By Supriya Menon, Head of Multi-Asset Strategy – EMEA, Wellington Management.
Record-setting heat, droughts, floods, wildfires, and hurricanes have brought massive, costly destruction and business disruptions. They have also spurred the momentum behind decarbonization and net-zero objectives around the world. Against this backdrop, asset owners are increasingly engaged in addressing the investment implications of climate change. To help, our Investment Strategy Team, in partnership with our Climate Research and ESG Research teams, has developed a framework for integrating climate change and its capital-market effects into multi-asset portfolios.
One of the “pillars” of our framework is our climate-aware strategic asset allocation (SAA) approach. We think it can be of use to asset owners who are actively seeking to incorporate climate objectives into their portfolios via SAA, as well as those who want to better understand the trade-offs they may face if they decide to specifically incorporate these objectives in their investment policy.
How we built our climate-change framework
Our framework consists of three pillars. The first, which we wrote about previously, is focused on incorporating climate-related inputs (including both transition and physical risks) into our capital market assumptions (CMAs). The second pillar is our climate-aware SAA approach — that is, adding relevant climate metrics to our asset allocation optimization process. By quantifying the climate risk embedded in various potential allocations, for example, we can undertake analysis around climate change similar to our approach to other risk exposures, such as portfolio volatility or maximum expected drawdown. The third pillar of our framework is implementation — the choice of specific climate-aware building blocks and strategies to express the desired asset allocation.
In designing our climate-aware SAA approach, we conducted in-depth research to select a suitable forward-looking climate variable — implied temperature rise (ITR) — for our optimization process (while acknowledging that there are other valid metrics that may be useful for an asset owner’s specific needs). We then identified data sources for different asset classes and tested the limits of climate constraints within an SAA process.
Our key conclusions
We found that a number of challenges and trade-offs can crop up when pursuing climate goals (e.g., alignment with a specific temperature-based target like ITR) using a purely top-down approach. For example, a desired asset allocation may not be viable at a certain level of ITR, given that a majority of companies in the investable universe are not yet aligned with established temperature targets (although we expect ITRs to come down over time as more companies set targets, resulting in a larger investable universe). In addition, a top-down approach can result in significant changes in a portfolio’s underlying assets — changes that may amount to a poor trade-off for the resulting ITR reduction. Finally, asset owners should be aware of sector and regional concentration risks that can result from optimization exercises.
Based on our analysis, we think it will generally be critical to pair a top-down optimization process (e.g., using ITRs) with building-block implementation in order to minimize portfolio changes and pursue specific climate-change objectives (e.g, targeting groups of companies that have credible transition plans or offer climate solutions). We would highlight a number of top-down and bottom-up ideas for asset owners to consider:
Establish what climate alignment means. In our research, we incorporated climate in two complementary ways: 1) using climate-related assumptions to improve the accuracy of our CMAs, and 2) taking a forward-looking view of climate goals the asset owner might want to achieve, such as the integration of a Paris-aligned transition scenario with specific temperature alignment goals.
Benchmark selection can blend traditional indices and sustainable, green, or Paris-aligned indices, although the latter may come with sector or style skews, as noted above.
Climate-aware investing is not simply a risk-avoidance exercise. To pursue alpha potential from the effects of a warming world, asset owners may want to lean into climate-exposed regions, sectors, or industries with a tilt toward climate solutions or adaptation. We think this is an area ripe for thematic investing approaches.
We think asset owners should consider implementing a preference for companies that have set so-called “science-based targets” and/or other net-zero approaches, as this may provide maximum flexibility in reaching climate goals. However, asset owners should be aware of trade-offs, including very different sector exposures than in broad benchmarks.
Exclusions are an option, but we would advocate for engagement with companies instead. Exclusions are based on backward-looking data and often target companies that are critical to the low-carbon transition and in the process of implementing targets to improve their business models’ alignment.
While we have focused mainly on transition risk and climate-change mitigation in our SAA approach, we think underinvestment in climate-change adaptation constitutes a major market inefficiency. We believe adaptation solutions will be a significant opportunity with quite a different footprint than mitigation solutions.
Finally, whatever the approach to implementation, key performance indicators should be monitored over time. Not only can this help to create a clear connection between the asset owner’s investments and broader climate initiatives, but it will also provide reporting transparency that can ensure accountability and foster dialogue about trade-offs.