London — Exchange-traded funds (ETFs) investing in companies with responsible environmental, social and governance (ESG) practices lured a record $85bn in the US and Europe in 2020, and are still raking it in.

Pumped up by the flows, stocks in many of these funds are trading at frothy price-to-earnings multiples that are increasingly hard to justify. Take US fuel-cell maker Plug Power, for instance; the unprofitable company’s more than 2,000% rally since early 2020 outpaces even Tesla’s.

“There is a risk that holdings that populate ESG funds have become overvalued,” said Chris Dyer, director of global equity at Eaton Vance. “Investors — both active and passive — are increasingly chasing these themes and driving valuation to uncomfortable levels in some cases. This type of naïve investing tends to end badly.”

With the Nasdaq 100 trading near dot-com-era high valuations of the early 2000s, the likes of Bank of America (BofA) are floating warning balloons. And after astronomical surges in shares of renewables — the poster child of ESG investing — market players, including JPMorgan Chase, are trying to be more selective to avert the risk of a sudden pullback.

The Indxx renewable energy index is trading at 42 times earnings, double the multiple of the MSCI world index. Both the MSCI global environment index and MSCI world ESG leaders index are trading at record-high valuations.

ESG funds may underperform if investors move away from overvalued stocks, especially the technology and clean energy shares that fueled the 2020 rally. Their relative performance may also suffer as oil majors, the bête noire of ethically minded investors, make a comeback.

Funds flood

In 2020, a record $32.8bn entered US ESG ETFs and 43bn went into European ones, according to Bloomberg Intelligence data. About half of new ETFs launched in Europe in 2020 were ESG-focused, according to Citigroup. As of end September, total assets held in sustainable funds reached an all-time high of more than $1.2-trillion, according to data from Morningstar.

Though they’re lumped together, it’s mostly the E in ESG that’s drawing investor interest. The MSCI global environment index hit a record high in early January after a 93% surge in 2020. While the iShares global clean energy ETF surged 140% in 2020, some water and gender-themed funds didn’t do as well, Morningstar analyst Kenneth Lamont said.

There’s a lot that can still power the flow into environmental funds. In the US, President Joe Biden has pledged to ramp up green energy investments and infrastructure spending. In Europe, much of the $2.2-trillion pandemic stimulus package is tied to environmentally friendly practices. Amid recovery spending, issuance of green, social and sustainability debt is set to reach $1-trillion in 20201, according to Bloomberg Intelligence.

However, the flood of funds is raising red flags. The BofA strategists said clean energy ETF flows are creating potential bubbles in stocks such as EDP Renováveis (EDPR), Ørsted and Verbund. The fourth-quarter rally of more than 40% in each of those European utilities coincided with a fourfold increase in flows to the iShares global clean energy ETF.

“While we recognise that these fund flows may continue to drive share prices higher, valuations are no longer supported by our fundamental framework, and we can no longer advise investors to put fresh capital into them,” BofA strategists, including Peter Bisztyga, said in a January 11 report, adding that the flows have “created a bubble in these three stocks”.

EDPR trades at 50 times earnings, Ørsted at 55 and Verbund 47.

The rally in Plug Power and other fuel-cell stocks led JPMorgan to cut FuelCell Energy to a sell-equivalent, saying in a January 14 note that the stock is “richly valued” and recommending investors “stay nimble”.

And while the best-performing equity fund in Europe with more than $1bn in assets in 2020, BNP Paribas Asset Management’s energy transition fund, gained about 165%, some investors say such rallies can’t last.

In the US, solar- and hydrogen-linked stocks have run ahead of their fundamentals, said Deirdre Cooper, co-manager of Ninety One’s £514m global environment fund, which has outperformed more than 90% of its peers over the past year. “I think US residential solar looks pretty off-the-charts expensive,” she said.

Goldman Sachs Group strategists, led by Arjun Menon, said in a Monday report that while the impact of ESG metrics on equity valuations hasn’t been significant historically, it has risen “meaningfully” in recent years and is now near the highest in five years.

Valuation worries may mean some of 2020’s high flyers will underperform in 2021. But that’s far from a long-lasting decline in ESG funds, said Mike Chen, director of portfolio management and sustainable investing at the quantitative $37bn PanAgora Asset Management. 

“Decarbonisation is a transformation that’s as big as the internet back in the 1980s,” said Chen. “So this is a major structural theme that’s not going to go away, even if these funds underperform one year.”



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