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Mar 3, 2017

Index Funds Are Climate Change Denial

Why investing in broad-based index funds is no longer a “safe” option for savvy investors.

You probably know that index funds have become all the rage in investing over the past several years, as investors flock to their low fees and reject the gospel of active management. But you probably don’t know that investing in a broad-based index fund not only ignores rapid changes in the energy economy, but it makes the investor complicit in climate change denial. And just as climate denial ignores the inherent risks of fossil fuels to environment, economy and society, “set it and forget it” index investing ignores the inherent risks of fossil fuels and related stocks to your portfolio.

If you own an S&P 500 Index fund, you own 65 fossil fuels related companies. That’s 12.14 percent of the index, or about $12 of every $100 you deposit, going directly into fossil fuels (according to fossilfreefunds.org, which confirms my Bloomberg terminal’s information). This includes producers such as ExxonMobil and Anadarko Petroleum; oil and gas services companies including Halliburton, Schlumberger and BakerHughes; and several fossil fuels fired utilities like Sempra Energy and FirstEnergy Corp. To boot, you are investing in many of fossil fuels’ project funding banks (Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup, the so-called “bankers of extreme oil and gas”), and demand drivers (internal combustion engine manufacturers, coal and gas turbine makers, many of whom, such as Ford, are actively resisting improving mileage standard requirements).

Current conventional wisdom holds that the best and most sensible way to invest in stocks is to buy a broad-market index fund with the lowest fee you can find, and then forget it. More than that, we are conditioned to judge every fund by its performance’s adherence to an index; even non-index funds are routinely judged by how closely they mirror the returns of a major benchmark. The terms “risk profile” and “risk adjusted returns” of a fund usually mean nothing more than a measure of how much (less or more) a fund’s performance varied from a benchmark index. But I would argue that, given the massive risks embedded in the present holdings of indices like the S&P 500, these benchmarks have outlived their usefulness as measures of investment risk, and now present far more portfolio danger than we are led to believe. In short, our yardstick for measuring risk is broken.

How broken? Consider this: In owning that basket of S&P 500 stocks, you are making an active bet that economic growth will be perpetuated by fossil fuel-derived power. This bet is now visibly, clearly not the way forward. As British environmental economist Nicholas Stern has recently said, “Strong investment in sustainable infrastructure—that’s the growth story of the future. This will set off innovation, discovery, much more creative ways of doing things. This is the story of growth, which is the only one available because any attempt at high-carbon growth would self-destruct.” (The emphasis in Stern’s quote is mine.) For its part, and more pointedly, the investment bank division at Morgan Stanley in 2016 advised clients that long term investment in fossil fuels may be a bad financial decision, writing, “Investors cannot assume economic growth will continue to rely heavily on an energy sector powered predominantly by fossil fuels.”

What both Stern and Morgan Stanley understand is that the world has changed and our approaches to investment need to change with it.

I won’t belabor a case that’s already been convincingly made (see here, here and here for e.g.), but it has become clear that the age of fossil fuels is beginning to end:

  • Costs of renewable technologies continue to plummet, while fossil fuels remain volatile commodities.
  • Consumers, businesses, investors are shifting.
  • Policies instituted by national governments (led thus far by China and Germany) and local governments (the U.S. state of California, and others).

The decline of fossil fuels will impact investments as much as it will impact any aspect of the economy. The S&P 500 as it’s now constituted is too packed with fossil fuels and other sources of systemic risk to represent any kind of credible reference for calculating safety of returns or expecting to earn them. In terms of the outcomes it promotes, S&P 500 is functionally the same as climate denial. It is time for a new standard.

How do we realize this new standard? We need to recognize that avoiding indexing isn’t just about putting your money where carbon isn’t; it’s now about putting your money where the future is. Think, as an investor, about the outcomes of economic and technological innovation, combined with awareness of the risks of climate change. Where is investment money flowing in response to rapid changes in both? I believe some of the answers include renewable energies, water, sustainable farming practices, efficient transportation, connected cities and grids, AI and machine learning, robotics, biotech and new approaches to real estate—to name a few.

It is in seeing the world for what it has become, rather than what it was, that investors and markets will allocate capital to manage risks and profit from new opportunities. All of which leads in the opposite direction from fossil fuels.

Enough with the old indices. We should be buying what’s next instead.

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