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Linda-Eling Lee

Linda-Eling Lee

Managing Director, MSCI Research

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2016 ESG Trends to Watch: Opportunities and Risks

Environmental, social and governance concerns may play a growing role in investment matters in 2016. These trends reflect a softening economy, a long-term shift to a low carbon economy, a generational changeover and institutional forces. Below, we summarize these shifts; greater detail can be found in our report, “2016 ESG Trends to Watch.”


  • Tide Turns on Credit?: Academic research indicates that strong governance mechanisms may have led to reduced default risk and lower bond yields. A recent study by Barclays also found that investment-grade bonds with higher ESG scores outperformed those with low ESG scores between 2007 and 2015. In 2016, we anticipate that if credit spreads widen, identifying ESG-related exposures and potential governance failures may play a bigger role as bond investors reprice underlying risks.


Total Returns of High-Yield Fixed Income Securities in 2015 by Sector and Corporate Governance Ranking


  • Divide and Conquer: After the Paris climate agreement, how will institutional investors align their portfolio exposure to a low carbon economy? One issue is that companies with the largest renewable energy capacities also often have significant operations powered by fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas. In 2016, we may see utilities increasingly spin off renewable assets from legacy generation assets as investors seek exposure to the low carbon energy assets of the future. 
  • Wealth of Data: Wealth management, particularly in the U.S., is looking to serve a new generation of investors some of whom are focused on making a measurable social and environmental impact with their dollars. In 2016, wealth managers may seek to differentiate themselves by offering new insight at the fund level, enabling advisors to more closely align products to their clients’ individual values and philosophies. Such information might tilt toward ESG data, including values-based judgments, impact-based preferences or risk-based convictions for long-horizon investors.
  • Power in Numbers: For years, asset owners have targeted governance problems at individual companies. More recently, some large pension funds have banded together to push for fundamental changes in boardrooms across the market. In 2016, we expect that the power of “beta engagement” could expand beyond areas such as board declassification and proxy access to include board diversity and refreshment of long-tenured boards.
  • Mind the Pay Gap: The growing disparity in pay between CEOs and median workers may be coming home to roost. The ratio has climbed to over 300:1 from 30:1 over the past four decades according to some measures. In 2016, we may be nearing a tipping point as companies start to release pay ratio data and wage shocks occur.  As a result, we expect that investor and academic focus could shift to how intra-company pay structures are linked to economic growth from sector- and country-level impacts of income inequality.


Read the paper, “2016 ESG Trends to Watch.”

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