It’ll surprise some investors to read that despite Covid, ESG investing has thrived this year. ESG investing which stands for environmental, societal and corporate governance, is a strategy for building a more ethical investment portfolio. According to the National Bank’s Review of the ESG ETF Landscape in Canada from last summer, ESG ETF space currently occupies a small slice of the asset pie; the $33.6 billion AUM in ESG ETFs represents just 0.7% of the overall U.S. ETF market, but their inflow makes for 7% of the total ETF inflows in the U.S. this year. In sum, ESG inflow figures are higher than any sector or other theme’s year-to-date flows in both countries.
Bay Street analysts including Ryan Bushell and Barry Schwartz acknowledge the staying power of ESG investing when they recently recommended Canadian renewable power utility, Algonquin Power, which has been a top pick seven times since July. However, ESG investing isn’t just about green energy, but social policy in an age when women are pushing for more representation in the C-suite, and corporate governance, which includes shareholder rights and executive compensation—issues that all investors should care about already.
That said, greenwashing exists, where a company pretends to respect the environment, and the investment industry lacks a universal standard to score ESG stocks. Standards vary, though the industry is aware of this problem and is moving to rectify it. Another factor is that the ESG values of each investor differs. Are you buying a stock because it practices sustainable production? For a strong female presence in the executive suite? Fair treatment of its workers? What matters to you? To illustrate the complexity of ESG investing, what follows are some ESG stocks that score high in some categories of ESG though may lag in others:
ESG Investing: Pepsi Stock (PEP-Q)
Pepsi scores high in ethical practices and corporate diversity. It also values workplace safety. That said, it could do better on reducing pollution and improving employee satisfaction. Why is the latter important? A happy workforce produces higher stock returns than its peers.
Analysts such as Jim Cramer would buy Pepsi stock now as the number of Covid cases could rise as the weather turns colder and more people stay at home to snack. Analysts expects its EPS to reach $1.50, which would return to last year’s levels. Pepsi pays a dividend just under 3%. The trailing PE has ballooned from 15.62x last December to the current 26.85x, which will give some investors pause.
However, Pepsi’s last four quarters have beat expectations and analysts give it two strong buys, 10 buys and 10 holds. The Covid argument is a compelling one and Pepsi is an enduring, go-to brand for consumers.
ESG Investing: Nvidia Stock (NVDA-Q)
Like Pepsi, the world’s biggest chipmaker scores high in some categories and, frankly, lags in others. Nvidia has long had a strict policy against using conflict minerals harvested from war zones like the Congo. Nvidia also scores very high in respecting LGBTQ rights (corporate equality) in its workplace. Things get murky.
However, in the climate change category. Depending on the evaluator and their methodology, Nvidia either scores very high (A- from the Carbon Disclosure Project in 2019) or mediocre (62.8% according to Newsweek, though that was in 2017). Nvidia could do better in its use of water, a key component in producing computer chips. Nvidia falters in human rights as questions arise about forced labour in parts of the world, based on two reports. One is by KnowTheChain, which awards Nvidia a failing grade of 30, compared to 70 by Hewlett Packard.
Nvidia stock, of course, is a darling of tech investors. It’s a super secular growth story, says analyst Kim Bolton, who targets $552.50. The stock is only $5 shy of that currently. Like Pepsi, Nvidia stock has beat its last four quarters, but its PE has also doubled in the last 12 months to 90x. Like most tech stocks, this barely pays a dividend. The consensus is that there’s a little more upside to come, but not much. A shareholder may soon want to take some profits and sell on strength.
ESG Investing: PowerCorp Stock (POW-T)
An insurer, Power scores low (in a good way) at Sustainalytics, a Morningstar company whose ESG scores are respected by Bay Street. Power stock ranks #6 out of 699 among diversified financials and ranks in the second-best percentile for ESG. The company is best known for brand-name insurer, Great West Life. Bay Street views Power as an income play.
Its whopping 6.67% dividend yield is considered safe at a 79% payout ratio. This stock appeals to income investors who don’t expect much stock appreciation. Power trades at a low 10x PE, which has actually fallen from 14.13x a year ago. So, this is a steady but boring dividend stock whose share price should slowly creep up in months to come. Are there better returns out there? Yes, but they’re also riskier.