US Sustainable Equity Funds Outperformed In 2020

  • U.S. sustainable equity funds outperformed traditional peer funds by a median of 4.3% ‒ the largest difference in performance recorded since 2004 ‒ in a year marked by uncertainty amid the global pandemic
  • The results of the study further highlight the potential for better risk-adjusted returns from sustainable funds, especially in times of severe market volatility

Sustainable investing funds outperformed traditional funds and reduced investment risk throughout 2020, according to a new Sustainable Reality study published today by the Morgan Stanley Institute for Sustainable Investing (The Institute). This analysis of U.S. equity and taxable bond funds found that sustainable funds weathered the severe market volatility throughout 2020 better than their traditional counterparts, indicating that sustainable funds are more reliable in times of stress.

Key Findings

In 2020:

  • U.S. sustainable equity and taxable bond funds continued to outperform their traditional fund counterparts on a total return basis throughout 2020
    • Median total return for U.S. sustainable equity funds was 4.3% higher than traditional funds
    • Median total return for U.S. sustainable taxable bond funds was 0.9% higher than traditional taxable bond funds
  • U.S. sustainable equity and taxable bond funds also continued to be less risky than their traditional counterparts as measured by median downside deviation
    • U.S. sustainable equity funds’ median downside deviation was 3.1% less than traditional peer funds
    • U.S. sustainable bond funds’ median downside deviation was 0.4% less than traditional peer funds

“The difficult events of 2020 underscored the importance of sustainability concerns and strengthened the rationale for sustainable investing,” said Audrey Choi, Morgan Stanley’s Chief Sustainability Officer and CEO of the Institute for Sustainable Investing. “Sustainable funds’ strong risk and return performance during an exceptionally turbulent year further erodes the persistent misconception that sustainable investing requires a performance sacrifice.”

These findings build on the Institute’s 2020 report, which found that sustainable funds weathered the COVID-19 pandemic better than their traditional counterparts during first half of 2020. The Institute has analyzed sustainable and traditional funds’ performance since 2004, and in any given year during the 2004-2018 evaluation period, sustainable funds performed in line with traditional counterparts but provided more downside protection, especially in times of volatility.1

“The U.S. sustainable investing market ended the year on a high note, with record-breaking net inflows in October, November and December,”2 said Matthew Slovik, Managing Director and Head of Global Sustainable Finance at Morgan Stanley. “Amid this continued growth, analyzing the performance of sustainable investments, and proving their resiliency, is critical to advance the field and to encourage others to invest with an ESG mindset.”

These findings were compared to the Institute’s 2019 report, which compared sustainable and traditional funds’ historical risk and return performance from 2004-2018 using Morningstar data. Institute analysts applied the same methodology to evaluate the performance of U.S.-domiciled sustainable funds investing in U.S. equities and taxable bonds active in 2020 against their traditional peers when the coronavirus pandemic induced significant volatility in the capital markets.

Source: Morgan Stanley

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