We were pretty excited a few years ago when we introduced our Socially Responsible Investing (SRI) portfolio. There was a huge demand among our clients (and our own team) for a way to grow wealth while also growing a better world. Our SRI portfolio was a way to do just that: it had low fees, good returns, excellent diversification and invested in funds and companies that met a pre-determined threshold for social responsibility — low carbon emissions, cleantech innovation, sustainable growth in emerging markets, gender diversity. Finally: Here was a way to invest not just wisely and profitably, but with a conscience.
We’re also dedicated to two important principles: first is reassessing our investments and the rest of our business to see if there’s a better way to do it, and second, to be as transparent as possible. And, transparently, we realized there was a problem with our SRI portfolio. The thresholds the funds used to pick companies to invest in left a lot to be desired. So rather than depending on outside funds, last year we began building our own, better version. And today we’re introducing two new low-fee Wealthsimple ETFs: WSRI, which holds North American companies, and WSRD, for developed markets outside North America, such as Japan, Australia, and Europe. Both ETFs trade on the Toronto Stock Exchange, and they’re the basis for our redesigned SRI portfolios on Wealthsimple Invest (plus some government bonds to mitigate risk).
The idea behind our new funds is that they will continue to improve and evolve as more data becomes available about just how responsible companies are. But first, let’s go back to what went wrong.
We Didn’t Want the Best Worst Companies
The problem with our previous portfolio was simple: the standard way ETF providers decide which companies get included in a socially responsible fund is flawed. What they do is rank companies in any given industry by their social responsibility, then invest in the highest-scoring companies. The problem with this approach is that it’s based not on being, on balance, responsible. It’s based on being responsible relative to other companies in any given industry.
That way of filtering meant that some of these ETFs still invested in fossil fuels companies and tobacco companies and arms manufacturers and problematic mining companies. They simply invested in the least bad of those companies. The problem is that a company might be the “most responsible” weapons manufacturer — but it’s still a weapons manufacturer. And our clients who were being conscientious about their investments by and large didn’t want to invest in any weapons manufacturers — even if they happen to have lower carbon output than their competitors. The existing funds available in Canada just didn’t make it possible to do that (while also being diversified).
So We Made Our Own ETFs
We set out to build a fund with far more intentional and stringent filters for the companies we’d be investing in. That meant weeding out entire industries, and types of corporate behaviour.
When you invest in a Wealthsimple ETF, here are what the funds won’t invest in:
Big polluters, like oil and gas-related companies. Companies involved in thermal coal mining or coal power generation. We’ve also omitted the top 25% of carbon emitters in each industry — lowering the overall carbon footprint of the funds without sacrificing diversification.
Companies in violation of the UN Global Compact (major controversies and human rights violations).
Any defence contractors or weapon manufacturers.
Companies involved in the manufacture of tobacco products, alcohol products, and casino, gaming, and adult nightclub/entertainment companies.
Companies without women on the board. Companies in these funds must have 3+ or 25%+ women on their boards.
What will we invest in, then?
To clarify a popular misconception about SRI funds, it won’t be all electric-car companies and wind power. (That’s a different category of cause-driven investing called impact investing, which you can do on Wealthsimple Trade.) No, what we look for are companies that have diversity on their boards and walk the walk when it comes to progressive policies in the realms of sustainability and corporate governance. Internationally, this means a concentration of companies in Germany and the Nordic nations, which tend to have the most regulation in those areas. In North America, it means a wide range of companies in sectors ranging from financial services to real estate to food and beverage conglomerates.
No Baddies, Plus Lower Fees and Wealthsimple-Quality Performance
The other big benefit to making our own ETFs is we could charge lower fees. SRI funds are typically a little more expensive than non-SRI funds, for good reason: someone has to do the research and analysis that goes into deciding what’s included in and excluded from the funds, and that work comes with a cost. But since we’re the ones doing that research, and we’re no longer paying an outside firm a premium for the service, you’ll pay lower fees — the fee for WSRI is 0.20% and it's 0.25% for WSRD. The overall fee you'll pay for the equity funds in a Wealthsimple Invest SRI portfolio is only about 0.23% (compared to about 0.48% before).
Like all our investing portfolios, our SRI portfolios are broadly diversified and designed for investors to keep their savings in so they can build wealth in the long term. There is no intended trade-off on returns — we believe you can still do well by doing good.
All you need to do is sign up for a Wealthsimple Invest account and choose “make my portfolio socially responsible” when prompted during the sign-up process. Your portfolio will include the two new ETFs, as well as government bonds to mitigate the risk — the proportion between stocks and bonds depends on how much risk you decide to take on. You can also buy WSRI and WSRD on Wealthsimple Trade (and pay $0 commission fees), or anywhere else you buy ETFs.
And if you’re already a Wealthsimple Invest client with an SRI portfolio, you don’t need to do a thing. Your investments will automatically be transferred into the new portfolio.
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