Social Investing: What Is It?

Social investing has received a lot of interest in recent years – especially following the financial crisis. Most people, however, are left wondering: What is social investing? Let’s answer this question.

To understand what social investing is, we must first consider how traditional investors look at the world. In traditional investing, investors weigh investment decisions by looking at two broad factors – risk and financial return.

Risk, Return – and Social Impact

Each investor has a certain comfort level across the risk-return spectrum, and he or she does their investing within that band of the spectrum. An investor might be comfortable giving up some of their return if an investment is safer. On the other hand, the same investor might be willing take a little more risk with an investment if it translates into a higher return.

In social investing, a third factor is thrown into consideration – social impact. Social impact means that the enterprise supported by the investment yields some benefit to society beyond the income it generates for investors. Conversely, an enterprise can also have some negative impact on society, and a social investor will also take this into consideration when making investments.

Just as traditional investors are willing to make a trade off between risk and return, social investors are willing to make a trade off between risk, return and social impact. If an enterprise is doing something that’s improving the environment, for example, a social investor may be willing to give up some financial return or assume greater risk on that investment depending on his or her individual comfort level.

In short, social investing can be defined as considering the social impact of an enterprise when making investment decisions. By this standard, a number of investment approaches fall under the umbrella of social investing: mission investing, responsible investing, double-bottom-line investing, triple-bottom-line investing, ethical investing, sustainable investing and green investing.

Social Screening

Within the universe of social investing, there are two broad categories: social screening and impact investing. In the social screening methodology, an investor comes up with a list of social standards that he or she wants his or her investments to meet.

The investor eliminates any company that does not meet these standards and then invests in the “socially responsible” companies that do meet the standards in a way that meets the investors risk and return objectives.

A number of socially responsible mutual funds have emerged that use such an approach. They adopt a social screening methodology, define a large basket of investments that adhere to those standards and then have their management company invest within that basket to meet the financial objectives of the mutual fund.

Impact Investing

The second broad category of social investing is known as impact investing or, sometimes, community investing. In impact investing, rather than investing in companies that do no harm, investments are made in companies that do social good.

Enterprises that fall under the impact investment heading perform services that have a charitable or social purpose but also have a business model that can generate income and support a financial investment. They straddle both the charity and business worlds.

Impact investment enterprises might be structured as non-profit or for-profit companies but rarely do they take the form of the large public companies listed in the capital markets. As a result, making an impact investment is more difficult and usually takes the form of a private investment in the form of a note or loan.

Impact Investment Sectors

So what exactly are these impact investment enterprises? To get a better sense, let’s look at some of the sectors that qualify as impact investments.

Affordable housing is one sector familiar to most people. Most people support an organization like Habitat for Humanity by making donations, but a foundation, for example, might support them by providing a low interest loan to fund the organization’s projects.

Microfinance is another impact investment sector. A microfinance institution makes small loans to entrepreneurial people in developing countries to give them the opportunity to start or grow their own business and lift themselves out of poverty. A microfinance institution works similar to a bank, so it is able to generate income and support investors.

There are many other similar sectors that generate income and have a social mission at their core: fair trade, community development organizations, social enterprises, etc. In each sector, companies can often find investors who are willing to give up some financial return or take on a bit more risk because of the social impact that these organizations have.

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Forestry Investments – Past Performance and Investment Options

Investors looking to diversify their portfolios and insure their wealth against the ravages of volatility in traditional markets, will most likely have come across a range forestry investments, promising to generate superior inflation-adjusted and risk-adjusted returns for the long-term investor.

But how have timber investments performed? And how does the smaller investor participate in this interesting alternative investment asset class?

Firstly let’s look at the past performance of forestry investments, as measured by one of the main timber investment indices, the NCREIF Timberland Index; according to this basic measure of investment returns in the sector, this asset class outperformed the S&P500 by some 37 per cent in the 20 years between 1987 and 2007. When stocks delivered average annual returns of 11.5 per cent, forestry investments returned 15.8 per cent.

At the same time, returns from investing in timberland and woodlands have been proven to display a much lower volatility, an attractive characteristic for today’s investor.

Previously, the majority of investment returns from forestry investments have been mopped up by larger, institutional investors such as pension funds, insurance companies and university endowments, who have collectively placed over $40 billion into timber investments in the past decade.

So on to the second question; how do smaller investors participate in this kind of alternative investment?

According to a study by Professor John Caulfield of the University of Georgia, returns from forestry investments are three-fold;

An increase in timber volume (biological growth of trees), which accounts for some 61 per cent of return on investment.
Land price appreciation, accounting for only 6 per cent of future returns.
Increase in timber prices per unit, delivering the final 33 per cent of investment returns for timber land owners.
So the best way to harness the performance of timber investments is to take ownership of trees, either directly, or through one of the array of forestry investment funds or other structures.

Timber REITs

One way for smaller investor to participate in timber investments is through a Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT). These investment structures are like funds, in that investors can buy and sell shares in the trust on an exchange, the REIT acquires and manages timber investment properties, but unlike normal companies must pay out 90 per cent of their earnings to investors through dividends.

Some examples of Timber REITs are:

Plum Creek Timber is the largest private owner of timberland in the U.S. and the largest timber REIT with a market cap of about $5.6 billion, many investors have chosen this as their route into forestry investments.

Potlatch is also a timber investment REIT while

Rayonier generates about a 30 per cent of its REIT earnings from timber.

Weyerhaeuser has disposed of its paper and packaging businesses and will convert to a REIT by year end.

The Wells Timberland REIT is not publicly listed but may be available for purchase through Wells Real Estate Funds.

Another way for smaller investors to add forestry investments to their portfolios is to buy Exchange Traded Funds that attempt to track the performance of timber returns. This is less direct than owing timberland, or investing in a timber REIT, as the ETF may also invest in shares in companies involved in the timber supply chain including processors and distributors. This means that investing in forestry through ETFs exposes the investor to some of the volatility of equity markets.

The Guggenheim Timber ETF owns about 25 stocks and REITs involved in the global timber and paper products industry with a 30% weighting to U.S. companies.

The S&P Global Timber & Forestry Index Fund holds 23 securities and is 47 per cent invested in the U.S.

Timber Investment Management Organisations (TIMO)

Those with more capital to spare can participate in forestry investments through TIMOs, although the majority of these investment specialists require a minimum investment of $1 million to $5 million and a commitment to tie up funds for up to 15 years. TIMOs essentially trade timber land assets, acquiring suitable properties, managing them to maximise returns for investors, the disposing of them and distributing profits to shareholders.

Many experts believe that the active management style of TIMOs ensures that they can be more reactive to market conditions than REITs, and therefore don’t tend to fall and rise in line with the market quite as much.

Direct Forestry Investments

Those with access to sufficient capital and the appropriate expert advice can invest in physical properties. Commercial timber plantations are complex operations that require skill, knowledge and expertise to manage effectively and maximise returns whilst lowering risk.

For armchair investors, or those with less capital to spare, many companies offer investors the opportunity to purchase or lease a small portion or plot within a larger, professionally managed timber plantation. Investors normally take ownership of their plot and trees via leasehold, whilst the timber investment company plants, manages and often harvest the trees on behalf of the investor.

Options for investors range from species to species and region to region, with current opportunities in Brazil, Panama, Costa Rica, Germany, Nicaragua and other, more exotic locations like Fiji.

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