Asia 2019: Three ESG Investing Trends to Watch
by Vivek Tanneeru, Portfolio Manager, Matthews Asia
For investors interested in environmental, social and governance (ESG) strategies, a regionally diversified approach can help capture global growth. In the coming year, Asia offers a prime opportunity to invest in profitable companies addressing critical ESG challenges through robust and sustainable business models. ESG innovation in Asia is evident across many sectors, including health care and pharmaceuticals, technology, finance and alternative energy. To fully capture the growth and profits of the world’s most innovative ESG companies, it is worth considering Asia. Here, we identify three ESG trends in Asia to watch in 2019.
Trend #1: Environmental Solutions That Generate Clean Air—and Profits
While electric car maker Tesla garners headlines for its stylish design ethos and lengthy waiting lists, Asia has quietly dominated the global battery cell market with its innovative and reliable lithium-ion batteries and other critical components. Global leadership in battery cells belongs almost entirely to companies headquartered in South Korea, Japan and China. Why is this so? Partly it is because Asia has historically dominated manufacturing of consumer electronics that required rechargeable battery technology development and partly because Asia accounts for a significant portion of new electric vehicle sales. China is currently the world’s largest market for electric vehicles, with the U.S. coming in a close second. Of the 2 million electric cars on the road in 2016, 32 percent were driven in China, while 28 percent were driven in the U.S. Japan and France each represent approximately 7 percent of the electric vehicles on the road.
Battery cells are just a small part of the innovative sectors helping to power a cleaner energy future, including solar and wind power, energy efficiency, high-speed trains and factory automation. Solar panels are another area in which Asia in general, and China in particular, is taking a clean-tech industries leadership role. China makes 70 percent of the world’s solar panels and installs more than half of them.
Trend #2: Small Loans—With the Potential for Big Returns
Among critical social issues facing communities in Asia, inclusion is a key focus area. Social progress requires bringing more people into the middle class globally, along with ensuring greater access to health care, more women in the workforce and more opportunities for people to advance through education and training. Moving hundreds of millions of people out of poverty has been the foundation for social advancement. It has also presented a prime opportunity for global investors who wish to support this progress by investing in companies championing inclusion in Asia’s fast-growing economies. As a starting point, living a middle-class life requires becoming part of the “formal” financial system, often by opening a bank account. Millions of people across Asia lack basic banking services. Credit, even in small amounts, can make a huge difference to families living in poverty. Microlenders are leveraging digital platforms to massively scale up lending without the need to build large brick-and-mortar infrastructure.
As Asia looks to add 2 billion more people to its middle class by 2030, financial inclusion will be a key enabler for this transformation by creating and supporting livelihoods. Profitable companies servicing this need provide microlending, micropayments and insurance. In 2017, India had 45 million microborrowers, demonstrating the size and scale of this growing marketplace. Most jobs in emerging Asia are found in micro and small enterprises. Access to capital through financing makes a big difference in the ability of these firms to grow and create more jobs. Therefore, micro and small enterprise lending is an underappreciated social opportunity. Bangladesh and Indonesia are fast-growing markets for micro and small enterprise lending.
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