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Public investors and green bonds

Public investors and green bonds

Green finance becoming more diverse 

by Ben Robinson, OMFIF

Tue 4 Jul 2017

Public investors have played a crucial role in the development of green finance since the launch of the first green bond by the World Bank and the European Investment Bank in 2007. As long-term investors, public pension funds have for decades been concerned with environmental, social and governance issues in the companies and projects they invest in.

Often this has taken the form of using shareholder rights to encourage companies to increase their ESG responsibilities. Pension funds have demanded improved reporting and transparency standards, decided against investing in certain industries and disinvested from companies involved in fossil-fuel related activities. The emergence of green finance options has allowed them to increase their allocations to these assets over the last few years, contributing to a rapidly growing market.

Large public pension funds that have committed to boosting their green investments over the coming years include CalSTRS in California, Sweden’s AP2, AP3 and AP4, Danish ABP, France’s Ircantec and Australia Local Government Super. With a total of $13.8tn in assets under management, a commitment by public pension funds to invest 1%-5% of their assets in green investments would represent a huge market.

While few institutions have formally set themselves a target, the OMFIF survey of public investors shows that many are increasingly willing to boost their green allocations to up to 3% of their
total portfolio. Those that have set targets have tended to exceed them quickly. At the start of 2016, Sweden’s AP2 separated its green bond portfolio from its fixed income investments with a strategic allocation of 1%, equal to Sek3bn ($33m). By the middle of the year it held a total of Sek4.2bn.

Green bond demand is high

Norges Bank Investment Management, which manages Norway’s Government Pension Fund Global, has a mandate to invest Nok30bn-Nok60bn ($3.5bn-$7bn) in ‘environmental investments’. In 2016 NBIM, the largest sovereign fund (based on publicly available information), exceeded this with Nok63.7bn. Out of this Nok57.7bn is invested in listed equities of companies in the areas of low emission energy and alternative fuels, clean energy and efficiency technology, or natural resource management. An additional Nok6.1bn has been invested in green bonds since NBIM created its green bond portfolio in 2014.

South Africa’s Government Employees Pension Fund bought an allocation of Zar1bn ($117.8m) in a green bond issued by the state-owned Industrial Development Corporation in 2012. It followed this in 2013 with a 40% equity stake in a solar power project financed by an unlabelled climate-aligned bond. This forms part of its plan to invest 5% of its portfolio in social and economic development and ‘green economy’ projects.

Further demand from public pension funds is high. Sweden’s AP3 wants to treble its green bond investments between 2016-18 to 13% of its fixed income investments, equivalent to around Sek15bn. In January 2017 French pension fund Fonds de Réserve pour les Retraites committed €5bn to managers investing in green and sustainable assets. CalSTRS, the sixth largest public pension fund in the US, holds over $310m green bonds. This represents a threefold increase over two years. In November 2016 the Maryland State Treasurer’s Office bought $250m of green bonds in a $500m World Bank issuance, the largest share of any participating institution.

At the end of 2016 Stichting Pensioenfonds ABP, a $423bn Danish pension fund, had a €1.4bn allocation to green bonds, making up 2.8% of its total bond portfolio, up from €300m at the start of 2015. It wants to double its total allocation to investments that address environmental and social issues by 2020. Germany’s federal and state government pension funds have a growing interest in sustainable investment strategies, particularly in equity investments.

Sovereign funds are also beginning to play a more active role. The fall in oil prices since 2014 has hastened attempts to diversify the economies of energy-dependent countries. Funds such as the $68bn Mubadala, in Abu Dhabi, have created green investment vehicles with which they are investing in renewable energy projects around the world, particularly solar and wind.

The Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia is set to become one of the largest sovereign funds after the initial public offering of Saudi Aramco planned for 2018. It has the goal of ‘diversifying investments so that within 20 years we will be an economy or state that doesn’t depend mainly on oil’, according to Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who oversees the fund. As part of the wider Vision 2030, the country is planning to boost its renewable energy sector, for which investment in green assets and technology will be key. New Zealand’s $22bn Superannuation Fund is another that is significantly increasing investments in alternative energy and energy efficiency.

Sovereign funds are divesting from assets related to fossil fuels. Ireland’s $23bn sovereign fund plans to divest completely. France’s sovereign fund Caisse de Dépôts has significantly decarbonised its investment portfolios and increased its green assets, encouraged by the government’s new Energy Transition for Green Growth Act, which requires asset owners and managers to provide information on the carbon footprint of their investments and to disclose climate risks in their portfolios.

To date NBIM has sold its stake in 69 companies that are heavily exposed to coal. Last year it brought a court case against Volkswagen as a result of the emissions scandal at the carmaker, and regularly uses its shareholder rights to vote on sustainability issues. In 2016 it raised ESG issues at 1,815 shareholder meetings, 48% of the total. This pressure on companies from large institutional investors creates an indirect boost to green bonds, climate-aligned bonds and other green options. Many public investors include clauses in their mandate to ‘encourage the development of green and responsible business practices and models’, via divestment, selective investment and use of shareholder rights. This can encourage companies to increase their investments in green assets in order to ensure they are able to attract investment from these large public institutions.

Central banks joining in the rush

Central banks, too, play a vital role in supporting the growth of green finance. In 2015 Bangladesh Bank was the first central bank to announce it would invest some of its foreign exchange reserves in green bonds, with an allocation of $200m. In 2016 the central bank of Morocco allocated $100m of its reserves to a green bond from the World Bank. European central banks, including the Deutsche Bundesbank, have shown interest in green bond investments, though they have highlighted concerns that the market remains too small to be more than a ‘small complement to their existing portfolio allocation’. In late 2016 the European Central Bank released a report on ‘the potential of green bond finance for resource-efficient investments’, which highlighted that public sector investors could actively support the development of the green bond market, but warned of ‘unjustified altering of risk profiles’, which could threaten the stability of the market.

One way to boost the size of the market is to allow central banks to accept green bonds as collateral for standing lending facilities and medium-term lending facilities, which allow banks to borrow from the central bank via repurchase agreements. This would boost both issuance and investor demand. Another option being pursued by the Monetary Authority of Singapore is to provide guarantees for green bonds with lower credit ratings in order to attract institutional investors.

The nature of green assets could make them particularly attractive to central bank reserves managers and long-term investors like pension funds. Green bonds have exhibited price stability as they tend to be bought by investors that hold to maturity. Investors tend to prize the long-term prospects of companies that are environmentally conscious in their investments. Investors are aware of the risks to carbon-intensive companies of stranded assets and tightening regulations, higher insurance costs and potential fines. Green investments have seen strong returns, with investors and asset managers emphasising that their green assets are evaluated according to the same investment criteria as their regular assets.

Green bonds have performed better than traditional fixed income assets, while still being backed by the strength of the issuing party, so they are no more risky than regular bonds. In 2016 the large equity investments in NBIM’s environment-related mandate returned 12.4%, against 8.7% for its total equity investments.

The green bond market is growing and becoming more diverse. France launched a sovereign green bond in January 2017, following a smaller sovereign green bond issuance by Poland in 2016. The People’s Bank of China and the Bank of England have been laying the regulatory groundwork to boost issuance of green bonds by corporates and banks, which now account for almost 60% of total issuance, with most of the rest made up by international development organisations and municipals. In 2016 the total green bond market more than doubled to $95bn and issuance is expected to grow to $120bn-$150bn in 2017. Global Public Investors have shown they are a leading force in this rapidly growing sector and will be key to the market’s further development.


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