During the upcoming electoral frenzy, it is essential for investors to adopt a systematic, unbiased strategy towards US politics and policy, which is the goal of this section.

This chart Illustrates that the foremost candidates for the 2024 presidency – Biden and Trump – would both be in their second term and of advanced age, potentially resulting in a more assertive foreign policy. A candidate in their first term, such as someone following Trump’s path like Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, would likely face constraints if financial market instabilities jeopardized their chances for re-election. However, as the chart indicates, the prospect of a candidate other than the two front-runners, like DeSantis, is dwindling. Consequently, the likelihood of having second-term presidents in 2024 is high.

Biden’s chances of re-election are somewhat uncertain compared to those of his party. This is not because he is less likely to secure a victory compared to another Democrat—historically, he has a better chance. Instead, uncertainties surrounding Biden’s age and health are factors that need consideration. Vice President Kamala Harris, the most probable successor to Biden, would remain a strong contender provided no economic downturn occurs. Harris’s perceived shortcomings are often exaggerated; she adequately represents the

party. A non-recessionary election with her as the candidate would likely center around societal topics, primarily women’s rights, such as abortion. Trump is expected to maintain support among Republicans unless he faces incarceration. Incarcerating him before the election would be challenging but feasible. Of all the cases open against him, the third round of indictments in Washington DC seems most likely to result in a conviction. Ultimately, political influence, rather than legal or ethical considerations, will shape the outcome of Trump’s case, as almost every post-election scenario under a Republican administration would likely lead to a pardon. While imprisonment does not legally hinder Trump, it would politically, in our view. In such a scenario, the Republican National Committee might opt for a younger, more appealing candidate to consolidate the party. DeSantis serves as a suitable alternative to Trump, with his alleged flaws, like those of Harris, often overstated. In our opinion, the Republicans’ chances of victory would increase behind a fresh face, like Vivek Ramaswamy, particularly if the US economy avoids a recession. If a combination of strict monetary policies and sluggish international growth causes a downturn in the labor market, then it makes Republicans the favorites. This holds even with Trump being the most likely nominee, and more so if another candidate represents the party. In sum, it is important to remember that the most likely determinant of who will win a contest between Biden and Trump is the answer to the following question: Is the US in a recession by the middle of 2024? If the answer is yes, Trump is the most likely victor. If the answer is no, then Biden should prevail.

Ahmed Riesgo – Insigneo’s Chief Investment Officer

Mr. Riesgo oversees all the company’s research and investment functions. This includes investment strategy, devising and implementing the firm’s global market views and asset allocation, communicating them to its clients and the public, and managing the firm’s model portfolios. In addition, he is the Chairman of the Insigneo Investment Committee.

While the prevailing sentiment among investors towards China is significantly bearish, mirroring the trends observed during 2015/16, apprehensions surrounding geopolitical conflicts, particularly Taiwan, have notably subsided. Presently, macroeconomic, and regulatory considerations are taking precedence over geopolitical risks, a shift we believe might be somewhat premature. The forthcoming elections in Taiwan could play a pivotal role in determining the trajectory of cross-strait geopolitical tensions. China possesses non-military alternatives that could have severe implications for the markets. Currently, investors should be wary of assuming that countries will overlook national security concerns or weaknesses in favor of economic progress and stability.

China, with its vast geographical core territories and highly-educated and rapidly-urbanizing population is as a formidable global power. Just for comparison, the United States produced six hundred thousand PhDs in STEM fields last year. China produced four million. However, its natural constraints, including deserts, mountains, and distant islands, affect its control and access to the sea. Historical and current tensions with neighboring islands and nations have remained, especially with Taiwan, a potential launchpad for attacks on China’s critical supply lines and ports. The inherent threat that Taiwan poses to China, and vice versa, remains, regardless of the peaceful intentions of their leaders. Contemporary events, such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, underline that geopolitical concerns continue to shape nations’ actions, despite advancements in globalization and democracy. Economic prosperity and integration do not necessarily overshadow- ow national security objectives. The persistence of conventional warfare amongst affluent nations demonstrates that security interests often surpass economic ones.

“The forthcoming elections in Taiwan could play a pivotal role in determining the trajectory of cross-strait geopolitical tensions.”

That means that the likelihood of China’s Xi regime engaging in preemptive wars, risking economic and societal stability, remains uncertain. The domestic perception of national capabilities might concurrently underestimate the opposition from other nations. Strategic failures in deterrence have been highlighted by events like the Ukraine war and have implications for China, where the risks of erratic or aggressive national policies are elevated under Xi Jinping’s consolidated rule. Currently, China’s focus is on addressing domestic economic challenges, technological advancement, and preparing for potential conflicts, emphasizing a quest for self-sufficiency, and acknowledging vulnerability to external influences.

The challenges facing China in a potential invasion of Taiwan are considerably greater compared to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Russia serves as a cautionary example, emphasizing restraint against engaging in direct conflicts with the West. Despite China’s untested military capabilities, the efficacy of the US’s strategic deterrence, particularly in minor or unconventional actions aimed at undermining Taiwan’s resolve, remains questionable. China can employ a variety of non-military strategies to weaken Taiwan’s economy and will. Meanwhile, the consensus within the US political system on countering China’s influence and supporting Taiwan introduces additional complexities. The outcome of Taiwan’s 2024 Election will significantly influence cross-strait relations, with different parties representing varied prospects for dialogue and strategic détente. A change in political power in Taiwan could alter Beijing’s approach, favoring gradual integration over military conflict, especially given the strategic significance of Taiwan’s prized technological assets – its high-end semiconductor foundries.

However, even if there is a change in political power in Taiwan, the potential for conflict persists eventually. The distinct Taiwanese identity and their unwillingness to compromise on freedom and security pose challenges to integration. This chart indicates that approximately 63% of the population identifies exclusively as Taiwanese. This shift in identity, coupled with China’s aggressive policies under Xi Jinping, has distanced the democratic Taiwanese further from the Mainland, limiting the concessions that could be made during negotiations.

In anticipation of the upcoming elections, investors should brace for escalating policy uncertainties in both China and Taiwan. The election results will be instrumental in dictating whether tensions escalate or

de-escalate in the short term. While a full-scale invasion by China is not imminent, in our view, a reelection of the Democratic Progressive Party could lead to intensified economic, cyber, and diplomatic pressure on Taiwan. Failing this, Beijing might explore other tactics, including asserting maritime authority, imposing embargoes, or employing hybrid military strategies against Taiwan’s territories. All these actions would increase the geopolitical risk premium on East Asian risk assets.

Ahmed Riesgo – Insigneo’s Chief Investment Officer

Mr. Riesgo oversees all the company’s research and investment functions. This includes investment strategy, devising and implementing the firm’s global market views and asset allocation, communicating them to its clients and the public, and managing the firm’s model portfolios. In addition, he is the Chairman of the Insigneo Investment Committee.

こんにちは (Kon’nichiwa), Japan!

There are mounting indications that the Japanese economy is performing exceptionally and entering a virtuous cycle of income gains and increased consumer consumption. In addition, numerous indicators suggest potential upward shifts in Japanese inflation. In Japan, a country battling deflation for thirty years, this is welcome news. This is likely to enhance interest-rate differentials, benefiting the Japanese Yen, especially given the currency’s notable undervaluation. On a Purchasing Power Parity basis, the Yen is undervalued by 40%. The key takeaway for investors is to prioritize the Japanese Yen while concurrently minimizing exposure to Japanese government bonds. A suitable comparison can be drawn to the dynamics of the US Dollar and Treasuries in 2022, where it proved advantageous to invest in the US Dollar and divest from Treasuries. A parallel situation appears to be unfolding in Japan.

The key rationale behind this viewpoint is the substantial evidence suggesting upwardly revised economic surprises in the country. While the Bank of Japan has begun to unwind its Yield Curve Control program, this means that we can expect a more hawkish central bank in the near future. Japan’s Q1 and Q2 2023 real GDP growth figures of 0.9% QoQ and 6.0% QoQ, respectively, reveal a nation that is experiencing high and accelerating growth. Particularly, since the trend or potential growth in the island nation is only approximately 0.5% by the central bank’s own estimates. The consumption activity index has returned to levels seen before the pandemic, despite a generally low propensity to consume in Japan. The country was among the last to lift travel restrictions, leading to cautious spending amid widespread economic uncertainty. As normalcy gradually resumes, accumulated demand is expected to bolster spending in Japan.

Governmental aid has also allowed households to accumulate significant savings. This graph indicates that excess savings in Japan presently constitute 10% of GDP, maintaining a robust position compared to the sharp decline in the US that we discussed earlier. The Japanese still have a lot of extra money in their pockets. Theoretically, this could enable Japanese consumers to drive economic growth at trend levels solely based on these excess savings for the upcoming five years, not including any income. Additionally, considerations are being made to extend support measures, such as fuel and gas subsidies. Signs of growing consumer confidence are becoming evident across various sectors including employment prospects, income growth, and purchasing intent for durable goods. In our view, only an exogenous shock could derail the Japanese economy at this moment. Some other risks include a deceleration in the pace of foreign machinery orders and machine tool orders. In addition, after a substantial surge over the previous two years, Japanese exports are experiencing a waning despite the currency’s depreciation. However, given the substantial war chest of excess reserves amounting to 10% of GDP, Japanese consumers should be able to weather any storm quite well.

Ahmed Riesgo – Insigneo’s Chief Investment Officer

Mr. Riesgo oversees all the company’s research and investment functions. This includes investment strategy, devising and implementing the firm’s global market views and asset allocation, communicating them to its clients and the public, and managing the firm’s model portfolios. In addition, he is the Chairman of the Insigneo Investment Committee.

Executive Summary: The mega-cap technology stocks that have led the current stock rally will undoubtedly be major beneficiaries of the AI trend. However, the benefits of this new technology will expand well beyond these companies.

During our last quarterly call, we said that dominant players in the AI industry like Microsoft, Alphabet, and Nvidia would be big beneficiaries of the development of this new technology. Boy, are we glad we said that! Since then, these stocks have led the markets higher. Now we have to look beyond mega-cap tech, towards which other companies could also be potential beneficiaries.

A year ago, artificial intelligence appeared to be a promising technology far in the future. Few people had heard of it, and even fewer had been exposed to it.  Fast-froward a year, and artificial intelligence is something very real. Most of us have heard about AI by now. Whether we were introduced to it through the media, a friend, or even personal use of Chat GPT, we can all envision the revolutionary implications that artificial intelligence could have on our everyday lives. Much like with the birth of the internet, a nascent technology such as AI has created a large amount of appetite from investors looking to get exposure to what portends to be a promising bounty. As we can see on the chart on the next page, Bloomberg estimates that Generative AI could lead to approximately $1.3 trillion in revenues by 2032, spread across several technology industries including “hardware, software, services, ads, and gaming centers, growing at an annual compound rate of roughly 42%…” (Mandeep Singh, Nishant Chintala, and Anurag Rana, Bloomberg, 6/5/23). Investors have clearly expressed their views as to which companies would benefit from the AI boom. Stocks such as Microsoft (MSFT), Alphabet (GOOGL), Meta (META), Amazon (AMZN) and Nvidia (NVDA) have helped propel stock markets higher this year. But so far, the markets appear to be pricing in the idea that only a handful of large-cap technology stocks will be the big beneficiaries from the AI boom. Nvidia alone rose 190% in the first six months of this year, reaching a market cap slightly over $1 trillion. To put things in perspective, the market cap of Bitcoin is approximately $600 billion. Said another way, all the Bitcoin in the market would only purchase 60% of Nvidia. Using the same logic, considering that Microsoft’s market cap is close to $2.5 trillion, the same amount of Bitcoin would only buy about a quarter of Microsoft.

There is little doubt that the dominant players in the AI space such as the companies mentioned above have a lot to gain. Companies engaged in the actual development of the technology will undoubtedly be big beneficiaries of its application. However, the markets are almost behaving like these will be the only companies that will benefit. But what about the second-derivative companies, those beyond mega-cap tech? What about those companies that will be the users of AI or provide services ancillary to the technology?

Artificial intelligence networks can be operated on a large-scale basis, with networks running hyperscale models, or on a smaller scale basis running off cloud-based networks. Nvidia is the dominant player providing data processing equipment for large-scale models powering AI for big end users such as data centers. However, when it comes to cloud-based or ethernet networks, like the ones that will most likely be used to power AI in smaller units such as your smartphone, Nvidia has competition. Companies such as Broadcom (AVGO) and Cisco Systems (CSCO) also offer ethernet solutions that compete with Nvidia, and their stocks trade at less than half of the valuation of their larger rival.  As we said before, we have no doubt that first movers like Nvidia will be winners in the AI era. However, let’s remember that this company is predominantly a hardware manufacturer, making the equipment that enables AI. What about the companies that create and use software to power and benefit from artificial intelligence?

During a recent interview, Cathie Wood, manager of the famous ARK family of disruptive technology funds, stipulated that “…for every $1 of AI-related hardware that Nvidia sells, software firms will eventually generate $8 of revenue.” (Cathie Wood, Bloomberg, 6/7/23). As we can see on the next chart, software spending on AI is expected to grow from approximately $5 billion to close to $280 billion by 2032. In fact, AI as a percentage of total software spending is expected to grow from less than 1% currently, to 12% or potentially higher over the next ten years. This increased level of spending on AI is expected to come from a number of industries, such as healthcare, cyber security, software development, robotics, and automation.

Projected Revenues for the Technology Sector from AI (in billions of USD)

Source: Bloomberg Intelligence, IDC, Insigneo, as of 6/1/23

The healthcare industry is one that is set to potentially be revolutionized by the adoption of artificial intelligence. Robots might not replace doctors anytime soon, but they might help make their jobs easier. Overtime, AI is expected to simplify some tasks for clinicians, such as gathering patient information and providing diagnoses and recommendations for simple ailments. This could potentially decrease the need for patients to visit medical clinics and emergency rooms, decreasing the load on the system and shortening appointment wait times. AI could also potentially affect pharmaceutical companies, taking on some of the simpler drug development and manufacturing processes.

Cyber security is another industry that will certainly be affected by artificial intelligence in more than one way. With new technologies come new groups of people trying to exploit them, so it is only a matter of time before hackers try to find ways to use AI for nefarious purposes. We are already hearing stories of AI being used to create fake pictures of events that did not happen or replicate human voices in an attempt to fool a person on the other end of a call. On one hand, artificial intelligence could fill the need for cybersecurity professionals, or at the very least, become an assistant, freeing them to do more specialized tasks. On the other hand, cyber security will be in high demand to protect the valuable networks and software required to operate this new technology. The global market for AI-related cyber security spending could surpass $100 billion over the next decade. Companies like Fortinet (FTNT), Palo Alto Networks (PANW), Okta (OKTA) and ZScaler (ZS) could be potential winners in this space over the long term.

Along the same lines, software development is likely to be simplified, with faster turn-around times, as artificial intelligence is used to read, write, and analyze code. Companies in data aggregation and analytics end markets such as Palantir Technologies (PLTR), Salesforce (CRM), and Snowflake (SNOW) are set to reap meaningful benefits, as they use AI to extract value out of raw data, along side their larger peers in the industry. In fact, symbiotic relationships are likely to flourish between many companies in this segment of the market.

The robotics, defense, and automation industries will also prove to be clear beneficiaries of artificial intelligence. We are already seeing defense companies such as Boeing (BA), Lockheed Martin (LMT), and Northrop Grumman (NOC) begin to test weapon systems based off their own drone platforms that could operate with artificial intelligence. These systems could potentially operate on their own, or at the very least provide a “virtual co-pilot” for the human in charge of the platform. Industrial companies such as Rockwell Automation (ROK), Johnson Controls (JCI), General Electric (GE), and Siemens (SIE GY) are already using artificial intelligence to promote machine learning and create tools and processes to exponentially boost production.  The use of goods created by these companies permeates throughout a broad base of industries in the global economy, ranging from the processing of food and drinks to aircraft and auto manufacturing.

Projected Spending on AI Software (in billions of USD)

Source: Bloomberg Intelligence, IDC, Insigneo, as of 6/1/23

“A myriad of factors, including infrastructure and regulation could impact the adoption speed of AI. Most regions in the world currently lack the proper infrastructure to maximize the benefits of this new technology.

More broadly and perhaps most significantly, the exponential boost to global production capacity over the coming decades is set to have a meaningful impact on productivity growth across the world. Some estimate that the impact of artificial intelligence on global productivity will be akin to China’s joining of the World Trade Organization in 2001 or the internet boom at the beginning of the millennium. These moves lowered labor costs and increased the interdependency of global manufacturing, eventually increasing productivity and driving overall prices lower. However, it took time for these dynamics to have a meaningful impact on global productivity. It is estimated that the internet boom took between 10-15 years to meaningfully increase per capita GDP in most countries around the globe. This is better than the 50+ years that it took the Industrial Revolution to achieve a similar outcome. It will most likely take the AI revolution considerably less time to achieve a meaningful, permanent move in global productivity. Some say that this number could be between 5-10 years, some say it could be less.

A myriad of factors, including infrastructure and regulation could impact the adoption speed of AI. Most regions in the world currently lack the proper infrastructure to maximize the benefits of this new technology. On the regulatory front, we are already seeing regulation take shape in Europe. Earlier this month, government officials in the United States debated the implications of AI on the global arena and how to regulate and mitigate some of its risks.

We have no doubt that artificial intelligence is here to stay and that it will have a meaningful impact on our lives, most likely in a shorter period than the internet boom did. It is important to keep in mind though, that however long it takes, it will probably not be overnight, as some in the market appear to believe. The mega-cap technology stocks that have led the current stock rally will undoubtedly be major beneficiaries of the AI trend. However, the benefits of this new technology will expand well beyond these companies. ■

Mauricio Viaud – Insigneo’s Senior Investment Strategist and Portfolio Manager.

Nearshoring and Latin America

After the pandemic, the term “nearshoring” became popular in the media. Given the potential implications of this phenomenon on the Latin American region, it is worth exploring it in more detail. Forbes describes nearshoring as a “tactic that allows companies to move their operations to the closest country with a qualified workforce and reduced cost of living without the time difference.” (Maritza Diaz, Forbes, 2021). In essence, nearshoring is a form of offshoring, but with different goals in mind.

Offshoring became popular in the 1980’s as many companies relocated their production facilities to countries such as China, India, and Bangladesh, as relatively lower labor costs reduced manufacturing expenses and increased profit margins. Eventually, this trend grew to encompass the relocation of service facilities. However, offshoring presented two main problems, namely geographic distances, and time zone differentials. Vastly different time zones meant that colleagues in the same company would have to work very different hours, with some working through the night to provide the support or services needed by their teammates or end clients. Most impactful were the geographic distances that had to be traversed in order to ship materials and finished products halfway around the world. This dynamic became painfully evident during the Covid-19 Pandemic.

As we can all remember, the world came to a grinding halt during the Pandemic. Most people were working from home or within limited hours. That also meant companies were producing less, and airplanes and ships were transporting less goods. This dynamic put severe pressures on the world’s supply chains of goods and services. As the global economy began to eventually reopen and goods were slowly being produced again, production lines were sometimes forced to stop due to lack of supplies or raw materials required to complete production. Consumers around the world had to wait months for appliances or furniture, as a product manufactured in one country could not be shipped to a different country because of lack of materials or heavy backlogs and bottlenecks in the logistic supply chains. This dynamic was most evident in the supply of semiconductor chips, the infamous “chip shortage”. These experiences made companies in the West keenly aware of their dependance on Asian suppliers, especially on China. Understandably so, this heavy dependence on China posed significant security risks, particularly for the United States. Trade wars between the United States and China had frayed commercial relations between both countries before the Pandemic began. Combined with the supply chain issues experienced in 2020-2021, these dynamics pushed the United States to seek diversification in its supply chain. This is where the concept of nearshoring emerged.

In a move to reduce its dependence on Asia, the United States has been working to bring back manufacturing and services either back to the country (reshoring), or close to it (nearshoring). Some production is being brought back to Canada; however, most of it will likely be relocated to Latin America. In the chart above, we can see the Interamerican Development Bank’s estimates for incremental exports expected to arise in the region from the nearshoring movement. The bank expects as much as $78 billion in incremental exports from the region over the short and medium term. Of this number, it expects approximately 80% to stem from the production of goods, and 20% from the production of services. The automotive, pharmaceutical, textile, and renewable energy industries are expected to see the largest gains.  As is evident on the table, Mexico is expected to be the biggest beneficiary in the region, followed by Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, and Chile.

Additional Potential Exports for the Region (in billions of USD)

Source: Interamerican Development Bank, Bloomberg Linea, Insigneo, March 2023

Due to its geographic proximity to the United States, Mexico should prove to be the biggest beneficiary of nearshoring, potentially seeing incremental exports almost five times greater than the next country on the list, Brazil.  In Mexico’s northern region, cities like Monterrey are already seeing a boost in the technology industry. Local universities, such as Tecnologico de Monterrey, are producing well-trained engineers capable of handling specialized, tech-oriented roles that were previously handled in Asia. Companies such as Tesla, Volkswagen, and BMW continue to expand their presence in the region.  We are seeing railway companies such as Canadian Pacific expand their networks from Canada to Mexico in an effort to reduce lead times and get products to market quickly and efficiently. Banks such as Banorte are investing heavily in Mexico’s northern region to support its booming industries. The bank foresees a migration of workers from the south to the north of the country, as opportunities brought about by nearshoring create more employment. In fact, Banorte recently announced it will add 800 jobs in northern Mexico to have the capacity it needs to meet increased demand for mortgages, business loans, and general banking services. An increased need for infrastructure to support increased demand should also lead to job creation, helping the local economy. In fact, the expectation of this dynamic has helped bolster the Mexican Peso, as well as the country’s equity markets. We are even seeing the flourishing of new startup companies in the country, such as the logistics company Nowports, that are positioning themselves to benefit from nearshoring trends. Multilateral trade agreements between the United States, Mexico, and Canada should continue to facilitate increased trade between these countries.

“The nearshoring phenomenon has the potential to be a game changer for many countries in Latin American. It is up to these countries to properly embrace this dynamic”

Mexico will not be the only country to reap the benefits of nearshoring. Countries like Brazil, Argentina, and Colombia are also investing in education programs to produce a skilled workforce of engineers and other specialized roles that will enable them to meet the requirements of multinational companies. El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras are seeing an increased number of call-centers relocating to their countries. As a result of its stable financial system and friendly business policies, Uruguay is increasingly seeing the expansion of Free Trade Zones.  Like Mexico, these countries share similar cultures and democratic values, as well as time zones that are, for the most part, aligned with those of the United States.

There are a few important dynamics that could pose a challenge to the full embrace of nearshoring in the region. The most important is potential political instability. Most governments in the region recognize the benefits that nearshoring could bring to their countries. However, changing political regimes, along with the regulatory changes these could entail, could give pause to companies looking to relocate their operations to the region. Onerous or ambiguous regulatory frameworks could also pose barriers to nearshoring opportunities. Most companies in the United States operate under a regulatory framework, that although sometimes cumbersome, tends to be clearly defined. Ambiguous or seemingly arbitrary frameworks could cause companies to look elsewhere for relocation  opportunities.  High crime rates, or the perception thereof, is also an important consideration. Companies looking to relocate operations have to send employees from other regions to the host nations. Many times, these companies will choose not to operate in areas with high crime rates to not put their existing employees in danger.

The nearshoring phenomenon has the potential to be a game changer for many countries in Latin American. It is up to these countries to properly embrace this dynamic for the good of their economies, as well as their people.

Mauricio Viaud – Insigneo’s Senior Investment Strategist and Portfolio Manager.

Lithium and Latin America

Latin America and Lithium are intertwined in a nascent relationship. It is estimated that out of the 89 million tons of lithium reserves in the world, as much as 60% of these are found in Latin America. The majority of these deposits, over 55% of total global deposits, lie in a region known as the “Lithium Triangle”, comprised of Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia. As we can see on the chart, approximately 24% of lithium resources lie in Bolivia, 22% in Argentina, and 11% in Chile.
Mexico, Brazil, and Peru also play into the mix, as these three countries combined represent about 4% of global resources.

Global Lithium Reserves

Source: United Nations Development Program,
U.S. Geological Survey, Insigneo, as of 2022

However, not all lithium reserves are created equal. The basic raw materials needed for the creation of lithium generally come from two sources: a mineral rock called Spodumene and a salt-based brine. As of 2020, 65% of lithium production stemmed from Spodumene, 33% from brine, and 2% from other sources. Most of the production of Spodumene is in Australia, while brine production is mostly found in the salt flats of Chile and Argentina. It is because of the resources in these flats, that the “Lithium Triangle” has the potential to have a major impact on the region. That being said, lithium can be hard and expensive to produce, particularly in regions requiring intensive mining. This could explain why certain countries, such as Mexico, are having limited success developing this industry. In a recent report by the United Nations Development Program, the UN Assistant-Secretary General and UNDP Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean noted that industry experts believe that “the marginal cost of producing refined lithium of both carbonate and hydroxide would range between $6,000-$8,000/ton through 2036.” (Luis Felipe Lopez-Calva, UNDP, 2022). This cost level poses significant limitations to the development of reserves in certain countries in the region. When we compare the potential reserves that could be mined, against what countries are actually producing, we can see the effects of these high costs of production. For example, as we pointed out before, Bolivia accounts for 24% of global lithium deposits, with Argentina and Chile coming in at 22% and 11%, respectively. However, data from the U.S. Geological Survey, and published by the United Nations Development Program, paint a different picture with regards to actual production. As we can see on the next chart, despite accounting for the largest amount of reserves in the world as of 2021, Bolivia accounted for 0% of global lithium production. On the other hand, accounting for only 11% of reserves, Chile accounted for 25% for global production. So, why this discrepancy?

Blessed by geography, Chile is home to the largest portion of the Atacama Desert. As a result, the country has some of the best lithium brine deposits in the world, which again due to favorable geography, can be produced at relatively lower costs than in other regions. Additionally, the country’s access to the Pacific Ocean gives it easy access to ports, from which the product can be exported to Asia. For these reasons, Albemarle and Sociedad Quimica y Minera de Chile, two of the world’s largest producers of lithium, have meaningful operations in the country. However, permitting and other regulatory constraints pose a challenge for production growth in Chile, as well as in other countries in the region.

Resource nationalism is another dynamic that we are seeing play a role in limiting lithium production in the region. Fearing the influence of other countries on their reserves, countries like Bolivia and Mexico are pushing for the creation of an OPEC-like “Lithium Cartel” to act as a group in setting prices for the product. However, this attempt to set price controls could prove to be detrimental to some countries in the region, as not all lithium reserves and their mining requirements are equal. Additionally, given the region’s fluctuating political environment, this could also add an extra layer of complexity to an already volatile pricing backdrop for the commodity. Lithium pricing is dictated by different variables across different markets. After lithium is mined from Spodumene or produced from brine, these raw materials must then be processed into lithium carbonate and lithium hydroxide, the chemicals that are used to create batteries. Approximately, 65% of this processing takes place in China. As a result, pricing varies depending on the type and quality of the material, as well as the market where it is produced or processed. As we can imagine, the demand for lithium has increased over the past decade as demand for Electric Vehicles has meaningfully grown around the world. Demand has increased significantly in North America and Asia, particularly in the United States and China. As could be expected, this has driven prices of lithium through the roof. Prices for some of the key chemical components needed to produce lithium are much more expensive than they were over the last 5 years. However, over the past few months, lithium prices have retreated off their highs by as much as 20%, particularly in China. This latest drop was caused by lower end market demand in that country. In our view, prices could remain volatile over the short-term. However, the supply/demand dynamics for lithium are still favorable, and although prices could come down temporarily from elevated levels, their trend is most likely to continue to point upward over the long-term.

Lithium: Global Reserves Vs Global Production

Source: United Nations Development Program, U.S. Geological Survey, Insigneo, as of 2022

As mentioned before, most of the processing of raw lithium into finished products happens in China.

There is interest from both the United States and China to increase the amount of processing facilities in Latin America. The United States, for example, is interested in this dynamic for two reasons. First, there is the geographic advantage to having lithium mined and fully processed close to end markets at home. Companies like Albemarle already have a presence in the country, yet other companies are also making inroads, as evidenced by Tesla’s newly announced lithium processing plant in Texas. However, and likely more important, processing lithium in Latin America would eliminate the country’s dependence on China for this part of the production chain. As we can imagine, diversifying its production and processing base has meaningful implications for the United States, from a national security standpoint.

If Latin America adopts policies that will create a benign environment for lithium producers, the region could be poised to be a big beneficiary of the increased long-term demand for this product. If instead governments enact policies that make it difficult for companies to establish themselves in the region, the benefits of this natural resource could be limited. Granted, all stake holders have to derive some form of benefit from the abundance of lithium in the region. Compromise that favors everyone involved is key. ■

Mauricio Viaud – Insigneo’s Senior Investment Strategist and Portfolio Manager.

One of the most repeated lessons from this history is that scarcity leads to innovation. Incidentally, the corollary to this principle is that hubris leads to downfall – just ask Putin how his ill-advised and ill-planned invasion of Ukraine is going. Another important teaching is that political and macroeconomic systems are very complex. And people tend to focus only on the first order effects of policy and decision-making. But it is usually the second, and even third, order effects that are most important and least accounted for, the ones least priced-in by markets.

“the English went from a state of a permanent energy crisis to one of energy abundance much sooner than any other place.

With these ideas in tow, let us take a closer look at the Industrial Revolution, one of the seminal transformative events in history. It is accurate to assert that this period was as important to humanity as the adoption of agriculture in terms of progress. So, we all know very well that the Industrial Revolution began in England during the late 18th and early 19th century. But why did it begin there and not, say, in Spain or France that had similar technological advancement? And why during that time period? Well, as promised, this thousand-year chart offers some clues. As it shows us, woodland as a percentage of land use fell continuously in England from about 1100 AD to right before the commencement of the Industrial Revolution. By deforesting their own island, the English were running out trees. And trees were very important back then because they were the main source of fuel. England, we have a problem. In response, the English began importing trees from the Baltic regions, where there was a surplus of timber. But this trade was regularly interrupted by the Danes and the Swedes. This meant that the English were constantly dealing with a major problem for any economy – fuel scarcity. Well, this energy crisis – scarcity – led to innovation: the English were the first to experiment with coal as a source of energy. Necessity is the mother of invention. It turns out that coal is a more efficient as a source of energy than timber – 26K BTUs per ton for coal versus 14K BTUs per ton for wood. Because of innovation born out of necessity, the English went from a state of a permanent energy crisis to one of energy abundance much sooner than any other place. One other feature of coal is that it is much heavier than timber. This means that the English also had to develop canals and other transportation systems that could move the coal from where it was dug up to where it could be transformed into usable fuel. Scarcity led to innovation which led to the Industrial Revolution which led to the British Empire dominating the world for over a century.

So, let us return to the present and long-term forecasting. Who could be the big winner of the next decade? No one today would say Europe. Everyone is short the Euro, short European Industrial Stocks, etc. If you have a six-month time horizon, if you are a trader, a short-term investor, then that is the probably the appropriate risk stance.

“English also had to develop canals and other transportation systems that could move the coal from where it was dug up to where it could be transformed into usable fuel.

This chart shows Dutch natural gas from the generic futures contract prices. Since 2021, they have skyrocketed, punctuated with dramatic upward shifts every time Russia makes a major move or threatens another escalation. Europe is in the throes of a major energy crisis – largely of its own making, by the way. But if you are long-term investor, is that the appropriate stance? I would say no. Let me explain why.

Despite the fact that over the past decade European industrial companies pay a 30% to 50% premium for electricity use over their American counterparts (that cost premium today is close to 100%), their export share of global exports has remained largely in line over that same time period. That means that over the past decade, American companies have wasted their electricity cost advantage versus their European competitors by not taking market share from them. Another way to state is that higher European energy input costs have not decreased their competitiveness. Moreover, as the US exports more liquified natural gas to Europe and uses less for domestic consumption due to higher prices abroad, European and American liquified natural gas prices will converge – European gas prices will fall, and US prices will rise. This should reduce the energy advantage that US companies currently enjoy over their European counterparts. Finally, Europe leads the world in renewable energy use. 30% of European energy consumption comes from renewables versus 19% for the US and 18% for the world.
It will probably continue to innovate on renewable energy precisely because of its energy scarcity problem. It has to, it’s a matter of survival. Think about it, where is the next big breakthrough in energy likely to come from? A place where energy is abundant and cheap like the US or the Middle East? Or a place where it is scarce and expensive like Europe? Again, necessity is the mother of invention.

“30% of European energy consumption comes from renewables versus 19% for the US and 18% for the world. It will probably continue to innovate on renewable energy precisely because of its energy scarcity problem. It has to, it’s a matter of survival.

My bet would be that it is in Europe where that breakthrough will materialize. Remember the medieval English and their problem of energy security.

As a long-term investor, how do you deploy this trade? You buy the European Industrial sector. This graph shows you the performance of European industrial companies versus their American counterparts. As you can observe, American industrial stocks have greatly outperformed over the past 12 years. The smart bet is that this trend will not continue. Either because European electricity costs will come down as the US exports more natural gas to Europe, or because Europe innovates faster and better, or both that trend should reverse. The only way this trend does not reverse is if Europe does not innovate its way out of its scarcity problem. That is a bet that goes against the grain of human history. It is not one anyone should make. For long-term investors, European industrial companies are a good bet.

Ahmed Riesgo – Insigneo’s Chief Investment Officer

Mr. Riesgo oversees all the company’s research and investment functions. This includes investment strategy, devising and implementing the firm’s global market views and asset allocation, communicating them to its clients and the public, and managing the firm’s model portfolios. In addition, he is the Chairman of the Insigneo Investment Committee.

It is a well-known fact that the pandemic caused births globally to collapse and that they remain below levels necessary to stabilize population growth. We also know that aging populations place a major strain on pension and health care systems as fewer workers have to support more consumers and retirees.

This graph demonstrates that after rising steadily since the 1980s, the global support ratio, or the ratio of workers to consumers, peaked a few years ago and is projected to collapse to levels last seen during the 1970s.

“After rising steadily since the 1980s, the global support ratio is projected to collapse to levels last seen during the 1970s”

The news is filled with alarmist predictions of the “greying” of European, North Asian, and North American populations, coupled with their dire repercussions. After many years of failed government policy to boost fertility rates (e.g., China lifting its one-child policy), there is a sense among policymakers that there is not much that they can do to encourage people to have more children. Studies show us that as people retire, they save less and spend more. As the pool of global savings decreases, it places upward pressure on equilibrium real interest rates and bond yields. Faced with these prospects, governments are likely to further increase spending to encourage more childbearing. Permanent and/or larger fiscal budget deficits will similarly deplete national savings and push rates higher. These demographic considerations have underpinned one of our most recent fundamental investment calls, the end of the 40-year bond bull market. A major corollary of that thesis is that interest rates have begun a structural uptrend with successively higher highs and higher lows, although they will temporarily fall during recessionary periods.

“The results of a 2019 study suggest that the global population will grow much faster than currently anticipated ”

But what if birth rates will eventually increase on their own despite government policy? What if global fertility rates, instead of further declining, may be bottoming and poised to rise sharply? A 2019 study in the journal of Evolution and Human Behavior by Jason Collins and Lionel Page suggests that our population modeling is incorrect because they use assumptions of constant long-term fertility rates. In their place, the authors introduce a dynamic model incorporating inheritable fertility based on evolutionary biology. Rather than stabilizing around a long-term level for developed nations, fertility rates tend to increase as children from larger families represent a larger share of the population and partly share their parents’ trait of having more offspring. In other words, both cultural and genetic evolution will select for families that wish to have more children. To further clarify, the desire to have more children is as inheritable as height or IQ. As cultural forces have suppressed fertility over the last few hundred years (really since the Industrial Revolution), an ever-growing proportion of people with a higher propensity to have more children will have children. When the environment changes so quickly (since the early 1800s, for example) that existing reproductivity strategies become suboptimal, natural selection responds quickly. Their results suggest that the global population will grow much faster than currently anticipated.

“European and North American fertility rates to rise to 2.46 and 2.67, respectively, above the global averages and against all conventional wisdom given current population modeling and projections”

In their model, without the inheritability effect, the global fertility rate declines to 1.82 by the end of this century, which is below the human replacement threshold. But once heritability effects are factored in, that rate increases to 2.21, well above the threshold. If true, this would have massive global policy implications from climate change to migration patterns to global conflict and even extraplanetary human settlement. And as this chart demonstrates, the effects are most pronounced in the two areas you would least expect: Europe and North America. Their model projects the European and North American fertility rates to rise to 2.46 and 2.67, respectively, above the global averages and against all conventional wisdom given current population modeling and projections. At a recent event, Elon Musk said, “if people don’t have more children, civilization is going to crumble.” He is right. Progress, technology, and network effects work better with higher “n” variables: the more people the better. But we might not have to do anything about it from a policy perspective as natural selection pressures might already be breeding out those of us less inclined to have children. As Dr. Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park reminded us, “life finds a way”.

Ahmed Riesgo – Insigneo’s Chief Investment Officer

Mr. Riesgo oversees all the company’s research and investment functions. This includes investment strategy, devising and implementing the firm’s global market views and asset allocation, communicating them to its clients and the public, and managing the firm’s model portfolios. In addition, he is the Chairman of the Insigneo Investment Committee.

As I mentioned before, we believe globalization peaked around 2008 and has been slowly but steadily declining ever since the Global Financial Crisis. Moreover, the two most recent global events – the pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine – have only accelerated that trend by exacerbating policymakers’ reliability concerns when dealing with less-than-friendly state actors. Whether they manifest themselves as US shortages of masks made in China during the pandemic or Russia holding its oil and natural gas exports over Europe’s head as it invades European territory, these issues are forcing Western governments to reassess the benefits of the hyper-globalization that occurred during the Pax Americana. In other words, they are realizing that the efficiency of the global supply chain may not be worth the trade-offs in both security and stability. On balance, redundancy and reliability of inputs may be worth the cost to consumers of higher prices. All else equal, globalization is a deflationary force, while de-globalization is an inflationary one.

A corollary to deglobalization may be de-dollarization or the breakdown of the Bretton Woods system where the US dictated the terms of the post-World War II landscape by pinning the US Dollar at the center of the global financial and trading system. The concerns I mentioned around security, stability, and reliability are universally reverberating around the world. Non-western governments are also reassessing the trade-offs. Specifically, they are questioning the desirability of the US Dollar as the global reserve currency. As this next chart suggests, unlike during the Global Financial Crisis, many central banks around the world were net sellers of US Treasuries during the Covid-19 pandemic. This disdain for Treasuries was not limited to foes like Russia but extended to close US allies like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Singapore. To borrow a Cold War era phrase, even non-aligned nations like Brazil and India sold rather than bought US government bond obligations. In other words, the demand for US Dollars is waning around the world, among friends and enemies alike.

“Unlike during the Global Financial Crisis, many central banks around the world were net sellers of US Treasuries during the Covid-19 pandemic.”

While Putin may have made a grievous mistake when he invaded Ukraine, he may not have been the only one that committed an error in judgment, although he is certainly more obvious. However, the Americans, Europeans, and Swiss may too have committed a major policy blunder, even if a more subtle one that may not be apparent for many years. By freezing the Central Bank of Russia’s foreign currency reserves, the West has announced to the rest of the world that their Dollars, Euros, and Swiss Francs are no good anymore. When the Dollar is weaponized as an instrument of foreign policy, it is reasonable to expect defensive maneuvers.

Of course, the Western retort would be that this sort of pariah status is only reserved for “aggressors” and “enemies.” But in the world of geopolitics, your friend in one generation can be a foe in another. Two current and strident allies of the US were our main enemy combatants in World War II – Germany and Japan.

Eighty years is a long time, but central banks should have the long view when deciding where to place their country’s surpluses. Another issue that looms against the demand for Dollars is the US’s deteriorating fiscal position. American fiscal deficit spending because of the pandemic reached 25% of GDP. In Europe and China, those figures were much lower, 15% and 5%, respectively. According to IMF forecasts, structural budget deficits in the country will average 4.9% of GDP until 2026, versus 2% before the pandemic. Over time, persistent budget deficits will reduce savings and ultimately drive the neutral rate of interest higher. A higher neutral rate, in turn, will push bond yields upwards as well. Even though the move up has been quite dramatic so far this year, look for yields to grind higher over the next several years, characterized by successively higher highs and higher lows. Nothing lasts forever and trends always reverse. This chart shows that US treasury yields peaked in the early 1980s amid Fed Chair Paul Volker’s inflation-fighting regime and have been making successive lows ever since – lower lows and lower highs. Has this 40-year bond bull market ended? We think this may be likely and would position for a reversal of this Reagan-era trend.

Now, let us be clear, we are not arguing that the US Dollar is about to lose its place as the global reserve currency overnight or even suddenly. It is not easy to dislodge the world’s reserve currency because there is a certain inertia to that standing due to positive network effects. The Greenback’s pole position is underpinned by the strength of the US economy, the depth of its capital markets, and the fact that most of the global trade is still settled in US Dollars. As the next chart shows, the level of Dollar reserves has held rather steady over the past five years. In fact, more than 60% of all foreign bank reserves and 40% of the world’s debt are denominated in Dollars. But the most important reason it still dominates is that there is no credible alternative out there currently.

“Now, let us be clear, we are not arguing that the US Dollar is about to lose its place as the global reserve currency overnight or even suddenly.”

The European Union is like the US in terms of economic size and the strength of its financial markets, but the Continent has many structural impediments to attaining dominant reserve status, primarily the lack of both a fiscal union and military power. The UK and Switzerland are both too small as a share of global GDP to seriously consider the British Pound Sterling or the Swiss Francs as alternatives. The Chinese Renminbi is an obvious candidate, but China too has issues that prevent this, namely that the country maintains a closed capital account and it is not freely traded. Indeed, the Renminbi only accounts for 2% of global foreign exchange reserves, despite the country approaching a quarter of global GDP. It Is not surprising to read the news that the Saudis are negotiating with the Chinese to settle oil purchases in the Renminbi, and the Russians surely are accepting it as payment for their energy exports today to circumvent Western sanctions. Yes, it would be premature to signal the Dollar’s demise as it will not yet go the way of the Roman Aureus, the Spanish Real, or the British Pound Sterling until US power wanes significantly from current levels, and that is not likely soon. But we could see a situation where the level of Dollar reserves matches the geopolitical reality we mentioned earlier – the first among many – as the marginal demand for Dollars falls as central bankers continue placing less of their surpluses in Treasuries. In that sense, the most important development over the last few weeks may not be Cold War II, but the first stage of declining Dollar hegemony.

“The level of Dollar reserves has held rather steady over the past five years.”

If this thesis holds, US rates will have to go up to entice further buying of Treasuries as they cheapen. The more likely asset bubble, then, exists not in US equity markets but in its sovereign bond market where real yields are still negative despite the recent selloff. As interest rates grind higher, investors would want to own real assets: rental properties, high dividend compa- nies, farmland, agricultural commodities, and industrial metals. “Old” economy sectors like industrials, energy (both hydrocarbons and renewables), miners, and utilities. As central banks around the world purchase and repatriate as much gold as they can, investors would not want to stand in front of that trend either. The precious metal has the added luster of being an attractive geopolitical hedge and outperformer during periods of higher inflation and lower growth. Owning Chinese government bonds is also an attractive option as that, in our view, remains the most attractive bond market in the world. As more trade and reserves settle in Renminbi, it should keep them well bid and it has an attractive carry. Imagine the flows into that market if global reserves rise from the paltry 2% of current reserves to 5% or even 10%. These levels seem conser- vative in a world where the US has weaponized the Dollar and other countries have taken note.

Ahmed Riesgo – Insigneo’s Chief Investment Officer

Mr. Riesgo oversees all the company’s research and investment functions. This includes investment strategy, devising and implementing the firm’s global market views and asset allocation, communicating them to its clients and the public, and managing the firm’s model portfolios. In addition, he is the Chairman of the Insigneo Investment Committee.

Sustainable and ESG investing

Even if it has been around longer than what inves- tors believe, sustainable and ESG investing has increasingly won over the center stage for investors across the world, with a large number of asset classes becoming more and more available for those investors who aside from getting a return on investment, are looking to generate an impact beyond financial gains. Nonetheless, investors are increasingly concerned about the quality of such ‘sustain- able’ or ‘green’ investments, with terms like ‘green- washing’ or ‘social-washing’ becoming more common.

Today, our goal is to get a general understanding of what sustainable and ESG investing means, how that can be achieved in your portfolios, and what pitfalls may lie ahead. Let’s start by stating what sustainable investing means. Per a Harvard Business School article, “Sustainable investing, also called socially responsible investing or ESG investing, is a means of investing in which an investor strongly considers environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) factors before contributing money and resources to a particular company or venture. The goal is to, whenever possible, use investment dollars to promote positive societal impact, corporate responsibility, and long-term financial return.” It is worth highlighting the CFA Institute’s addendum to this definition. It further clarifies that “sustainable investing has broader connotations and is more like an investment philosophy, whereas ESG investing works at a practical level to describe investment mechanics.”.

Despite its current popularity, it should be pointed out that sustainable investing began in the 1970s, when the first sustainable mutual fund was launched. From then on, additional milestones have paved the way for sustainable investing to become more and more popular, such as the launch of the Dow Jones Sustainability Index in 1999, the development of the UN Principles for Responsible Investing (PRI) in 2006, or the launching of the Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN) in 2009. In more recent history, the appearance

of the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the adoption of sustainable investing, with a specific focus on social responsibility. This increased interest was also captured by a CFA Institute survey, in which 67% of the participants chose ‘social’ as the ESG area they take into account in their investment analysis or decisions; in 2017, this figure was a much lower 54%. Moreover, the share of respondents that do not consider ESG factors for their investment analysis or decisions decreased from 2017 to 2020 from 27% to 15%, again highlighting the importance of the topic in today’s markets. Furthermore, according to an analysis performed by the International Capital Market Association of the Environmental Finance database, social bond issuance in 2020 was more than USD 11.5bn through mid-May, an 86% increase from the same period the previous year.

The interest in ESG investing was also tangible in the CFA Institute survey that I mentioned, in which 47% of institutional investors stated that they were interested in ESG investing to generate higher risk-adjusted returns, whereas the desire to advocate personal or social values came in lower at 32%. This same trend was apparent in younger investors (i.e., ages 25 to 34), while other age brackets, as well as retail investors, seemed more interested in prioritizing their values when performing an investment.

Before we move on, it would be relevant to outline a couple of points that investors should consider before they enter the ESG investing sphere. First, investors need to define what ESG comprises specifically for them. This can be determined through a suitability questionnaire, or simply by establishing which of the three letters of the acronym – be that the E, the S, or the G – are most relevant to them. This is important to determine which focus they would prefer to have within their investment universe. Moreover, if the investor decides to enter the ESG sphere through an ETF or a fund, they need to perform thorough due diligence on the fund per se and see whether its interests, its mandate, and the companies it is supporting are aligned with the investor’s principles and beliefs. This part should also help investors avoid ‘greenwashing’, a topic we will discuss later today. Furthermore, a fundamental element to identify the interests and principles of both companies and funds relies on their capacity to do ESG reporting, and whether those reports are aligned with industry ESG standards.

On its face, sustainable and ESG investing sound appealing and, according to a KPMG –CAIA–AIMA– CREATE Survey from 2020, is being propelled mainly by institutional investors who believe that the traditional modus operandi of investing, which only considers risk and return, needs to be rewritten to address ESG factors. In his 2020 annual letter to shareholders, BlackRock’s Larry Fink emphasized the effects that climate change could have on the reallocation of capital, and not coincidentally, the term has never been more popular since according to data from Google Trends compiled by the CFA Institute.

Nevertheless, there have been issues around sustainable and ESG investing that make its implementation more challenging – starting with its target users and potential clients. According to the previously mentioned CFA Institute survey, a lack of client demand remains the top reason that firms do not consider ESG issues. Another point that should raise signs of worry across market participants is that, for 33% of investors, there is insufficient knowledge of how to consider ESG issues, as can be seen in the following graph.

Even if one highlights the increase observed in the materiality of ESG issues when investing – considering the decrease of 17 percentage points portrayed by this survey – there is still a long way to go if we want ESG and sustainable investing to be a primary factor for portfolio managers, asset allocators, and clients. This same trend may be gleaned from the afore-mentioned KPMG survey as well, where 31% of the surveyed sample affirmed to be in the “awareness-raising” phase of impact investing implementation, whereas 10% still had no implementation. One possible explanation for this shortfall is the lack of quality and consistent data on ESG factors. This was noted by S&P in a report where they highlighted those two factors as the key challenge in addressing confusion in the ESG space. Additionally, the rating agency highlighted that “the quality and consistency of post-issuance use of proceeds and impact reporting is still highly unstandardized and fragmented across issuer types and regions making it difficult to compare and aggregate performance.”.

Furthermore, another challenge that investors are facing within the reporting realm is the one where they must identify whether the claims from the issuers are trustworthy and reliable, or if those have been ‘greenwashed’. Here we need to take a brief pause and define what the industry means when it uses the term ‘greenwashing’. According to Investopedia, “greenwashing is the process of conveying a false impression or providing misleading information about how a company’s products are more environmentally sound. It is considered an unsubstantiated claim to deceive consumers into believing that a company’s products are environmentally friendly.” The green-washing concern is of high importance for investors: a Quilter Investors survey conducted in May 2021 showed that this specific challenge was the biggest concern for almost 44% of investors, who have become “increasingly sensitive” to the effects of companies that could have potentially exaggerated their green credentials. These concerns were also visible in the previously mentioned CFA Institute report, where 78% of the participants of the survey considered that there is a need for improved standards around ESG products to diminish ‘greenwashing’.

“Investors have revealed elevated concerns that proceeds stemming from sustainability-linked instruments may be funding projects without a clear beneficial impact.”

Meanwhile, additional concerns have started to arise in the ESG industry around “sustainability-washing”. Given the importance that new types of sustainable financing tools – such as social, transition, and sustainability-linked instruments – have started to attract, this has become even more relevant considering- ing that investors have revealed elevated concerns that proceeds stemming from sustainability-linked instruments may be funding projects without a clear beneficial impact. Moreover, an additional concern that comes from the sustainability-linked instruments is that those issuers could be tempted to set performance targets that are not ambitious enough, meaning that the issuer would not have to demonstrate a significant improvement over its business-as-usual strategy, or it would not require a significant investment to achieve those targets.

Another obstacle that ESG investors are facing is the heterogeneity of ESG reporting that the industry currently has available. According to data from KPMG, 57% of surveyed hedge fund managers admitted that they do not currently report on ESG performance at all. Of those who do, 11% use customized metrics, and 23% use PRI. Nonetheless, expectations here are more optimistic than in other ESG facets, given that ESG reporting has gone from ‘nice to have’ to a ‘must have’.

On another note, investors have debated around the possible existence of a ‘greenium’, defined as the difference in yield between a traditional fixed income instrument and one that has ESG objectives, more specifically green bonds. The presence of this ‘greenium’ has been discussed across investors, and its existence is dependent on different factors. First and foremost, ‘greeniums’ should be seen as an issuer-by-issuer case and should not be determined in a general analysis, while also taking into account that not all green bonds have a conventional peer against which they can be compared. Secondly, the expected increase in green bond supply may help ease any signs of premium that green assets could have exhibited, due to being scarcer than its traditional peers. Now, let’s consider a specific case: AES Andes, the Chilean electricity producer, and distributor company tapped the markets in 2019 by issuing a 60-year green bond, the first for the company. Luckily for us, AES Andes also has a traditional bond that matures in 2079, which allows for an initial analysis in terms of ‘greenium’ existence. When comparing the historical yield of the two bonds since the green bond was issued, one can highlight that the average spread between the green and the traditional bond is 11bps, as can be seen in the following graph.

Nonetheless, one can observe that the yield of the green bond was largely superior (almost 200bps more) than its traditional peer only in March 2020, when the company reported a capital increase of USD 500mn to finance its renewable energy investment plan. The market reacted sharply to this announcement, considering that the company was not capable of funding part of its green strategy, which in the end made the green bond perform worse than its traditional peer. As stated before, this is an isolated case and each bond should be evaluated within its own context, but it seems that the market is casting aside the ‘greenium’ that could have been charged to green bonds before.

Yet another challenge that ESG investors have voiced is the need to create an infrastructure with data, professional knowledge and skills, and technology that can support the proper development of the industry. If we go back to the second graph, we can highlight that the three main factors that undermine ESG investing are, unsurprisingly, these same stated missing ones. In terms of upskilling, a couple of alternatives, such as the Certificate in ESG Investing backed by the PRI and launched by the CFA Society United Kingdom, have emerged in the last years, and most of the investment professionals that participated in the surveys I have quoted stated their interest in building up their ESG knowledge while being aware that ESG should be a fundamental pillar in the security selection process, instead of just one element at the end of it.

In addition to the latter, and as a means to combat both ‘greenwashing’ and ‘sustainability-washing’, the industry needs to focus on the quality of information available, thereby allowing investors to compare and have access to different sustainability metrics, while under- standing the most material considerations from a financial and ESG perspective. According to Standard and Poor’s, the increased demand for more detailed and consistent ESG disclosure will drive improvements in the field, while simultaneously adding momentum to the development of ESG-focused regulatory disclosure and reporting frameworks.

— “According to Standard and Poor’s, the increased demand for more detailed and consistent ESG disclosure will drive improvements in the field, while simultaneously adding momentum to the development of ESG-focused regulatory disclosure and reporting frameworks.”

Finally, the industry shift towards heightened interest in ESG and sustainable investing would also benefit from an improvement in leadership. Leaders need to set the tone and lead by example while being aware that institutional investors are the biggest fish in this pond, thus their influence – and their leadership example – is crucial for the success of this shift.

We cannot deny that progress has been made, and that interest in ESG investing has increased dramatically over the years. Nations and companies have issued green bonds, preferable to traditional investment alternatives in some cases. Nevertheless, the need for a more standardized, homogeneous investing sphere, where everyone can compare and draw conclusions from an equitable starting point, is something that the industry is still lacking. This opens the door for fraud and/or negligent behavior from bad actors. But it is in moments like this that we should remember the words of historian, philosopher, and playwright Howard Zinn, “We don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.”

Melissa Ochoa Cárdenas – Insigneo’s Investment Strategist

MBA | Masters in Disruptive Innovation (MDI) | Impact Investing | Sustainable Finance
I am a finance professional with five years of experience in fixed income research and macroeconomic affairs, strategy, product development, and capital markets.

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