Asset managers are facing hundreds of ESG fund downgrades

LONDON – Asset managers across Europe may have to reclassify hundreds of ESG funds in the coming months.

Reviews by researchers including Morningstar show that only a small fraction of funds registered as Article 9 – the EU’s strictest ESG category – actually lives up to the level of sustainable investments required under European rules.

Lawyers advising the industry are now warning that many fund managers may have little choice but to change their official ESG designations. The upshot is that clients who thought they’d signed up for the EU’s cleanest ESG product suddenly are left with something else.

“I can imagine there being lots of reclassifications from Article 9” to a less strict ESG designation known as Article 8, said Rahul Manvatkar, an investment funds partner at Linklaters in London. “As much as they may not want to, that’s probably the trajectory as market participants get to grips with the rules.”

A number of prominent asset managers have already resorted to downgrades following guidance from the EU. These include Pacific Investment Management, which reclassified 4 funds to Article 8 from 9, and Goldman Sachs Group’s NN Investment Partners, which downgraded 10 funds.

Europe enforced the world’s most ambitious rulebook for environmental, social and governance (ESG) investing in March 2021. But the full scale of the challenges posed by that framework – the Sustainable Finance Disclosure Regulation – is only now becoming apparent.

Fund managers say they don’t have anywhere near enough data to comply, and SFDR is continually being fine-tuned as rule makers acknowledge gaps. The EU Commission has said that an Article 9 fund “may invest in a wide range” of assets “provided these underlying assets qualify as sustainable investments” while allowing for liquidity and hedging needs.

In other words, EU authorities have “made it clear that Article 9 funds should commit to invest almost exclusively in sustainable investments”, said Hugo Gallagher, senior policy adviser at the European Sustainable Investment Forum (Eurosif), whose members represent about US$20 trillion in assets under management.

“Clearly, a significant proportion of funds classified as Article 9 are far short of meeting this threshold,” he said.

Morningstar estimates that Article 9 funds currently represent about 470 billion euros (S$659 billion) of assets under management. Article 9 funds worth 25 billion euros have already been downgraded in the past 6 months, according to an estimate by Barclays analysts led by Charlotte Edwards that’s based on Morningstar data.

More than 300 Article 9 funds have reported a minimum threshold in sustainable investments that is less than 90 per cent, putting them at risk of losing their designation, data provider FE fundinfo told Bloomberg. Many more failed to provide any indication of their sustainability targets, suggesting the figure may be meaningfully higher than 300.

Regulators are also struggling to interpret the rules. The EU’s 3 financial supervisory authorities have asked the European Commission for more guidance on several fundamental issues around how to define a sustainable investment. Meanwhile, national authorities are left to patrol the industry, with the European Securities and Markets Authority saying it will intervene if necessary.

Morningstar, which estimates that there are roughly 950 Article 9 funds in total, said that about 40 per cent of these have a sustainable investment goal that is less than 50 per cent. Just 2.5 per cent target allocations higher than 90 per cent and only a dozen report 100 per cent sustainable investments.

“This begs the question: Was it really what the regulator intended? Probably not,” said Hortense Bioy, global director of sustainable research at Morningstar.