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Markets in a Minute

The Outperformance of ESG Investing During the COVID-19 Selloff

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ESG Investing COVID-19 Selloff

ESG Investing COVID-19 Selloff

This Markets in a Minute Chart is available as a poster.

ESG Investing During the COVID-19 Selloff

Many investors know that ESG investing considers a company’s environmental, social, and governance practices. While this has the obvious benefit of aligning investments with personal values, it also has the potential to produce above-average returns.

In today’s Markets in a Minute chart from New York Life Investments, we highlight how ESG leaders outperformed both the broader market and ESG laggards during the COVID-19 selloff.

ESG Leader Returns

Amid heightened volatility in the first quarter, sustainable companies were able to provide a level of downside protection.

The following data shows returns by MSCI ESG ratings. These ratings rank a company based on how it performs relative to its peers on industry-specific risks. For example, an oil and gas company may be rated as an ESG leader if it manages issues like toxic emissions and waste better than its competitors.

From January through March 2020, here’s how ESG leaders performed relative to their respective index and ESG laggards:

 ESG LeadersIndexESG Laggards
MSCI ACWI
Global Equity
-15.6%-21.3%-22.1%
S&P 500
U.S. Equity
-10.8%-19.6%-22.2%

Within the MSCI All Country World Index (ACWI), ESG leaders saw losses that were nearly six percentage points smaller than the index. As of March 31, the index contained 472 ESG leaders and 378 ESG laggards. The remaining 1,500+ securities demonstrated average ratings.

The performance difference was even more evident in the S&P 500. ESG leaders had returns that were almost 9 percentage points better than the index, and more than 10 percentage points better than ESG laggards. The index included 84 ESG leaders and 47 ESG laggards. The remaining securities, of which there were about 370, had average ratings.

What could help explain the outperformance of sustainable stocks in this situation?

By their very definition, ESG leaders are better at mitigating serious environmental, social, and governance risks. This means they are more likely to avoid large financial losses and potential bankruptcies. As a result, they tend to provide enhance downside protection during market selloffs. On the other hand, ESG laggards may suffer from higher operational costs, potential litigation costs, and more volatility.

ESG Investing: A Popular Choice

During the COVID-19 selloff, investors dramatically reduced their risk exposures—and this included pouring money into ESG investing strategies. Worldwide ESG fund inflows topped $45 billion, a sharp contrast to the $385 billion in overall fund universe outflows.

ESG Investing Flows COVID-19 Selloff

However, this is far from a short-term trend. For the past three years, global assets in sustainable funds have been steadily increasing. The COVID-19 selloff has simply accelerated investor’s shifting preferences for companies that better manage sustainability risks.

Of course, with over 2,500 sustainable funds available globally, the performance of ESG investments can vary. Investors can analyze how a fund chooses companies in order to select a strategy that aligns with their personal views, and maximizes their chances of higher returns.

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Markets in a Minute

Asset Class Risk and Return Over the Last Decade (2010-2019)

Asset allocation is one of the most important decisions an investor can make. This chart shows asset class risk and return from 2010-2019.

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Asset Class Risk and Return

This Markets in a Minute Chart is available as a poster.

The Importance of Asset Classes

Asset allocation is one of the most important decisions an investor can make. In fact, studies have found that the percentage of each asset type held in a portfolio is a bigger contributor to returns than individual security selection.

However, it’s important for investors to select asset classes that align with their personal risk tolerance—which can differ based on how long they plan to hold an investment—and their targeted returns. This Markets in a Minute chart from New York Life Investments shows asset class risk and return data from 2010-2019 to highlight their different profiles.

Asset Class Risk and Return

To measure risk and return, we took annualized return and standard deviation data over the last ten years.

Annualized returns show what an investor would have earned over a timeframe if returns were compounded. It is useful because an investment’s value is dependent on the gains or losses experienced in prior time periods. For example, an investment that lost half of its value in the previous year would need to see a 100% return to break even.

Standard deviation indicates risk by measuring the amount of variation among a set of values. For example, equities have historically seen a wide range in returns, meaning they are more volatile and carry more risk. On the other hand, treasuries have typically seen a smaller range in returns, illustrating lower volatility levels.

Below is the risk and return for select asset classes from 2010-2019, organized from lowest return to highest return.

Asset ClassAnnualized ReturnAnnualized Standard Deviation
Global Commodities-5.38%16.60%
Emerging Markets Equity-0.89%16.95%
Treasury Coupons0.73%0.81%
Investment Grade Bonds3.17%2.92%
Hedge Funds4.05%5.70%
Corporate Bonds5.55%5.26%
Global Listed Private Equity5.59%18.63%
1-5yr High Yield Bonds6.71%1.00%
Global Equity6.75%12.50%
Global Equity - ESG Leaders6.87%12.03%
Taxable Municipal Bonds7.20%7.33%
Real Estate Investment Trusts8.44%11.03%
U.S. Mid Cap Equity11.00%13.60%
U.S. Large Cap Equity11.22%11.39%
Dividend-Paying Equity11.81%10.24%
U.S. Small Cap Equity11.87%14.46%

Note: See the bottom of the graphic for the specific indexes used.

Global commodities saw the lowest return over the last 10 years. Plummeting oil prices, and an equities bull market that left little demand for safe haven assets like precious metals, likely contributed to the asset class’ underperformance.

Backed by the U.S. federal government, Treasury coupons had the lowest volatility but also saw a relatively low return of 0.73%. In contrast, 1-5 year high yield bonds generated a return of 6.71% with only slightly more risk.

With the exception of emerging market equity, all selected equities had higher risk and relatively higher historical returns. Among the stocks shown, dividend-paying equity saw the highest returns relative to their risk level.

Building a Portfolio

As they consider asset class risk and return, investors should remember that historical performance does not indicate future results. In addition, the above data is somewhat limited in that it only shows performance during the recent bull market—and returns can vary in different stages of the market cycle. For example, commodities go through multi-decade periods of price ascent and decline known as super cycles.

However, historical information may help investors gauge the asset classes that are best suited to their personal goals. Whether an investor needs more stability to help save for a near-term vacation, or investments with higher return potential for retirement savings, they can build a portfolio tailored to their needs.

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Markets in a Minute

The Pyramid of Equity Returns: Almost 200 Years of U.S. Stock Performance

From 1825-2019, equities have had positive annual performance over 70% of the time. This chart shows historical U.S. stock market returns.

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historical stock market returns

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Historical Stock Market Returns

After the fastest bear market drop in history, the S&P 500 rallied and now has a year-to-date total return of -4.7%. The year is not over, but in the context of history, is this in line with what’s considered a “normal” return, or is it more of an outlier?

In today’s Markets in a Minute chart from New York Life Investments, we show the distribution of U.S. equity returns over almost 200 years.

Total Returns By Year

The chart shows total annual returns, which assumes that dividends and other cash distributions are reinvested back into the index.

It’s also important to note that different indexes and data collection methods are used over the timeframe. From 1825-1925, numbers come from researchers at Yale University and Pennsylvania State University. They collected price and dividend data for almost all stocks listed on the New York Stock Exchange during its early history.

From 1926-1956, returns are from the S&P 90, the S&P 500’s predecessor. Finally, from 1957 to date, returns are based on the S&P 500.

Here are historical stock market returns by year:

YearTotal Return
18252.53%
18262.03%
18272.97%
18282.82%
18293.21%
18302.83%
18311.70%
18323.02%
18332.94%
18342.91%
18352.83%
18361.59%
18372.11%
18386.27%
18395.28%
18403.53%
18414.87%
18425.77%
18437.18%
18446.85%
18454.16%
18463.36%
18475.55%
18485.17%
18497.60%
18503.73%
18514.44%
18524.52%
18534.11%
18541.99%
18552.09%
18563.00%
18573.39%
18582.83%
18592.86%
18602.41%
18613.21%
18623.60%
18633.52%
18644.18%
18653.97%
18664.39%
18674.50%
1868-
18694.18%
18704.20%
18715.86%
18726.33%
18736.51%
18747.47%
18756.61%
18766.86%
18775.31%
18785.54%
18795.80%
18805.28%
18815.48%
18825.32%
18835.65%
18845.81%
18855.53%
18864.23%
18874.43%
18884.36%
18894.28%
18904.14%
18914.78%
18924.44%
18934.54%
18944.76%
18954.42%
18964.17%
18974.27%
18984.21%
18993.72%
19004.98%
19014.66%
19024.15%
19034.35%
19044.72%
19054.00%
19064.19%
19074.47%
19086.09%
19094.87%
19104.56%
19115.19%
19125.27%
19135.12%
19145.22%
19155.85%
19165.91%
19177.04%
19188.38%
19196.71%
19205.72%
19216.75%
19226.98%
19236.04%
19246.43%
19255.91%
192611.62%
192737.49%
192843.61%
1929-8.42%
1930-24.90%
1931-43.34%
1932-8.19%
193353.99%
1934-1.44%
193547.67%
193633.92%
1937-35.03%
193831.12%
1939-0.41%
1940-9.78%
1941-11.59%
194220.34%
194325.90%
194419.75%
194536.44%
1946-8.07%
19475.71%
19485.50%
194918.79%
195031.71%
195124.02%
195218.37%
1953-0.99%
195452.62%
195531.56%
19566.56%
1957-10.78%
195843.36%
195911.96%
19600.47%
196126.89%
1962-8.73%
196322.80%
196416.48%
196512.45%
1966-10.06%
196723.98%
196811.06%
1969-8.50%
19704.01%
197114.31%
197218.98%
1973-14.66%
1974-26.47%
197537.20%
197623.84%
1977-7.18%
19786.56%
197918.44%
198032.42%
1981-4.91%
198221.55%
198322.56%
19846.27%
198531.73%
198618.67%
19875.25%
198816.61%
198931.69%
1990-3.10%
199130.47%
19927.62%
199310.08%
19941.32%
199537.58%
199622.96%
199733.36%
199828.58%
199921.04%
2000-9.10%
2001-11.89%
2002-22.10%
200328.68%
200410.88%
20054.91%
200615.79%
20075.49%
2008-37.00%
200926.46%
201015.06%
20112.11%
201216.00%
201332.39%
201413.69%
20151.38%
201611.96%
201721.83%
2018-4.38%
201931.49%

Source: Journal of Financial Markets, Slickcharts. The year 1868 has insufficient data to estimate a total annual return.

U.S. equity returns roughly follow a bell curve, meaning that values cluster near a central peak and values farther from the average are less common. Historically, they have been skewed towards positive performance.

Here is how the distribution of returns stack up:

Total Annual Return (%)-50 to -30-30 to -10-10 to 1010 to 3030 to 5050+
Number of Years Within Range3237765225
Percent of Years Within Range1.5%11.8%39.5%33.3%11.3%2.6%

While extreme returns can happen, almost 40% of annual returns have fallen within the -10% to 10% range.

Recessions and Recoveries

What does it look like when more abnormal returns occur? Due to the cyclical nature of the economy, recessions tend to be followed by strong recoveries.

recession and recovery stock market returns

In 1957, the year the S&P 500 was created, the stock market saw a loss of almost 11%. Stock prices shot up by over 43% the following year, bolstered by rising credit volumes and business profits.

Most recently, the 2008 global financial crisis led to one of the largest equity losses to date. In 2009, stocks climbed by almost 27%, boosted by expectations of higher capital spending and demand as the economy recovered.

What History Tells Us

While equities can have high volatility, returns have historically followed a positively-skewed bell curve distribution. From 1825-2019, the average total annual return was 8.25%. In fact, over 70% of total annual returns have been positive over the same timeframe.

Owning stocks long-term may help investors not only beat inflation, but also build a nest egg that may sustain them throughout their retirement years.

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