Below the Surface of ESG Funds

New research shows there may be more ‘green’ funds available than otherwise thought—and more funds that go against ethical values.

More than 1,000 US equity funds have virtually no exposure to fossil fuels despite not being marketed as ‘green’ or environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investments, according to research from MSCI.

“Transparency serves as a tool for creating a wider pool of options where product availability may be a limitation.”Across asset classes, roughly 15% of the 21,000 mutual and exchange-traded funds analyzed by MSCI had a significant tilt towards ESG factors. This included a small number of thematic funds (roughly 2% of the sample), but the majority emphasized themes such as alternative energy, health care, and nutrition without being specifically built as ESG or responsible investment products.

The data comes from MSCI’s ESG Fund Metrics tool, launched to provide investors with ESG risk scores and detailed information on the equity, bond, and multi-asset funds it monitors.

The data also revealed that more than 6,900 equity funds—nearly half of those analyzed by MSCI—had exposure to companies that manufacture controversial weapons such as cluster bombs and land mines. Such companies feature regularly on the banned stock lists for major asset owners in Europe and the US.

“A deficit of objective measurements of the ESG characteristics of fund holdings leaves investors facing several important gaps,” wrote MSCI analysts Laura Nishikawa, Matt Moscardi, and Ken Frankel in the research group’s report, “Fund Transparency: Exploring the ESG Quality of Fund Holdings.”

Investors have “limited visibility” on fund holdings in order to evaluate how ESG strategies translate into practice, the authors said. In addition, investors may find their options limited by this lack of transparency.

“Transparency also serves as a tool for creating a wider pool of options where product availability may be a limitation or as a differentiator for investors,” Nishikawa, Moscardi, and Frankel wrote.

The research paper is available for download from MSCI’s website (registration required).

Related: Pensions Urge ‘Strong Action’ over Climate Change in Paris & The Capitalist’s Guide to ESG