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COVID-19 puts spotlight on range of ESG issues, RBC Global Asset Management survey finds

Institutional investors’ adoption of ESG remains strong as anti-corruption, cybersecurity and climate change are top ESG concerns

TORONTO, October 13, 2021 - The adoption of environmental, social and governance (“ESG”) integration remains strong amongst global institutional investors, while a significant group has also placed greater emphasis on ESG considerations as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the 2021 RBC Global Asset Management (“RBC GAM”) Responsible Investment Survey.

The 2021 survey highlighted that while ESG adoption remains near peak levels amongst institutional investors globally, there is a sizable group of institutional investors (29%) who have placed greater emphasis on ESG considerations as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. These investors are also the most vigorous supporters of ESG as an enabler of investment performance, as nearly all of this group (97%) believe ESG integrated portfolios are likely to perform as well or better than non-ESG integrated portfolios, a significant difference compared to the overall global respondents who said the same (83%).

Among this same group of investors who have strengthened their commitment towards ESG incorporation as a result of the pandemic, 80% believe ESG integration helps generate long-term sustainable alpha (versus 51% of the total respondents), and 88% believe that ESG integration helps mitigate risk (versus 61% of the total respondents). In addition, this group had the strongest opinions on the diversity of corporate boards, with 70% saying board gender diversity targets should be adopted (versus 47% of the total group).

While the number of investors who use ESG appears to have plateaued over the past several years, there remains a geographic divide when it comes to adopting ESG principles. European investors remain most committed to ESG adoption for the fifth straight year, with 96% of European respondents using ESG in their investment approach. In contrast, U.S. investors remain the most skeptical, with just 64% of respondents using ESG. Although a strong majority of Canadian investors adopt ESG principles, this year saw a slight decrease, as 81% of respondents said they used ESG principles – still a strong majority but down from 89% last year. Asian investors continue to show an increase in ESG adoption, with 76% of respondents using ESG principles this year, compared with 72% in 2020.

“The findings suggest that for the most ESG committed investors, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the critical importance of hardwiring environmental sustainability and social equality into their investment process,” said My-Linh Ngo, Head of ESG Investment and Portfolio Manager at BlueBay Asset Management LLP. “The pandemic has impacted governments, companies and individuals in unprecedented ways, and it will continue to reshape how society and the economy operates going forward. We think this presents a unique opportunity for investors to review and recalibrate how they incorporate ESG considerations into their investment practices.”

“Over the past five years, our data has clearly demonstrated that institutional investors are convinced of the merits of ESG adoption, and are committed to incorporating ESG in their investment approach to help mitigate risk and generate long-term sustainable alpha,” said Melanie Adams, Vice President and Head of Corporate Governance and Responsible Investment at RBC Global Asset Management. “In a year where ESG risks such as COVID-19, high profile cyber breaches and climate-driven weather events dominated headlines, it will be interesting to see how perceptions toward ESG will continue to evolve.”

Other key findings from the survey include:

Investors are most concerned by anti-corruption, cybersecurity and climate change: The RBC GAM survey asked respondents to rank which ESG issues they are concerned about when investing. Anti-corruption ranked first globally for a second consecutive year. With the backdrop of recent headlines on data-hacking incidents and ransomware attacks around the world, cybersecurity jumped to the second-highest priority, after being ranked fourth in 2020. Climate change was the third-highest priority, after being ranked second last year.   

European investors are paying closest attention to climate change; regulation is a key driver for ESG incorporation: An overwhelming majority of European investors (80%) said they address climate risk in their investment policy – a 15 percentage point jump from last year, and a significant divergence from other regions (32% in Asia, 31% in Canada and 20% in the U.S.). This divergence could be attributed to the European regulatory environment, as 45% of European investors said government regulations are a top reason for incorporating ESG in their investment portfolios, compared to just 12% of global respondents.

Diversity on boards shows a split: Less than half of global investors (41%) said corporate boards should adopt visible minority diversity targets, almost unchanged from last year. Conversely, investors who said these targets should not be adopted by boards jumped to 35% this year, versus 28% last year. A similar trend was also apparent for gender diversity targets on boards: 47% globally said that boards should adopt gender diversity targets, which was consistent with last year, while those opposed rose to 35%, up from 26% last year. Europe and Canada had the strongest support for gender diversity targets, at 57% and 54%, respectively.

On fossil fuels, engagement continues to outpace divestment: By a four-to-one margin, global investors said that engagement (45%) is more effective than divestment (10%) within the fossil-fuel free context, up slightly from 40% in 2020 and 39% in the year prior. Over the last three years, there has been no growing support for divestment amongst institutional investors, indicating a clear preference for engaging in dialogue with companies. 

ESG in a Pandemic World is RBC GAM’s fifth annual global survey of institutional investors’ perceptions regarding responsible investment. For this year’s report, RBC GAM surveyed 805 institutional asset owners, investment consultants and investment professionals in the United States, Canada, Europe and Asia between May and July 2021.

About RBC Global Asset Management
RBC Global Asset Management (RBC GAM) is the asset management division of Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) and includes RBC Global Asset Management Inc., RBC Global Asset Management (U.S.) Inc., RBC Global Asset Management (UK) Limited, RBC Global Asset Management (Asia) Limited, and BlueBay Asset Management LLP, which are separate, but affiliated subsidiaries of RBC. RBC GAM is a provider of global investment management services and solutions to institutional, high-net-worth and individual investors through separate accounts, pooled funds, mutual funds, hedge funds, exchange-traded funds and specialty investment strategies. The RBC GAM group of companies manage approximately $580 billion CAD in assets and have approximately 1,500 employees located across Canada, the United States, Europe and Asia.