Heuristics are simple efficient rules that we all use on a daily basis. We have all learned these through experience, and often they aid our decision making. They are especially helpful in making decisions with the limited resources we all have, particularly in terms of time.

As an example: many people do not have time, or perhaps the inclination, to consider the various parties’ policies and form an opinion on their impact when voting in an election. Often the quick heuristic (a rule of thumb in this case) used is “Do I like / trust this politician?” (a single factor decision). This is far easier to evaluate than the party’s position (set against other parties’ positions) on the economy, healthcare, crime, education, etc. (a multi factor decision). Even those who do not have a strong view on political matters are highly likely to have a view on whether they like a particular candidate (or not). Often a referendum result can be dictated by the popularity of the PM responsible for asking the question, perhaps reflecting this tendency. It is easier to decide whether we like David Cameron (or Boris Johnson?) than to examine the full implications of a Brexit vote.

As is ever the case with rules of thumb, nuances are lost, which can sometimes lead to suboptimal outcomes. Similarly, when we look to apply rules of thumb to Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) investing, we should be wary of unintended consequences. For example, where portfolios are not already excluding, let’s consider one of the ESG rules of thumb that has been suggested for investors to manage their coal exposure; specifically not investing in any company with more than 10 gigawatts (GW) of electricity production from coal-fired power stations.

Let’s quickly evaluate a company that would fall foul of this limit. If we take the Italian utility Enel, its installed coal capacity of 15GW in 1H2018 would dwarf the total installed capacity of many other utilities. However, Enel has embraced renewables generation more than many others in the industry (some of which, crucially, would pass this test), focussing their investments on green energy and grids (43 GW in installed renewable capacity). Even so, because of their sheer scale, they would fall foul of the coal capacity rule of thumb. Despite not investing in new coal plants, and despite reducing coal generation by 14% year-on-year in their first half results.

Taking a company which would pass this limit rule: CEZ are a Czech utility which uses lignite (also known as “brown” coal) in their coal and lignite power plants. Lignite is widely considered to be worse than coal from an environmental perspective and comprises 76% of CEZ’s thermal and 38% of total generating capacity. They also expect new and upgraded lignite plants to continue to operate for 25 years. Contrast this with Enel which talks about ‘renewables being the driving force of growth’.

In a carbon constrained future, which is the better choice? Enel or CEZ? We would argue it is Enel, but it is CEZ that passes this test! And even though most of our portfolios do not have coal powered electricity production restrictions, we have actively made the considered choice to invest in ENEL (we passed on the recent deal for CEZ).

This is taking only one rule of thumb, so is a single factor evaluation. However, it shows that nuances can be overlooked.

This is why our long history of running ethical funds has led to a multifactor approach in our ESG evaluation, and why our preference remains to evaluate the drivers behind the exclusions, rather than applying a heuristic rule of thumb.

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