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Chart: Is ESG Investing in Decline?

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This graphic shows flows of ESG investments in the U.S.

This graphic shows flows of ESG investments in the U.S.

Is ESG Investing in Decline?

These days, ESG investments have lost their luster given high interest rates, political backlash, and greenwashing scrutiny.

In 2021 during the pandemic boom, U.S. sustainable funds hit a record $358 billion in assets, up from $95 billion in 2017. But since then, investor interest has waned as higher borrowing costs impact capital-intensive clean tech stocks.

This graphic shows the drop in sustainable fund flows—often considered an indicator of investor sentiment—based on data from Morningstar.

Slowing Demand

In 2023, investor appetite cooled for sustainable investments, as fund flows notched their worst year on record.

Overall, flows sank $13 billion as fund performance lagged behind conventional funds. Adding to this, concerns surrounding the murkiness of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) ratings were put under the spotlight.

As ESG pushback intensified in U.S. politics, at least 165 anti-ESG bills were introduced in 2023. Politicians have claimed that ESG criteria negatively impacts financial returns, but evidence behind that is mixed.

While sustainable funds underperformed traditional funds in 2023, a separate study showed that ESG portfolios had as much as 6% excess returns annually compared to benchmark indexes between 2014 and 2020.

ESG Investments: A Closer Look

One key aspect of ESG funds is whether they hold investments that align with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Globally, 542 funds with $125 billion in assets are associated with at least one of these objectives. The table below shows the top five SDGs, by ETF assets under management (AUM).

SDGGoalNumber of ETFsAUM
SDG 13Climate Action275$65.4B
SDG 7Affordable
and Clean Energy
80$15.3B
SDG 9Industry, Innovation,
and Infrastructure
49$13.4B
SDG 6Clean Water
and Sanitation
16$9.1B
SDG 11Sustainable Cities
and Communities
34$5.5B

Source: Trackinsight. As of January 7, 2024.

We can see that Climate Action is the highest overall, with companies held in these ETFs making commitments to lower emissions and advance sustainability.

For instance, Home Depot has cut electricity use by over 50% since 2010 in U.S. stores, and aims to use renewables for all of its electricity by 2030. In addition, Microsoft has committed to this goal through a number of initiatives, including providing access to clean water to over one million people across Indonesia, Brazil, India, and Mexico in 2023.

While investor interest has slowed, 35% of advisors said they used ESG funds last year, based on a Journal of Financial Planning survey. As the industry matures, it remains to be seen if ESG investments will see a resurgence, especially if interest rates fall in the coming years.

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Markets in a Minute

Visualizing the Growth of $100, by Asset Class

In this graphic, we show asset class returns across U.S. equities, bonds, real estate, gold and cash since 1970.

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This line chart shows the growth of a $100 investment between 1970 and 2023 by asset class.

Visualizing the Growth of $100, by Asset Class

This was originally posted on our Voronoi app. Download the app for free on iOS or Android and discover incredible data-driven charts from a variety of trusted sources.

Which major asset class has generated the strongest returns over the long run? How do the returns of investments like bonds and real estate actually stack up?

To put investment returns in perspective, this graphic shows the growth of $100 by asset class over the long term, based on data from Aswath Damodaran at NYU Stern.

Comparing Asset Class Returns

Below, we show the returns of a $100 investment across major asset classes—from U.S. stocks to gold—between 1970 and 2023:

YearS&P 500Corporate
Bonds
GoldU.S. 10-Year
Treasury Bonds
Real EstateCash
1970$100$100$100$100$100$100
1980$226$181$1,578$141$229$192
1990$823$741$1,033$477$374$431
2000$4,060$1,886$734$1,067$536$682
2010$4,656$4,191$3,760$1,821$693$840
2020$16,890$8,349$5,059$2,802$1,155$891
2023$22,419$7,775$5,545$2,286$1,542$956

Numbers have been rounded. S&P 500 includes dividends. Cash represented by 3-Month U.S. T-Bills. Corporate Bonds represented by Baa corporate bonds. Real Estate represented by the Case-Shiller Home Price Index.

As we can see, a $100 investment in the S&P 500 (including reinvested dividends) in 1970 would be worth an impressive $22,419 in 2023.

Not only were U.S. stocks the top performing major asset class, they outpaced other investments by a wide margin. Consider how a $100 investment in corporate bonds would have grown to $7,775 over the period, or 65% lower than an investment in the S&P 500.

When it comes to gold, a $100 investment would have been worth $5,545 by 2023. During the 1970s and 2000s, gold boomed amid bouts of inflation and a falling U.S. dollar. By comparison, the S&P 500 saw much lower returns over these decades.

Real estate, another safe haven asset, grew on average 5.5% annually since 1970, with the highest gains seen in the decade through 2020. It’s worth noting that these numbers are from the Case-Shiller Home Price Index, which is based on purely price changes over time.

Given that real estate is a unique asset class, this doesn’t necessarily illustrate the returns that homeowners actually receive, factoring in leverage, property taxes, insurance, and other expenses. From this price perspective, a $100 investment would have grown to just $1,542 by 2023 due to slower price growth through the 1980s and 2000s weighing on overall gains.

During both periods, the housing market crashed, taking years for the sector to fully recover. In fact, following the Global Financial Crisis, it took a decade for home prices to climb to their previous 2006 peak.

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How Small Investments Make a Big Impact Over Time

Compound interest is a powerful force in building wealth. Here’s how it impacts even the most modest portfolio over the long-term.

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This bar chart shows the power of compound interest and regular contributions over time.

How Small Investments Make a Big Impact Over Time

This was originally posted on our Voronoi app. Download the app for free on iOS or Android and discover incredible data-driven charts from a variety of trusted sources.

Time is an investor’s biggest ally, even if they start with just a modest portfolio.

The reason behind this is compounding interest, of course, thanks to its ability to magnify returns as interest earns interest on itself. With a fortune of $159 billion, Warren Buffett largely credits compound interest as a vital ingredient to his success—describing it like a snowball collecting snow as it rolls down a very long hill.

This graphic shows how compound interest can dramatically impact the value of an investor’s portfolio over longer periods of time, based on data from Investor.gov.

Why Compound Interest is a Powerful Force

Below, we show how investing $100 each month, with a 10% annual return starting at the age of 25 can generate outsized returns by simply staying the course:

AgeTotal ContributionsInterestPortfolio Value
25$1,300$10$1,310
30$7,300$2,136$9,436
35$13,300$9,223$22,523
40$19,300$24,299$43,599
45$25,300$52,243$77,543
50$31,300$100,910$132,210
55$37,300$182,952$220,252
60$43,300$318,743$362,043
65$49,300$541,101$590,401
70$55,300$902,872$958,172
75$61,300$1,489,172$1,550,472

Portfolio value is at end of each time period. All time periods are five years except for the first year (Age 25) which includes a $100 initial contribution. Interest is computed annually.

As we can see, the portfolio grows at a relatively slow pace over the first five years.

But as the portfolio continues to grow, the interest earned begins to exceed the contributions in under 15 years. That’s because interest is earned not only on the total contributions but on the accumulated interest itself. So by the age of 40, the total contributions are valued at $19,300 while the interest earned soars to $24,299.

Not only that, the interest earned soars to double the value of the investor’s contributions over the next five years—reaching $52,243 compared to the $25,300 in principal.

By the time the investor is 75, the power of compound interest becomes even more eye-opening. While the investor’s lifetime contributions totaled $61,300, the interest earned ballooned to 25 times that value, reaching $1,489,172.

In this way, it shows that investing consistently over time can benefit investors who stick it through stock market ups and downs.

The Two Key Ingredients to Growing Money

Generally speaking, building wealth involves two key pillars: time and rate of return.

Below, we show how these key factors can impact portfolios based on varying time horizons using a hypothetical example. Importantly, just a small difference in returns can make a huge impact on a portfolio’s end value:

Annual ReturnPortfolio Value
25 Year Investment Horizon
Portfolio Value
75 Year Investment Horizon
5%$57,611$911,868
8%$88,412$4,835,188
12%$161,701$49,611,684

With this in mind, it’s important to take into account investment fees which can erode the value of your investments.

Even the difference of 1% in investment fees adds up over time, especially over the long run. Say an investor paid 1% in fees, and had an after-fee return of 9%. If they had a $100 starting investment, contributed monthly over a 25-year time span, their portfolio would be worth over $102,000 at the end of the period.

By comparison, a 10% return would have made over $119,000. In other words, they lost roughly $17,000 on their investment because of fees.

Another important factor to keep in mind is inflation. In order to preserve the value of your portfolio, its important to choose investments that beat inflation, which has historically averaged around 3.3%.

For perspective, since 1974 the S&P 500 has returned 12.5% on average annually (including reinvested dividends), 10-Year U.S. Treasury bonds have returned 6.6%, while real estate has averaged 5.6%. As we can see, each of these have outperformed inflation over longer horizons, with varying degrees of risk and return.

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