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Next-Generation ESG Research for Better Alpha

  • SSGA’s quants describe the more tailored approach they are taking to ESG metrics for specific sectors in order to create uncorrelated alpha signals for their active equity strategies.
  • Our latest research looks at which environmental, social and governance issues are most material for different industries and companies. 
  • Companies with better ESG characteristics tend to have more forward-looking management, stronger growth prospects and the potential for better performance over the long term.

December 31, 2018

Signaling Quality with ESG

As we see it, a high ESG score can signal that a firm is in good health, reflecting another facet of quality that may help us build high-performing portfolios while avoiding potentially risky positions. We’ve developed a proprietary ESG rating to measure a firm’s focus on long-term profitability. Unlike most quality metrics, our ESG rating is not based on financial analysis, so it has a low correlation with other earnings quality metrics. For us, this adds a new dimension of quality on a multi-year timescale, enabling us to incorporate another possible source of alpha into our models.

Avoiding Scandal

We believe firms that rank poorly on ESG may be more prone to chronic organizational issues — perhaps even leading to controversy or scandal — which could affect valuations both directly and indirectly, as management teams would be forced to deal with these problems instead of focusing on long-term growth prospects. Before investors ever learn of such issues, low ESG scores can act like red flags, indicating a need for more scrutiny into whether we should hold stocks with questionable management quality. Not surprisingly, based on preliminary analyses of our ESG factor on European data back to 2005, we have found that firms with the lowest decile ESG scores may be more likely to underperform in the future.

ESG Matters

For the next generation of our research process, what really makes ESG an alpha signal is how we consider materiality. We tailor the metrics we use based on which factors are most and least relevant to each industry, appropriately weighting E, S and G accordingly. So, for example, for real estate firms, environmental issues are important because buildings are the biggest consumers of energy in the world. By contrast, with pharmaceutical firms, environmental issues might not be as important as metrics around drug affordability or availability or issues related to clinical trials.

The Active Quantitative Equity team has incorporated this innovative ESG signal into our models at the end of last year, augmenting the investment process for all our portfolios. As standardized sustainability reporting moves into the mainstream, textual analysis can be taken directly from these reports and more years of data become available beyond what we have now, incorporating low- correlation ESG signals into our models could provide another path to generating alpha to help our investors meet their goals.

To learn more about next-generation ESG research, visit us on


Alpha: Measures the active return on an investment relative to the performance of a suitable market index.

Environmental, social and governance (ESG) investing: Incorporates and analysis of ESG credentials into the decisions to invest – in addition to traditional financial metrics. It can also encompass efforts by investors to influence the activities of the companies within investment portfolios through voting and engagement, either directly or by an investment manager on the investor’s behalf.

Important Risk Information:

The views expressed in this material are the views of Anna Lester through the period ended December 31, 2018 and are subject to change based on market and other conditions. This document contains certain statements that may be deemed forward-looking statements. Please note that any such statements are not guarantees of any future performance and actual results or developments may differ materially from those projected.

Investing involves risk including the risk of loss of principal.All information has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but its accuracy is not guaranteed.

There is no representation or warranty as to the current accuracy, reliability or completeness of, nor liability for, decisions based on such information and it should not be relied on as such.

The whole or any part of this work may not be reproduced, copied or transmitted or any of its contents disclosed to third parties without SSGA’s express written consent.

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Exp. Date: 8/31/2020