As Asia's leading economies were in the grip of the worst financial crisis in decades 20 years ago, investors elsewhere were taking the first steps to integrate environmental, social and governance factors into investment decisions.
Interest in the stocks of markets such as China and India and in ESG have since boomed, with more than $70 trillion of assets now managed in line with the U.N.-supported Principles for Responsible Investment. It is time for investors in Asia to consider ESG principles and identify those companies robust enough to provide long-term growth opportunities.
Strong corporate governance tends to match better financial performance, and ESG-minded managements tend to be forward-looking.
The STOXX Asia/Pacific ESG Leaders 50 Index returned 87.9% over the five years to Dec. 29 in euro terms on a gross basis, compared with 71.5% for the regular STOXX Asia/Pacific 600 Index.
The first way that ESG analysis can unlock growth is by identifying companies providing solutions to sustainability challenges. Looking at how drinking water and clean energy can be provided to the expanding middle classes in Asia can highlight companies well-placed to form the industries of the future.
One example is Beijing Enterprises Water Group, which provides sustainable wastewater treatment. Last year, a company joint venture won contracts for 46 billion yuan ($7 billion) worth of projects.
BYD has gone from a mobile phone battery maker in Shenzhen to one of the world's largest makers of electric vehicles.
ENN Energy, China's third-largest natural gas distributor, is well-placed to benefit as the country shifts away from coal. Gas consumption has grown at double-digit rates over the past five years.
The ESG lens also provides crucial insight into management quality, operational efficiency and potential risk exposure. Bank Rakyat Indonesia lends to the communities in which it raises deposits and provides mentoring to women and small businesses. The bank has little exposure to carbon-intensive sectors such as oil, gas, coal and automakers. As a result, it has an average return on capital of 25%.
Investors who plan for the long term should consider screening out companies with poor ESG records and those who get most of their income from unsustainable activities. For example, Boston Common Asset Management avoids Coal India and South Korean cigarette producer KT&G, as well as PetroChina in relation to its parent company's links to human rights violations in Sudan.
We believe these companies have greater exposure than their peers to reputational risks or tightening environmental and public health regulations, and thus ultimately would be poor investments. On the institutional side, South Korea's National Pension Service said in December it would introduce a stewardship code aimed at getting other investors to support corporate governance standards.
The Securities and Exchange Board of India has issued green bond guidelines, while renewable energy is a priority lending sector for the country's banks.
Global institutional investors naturally carry the most weight in actively engaging Asian companies. But the increasing adoption of stewardship codes, protection of minority shareholder rights, promotion of independent directors and more guidance on ESG disclosures by stock exchanges in the region will require domestic institutional investors to step up as responsible shareholders.
For investors, applying an ESG lens to the products and processes of these companies can help to identify those best placed to compete in an increasingly crowded field.
Lauren Compere is a managing director and director of shareowner engagement at Boston Common Asset Management. This article should not be considered a recommendation to buy or sell any security.