'Socially responsible investing' steps towards mainstream

Individuals who measure societal impact as part of their investment performance are finding themselves with an increasingly sophisticated array of options, ranging from the latest practices in quantitatively evaluating an overall portfolio on those terms to approaches that favor investment in a specific regional economy.

While not a new concept in the investment world, those practices have become increasingly mainstream and have advanced a concept known as "socially responsible investing."

[caption id="attachment_85586" align="alignleft" width="200"] Steven Jenkins[/caption]

"As recently as ten years ago, SRI primarily revolved around excluding companies based on moral or religious beliefs," said Steven Jenkins, senior vice president overseeing the trust and investment management division of Santa Rosa's Exchange Bank. "Clients would want to exclude Philip Morris stock because they found the sale of cigarettes to be morally objectionable. For these investors, the performance of their portfolio against the S&P 500 or other index was not an issue. They were willing to forgo typical portfolio metrics such as risk, return, and diversification to avoid investing in 'bad' companies."

"Today, there is a much broader interpretation of SRI," Mr. Jenkins said. "Along with this change is a shift away from the philosophy that standard portfolio construction and return expectations do not matter. Most clients want a broadly diversified portfolio that produces a market level total return." 

It was around four decades ago that U.S. colleges and other institutions began to abandon the financial promise of one of the world's fastest-growing economies and exited investment in South Africa, pulling out of that market as part of a larger protest against its apartheid government.

 It was a time considered by some to be a rallying moment for socially responsible investing, prompting more individual investors to seek approaches that incorporated similar concerns into their own portfolios.

That philosophy has continued to evolve, and has recently moved more towards a three-pronged evaluative approach known as "environmental, social and governance," or ESG, Mr. Jenkins said. The approach provides scoring for companies based on those criteria, and has given rise to mutual funds that weigh their stock holdings with a bias towards companies that score high on those screenings.

He noted the no-load U.S. Sustainability Core Portfolio Fund from Dimensional Fund Advisors (DFSIX) as one popular example, which tracks performance of the Russell 3000 Index while truly eliminating very few stocks. The fund was launched in 2008, with returns of 19.82 percent in the five-year period ended Nov. 30, according to the company.

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