By John Mueller of Dana Investment Advisors
For over twenty years, Dana has been managing ESG portfolios for clients. During this time, we’ve participated in countless meetings and been asked a wide array of questions. While the old adage, ”There is no such thing as a dumb question” holds true, there are usually questions that are more effective than others to help you find the right solution for your investment portfolio. Below is a list of questions we’ve faced over the years that we think can help investors determine the appropriate partner in their search.
What does ESG mean to you and your firm? We believe the most important, and perhaps the simplest, question is often the most overlooked. During meetings, many words or terms are generally used, and everyone nods in agreement, assuming they understand the definition of that word or term. However, one of the greatest missteps in these meetings is not asking for clarification or a better understanding. Often, there will be many different answers as to a particular definition, and that can be good. Yet, instead of trying to have the investment manager convince you that their method/approach is the best, simply ask yourself if their definition fits what you and/or your group is trying to achieve.
How long is your history with ESG investing? As time goes on, this question perhaps becomes less relevant, yet with the increase in asset flows and countless new product launches for ESG strategies, this question will perhaps give you clarity on the manger’s intentions. While time alone is not a determinant of qualification, it should provide another check box for you to determine if this investment manager is the right solution.
Does your firm rely on external ESG ratings, internal, or a combination of both? ESG research providers have grown exponentially in recent years. While many managers have internal methods, there are a number of researchers that specialize in ESG data. Neither answer is wrong, but there is such rapid growth of data that finding external sources can help form a more complete picture of a company’s policies or changes in policies. Both internal and external methods can have biases; therefore, understanding and partnering with multiple can help in eliminating some of these biases.
How does your firm handle companies with recent controversies or catastrophic events? Missteps and unfortunate events happen, but how the aftermath of such an event was dealt with is generally more telling. While catastrophic events are hard to predict, an investment manager’s response in the following days or weeks is of great importance. If they own shares, do they sell right away on headlines, do they seek to understand more before making a portfolio decision, or do they hold the position? These questions will give you more insights into their process. Controversies are generally more difficult and often have a less clear path to their solution. While investment managers may look at the issue differently from clients, their willingness to listen and discuss, or lack thereof, should be key in your evaluation, as these discussions can be vital in adding to the knowledge base for both the client and investment manager.
How do you approach corporate engagement and proxy voting? This question will help in determining the level of commitment the firm has to this space. While some may not currently be active in engagement, their answers will likely reveal their level of willingness to take on that role at a later date. Recent history has taught us that these actions can be impactful and look to be a greater piece of the puzzle going forward.
While this is only a sampling of questions, there are likely more that will be important to each individual organization. Some of the best questions we’ve been asked over the years don’t pertain to any investment strategy or philosophy. At the end of the day, you are choosing to invest with a person or a team, and asking questions about current events or personal backgrounds can be ways for you to better understand the driving force behind a firm’s ESG investing and other principles and characteristics, which is likely the best way to find a long-lasting partnership that will benefit all involved.