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Which ESG Risks Are Affecting Your Portfolio?

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ESG Risk by Industry

Visualizing ESG Risk by Industry

Aging populations, climate change, and data security are some of the world’s most pressing issues, but what theme do they all share? For investors, the answer is certain: sustainability.

Sustainability is a concept that’s quickly moved into the mainstream, and is best described as the consideration of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors when analyzing companies. Combining these non-financial metrics with traditional analysis has been proven to have a positive influence on long-term returns.

In this Markets in a Minute chart from New York Life Investments, we’ve mapped the ESG risk profiles of four prominent industries to gain a better understanding of the sustainability issues they’re likely facing.

Fossil Fuels

Investors in this sector have substantial exposure to all three ESG risks, with environmental issues being the most significant.

RiskImportanceIssues to Consider

Environmental

High
  • The global transition to green energy
  • Stricter environmental regulations
  • Harm from spills and other accidents

Social

Medium
  • Strained community relations
  • Shifting consumer attitudes

Governance

Medium
  • Shareholder transparency
  • Risk management structure

The global transition to renewable energy paints a complex future for the sector, though it’s uncertain when oil demand will peak—predictions range from 2025 all the way to 2040. Nevertheless, market participants are taking action. To date, over 1,200 institutional investors representing $14 trillion in assets have made commitments to divest from fossil fuels.

Social risks are another source of uncertainty, especially as public awareness around climate change increases. A planned expansion of the Keystone Pipeline System, referred to as Keystone XL, has faced nearly a decade of public resistance and currently remains blocked by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Last but not least are governance risks. With many investors considering the switch to a fossil fuel-free portfolio, shareholder transparency will be of utmost importance. The onus will be on company management to demonstrate that they have a clear understanding of the risks and opportunities ahead. Royal Dutch Shell, the world’s fourth largest oil company, has made progress on this front by announcing its strategy for achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.

Financials

Social and governance risks are the top priorities for investors in the financial sector. Firms that finance the fossil fuel industry may have indirect exposure to environmental risks.

RiskImportanceIssues to Consider

Environmental

Low
  • Indirect exposure to the fossil fuel industry

Social

Medium
  • Aggressive or deceptive selling practices
  • Client relations


Governance

Medium
  • Corporate governance
  • Executive compensation

Underpinning the strength of the financial sector is consumer trust and client service. By using aggressive or deceptive selling practices, firms risk severe reputational damage and even financial penalties. Wells Fargo, America’s fourth largest bank, was recently fined $3 billion for its account fraud scandal that emerged in 2016.

These issues are closely related to governance risks, where weak internal structures can allow fraudulent activities like money laundering to take place. In fact, over a 15 month period ending in 2019, global banks were fined $10 billion for engaging in the activity. Experts believe that 60% of laundering fines resulted from criminals slipping past screening systems.

Healthcare

Social risks are the top concern for healthcare investors, given the sector’s important role in public health and well-being.

RiskImportanceIssues to Consider

Environmental

Low
  • Chemical activities

Social

Medium
  • Product safety and recalls
  • Inappropriate or misleading marketing

Governance

Low
  • Patient privacy

Unsafe products are one the most clear-cut issues because they directly harm society and shareholders. Johnson & Johnson, one of the world’s largest healthcare companies, has faced thousands of lawsuits for failing to warn consumers about asbestos in its baby powder products. The company was recently ordered to pay $2.1 billion in damages by a Missouri appeals court.

The use of inappropriate advertising is another issue that investors may want to watch out for. In 2019, Mundipharma was fined by the Australian government for making inaccurate statements in its marketing materials for opioids.

Software & IT Services

Companies in this sector are exposed to various social and governance risks, but are not known to be large polluters.

RiskImportanceIssues to Consider

Environmental

Low
  • Operation of data centers

Social

High
  • User privacy
  • Data security

Governance

Medium
  • Shareholder structure
  • Antitrust disputes

Many firms in this industry collect and monetize user data, exposing their shareholders to data privacy and security risks. Facebook has been at the center of numerous controversies in recent years, including the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which saw the unconsented collection of personal data from 87 million users. Polls found that 44% of Facebook users viewed the platform more negatively after the scandal.

These risks are likely to be amplified as governments take a firmer stance on data regulation. In 2018, the EU implemented its General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), one of the world’s toughest privacy and security laws. In certain cases, noncompliance with the GDPR can result in fines equal to 4% of a company’s global revenues.

Navigating an Uncertain Future

Global sustainability issues are creating a more challenging environment for businesses in all types of industries. To hedge these risks, investors are turning to ESG in massive numbers—the value of sustainably managed assets now sits at $40.5 trillion, nearly double the amount from four years ago.

It’s important to remember, however, that businesses are unique. A social issue affecting one industry may not be as relevant for another. When armed with this knowledge, investors will be able to make more informed decisions that strengthen the long-term resiliency of their portfolios.

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Markets in a Minute

Wall Street vs Main Street: The Stock Market is Not the Economy

To give context to the Wall Street vs Main Street debate, we compare S&P 500 returns and U.S. GDP growth since 1980.

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Wall Street vs Main Street

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Wall Street vs Main Street

In 2020, the stock market and the economy had a very public break up. The Wall Street vs Main Street divide—the gap between America’s financial markets and the economy—was growing. By the end of the year, the S&P 500 Index closed at a record high. In contrast, 20 million Americans remained unemployed, up from 2 million at the start of the year.

Was 2020 an outlier, or does the performance of the stock market typically diverge from the economy? In this Markets in a Minute chart from New York Life Investments, we show U.S. economic growth and stock market performance over the last four decades, to see how closely the two relate.

GDP Growth and S&P 500 Returns

Here’s how annual GDP growth and S&P 500 Index returns stack up from 1980 to the second quarter of 2021. Both metrics are net of inflation.

YearReal GDP GrowthReal S&P 500 Returns
1980-0.3%13.9%
19812.5%-18.3%
1982-1.8%10.8%
19834.6%13.4%
19847.2%-2.5%
19854.2%23.0%
19863.5%12.9%
19873.5%-2.2%
19884.2%7.9%
19893.7%22.4%
19901.9%-12.4%
1991-0.1%23.4%
19923.5%1.4%
19932.8%4.4%
19944.0%-4.2%
19952.7%31.4%
19963.8%17.2%
19974.4%29.3%
19984.5%25.1%
19994.8%16.6%
20004.1%-13.5%
20011.0%-14.6%
20021.7%-26.0%
20032.9%24.5%
20043.8%5.8%
20053.5%-0.7%
20062.9%11.4%
20071.9%-0.6%
2008-0.1%-39.2%
2009-2.5%21.6%
20102.6%11.1%
20111.6%-3.1%
20122.2%11.6%
20131.8%28.3%
20142.5%10.9%
20153.1%-1.4%
20161.7%7.3%
20172.3%17.2%
20183.0%-8.1%
20192.2%26.8%
2020-3.5%14.9%
Q1 20211.5%4.5%
Q2 20211.6%5.8%

Note: For Q1 and Q2 2021, real GDP growth and inflation rates are quarterly rates and are seasonally adjusted.

More often than not, GDP growth and S&P 500 Index returns have both been positive. The late ‘90s saw particularly strong economic activity and stock performance. According to the White House, economic growth was bolstered by cutting the deficit, modernizing job training, and increasing exports. Meanwhile, increasing investor confidence and the growing tech bubble led to annual stock market returns that exceeded 20%.

In the selected timeframe, only 2008 saw a decline in both the stock market and the economy. This was, of course, caused by the Global Financial Crisis. Banks lent out subprime mortgages, or mortgages to people with impaired credit ratings. These mortgages were then pooled together and repackaged into investments such as mortgage-backed securities (MBS). When interest rates rose and home prices collapsed, this led to mortgage defaults and financial institution bankruptcies as many MBS investments became worthless.

Moving in Opposite Directions

What about when the Wall Street vs Main Street divide grows?

Historically, it has been more common to see positive GDP growth and negative stock performance. For example, real GDP grew by a whopping 7% in 1984 due to “Reaganomics”, such as tax cuts and anti-inflation monetary policy. However, the stock market declined as rising treasury yields of up to 14% made fixed income investments more attractive than equities.

On the other hand, in five of the six years with negative GDP growth, there have been positive stock returns. The most recent example of this is 2020. Real GDP declined by 3.5%, while the S&P 500 returned almost 15% net of inflation.

The Stock Market is not the Economy

There are a number of reasons why the stock market may not necessarily reflect what is happening in the economy.

  • The stock market reflects long-term views. A stock’s price factors in what investors think a company will earn in the future. If investors are confident in the likelihood of an economic recovery, stock prices will likely rise. In contrast, GDP growth is a hard measure of current activity.
  • Sector weightings in the stock market do not reflect their contributions to GDP. The stock market remained resilient in 2020 largely because technology, media, and telecom (TMT) stocks performed well. Despite making up 35% of the market cap of the largest 1,000 U.S. stocks, these companies only account for 8% of U.S. GDP. In contrast, hard-hit companies such as restaurants and gyms generate lots of jobs and contribute materially to GDP. However, many of these businesses accounted for a small portion of the stock market or are not even publicly listed.
  • Fiscal policy lags behind monetary policy. The U.S. Federal Reserve (Fed) can act quickly. For instance, the Fed bought $1.7 trillion of Treasury securities between mid-March and June 2020 to stabilize financial markets. On the other hand, fiscal support requires legislative approvals. The U.S. government initially provided large-scale economic stimulus through the CARES Act in March 2020, but further relief packages were stalled due to political disagreements.

While many factors are at play, the above can help explain the Wall Street vs Main Street divide.

Wall Street vs Main Street: Together and Apart

Over the last 41 years, the economy and the stock market have moved in opposite directions almost as often as they have moved in the same direction. Here’s a summary of their movements from 1980-2020.

 # of Years
Stock Growth, GDP Growth22
Stock Decline, GDP Growth13
Stock Growth, GDP Decline5
Stock Decline, GDP Decline1

Since 1980, these time periods of differing performance have never lasted more than three consecutive years. In fact, one economist described the stock market and the unemployment rate as two people walking down the street, tethered by a rope.

”When the rope is slack, they move apart. But they can never get too far away from each other.”
—Roger Farmer, University of Warwick economist

After their public breakup in 2020, the Wall Street vs Main Street divide appears to have healed. In the first two quarters of 2021, both the stock market and the economy saw growth. Perhaps it’s easiest to sum up their relationship in two words: it’s complicated.

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Markets in a Minute

Data Centers: Investing in the Infrastructure of the Future

Infrastructure refers to any asset that provides an essential service. In today’s interconnected world, data centers are exactly that.

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Data Centers

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Data Centers: Investing in the Infrastructure of the Future

Digital transformation is one of the world’s most prominent trends today.

For evidence, consider the growth in internet users worldwide. By 2023, 5.3 billion people (66% of population) will be using the internet, up from 3.9 billion (51% of population) in 2018.

This growth has resulted in an incredible amount of data being produced each day, whether its from streaming music on Spotify or buying goods on Amazon. But how is all this data being processed?

In this Markets in a Minute chart from New York Life Investments, we shed light on the importance of data centers, and why they should be considered as core infrastructure.

The Role of the Data Center

A data center is a facility that stores, processes, and disseminates data. There are thousands of them around the world, and collectively, they’re referred to as the “cloud”.

This puts data centers at the center of nearly everything we do online: e-commerce, communications, storage and back-up, and even online gaming. To gain a better sense of what this all looks like, the following table breaks down the storage capacity of the world’s data centers.

Segment2016 Storage Capacity (exabytes)2021 Storage Capacity (exabytes) 
Compute160470
Collaboration170400
Database & analytics150380
Enterprise resource planning180420
Video streaming50180
Social networking60160
Search engine30100
Other consumer apps70190
Total8702,300

Source: Statista (2021)

One exabyte is equal to one billion gigabytes, which means the world currently has 2.3 trillion gigabytes of total storage.

The largest segment is compute instances, which are cloud-based workstations used by data scientists. At the lower end of the scale are segments like video streaming (includes Netflix and Hulu) and social networking (think Facebook or LinkedIn).

Cloud Spending Reaches a Historic Milestone

For businesses that create and use data, moving to the cloud (as opposed to maintaining their own servers) has plenty of advantages like cost savings, flexibility, and security.

This is driving exponential growth in cloud infrastructure spending, which reached a record $130 billion in 2020. At the same time, spending on data center hardware decreased from $96 to $90 billion. These results are partly attributed to COVID-19, which forced many businesses to switch to a work-from-home operating model.

A survey conducted by 451 Research found that 40% of businesses had increased their usage of cloud services during the pandemic. In addition, 85% of those who were impacted indicated that the move would be a permanent one.

Data Centers are Infrastrcture

The scope of an infrastructure investor has historically been limited to companies in construction, energy, and transportation.

But what defines infrastructure?

It’s any physical system that is vital for an economy’s development and prosperity—and in a world where over 5 billion people are expected to be online by 2023, the data center is the perfect embodiment of that.

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