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Making a profit from making a difference – FT.com

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August 5, 2012 5:40 am

Making a profit from making a difference

By Sophia Grene

Sustainable logging carried out in Cameroon in the Congo Basin natural woodland©GettySustainable logging carried out in Cameroon in the Congo Basin natural woodland: preserving forests is just one project impact investing can help

To many, investment is purely about generating a return on their money, but a growing band of wealthy individuals and institutions are seeking to achieve a little more.

“There’s a growing hunger from the wealthy to go beyond how to spend it, understanding if they don’t engage with these [social and environmental] issues, social problems will arrive on their doorstep,” says Paul Szkiler, chief executive of Truestone Impact Investment.

Impact investing, most commonly defined as investments made with the intention of helping to solve a social or environmental problem as well as generating a financial return, has seen growing interest from investors, particularly since the financial crisis.

It covers a wide range of areas, from microfinance to private equity in developing markets and even “social bonds”, an innovative way for governments to fund services provided by non-state bodies on a payment-for-results basis.

The term impact investing was coined by the Rockefeller Foundation in 2007 and a year later the Global Impact Investors Network was launched. Since then, investment managers and intermediaries report a steady increase in interest in the sector, but it is hard to pin down a reliable figure, given the sector’s fragmented nature and the difficulty of defining it.

For one of the most developed and codified sectors of the impact investing world – microfinance – estimates as of 2010 vary from $7bn invested (from Swiss microfinance manager and adviser Symbiotics) to $24bn committed (from the Consultative Group to Assist the Poor), demonstrating the difficulty of getting a sense of the size of the sector.

The GIIN definition is frequently adopted: “Impact investments are investments made into companies, organisations, and funds with the intention to generate measurable social and environmental impact alongside a financial return”, but even that leaves a number of queries, such as whether that financial return is expected to match market returns or if it comes second in any conflict between it and the social impact.

In general, practitioners and investors are keen to make a distinction between “social impact first” investments, where the investor is prepared to sacrifice some financial return in exchange for the belief their money is doing good, and “social and financial” investments, where the investment product aims to produce returns comparable with the market.

“The second type appeals more to high net worth individuals,” says François Passant, executive director at Eurosif, the European social investment forum. “It’s got that entrepreneurial spin that resonates with them.” For people who got rich by building their own business, it feels more appropriate to help others by encouraging them to work for themselves than to give money, he explains.

Mr Szkiler remembers a presentation to JPMorgan about his business: “The global research guys were saying ‘hmm, that’s ambitious’, but the wealth management people said ‘that’s exactly what we’re looking for for our clients’.”

Truestone is about to start fundraising for its Global Impact Fund, which aims to return an annualised 8 to 10 per cent net over the medium-to-long term. With a six month lock-up period, the fund does require investors to be prepared to take a longer-term view, but Mr Szkiler is confident of reaching his target of £40m.

Institutional investors are not immune to the appeal of doing well by doing good, he adds. “We see institutional investors in that area, but so far really only the giants,” he says. Their motives may not be precisely the same as those of individuals: “There’s an element of looking for stable financial returns, even if modest, that are decorrelated with the rest of financial markets.

“There’s also a reputational benefit for the large institutional investor, and there is the concept of universal ownership,” he adds.

The theory of universal ownership states that beneficial owners in a fund not only have an interest in direct financial returns but also in making sure their investments work towards improving the world in which the investors live.

The categorisation of an investment vehicle as impact investment does not always come from the promoter. Nikko Asset Management has two World Bank Green Bond funds, invested in the triple-A issuer’s bonds – proceeds from which are used to fund climate change mitigation projects.

“We didn’t set it up as an impact bond, but it falls in that direction naturally,” says Stuart Kinnersley, Nikko’s European chief investment officer. “Investors are getting this positive externality in addition to the market returns you would expect.”

Nikko’s institutional vehicle has seen approaches from investors specifically interested because they have identified it as an impact opportunity. “Many people are questioning the current model of capitalism,” points out Mr Kinnersley. A version that makes explicit use of the structures of capitalism to improve the world seems attractive to many of those questioners.

Unsurprisingly, development financial institutions such as the German KfW bank or Triodos Bank are interested in impact investing, as are many charities that rely on income from an endowment and prefer to make investments related to their mission rather than arbitrary unrelated investments.

In the UK, there are plans afoot to raise the profile of impact investing and make it more accessible to retail investors. This is the aim of the Social Stock Exchange, likely to launch some time next year.

It is the brainchild of Pradeep Jethi, a former product developer at the London Stock Exchange, and is backed by the Rockefeller Foundation and the UK’s Big Society Capital.

“I want to use my capitalist skills to make the world a better place,” says Mr Jethi. “If we don’t do something, capitalism will eat itself.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2012.