A number of catalysts poised to converge in 2022 will give a lift to global sustainable and ESG assets next year, according to a recent note from Jefferies.
“We are seeing 2022 as the year when ESG not only becomes mainstream, but it starts driving markets a lot more,” Jefferies Global Head of ESG and Sustainability Research Aniket Shah said on Yahoo Finance Live (video above). “And the reason why this will happen is because core parts of the financial system, including the central banks, are going to become even more serious about climate change as they are today.”
The market for ESG funds set a record in 2020 and continued to grow in 2021, especially in a robust first quarter. In total, an estimated $120 billion have flowed into ESG exchange-traded funds this year.
In 2022, the velocity of ESG investing is likely to continue with 11 catalytic events propelling the market, according to Jefferies analysts. A majority of the catalysts fall under policy and regulatory changes as national governments and central banks get serious about climate change and decarbonization targets.
“We've seen a lot of action, frankly, on the fiscal side — globally, not necessarily in the U.S. — on renewables and on energy,” Shah said. “We can expect more of that here in the States next year. And I think all around the world, you're going to see more involvement from central banks, which will be a very nice one-two punch.”
The no. 1 catalyst for continued ESG momentum
2021 began with considerable optimism for ESG funds — and flows to boot — on the prospect of significant federal investment in climate adaptation with the incoming Biden administration and Democratic control of Congress.
In anticipation, renewable energy stocks and ETFs rallied hard throughout the second half of 2020. Invesco's Solar ETF (TAN), for instance, rose over 230%, reaching its peak on Jan. 1, 2020.
The Biden administration took one key step by rejoining the Paris Agreement and Congress passed the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill. However, some of the optimism has been dampened as President Biden's Build Back Better agenda — which would be the largest effort to address climate change in U.S. history — has all but ground to a halt.
“We see BBB passing in the first half of 2022, with a significant portion of the House-version being passed through the Senate,” the analysts wrote on Dec. 13, acknowledging that a delay from centrist Sens. Manchin (D-WV) and Sinema (D-AZ) would be likely. Should the bill eventually pass the Senate with climate provisions resembling the $555 billion allotted by the House-passed version, “this will provide medium-term tailwinds to renewables, EVs, and CCS-oriented companies.” (CCS refers to carbon capture and storage.)
Speaking before comments by Manchin left Build Back Better in a lurch, Shah stated: “The number one, and perhaps most important, catalyst for a continuation of this momentum around ESG is the reconciliation package here in the United States, the Build Back Better bill.”
From a global perspective, efforts to find a way forward for Biden's social spending and climate investment plan are part of a larger trend that the analysts highlighted: greater decarbonization efforts in the U.S., Europe, and China, but declining international cooperation.
And while the shape of some of these policies will come down to midterm elections, in the U.S. and in France, for example, “we can expect a lot more of this happening not just in the United States, but all around the world, whether it's the EU Green Deal, efforts that are underway in China and other major economies,” Shah said.
European countries have dominated when it comes to sustainable finance and green bond issuance, in particular. But despite a more laggard approach to sustainability rules, the U.S. may catch up anyway. As another strategist told Yahoo Finance Live recently, markets — not governments — will lead the way in the United States.
“The United States is really poised to go on its own journey and run its own race in 2022,” Aaron Franklin, head of sustainable finance at SMBC, said. “It's a lot less of a policy-driven market in the United States and a lot more driven by what asset managers need to see, what banks need to see, and how companies can differentiate themselves. That's distinguished from the European approach of having a bit more of a top-down, did this comply with the definition of sustainability.”
Green monetary policy
Central banks, too, could bolster the market for ESG assets as the institutions become “more forceful on green monetary policy,” according to the note.
“There are a whole bunch of policy instruments that central banks can play, whether it's stress tests, whether it's actual asset purchasing, differential treatment of green versus brown assets from a capital requirement perspective for banks,” Shah said. “We think next year is the year that this becomes mainstream and integrated in major central banks around the world.”
Among the biggest changes that 2022 could bring for ESG investing are new guidelines for disclosing climate-related risks, opportunities, and metrics. In the U.S., the SEC collected public comments on climate change disclosures between March and June 2021 and received more than 5,000 statements, with a majority in favor of more stringent disclosure requirements to clamp down on greenwashing (falsely portraying or providing misleading information about a company's environmental efforts).
“We see the SEC endorsing mandatory climate disclosures in 2022 for implementation in 2023-2024,” the Jefferies analysts wrote, also predicting that “the SEC climate disclosures will loosely resemble the approach of the TCFD,” or the recommendations laid out by the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures.
Furthermore, the International Sustainability Standards Board (ISSB), a body announced at the 2021 COP26 summit in Glasgow by the International Financial Reporting Standards Foundation, could release a draft of global sustainable disclosures for financial markets in early 2022.
While the ISSB does not hold the authority to mandate disclosure requirements, it could establish a "comprehensive global baseline of sustainability-related disclosure standards" which other authorities and companies follow, the note said.
"We see the ISSB becoming the global standard-bearer of ESG disclosure in 2022," the analysts wrote. "As more companies disclose ESG-related information based on ISSB, the standard will become the driver of materiality, just like with financial disclosures. We recommend investors become familiar with the ISSB approach in 2022."
These standards could also prove to be an important driver of ESG alignment across disparate countries and jurisdictions. As the note emphasized, "the standards will be developed in such a way that they can be mandated and aligned with jurisdiction-specific requirements; it will be at the discretion of jurisdictional authorities to decide whether to mandate the use of the standards."
'A whole new era' for ESG investing
While COP26 garnered global attention as world leaders, business executives, activists, and many others gathered in Glasgow to discuss decarbonization solutions, its biodiversity equivalent, COP15, received much less attention. That could change next year as the second phase of COP15 is expected to take place from April 25 to May 8, 2022.
The overarching theme for ESG investors: a broader approach to companies' environmental frameworks beyond decarbonization.
“We see biodiversity becoming the new 'climate change' in 2022 and the COP15 UN Biodiversity Conference being the catalyst for this moment,” the Jefferies analysts wrote. “This could signal a whole new era for the ESG-focused investor. We see 2022 as the year that natural capital becomes a focus for investors, and over the next 2-3 years as when the investor community becomes more involved in the risks and opportunities therein.”
With over half of global GDP relying moderately or heavily on nature, according to research from the World Economic Forum — plus the additional but unaccounted-for value it provides — preventing a mass extinction of species may increasingly become a necessary concern for investors.
The energy transition won't take a back seat, however. “The general sentiment, though, from our team, the ESG team at Jefferies, is, 2022 will be a constructive year for the renewables play,” Shah said. “Over $130 trillion of capital from major financial institutions is now pledged towards financing the energy transition. To us, this is a structural tailwind for the sector, and we think that there will be many winners along the way.”
Grace is an assistant editor for Yahoo Finance.