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ESG In Private Equity: From Fringe To Focal

By: Mirja Lehmler-Brown, Senior Investment Manager, Aberdeen Private Equity

Pension funds and other institutional investors are increasingly allocating to alternative investments, including private equity, to seek additional return and diversification. This is good news, but the pressure is now on private equity managers to step up to the plate and offer sustainable investment solutions.

Just as with listed equity, institutional investors in private equity are increasingly widening the scope of their analysis to include wider environmental, social and governance (NASDAQ:ESG) issues, in addition to traditional risk/return analysis.

ESG covers a broad range of factors, some of which have the ability to materially impact the financial prospects of an investment. They include environmental factors such as air, land and water pollution, social factors like employee diversity and governance factors such as the existence of anti-bribery and corruption policies.

Many factors are driving the trend towards greater ESG integration. Technology is continually re-shaping the behavior of businesses and consumers through game-changing developments in areas like artificial intelligence and robotics, autonomous vehicles and biotechnology. The UN's 17 Sustainable Development Goals to be met by 2030 provide a framework that defines global development priorities and aspirations. National governments around the world are implementing new regulations relating to environmental pollution and waste disposal, workplace standards and corporate governance. Meanwhile, investors are increasingly prioritizing responsible investment in their evaluation of investment managers.

At a fundamental level, private equity is about the transformative power of investment. It serves a key role in financing new businesses and upgrading and futureproofing old businesses. Importantly, the private equity governance model puts it in prime position to effectively incorporate ESG issues into value creation.

Private equity managers can do this in two broad ways. Prior to investment, they can undertake research and due diligence to evaluate how sectors, value chains and business models are being shaped by ESG factors. This can be extended to individual companies to identify those businesses that can take advantage of ESG trends. Secondly, once invested, an ESG framework can be used to reveal new strategic and growth opportunities. Performance can be reviewed and progress formally reported as a standard part of advisory board meetings, and an annual public ESG review can be integrated into annual accounts.

The global trend towards ESG integration in private equity means such processes will soon become necessary, rather than optional. This is where the Nordic countries and the Netherlands are miles ahead in pioneering ESG integration in private equity. Many large asset owners in these areas take ESG considerations into account when selecting, appointing and monitoring investment managers for new mandates. In contrast, ESG considerations have not been a priority for asset owners in the U.S. largely due to questions over whether this breaches their fiduciary duty to clients. Times are changing, however, and sustainability is fast gaining traction among the U.S. investment community. ESG integration also has some way to go in Asia, although progress is being made in some countries, notably Japan.

ESG is most powerful when truly integrated into an organization - where it goes far beyond the initial phase of just focusing on risk mitigation through strong compliance and a "do no harm" approach. Companies that embed ESG into the core of their performance culture are better able to build a resilient organization with a sustainable strategic agenda.

This is all the more important given the many uncertainties that businesses and investors face today. Political unrest, weak economic growth and unprecedented migration have become an everyday reality. Meanwhile, aging demographics, climate change and technological disruption all represent serious longer-term challenges. Businesses and investors aiming to prosper amid this disruption will need to adapt quickly.

In this fast-changing world, many leading companies are appreciating and capitalizing on the positive impact of integrating ESG factors into corporate strategy. Those that fail to prioritize ESG considerations are, in contrast, increasingly being held accountable for poor performance.

Additional disclosure: The investments discussed herein may not be available or suitable for all investors unless the investor meets certain regulatory eligibility requirements.