What motivates retail investors when it comes to sustainability-related investing? And do the factors that influence their decision-making vary from country to country or at other levels such as financial literacy? We believe the answers have significant implications for the development of sustainable finance products and asset pricing.
This article is part of our series on current academic research into a range of sustainability-related investment topics. The papers discussed were presented at the latest annual Global Research Alliance for Sustainable Investment and Finance conference. We believe in science-led sustainable investment. Partnering with academic researchers can add value since thorough research helps us to grasp the scope of climate change and biodiversity loss, to quantify risk, and to develop fit-for-purpose solutions. This is why we sponsor GRASFI’s annual conference and share relevant scientific findings with investors, clients and the wider asset management industry on our websites.
Although sustainability-related investment has become increasingly important in recent years, it has remained unclear to what extent preferences for sustainability-related investing are universal or vary widely across countries.
The authors of “Why Do Investors Pay Higher Fees for Sustainable Investments? An Experiment in Five European Countries” recently conducted the first large-scale online experiment of its kind to find out how and why European retail investors consider sustainability aspects in their investment decisions. The paper also sheds light on whether individuals are willing to pay a premium for sustainability-related investments.
The authors sought to answer three key questions:
1. Do individual investor preferences for sustainability-related investments depend on whether the investment product follows a broad environmental, social and governance (ESG) strategy or a narrower climate-related strategy?
2. How much do individual preferences for sustainability-related investments depend on
- Financial beliefs
- Social signalling motives
- Social preferences?
3. How does the relevance of the investor motives for sustainability-related investments vary across countries?
The study, conducted online, involved more than 1 000 individual investors in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland and Spain. ‘Individual investors’ were defined as financial decision-makers in their household who either owned or were sufficiently informed about investment products. The countries were selected because of their differences in economic background, stock market participation, and pro-social and environmental behaviour.
The participants were asked to allocate investments between sustainability and conventional MSCI World exchange-traded funds (ETFs). Two different sustainability ETFs were considered, one that tracks an index that follows a broad ESG-based screening strategy, the other following a narrow climate-related strategy. ETFs were chosen as they are straightforward investment products that enjoy a high degree of familiarity.
Once the numbers were crunched, the study revealed a range of results that should prove useful for sustainable finance asset developers and owners, as well as for policymakers involved in the drive to net zero emissions. The main findings of this study included:
- Preferences for sustainability-related investments are stronger for a specific climate change fund than a broad ESG fund.
- Financial motives matter for sustainability-related investments. More interestingly, social preferences play a key role in individual sustainability-related investment behaviour.
- Furthermore, social preferences play an important role in explaining sustainability-related investments in all five countries. The strength of the relation varies somewhat across countries, with the highest importance in Germany and the Netherlands.
- Individual preferences for sustainability-related investments vary across Europe. The sensitivity to higher fees on sustainability-related funds varies across countries and is highest in the Netherlands and Germany.
- Fee sensitivity is strongly driven by financial literacy. Financially literate individuals reduce the share of sustainability-related investments when these investment products become more expensive.
Implications for asset prices…
The authors concluded that investors across Europe differ significantly in their sensitivities to rising fees for sustainability-related investments, implying different levels of willingness to pay for these investments.
Financial literacy is a key driver of this fee sensitivity. Uniformly across countries, sustainability-related investment preferences are slightly stronger when the fund follows a specific climate-related investment strategy than a broader ESG strategy.
Social preferences were also revealed to play an important role in the countries considered, even though the countries differ significantly in many socioeconomic factors.
The authors believe the results have significant implications for asset prices and indeed run counter to financial theory models that suggest investor decisions are grounded solely on risk-return considerations.
They also make reference to recent theoretical considerations which assume that investors with stronger tastes for ESG – but also for a stock’s ability to hedge climate risk – are willing to pay more for assets that generate a positive impact for society.
Since investor tastes could thus influence stock prices, a greater willingness to pay for shares in firms with a sustainability focus would translate into lower capital costs for these firms.
The study also confirms that people from different European countries uniformly invest a remarkable share in climate-related funds, if they have the opportunity to do so.
…and for the policy process
We believe these are important findings for the current policy process at the European level, where financing the necessary measures for the transition to a low-carbon economy is a major issue.
Future research could investigate sustainability-related investment behaviour in other European countries and different continents, as sustainability-related investments are becoming more important around the world.
After all, climate change is a global challenge, and understanding what motivates individuals to contribute to financing effective solutions is of paramount importance.
“The paper highlights the growing importance of sustainability in the investment decisions of European retail investors. The survey discussed in the paper shows that European retail investors tend to prefer sustainability-related investments over conventional funds and have a small preference for climate-related funds over more general ESG funds. Although sensitivity to fees varies across the continent, retail investors are prepared to pay a premium for their sustainable preferences while noting that financial motives also matter. Asset managers operating in Europe should respond to this trend by offering products that meet such preferences, with adequate choices related to the sustainability theme of investments while not discarding the importance of financial decisions when selecting investments.”
Raul Leote de Carvalho, Deputy Head of Quant Research Group, BNPP AM