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Materiality is the foundation of our ESG approach
Seema Suchak
ESG Sector Research Director

Your gateway to all things ESG at Capital Group

Our approach to environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues centers on identifying those we believe are material to the ability of a company to generate long-term value. The incorporation of material ESG risks and opportunities is aligned with the long-term orientation we have always taken to pursuing superior investment outcomes.

 

KEY TAKEAWAYS

 

  • Our 30+ sector-specific ESG investment frameworks identify key material risks and opportunities we believe will drive long-term value creation.
  • We bring our proprietary ESG sector-specific frameworks to life by sourcing over 45+ third-party data sources that help us identify opportunities and risks, including violations of international norms.
  • As active managers, we refresh our frameworks regularly to capture the dynamic nature of ESG issues and ensure they are forward-looking. 

At Capital Group, we recognize the need — and value — of integrating material ESG insights into our investment process. This objective is consistent with our longstanding mission to improve people's lives through successful investing.


Our long-term approach, which is a core part of The Capital System™, fits naturally with the time horizons associated with ESG risks and opportunities. Our equity funds' average holding period is over four years — nearly 130% longer than our peers.* Our deep research, regular dialogue with companies and diversity of thought tend to lead us toward companies focused on creating long-term value. We understand that the enduring profitability and growth of a company are directly tied to its relationships with customers, employees, suppliers, regulators and the environment in which it operates.


Given our long-term approach, many elements of ESG are a natural fit with our investment process and are a focus for our analysts and portfolio managers. We have intensified investment in our firm-wide approach to ESG integration, making the process transparent and evolutionary, building in the potential to further adapt it over time as the external stakeholder landscape shifts.


We are dedicating significant resources to ESG

This image shows the number of investment frameworks, data sources and equity and bond investment analysts involved in Capital Group's ESG integration approach. 30+ investment frameworks distill our analysts' perspectives on the most material, long-term sustainability issues. Investment frameworks also inform our monitoring process and engagement efforts. 45+ data sources bring investment frameworks to life with over 290 metrics. Our in house ESG platform, Ethos, aggregates and displays the data for sector specific material ESG considerations. 200+ equity and bond investment analysts built the frameworks in partnership with the ESG team for a proprietary view of ESG risks and opportunities at a sector level. Frameworks are refreshed annually to capture the dynamic nature of ESG, ensuring they are forward looking.

As of December 31, 2022.

Our integration of ESG builds on our bottom-up, fundamental research and analysis and is centered on three components: investment frameworks, a monitoring process, and engagement and proxy voting. Materiality is not only the foundation of our investment frameworks, but also informs our monitoring process and engagement priorities. Progress in one directly supports the others, creating an ongoing cycle of development. We have been intentional about creating a process that reinforces itself, so we can continuously learn.


ESG integration: Our three-part process

This image details Capital Group's three-part ESG process. Research and investment frameworks reflect material ESG considerations in 30+ sectors. The monitoring process uses available third-party data to flag a subset of investments in certain asset classes for further research and review. Engagement and proxy voting involves engaging with issuers on material ESG risks and opportunities and voting proxies in the best interest of our clients.

Integrating ESG into The Capital System


The incorporation of material ESG risks and opportunities is deeply woven into The Capital System. ESG is not an "add on" step. Investment decisions are informed by Capital Group’s fundamental, bottom-up research, which includes, where material, analysis of how a company interacts with its community, customers, suppliers and employees. We focus on the ESG issues that directly impact company results and valuations. Our long-term approach, a core part of The Capital System, fits naturally with the time horizons associated with material ESG risks and opportunities, such as climate change and human capital.


More than 200 of our equity and fixed income investment analysts, in partnership with our dedicated ESG specialist team, have created more than 30 ESG investment frameworks that identify the issues we believe to be material to each sector. These frameworks help us understand how material issues affect companies financially and enable us to measure and integrate these metrics into our investment process.


Importantly, in these frameworks, we are seeking to evaluate the risks and opportunities not fully captured by traditional financial metrics. Our frameworks also inform our monitoring process and engagement efforts. These issues include long-term secular trends, such as energy transition and social inequality. We also consider how companies operate and how they are performing compared to sector peers. For example, can they build a competitive advantage by attracting, retaining and promoting the right people? Are they able to increase consumer trust by providing safer products? Are they able to adapt and transition away from carbon-intensive commodities?


Capital Group is not alone in seeking to understand and measure material ESG issues. Companies, too, are acutely focused on managing these topics and reporting meaningful information to investors. In 2020, 92% of S&P 500 companies published a sustainability report. This stands in contrast to the 2011 report, when only 20% did so. The industry is still seeking to standardize sustainability reporting, with a look toward the forthcoming International Sustainability Standards Board (ISSB) to help blend the current patchwork of reporting standards. We believe this work is important and actively participate in the advisory group. 


Explore the latest research and insights in our ESG perspectives library

Importance of materiality


We know that the definition of what is material is dynamic. It is not uncommon for an immaterial factor to quickly become material. We view the challenges of determining which issues are material and gauging the time frame over which that materiality will get reflected within share prices as opportunities to which we are particularly well-suited, given our focus on deep, fundamental, primary research.


Human capital amidst a pandemic


As we were in the process of building our investment frameworks, the COVID-19 health crisis and ensuing economic shutdown unfolded, providing a real-life use case. Companies representing nearly every sector were forced to make drastic changes to protect the health and well-being of employees, customers and communities.


Failing to do so carried major business risks. A phenomenon economists’ have now characterized as The Great Resignation resulted in a mass exodus of employees voluntarily leaving their employers. Notably, nearly 628,000 workers left the retail sector in April 2021 alone, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, on top of the nearly 800,000 jobs lost in the sector during 2020.§ In the health care industry, job vacancies as a percentage of total openings rose to a record high of 10% in 2021, nearly double the long-term average.


Our research on the importance of human capital has identified some key material issues, including employee health and safety, wages and benefits, supply-chain management and cybersecurity in supporting the rapid transition to digital. Companies with strong cultures, benefits and compensation structures were likely to be more resilient during the pandemic, adapting to new business models and more flexible work environments.


In our analysis, we set out to see how companies were responding to questions like, “How does management attract, develop and retain the right talent?”; “Is there training available for workers to develop skills?”; “Is there a diverse, purpose-driven culture?”; “Are there positive labor relations?” The best approaches to these questions can reduce inequalities, improve the working environment and ultimately prove to be less costly to companies than the risk of attrition.


While the COVID-19 pandemic brought a renewed focus on the importance of human capital development, we believe it has always been a material ESG risk. Notably, 83% of our sector-specific frameworks include human capital as a material issue. 


Material ESG issue: Human capital development

 

Relevance in investment analysis

        Best practices

 

Labor is one of the largest costs across industry, and treatment of employees can be a way for companies to differentiate. Better pay and benefits can translate into improved performance through employee engagement and customer satisfaction. Increasing wages and benefits can mitigate against regulatory risk. Companies can create a competitive advantage by offering good health care benefits and a safe work environment.

    Systematic measurement and high levels of employee satisfaction

    Steady, low and/or decreasing employee turnover

    Disclosure on employee compensation costs, training and career development plans

    Offering good benefits and wages that exceed minimum wage

    Improvements in the level and trend of racial and gender diversity

COVID-related additions

COVID-19 drove many to reconsider their employment: How well has this company adapted to the changing environment and how are they seeking to retain talent? What is the risk to loss of human capital and the cost of regaining talent?

    Provide flexible working conditions to accommodate for childcare schedules, provide mental health and wellness benefits and provide equal and transparent compensation.

 


Proprietary research + third-party data:
A powerful combination


ESG data, when based on quantitative or standardized information, can be valuable input to our investment process. Alongside a robust understanding of material ESG issues, we have found that the information used to measure and evaluate companies matters greatly.


With the increased interest in ESG, there has been an influx of ESG ratings and scores. It is important to understand the limits of third-party data. Currently, the discrepancy in ratings across leading ESG data providers is so wide it is nearly impossible to state a singular market view on a company’s ESG profile. A 2022 study by MIT Sloan School of Management found a very low correlation of just 0.61 between top-level ESG ratings from major providers# vs. 0.92 for traditional credit-rating agencies. Overcoming the lack of consistency in ESG scores was cited by investors as the biggest hurdle when incorporating ESG data into investment decisions, according to our latest global ESG study.


The same intention, widely varying conclusions


Sustainalytics Risk Rating and MSCI's ESG score both measure a company's ESG risk exposure and management. Each rating agency has its own way of defining and measuring ESG issues. There are differences in how they choose which issues to evaluate, how they calculate risk and how they attempt to bridge the vast data gaps created when companies report limited or inconsistent information. The result is little consensus across the market and a significant degree of noise. 


We need to be selective about the ESG data we use. To inform our ESG evaluation process, our analysts leverage MSCI and Sustainalytics for the monitoring of securities, in addition to other quantifiable indicators using third-party data, which support our investment frameworks in a proprietary in-house tool, Ethos. In some industries, there may be very few valuable third-party data points, requiring a heavy reliance on fundamental, bottom-up, analysis or nontraditional data sources. In other sectors, there are several high-quality indicators that can be readily integrated into our investment analysis.


Our singular purpose is to identify companies that are likely to drive sustainable long-term results. External agencies, while supporting that outcome, each have a different focus that can help explain differences in results. MSCI’s ESG Ratings focus on a company’s operations in the context of its industry and score each company relative to its peers. Sustainalytics focuses on “unmanaged” ESG risks, scoring each company on industry or regional ESG risk exposure minus company actions to manage that risk. ISSB’s mission is different, focused on advancing reporting standards to help companies disclose material, decision-useful information to investors. We evaluate each of these inputs in our process, then rely on our own investment frameworks to establish our view.


Our ESG research in action


The health care services sector is a good example of our holistic, evidence-based approach to ESG. Capital Group investment analysts identified social issues that pose material ESG risks and opportunities within the industry. This meant a focus on consumer safety and product quality, affordability and access, and data security and privacy, all underpinned by strong management quality and accountability.


Zeroing in on material issues


Zeroing in on material issues

When evaluating the ESG issues within the U.S. health care services sector, Capital Group analysts sought to identify those they believed were most material to the success of the company as a long-term investment.


In U.S. health care services, one key thesis is that value-based care (e.g., incentives aimed at keeping people healthy rather than additional fees for services) is the most sustainable model over the long term. Doctors in value-based care models tend to conduct more proactive patient outreach and emphasize preventive care and ongoing maintenance. We believe this approach helps raise the health of the broader population and, in turn, likely saves costs and increases patient satisfaction and retention.


To evaluate a company against this investment thesis, analysts conduct primary research through dialogue with the company itself. The analysts ask questions directly to companies at all levels of management, not just the executive suite, which helps them understand if the stated priorities are manifested in the company’s culture and operations. Additionally, our analysts don’t ask just once — or even once a year. It’s an ongoing effort.


Beyond dialogue with companies, our analysts look at nontraditional indicators, such as customer satisfaction tracking and net promoter scores. They also stay on top of new regulations and assess the risk of sanctions, including warning letters, fines, restrictions and recalls.


A differentiated ESG view


Our research efforts, as articulated in our sector-specific investment frameworks, will lead us, at times, to disagree with ESG rating agencies. One major ESG rating agency, for example, rates a company we view as a pioneer in value-based care below its peers. The company is penalized for publishing limited information on customer satisfaction rates and not establishing policies on emerging health risks, such as obesity and environmental pollutions. We take a different view — that by changing the incentive structure for doctors, this company encourages preventive care and contributes to overall better health outcomes, which, in our view, is more material to the company’s long-term success as an organization and as an investment.


An evolving process focused on better outcomes


In our fast-moving global economy and society, material ESG issues can change quickly. We constantly review and adapt our frameworks to ensure we are forward-thinking.


We rely on our expertise of engaging companies as partners. In a rapidly changing landscape of ESG and sustainability, we will continue to learn and adapt, to contribute to the improved management of material ESG issues across the board. We remain more convinced than ever that a materiality-based approach to ESG will reinforce the types of sustainable business practices that we believe will drive better results and outcomes for our investors.



Seema Suchak is an ESG sector research director at Capital Group. She has 18 years of industry experience and joined Capital Group in 2021. Prior to joining Capital, Seema worked as head of sustainability research at Schroders Investment Management. Before that, she was a senior sustainable investment analyst at F&C Asset Management, now BMO Global Asset Management. She holds a master's degree in international business from Birkbeck, University of London and a bachelor's degree in international relations with French from the University of Birmingham. Seema is based in London.


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* On average, the equity-focused American Funds hold their investments for 4.3 years, whereas their peers hold their investments for 1.9 years, based on the equal-weighted blended averages across each of the 20 equity-focused American Funds' respective Morningstar categories as of December 31, 2022. Fixed income funds are not included in this calculation due to the differing nature of trading in the asset class versus equity investing. American Funds are not registered for sale outside the US.

 

 Governance & Accountability Institute, Inc. (G&A) 2021 Sustainability Reporting in Focus report, focusing on the 2020 publication year. 92% of the S&P 500 companies published a sustainability report in 2020 vs. 20% in 2011. 

 

§ U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, April 2021.

 

 Deutsche Bank. “Hospital Trends into 4Q and views around 2022.”

 

# Berg, Florian, Kölbel, Julian and Rigobon, Roberto. 2022. "Aggregate Confusion: The Divergence of ESG Ratings." MIT Sloan School Working Paper 5822-19, MIT Sloan School of Management, Cambridge, MA.

 

Capital Group manages equity assets through three investment groups. These groups make investment and proxy voting decisions independently. Fixed income investment professionals provide fixed income research and investment management across the Capital organization; however, for securities with equity characteristics, they act solely on behalf of one of the three equity investment groups.

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