Hi! I'm an NYU prof. working on AI-related topics, and recent joiner of Giving What We Can. Nervously posting a first question:
When investing money that's needed for a non-EA purpose, is it reasonable to use mutual funds that try to use shareholder activism to accomplish prosocial impacts as the default building blocks for a portfolio?
[Edite to clarify that I'm asking about funds that try to accomplish social/non-financial impact through shareholder activism.]
- I'm primarily interested in finding the best way to allocate personal savings investments that I expect to need in the future, but for which I can afford to take some risk. I expect to divert at least 10% of any returns to charity, possibly more, but I don't see this primarily as investing for future giving. Secondarily, if a clear consensus emerges around a worthwhile socially responsible investing strategy, I'd be interested in making the case for professional organizations that I deal with to try such a strategy.
- I've seen fairly convincing arguments that index funds with ESG (roughly: social impact) filters—seemingly the most prominent form of socially responsible investing—don't actually succeed in advancing ESG goals, but it sounds at least plausible that prosocial shareholder activism/proxy voting can have an impact on corporate behavior. (This is informed, in part, by discussion on the forum here.)
- Right now, it doesn't seem like there's much of a cost to participating in this kind of activism. I'm not an expert at evaluating securities, but it looks like most of the activist mutual funds from Calvert outperform their benchmarks, even after fees (example), and tend to do well on socially-agnostic rankings like Morningstar's. Other firms, like Domini and Impax/Pax, seem to be aiming at something broadly similar, and doing a reasonably good job as well. Given that, it seems like a no-brainer to build a portfolio centered around these funds. Am I missing something?
- Of course, I'm suspicious that it's a fluke that all of these funds are beating their benchmarks after fees, especially since the fees are relatively large (at least 0.5% higher than comparable index funds). I wouldn't be surprised to come back in a few years and find that there's a much clearer cost to choosing these activist funds over cheap index funds in the same category. In this case, I'd want to somehow quantify the social value that comes from the activism that managers like Calvert do, and use that to choose whether to continue investing with them. Has anyone tried to quantify this, or to compile research that would make that doable?
This looks like a good starting point for further research, but it's hard to take much that's actionable from this without more background in finance. Is there anything you'd take away as advice to a smallish-scale individual investor?