Globally, the majority of new electricity is now being produced by the sun.

Over the next 25 years, solar and wind will replace coal, oil and gas as the foundation of our societies.  Take a moment to let this reality really sink in. This means fossil fuels are phasing-down, plain and simple.

That’s being driven by the widespread availability of cheap, highly efficient solar panels and wind turbines. Solar panels are the product of sophisticated manufacturing driven by technology. PVs don’t grow in a garden, although scientists are working hard to change this. Advanced biomimickery holds the promise of turning PV panels of glass and rare minerals into biologically sophisticated processes, which may also be far friendlier to the environment.

This paradigm shift in energy production has much broader implications. Once a household is unplugged from the grid, it’s pretty clear what comes next. The dependence on “centralized generating plants” for fossil-fuel electricity dramatically diminishes.  And what we know as the current electrical grid is both functionally challenged, and in many places, simply may not work.

If you stop and think about it, battery technology alone – solar energy storage and batteries for electric vehicles – have the potential to create a more sustainable world from the bottom up.

We’re simply talking about batteries – not something far more technically complex like splitting of the atom. Combining the power of the sun with the storage capacity of lithium all of a sudden has the potential to end the use of oil in powering transportation in the coming years.

Mobile phones are yet another technology that generates more efficiency that will promote sustainability. Why travel to the bank or a market to transact business when you can do it right from your phone? In India, $4 smartphones are coming to the market.

A Truly Flat World

At the Generation Conference, it also became clear that the world suddenly went flat.

That was particularly true when we listened to Jesse Moore, CEO of M-KOPA, talking about delivering affordable, solar power, to the villages of Kenya.  The same sun that will power Elon Musk’s new Tesla 3 can empower a Kenyan villager to become an entrepreneur on her $4 smartphone or a “Coder” via wireless and affordable solar energy.

Think of the past decades of economic development in the emerging world, that were focused primarily on agricultural development models.  Now the displaced coal miner in Kentucky and the Kenyan villager may have the same opportunity to become knowledge workers in our interconnected global tech-economy.

Further, because the villager is never likely to be served by grids delivering phone or electricity, or bricks and mortar companies delivering most goods and services, that $4 smartphone is their computer and communicator to the world.

Ecosystems And Life on Earth

All of this is wonderful and will accelerate the inexorable progress toward sustainability, but a larger question remains: Does the power of technology in recreating sustainability still respect the seemingly mundane and beautifully uber-complex natural magic of our ecosystems?

I hope so, but I’m not entirely certain, which is very concerning.

Images of the climate crisis are with us every day.  Collapsing polar ice caps. Confused birds.  Mass extinctions.  Failing wetlands. These same rainforests, oceans, timberlands, wetlands and agriculture drove our concerns about sustainability and the environment in the first place.

The extraordinary synchronicity of our ecosystems, and all its creatures, unfolded through eons of years of finely-tuned evolution, don’t appear to really drive the brilliant minds of Silicon Valley leaders and its great scientific institutions.

Yes, they are developing distributive technologies and business models around the world. And yes they are amassing multibillion dollar fortunes to further their dreams. But do remarkable investment returns sync with the natural order of ecosystem returns?

Is it because the tech-masters don’t really see or viscerally experience nature?  Do they think they can bioengineer or genetically “improve” all life so nature and its ecosystems just matter less? Is our natural world just another 3D reality of our advanced video-gaming?

I did not see enough sensitivity to these issues from the leaders of a technological universe, even though the net effect ultimately advances sustainability.

I know at Veris, our impact investing clients are enthusiastic about supporting and investing in new sustainable food systems.  They think organic food and local grass-fed beef are part of sustainable solutions.  They want to invest in REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) credits to save the rainforest, as well as complementary and alternative health systems. And, they want a solar future based in new technologies.

But where do our ecosystems factor into the thinking of technologists?  I thought Climate Change concerned us because an actual physical property – carbon and heat – was destroying our ecosystem?  Does technology solve all of this? Is our food coming from 3D printers and Petri dishes?  Is genetic modification so obviously safe and successful that agriculture crops will flourish in a world running out of water?

Ecosystems and technology were the wake-up call for me. Climate change in all ecosystems, economic and health consequences combined with light-speed technology, are clearly critical pivots for a sustainable future. Let us be wise in how they integrate and truly further our lives and planet for seven generations.

Rapid Change Is Upon Us

This isn’t the first time my perception of sustainability has expanded.

In a blog I wrote last year, I made the case that sustainability is a worldview, a mindset, based on mindfulness and interconnectedness. It is not simply the products, technology and services we call “sustainable.” I now see just how powerful technology has become as partner of that worldview.

The continual re-imaging of sustainability is exactly what we need to do.

When we get overly invested in a certain mindset, we miss opportunities. Technology may be the game-changer that we didn’t see coming. Given the rapid pace of innovation, it would be wise to keep an open mind and let insights/solutions, both natural and synthetic, come to us.

 

This article previously appeared on ImpactAlpha

 

Gender Lens Investing: Growing Interest, Increasing Options

Editor’s Note: This blog is a complement to a new analysis of gender lens investing (GLI) strategies by Veris Wealth Partners and Women Effect. Gender lens investments direct capital to companies and organizations that support the status and well being of women and girls. To access this information, please visit Women Effect. To read Veris’ GLI analyses from 2013 and 2015, please go to our Research page.


 

By Luisamaria Ruiz Carlile, CFP®, Senior Wealth Manager, and Alison Pyott, Partner & Senior Wealth Manager

In a few short years, Gender Lens Investing has moved from promising concept to potentially one of the next big things in impact and sustainable investing.

That’s one of the clear takeaways from a new, joint analysis on Gender Lens Investing by Veris and Women Effect published this week.

Consider the following:

  • Assets Under Management (AUM) disclosed by GLI strategies investing in publically traded securities grew from $100 million as of Sept. 30, 2014 to $561 million as of June 30, 2016. That’s approaching a 500% increase.
  • As of June 30 2016, there were 15 public market GLI equity and debt solutions, up from nine as of Sept. 30, 2014. Two of the new vehicles target non-U.S investors, including Canadian and those in select European and Asian countries.
  • More than half of the growth in AUM has been in the Gender Diversity Index ETF (SHE) from State Street Global Advisors. The ETF was launched in March 2016 and was seeded with an initial $250 million from Calsters (California State Teachers Retirement System).

The growth is the result of an accelerating desire by individual and institutional investors to place capital in investments that directly benefit women and girls.

 

Investment in Gender Lens Strategies Reporting AUM
($561 Million as of June 30, 2016)

 gli-chart

“Expanding The Pie”

While the growth in GLI strategies has been heartening, equally important is the philosophical change they are engendering in the way we think about impact and sustainable investing.

For so long, many of us have viewed the world in “either/or” terms. Do we invest for societal and environmental benefits or purely financial returns? Do we opt for economic growth or a sustainable future?  Ingrained (and often subconscious) biases may lead us to believe that for minorities and women to advance, others must lose. Or, that if we choose inclusive companies, we are settling for less than stellar investment performance. Our reality is seemingly zero-sum. I win, you lose.

This represents a scarcity mentality, as if life’s opportunities were a static pie and sharing it with more people means less for everyone.

However, people, communities and the environment are not pies! We all exist in a dynamic ecosystem that constantly responds to new inputs.  GLI is a way to move beyond “either/or” thinking to “both/and” investing. More money invested in women and girls means more opportunities for society as a whole, men and boys included.

The good news is that GLI is taking off.  More investing solutions will emerge as momentum grows for investing for gender parity. At the same time, a more holistic view of GLI’s benefits will bring more investors into the space, and that will benefit every segment of society.

Economic Update Q2 2016

by Jane Swan, CFA, Senior Wealth Manager

The surprise outcome of the Brexit vote was one of the second quarter’s biggest events. Citizens of the U.K. voted to leave the economic and political partnership of the European Union, roiling world markets and sending the British pound to 30 year lows. But the sharp and immediate negative market reaction quickly dissipated. If we consider an investment of $100 the day before the vote, we see that in almost all broad markets, the quick and early losses were largely recovered. This serves as a reminder to use caution when tempted to react to market volatility. Absent sustained market impact, we continue to focus on the long term social and environmental implications of the vote as well as the upcoming election in the United States.

Value of $100 invested the day before the Brexit vote
Yahoo! Finance

Yahoo! Finance

This burst of volatility in late June had little impact on the total quarterly returns for most segments of the stock market. The S&P 500 (U.S. large cap) markets dropped over 5 percent immediately following the vote but finished the quarter up 2.5 percent. For the first half of the year, the large cap market is up 3.8 percent. The Russell 2000 index (small cap) was up 3.8 percent in the quarter, 2.2 percent for the year. Developed international markets dropped almost 10 percent in the aftermath of the Brexit vote and recovered only half of that before the end of the quarter. The MSCI EAFE (developed markets) fell a total of 1.2 percent for the quarter and is down 4 percent year to date.  MSCI Emerging Markets had less of a jolt from the vote and ended the quarter up 0.8 percent for the quarter, up 6.6 percent year to date.

2016 Q2 Asset Class Returns
PMC Capital Markets Flash Report For Periods Ending June 30, 2016

PMC Capital Markets Flash Report For Periods Ending June 30, 2016

Domestic fixed income markets benefited from the flight to safety often associated with global economic uncertainty. The yield on the 10 year Treasury dropped to 1.48 percent. This added 3 percent to the total return of Treasuries in the second quarter bringing their year to date total return to 7.95 percent.  Other investment grade bonds were up year to date and in the quarter, but did not have the scale of benefit from the “flight to quality” of Treasuries. Corporate bonds were up 2.2 percent for the quarter, 5.3 percent year to date. Municipals were up 2.6 percent in the quarter, 4.3 percent year to date. High yield was the best performer of the major indexes, up 5.5 percent for the quarter and 9.1 percent so far this year.

Return for the quarter and year to date has been strongest in the sectors sometimes thought of as late-cycle sectors. The rebound in oil prices that began in January continued through much of the quarter. This contributed to the energy sector being the best performing sector in the quarter. Strong returns also came from Telecom, Utilities, Consumer Staples and Materials. However, Health Care, Industrials, Financials, Consumer Discretionary and Technology have had weaker results in the quarter and year to date. With Technology and Financials being the two largest sectors in the market, making up over a third of the S&P 500, their negative performance so far has considerably constrained the total market return.

2016 Q2 Sector Returns
PMC Capital Markets Flash Report For Periods Ending June 30, 2016

PMC Capital Markets Flash Report For Periods Ending June 30, 2016

The seemingly fleeting market impact of the Brexit vote does not make it a non-event. The U.K.’s departure from the European Union has repercussions beyond short-term investment returns. As trade dependencies between the U.K. and the E.U. will likely lead to relatively favorable trade policies negotiated over the months and years to come, the vote represents a significant symbolic blow to the ideals of the Union. The broader impact of the European Union was demonstrated by the 2012 receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of “over six decades of contributions to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe.”[1] Polling suggests the vote to exit was largely motivated by a perceived ability to better constrain immigration into the U.K. when independent of the union’s humanitarian guiding principles. Significant populations of voters were motivated to vote based on this platform of fear.

With upcoming elections in the United States, France, and Germany, the tone, composition and results of this election have greater implications. In the face of increasing income inequality, we have seen a growing appetite for campaigns emphasizing anti-immigrant and anti-government rhetoric. We see this in the rise to power of Theresa May in the U.K., the popularity of Marine Le Pen in France, and Donald Trump’s status as the Republican nominee for president in the United States.

Violent Crime Trends in the U.S.
Bureau of Justice Statistics. Generated using the NCVS Victimization Analysis Tool at www.bjs.gov. 22-Jul-16

Bureau of Justice Statistics. Generated using the NCVS Victimization Analysis Tool at www.bjs.gov. 22-Jul-16

In 1980 CNN was founded as the first 24-hour news station. Today, dozens of channels recruit viewers to 24-hours of news. Through this time “news” has become a commodity through which stations sell advertising by recruiting viewers. News outlets may sprinkle stories about panda bears playing with their babies, but the primary tease and consistent voice lures viewers with fear. Across borders, politicians follow this trend as they seek to inspire followers by exploiting their deepest anxieties. Xenophobic, anti-immigrant platforms capitalize on this culture of fear despite significant statistical declines in crime. This tactic is the opposite of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s approach when he famously declared in his inaugural address, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

In the context of this climate of fear, we are grateful for the choices our clients have made to design their investment portfolios in line with a better future. While most of our portfolios exclude segments of the economy or particular companies that we and our clients think contribute to harm, much of our client assets are also invested in solutions. Our clients invest in companies that recognize that welcoming a diversity of employees and paying them a fair wage attracts and retains the best talent. Our clients invest in companies developing and advancing technologies that mitigate climate change, conserve resources, and reduce waste. Our clients invest in loan funds that are advancing affordable housing, expanding job opportunities in under-served areas, and improving access to health care. It is our distinct honor, amidst the chaos and fear, to engage in this work.

The Power of UNICEF’s Next Generation Program

By Rebecca Orlowitz, Wealth Management Associate

When someone looks at their wealth, they see multiple components. It includes their investments, savings, and their giving. This last piece – the giving – is what led me to impact investing.

I actually wasn’t aware that investing and innovative philanthropy could do so much good until I joined the Next Generation. Since 2010, I have been on the junior board of UNICEF USA called, “Next Generation.” We fundraise for different projects using our networks to increase our reach and our impact. To date we have raised nearly $6 million for 12 different projects.

UNICEF is the United Nations Children’s Fund. It is supported entirely by the voluntary contributions of governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), foundations, corporations and private individuals. UNICEF receives no funding from the assessed dues of the United Nations. UNICEF operates in 197 countries and is already “in-country” before emergency or disaster strikes. UNICEF is invited in by local governments and works hand in hand with them.

UNICEF has helped save more children’s lives than any other humanitarian organization. 90.2% of every $1 donated goes directly to children, and it has the highest rating by Charity Navigator. UNICEF is very lean in terms of overhead and its staff from Caryl Stern, CEO, on down is committed and talented.

Here are some key Impact Initiatives that make UNICEF so effective:

Advocacy
UNICEF advocates for the protection and development of the world’s children. Through petitions and letters, we encouraged President Obama to sign the Girls Count Act into law in 2015. This legislation directs support to birth certificate registration, to help ensure that girls especially can be full participants in society.

US and Global Focus
UNICEF created a Fitbit like device called, the “Kid Power Band.” UNICEF Kid Power gives school children in the US the power to unlock funding to deliver lifesaving packets of therapeutic food to severely malnourished children around the world. The more kids give, the more points they earn, the more lives they save. And they learn about creating impact early on.

Inspired Marketplace
UNICEF has an online market offering thousands of handmade items produced by artisans from around the globe. The proceeds benefit UNICEF programs and support local entrepreneurs. NextGen curates a section, so you can see what we think is cool! You can also shop for inspired gifts such as desks, tents, blanks, and vaccines (just to name a few), which go to children in need.

Climate Change
UNICEF has taken the strong position that “climate change both feeds on and accentuates inequality and children are disproportionately vulnerable to these impacts.” UNICEF is incorporating climate resilience into interventions and program areas as well as data collection, technical assistance to governments, and policy advocacy. UNICEF is stepping up its efforts to systematically green the organization, including reporting and investing in renewable energy and resource efficient facilities and operations. “Unless we act now: The impact of climate change on children.” Read more here.

Water
UNICEF Tap is our water project. Together with our partners, we created a website that monitors the motion of your cell phone and for every five minutes you don’t touch your phone, our donors will fund one full day supply of drinking water for a child. This is a great way to keep everyone’s attention during meetings. Check it out for yourself here.

Innovation Labs
UNICEF’s collaborative incubation accelerators bring businesses, universities, governments and civil society together to create sustainable solutions to the most pressing challenges facing children and youth. Some of the projects include:

– Mobil Health systems including real time test results, tracking patients through SMS to ensure they receive help.

– DigiSchool is a solar powered school in a suitcase which provides access to quality learning content 24/7.

– UNICEF just launched an innovation fund, its very own impact investment vehicle! Investments will be in the form of small grants first, followed by venture capital (VC) like equity investments.

Small Ripples of Change
During my 6 years working with UNICEF I have been part of a global organization transforming to create greater impact for children. I have seen impact philanthropy beginning to spawn impact investing. I have learned personally that integrating my investing, giving and work in the world causes small ripples of change. I look forward to continuing this journey and invite you to contact me or click here to learn more about NextGen’s impact on the world’s children.