Fossil Fuel Divestment Means Lower Returns – Huh?

One of the key arguments against divestment that shows up again and again in the press and on the web is the idea that fossil fuel divestors will sacrifice investment performance. Or, stated another way, their investments will do worse then those of people who choose not to divest. On the surface, it seems a simple point – if you don’t invest in a major sector of the economy (i.e., the fossil fuel industry), you’ll be missing out. But, as is true with most simple arguments in an increasingly complex world, this soundbite analysis is wrong on multiple levels.

By a big majority, most people who have stock market investments put their money into mutual funds or exchange traded funds (ETFs). And many people also follow the general investment axiom that it’s a smart idea to be diversified. So, the more relevant question is – what happens if a diversified mutual fund or ETF does or doesn’t hold stock in the fossil fuel industry?

By definition, a diversified fund isn’t going to invest a high percentage of its money in any one industry. If you look at the Security and Exchange Commission filing information for diversified funds, you’ll generally find that somewhere between 0-4% of such a fund’s holdings are in the fossil fuel industry. So, for the sake of argument, let’s say that on average a typical diversified fund invests 2% of its investors’ money in these companies.

Let’s look at a hypothetical fund we’ll call the “incredibly neutral mutual fund (INMF).” The INMF manager’s general performance turns out to be supremely neutral. Somehow, with all the ups and downs of all the industries in the fund’s portfolio of stocks, the gains of almost all the stocks that do well are almost exactly counter-acted by the stocks that do poorly, and every year the fund’s annual return is basically 0%. But, there is one exception to this staggeringly bland performance – the fund’s investments in the fossil fuel sector.

Suppose that in an incredibly amazing 10-year streak, the combined fossil fuel investments in INMF go up 50% every single year. But, since the fund only invests 2% of its money in fossil fuels, the investors will gain just 1% each year. A return of 1% per year — that’s what you get if the fund manager has a completely unrealistic ability to pick an astounding set of fossil fuel stocks year after year after year.

Human beings and markets being what they are, a more realistic view of a fund manager who has a strong ability to pick fossil fuel winners (and avoid losers) would be if that part of the fund  had a consistent return of 5-10%. Now, the annual total return to you as a fund investor has fallen to between 0.1-0.2% per year. If you had invested $5,000 in INMF, your first year return would be $5-$10. The total cumulative ten-year return range would be slightly more than $50-$100 (due to compounding).

So, can moving away from fossil fuels negatively affect investment performance. Possibly. But if you invest in broadly diversified funds, the potential effect is tiny. The variation would be swamped out by the manager’s many other fund investment decisions, and also the myriad economic impacts that push all the other sector investments in the fund  up and down.

And, here’s a far more important point. New stocks that replace the fossil fuel investments may do as well as, or better than, the fossil fuel stocks that were removed. In which case, the divestor has lost nothing or may indeed do better after divesting.

The core argument that divestors should expect to lose out is just not accurate or reasonable.  More to come on how to put this idea into action…..

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