In a November 2 Wall Street Journal article, reporter Carolyn Cui wrote that “math geeks and altruists are forging unlikely alliances in the quest for better investment returns.” “Quants and Do-Gooders Unite” provided recent examples of the integration of environmental, social and governance (ESG) data into mathematical modeling of possible portfolio performance.
ESG factors are conventionally understood as “qualitative” attributes of a given business, rather than as comparative data that could tell investors how that business’s stock may perform. For example, a traditional socially responsible investor (SRI) might seek to avoid holding any companies that produce military weapons. For that investor, the only numbers needed are binary; a company either passes their “no weapons” screen or not.
Over the past 20 years, SRI/ESG research firms have sought to enable more subtle and granular analysis of corporate ESG performance. MSCI ESG Research progenitors Innovest and KLD developed comprehensive frameworks to generate comparative data across a spectrum of ESG indicators, from carbon emissions to executive compensation practices. IVA, Global Socrates, and the KLD Indexes (now MSCI ESG Indices) support both qualitative and quantitative approaches to portfolio construction.
While Ms. Cui’s article highlights the novelty of “math geeks and altruists” working together, such détente isn’t without precedent. In 2005, KLD worked with Barclays Global Investors to create an exchange-traded fund based on what is now called the MSCI KLD 400 Social Index.