A California investment firm is betting there are plenty of investors who believe Jesus wants them to buy its new mutual fund, the Inspire International ESG fund. (“ESG” is a new business buzz-acronym for “environmental, social and corporate governance.”) The fund (ticker symbol WWJD, of course) claims to invest in international companies screened for biblical and ESG values.
What would Jesus do? Invest with Inspire!
Mutual funds swaddled in a socially conscious wrapper have been around for years, usually known by what they avoid, not what they seek. (Think “thou shalt not” funds.) Buying these funds may make some personal sense in theory, but in practice, socially conscious mutual fund investing is (at best) impractical and (at worst) nothing more than virtue signaling.
The WWJD fund is based on an index, yet it charges an annual management fee of almost one percent – an egregious fee that, in my opinion, is at least 10 times a fair fee. On expenses alone, the WWJD fund fails any reasonable corporate governance screen, unless they are using annuity expenses as their ethical standard.
Within the fund’s ten largest positions are two airlines, a mining company, a Swedish company that manufactures products to aid in the transportation of oil and a company fined in 2018 for workplace safety violations. The CEO of another large fund holding was recently criminally indicted for reckless emission of an air contaminant. The fund’s third largest country exposure is that bastion of civil rights, China, where it is illegal for children under the age of 18 to enter a church, simply professing to be Christian is “inciting subversion (subject to up to 15 years in prison) and a million Muslims are thought to be held in concentration camps.
At least the WWJD fund claims to avoid companies related to the LGBT lifestyle, although I don’t know if that would extend to companies run by homosexuals – something I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen disclosed in an annual report.
There are no accepted standards as to what constitutes ESG investing – and many self-proclaimed socially-responsible funds’ actual holdings violate their marketing claims. Yet these types of funds are one of the fastest growing categories of new fund offerings. Don’t for a moment think that is because investment companies believe this is a profitable area for investors. Investment companies think it is a profitable area for investment companies. A Morgan Stanley poll found that 95% of Millennials express an interest in “sustainable investment,” whatever that is. You can rest assured that if the poll found that 95% of Millennials expressed an interest in cannabis investing, we would see a plethora of newly minted pot funds.
Wait; I spoke too soon.
David Moon is president of Moon Capital Management. A version of this piece originally appeared in the USA TODAY NETWORK.