Investing in sustainable agriculture and food

In the past months onValues has increased its research activities focusing on investments in sustainable agriculture and food systems, also based on the interest that its clients are showing for this sector. From a financial point of view, investments in agriculture are interesting because of their real assets and yield generating character. From a social and environmental point of view, investments that take positive impact and ESG into account can contribute to food security and healthy nutrition, and reduce risks related to the use of pesticides and GMOs, to water availability, biodiversity loss and climate change. In identifying and assessing investments in the space, onValues can rely on its 15-year track-record and on a network of independent specialists. In the past, onValues has facilitated investor initiatives (see the Geneva conference in 2011 and the Principles for Responsible Investment in Farmland) and published proprietary research on the subject.

Can microfinance add value to a global portfolio?

Peter Wüthrich was invited to speak at Prestel & Partner’s Family Office Forum to share onValues’ experience in advising clients interested in frontier market investments. Focusing on microfinance investments, he noted that - in spite of recent challenges - they can contribute to better diversification and alignment to family values in the context of family office portfolios. After giving an overview of the market and of the main market players, many of the family office managers in the audience were surprised to learn that some of the pioneers of microfinance investments are Swiss-based and offer a wide range of public and private investment funds with substantial assets under management.

Peter stressed the fact that investing into microfinance requires a long-term investment horizon and that past performance should not be the driving selection criteria for choosing a fund manager. A thorough evaluation of aspects like geographic focus, diversification, currency exposure and the fund’s investment process should be an integral part of the investment decision.

How the passion of high-net worth investors drives impact investing

The past months have seen an increasing number of private wealth-holders going public with their engagement for integrating social and environmental aspects in their investments. An article by the Financial Times portrays Justin Rockefeller and other young members of historic dynasties that are taking their family offices into a new era of investing in line with their values. Annie Chen, a long-time onValues client, was portrayed in an August article in Barron’s and a Huffington Post blog in September. Ben Thornley, the author of the blog, notes how passion drives this new generation of investors and that “..institutional investors looking to high net worth individuals to shoulder the early-stage risk of impact fund managers, and for advisors to high net worth clients, understanding why and how the wealthy make impact investments is essential”.

Challenging future financial return assumptions

During the past 30 years, financial markets repeatedly went through boom and bust cycles both in developed and emerging markets. Despite the asset price declines during bear markets, long-term investors who held on to their investments in equities and bonds still earned total returns that were well above long-term averages. Many investors have become used to the high returns of their investment portfolios and assume that future performance will be similar to what they observed in the past.

Several years ago already, onValues has started working with clients to derive more realistic expectations for future portfolio returns. Our analysis shows that the drivers leading to the exceptional returns of the past years are weakening and that asset returns will probably be below historical averages during the next decade. A recent McKinsey Global Institute report gives a good overview of the challenges ahead by taking a closer look at the driving forces of asset returns. The study concludes that in the recent past, asset returns were lifted by a unique but now fading combination of economic and business factors. Using a multi-factor approach with real economy and corporate fundamental factors, McKinsey argues that investment returns in the US and Europe over the next 20 years could be substantially lower – even in very favourable economic scenarios. These findings are consistent with those based on several other approaches seeking to forecast asset returns. onValues, for example, uses deviations from long-term asset valuation levels as one of the major determinants of future returns (see this previous news). Based on these signals we review our clients’ investment strategies, adjust expected asset class and portfolio returns, and are able to point to particularly attractive or unattractive investment areas.

Swiss pension funds and responsible investment

Swiss pension funds still treat responsible investment mainly as an activity separate from other aspects of the investment process, rather than fully integrating environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) considerations into investment decisions, according to a recent study by ShareAction and WWF Switzerland. This conclusion is based on a survey of the 20 largest pension funds in Switzerland, representing CHF281bn (€253bn) in assets, or around 36% of all Swiss occupational pension funds. Sonia Hierzig, research officer at ShareAction and author of the survey report, said: “The results demonstrate that, whilst the 20 funds we looked at do consider responsible investment, there’s a long way to go to adopt international best practice, particularly when it comes to transparency and climate risk management.” Ivo Knoepfel of onValues was part of the panel of experts that provided guidance for developing the survey methodology.

Rethinking wealth: how an Asian family office successfully aligned its investments to its mission

RS Group, the Hong Kong based family office, has just released a detailed report describing its six year journey in building a 100% sustainable and impact investment portfolio with the support of onValues. The report shows that, in addition to tangible social impact contributions, such a portfolio achieves financial returns and risk levels that are absolutely in line with traditional portfolios. In the introduction to the report, RS Group’s principal Annie Chen explains how important it was for her to align her wealth to her values and to use all forms of capital (grants and investments) in support of sustainable development in the context of a so-called total portfolio approach. onValues supported (and continues to support) RS Group at different levels: in defining a long-term strategy and asset allocation for the whole wealth, in selecting the best investment managers globally for each asset class, in regularly monitoring and reviewing the portfolio, in consolidating financial and impact information. During the launch event for the report, Annie Chen expressed her hope that by sharing her experience other family offices and investors throughout Asia will be motivated to engage in similar initiatives. More information can be found at the report's website.

Working with peers on best-practice advisory standards

The global wealth advisory industry is booming. Armies of banks, insurance companies, (multi-) family offices and asset managers now compete for the attention of asset owners, offering an unprecedented number of investment consulting services with varying degrees of quality. Disappointing investment performance and unappropriate advice have led to a lack of trust in financial consultants during a phase where unbiased advice is most needed. In collaboration with the consultant network Advisornet (co-founded by onValues), we recently organised a public workshop to discuss and further develop best-practices for the financial and investment consulting profession. About 40 practitioners took part in the event and shared their experience in striving for excellence in their profession. Prof. Dr. Thorsten Hens of the University of Zürich presented the academic state-of-the-art in investment consulting and compared this with the current offerings available at Swiss banks. He concluded that science offers robust guidelines for advisory processes which are currently only partially adopted by banks. This was followed by a panel discussion with experienced practitioners focussing on frequently encountered dilemmas during the advisory process and how to deal with them. How can we cope with weak governance at a client’s family office or institution? How do we react if a client is not prepared to cover the full cost of quality advice? How do we deal with well-known behavioural biases of clients? These were among the many issues discussed at the event which will be further explored in the context of our Advisornet engagement.

Applying an impact lens to the entire portfolio

Ivo Knoepfel recently spoke at Pymwymic Impact Days*) about onValues’ experience in applying positive impact considerations to the entire wealth of clients, across all major asset classes. He stressed the importance of purpose and intentionality at different levels: at the level of single investments, of investment managers in charge of different parts of the portfolio, and when defining the strategy for the whole portfolio. In public markets, contributions to positive impact are often of a more systemic nature. Equity managers actively allocating capital to companies providing solutions to societal challenges and engaging with company management on these issues need to better report on the rationale and expected outcomes of their activities – Ivo Knoepfel stressed. He showed examples of asset managers and rating agencies that have developed frameworks to do so and reported on the experience of RS Group, a family office client of onValues, in applying an impact lens to their entire portfolio.
*) Pymwymic Impact Days is the leading European gathering of family investors and family offices engaged in the field of impact investing. This year it took place in Amsterdam on April 19 & 20.

Feeling the pulse of the German market

onValues recently conducted a systematic search and selection process for German banks and asset managers that offer investment strategies based on sustainability criteria. The outcomes show that the German market still lags behind other European markets in terms of the quality of the strategies and services offered, although we were able to identify 2-3 institutions that meet our quality standards. Assessment criteria included: institutions’ strategic commitment to responsible business practices, the role of sustainability within their asset management as well as the risk-return characteristics of their main investment offerings. The analysis lead to the following main observations: Most financial institutions market sustainable services but only few demonstrate strategic, top management commitment to sustainability investments. Environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria are rarely integrated into the overall investment process and in most cases added as an extra filter during the security selection process. There seems to be a certain standardisation of processes for using ESG criteria during security selection driven by the consolidation trend in the sector for independent ESG-research. Performance differences within asset classes are small, but vary significantly for balanced strategies, leading to the conclusion that asset allocation is a key driver of performance.

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