Agility, adaptability and resilience have been watchwords for individuals as well as businesses since March 2020. For many, the challenges of external change have precipitated new perspectives and priorities in the way they live, work and where they put their money — a trend which could positively influence the gender gap.
The fourth annual Financial Wellbeing report by Saunderson House examines High Net Worth Individuals (HNWIs) and the drivers for their financial decisions in the wake of the pandemic. Published at the end of 2021, the report draws on data collected in a survey of 216 respondents, including 41 everywoman members — and the message coming back is clear: a valuable part of looking after ourselves also means looking outside ourselves, and investing in a future that is both secure and sustainable.
Data gathered by the wealth management company shows that trends that have emerged over the past few years are gathering momentum. These include a desire for greater work-life balance, a focus on supporting close family and, pivotally, a recognition of the importance of responsible investment and Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) in business to tackle critical issues such as diversity, inclusion, and climate change.
Saunderson House’s research showed that while financial wellbeing is more important than ever, it is increasingly synonymous with a more holistic idea of wellbeing, and that the pandemic has sparked a re-evaluation by many HNWIs of their approach to wealth. In Financial Wellbeing and Women – Closing the Advice Gap, female respondents reported a significantly larger gap between the importance of a financial wellbeing goal and their ability to achieve it than male respondents did. Whether this ‘ability gap’ was the result of a misperception or the result of something more structural is a key question that warrants further investigation.
INVESTING IN CHANGE
Gender disparity aside, this overall shift to a more holistic approach in personal financial strategy brings with it the potential for impactful developments around ESG. It also represents a clarion call for businesses to create and embed sustainability in their business models that can benefit both the bottom line and the wider world — and creates greater demand, in turn, for the innovation and globalised outlook that can only come from diverse and inclusive workplaces.
The majority of the Financial Wellbeing report’s respondents said they felt that ESG investments should now form part of their portfolio. This development is likely driven by increased media and sociocultural focus on these topics — and possibly also pressure to invest responsibly from younger family members. In future business, it will not be enough to put profit before everything. For the generations coming up, particularly Gen Z, the drive is toward a world that increasingly links identity with consumption, and demands transparency, accountability and purpose from brands and organisations.
Greater investment in ESG can help to meet these market demands and act as both an accelerator for sustainable practices in organisations — and ultimately society itself.
BARRIERS TO PROGRESS
Responsible investment as a strategy is positive in principle, but HNWIs still retain a degree of scepticism around ESG in businesses. Only 13 per cent of the survey’s respondents agreed with the statement: ‘I trust in the integrity of the ESG investment industry’. Some respondents also queried whether individuals really were the most impactful agents in this area, or whether it should be up to large institutional investors and/or private organisations to drive ESG forward. As one noted, ‘I think it’s more important for investment managers and funds to put continued pressure on corporates in terms of ESG, than the choices individual investors make’. Furthermore, HNWIs still appear to need to be convinced of the financial argument behind responsible investing, with only 37 per cent of respondents agreeing with the statement, ‘Investing in ESG funds makes good business sense’.
Here, data may offer clearer-cut answers. For example, research done by Morgan Stanley in 2019, showed a more diverse workforce — with women represented across all levels of the organisation — correlated with higher average returns. Between 2011 and 2019, companies with greater gender diversity garnered a return on equity that was two per cent better than companies with lower female participation. And research across the board has consistently shown that businesses benefit from diverse workforces in myriad ways, such as greater innovation, greater employee retention and happier customers. As such, the ‘S’ of ESG should be at the forefront of any business futureproofing strategy.
Saunderson House’s research suggests that the investment industry now needs to work on communicating the process of responsible investing to clients in more depth, providing clearer explanations of both its positive impact and financial rationale to really cut through and drive positive change.
Despite the aforementioned scepticism, interest in responsible investment and ‘portfolios with purpose’ continues to grow. In the US, USD$17.5 trillion worth of professionally managed portfolios now include key elements of ESG assessments. Saunderson House itself has assets under management in its Responsible Investing product that have risen from £10-15 million to over £150 million in a single year. This is encouraging — for society, for business and for the environment. In time, investment in the future of an equitable society, sustainable business and a healthy planet may finally be recognised as having the very best returns of all.