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COVID-19 creates long and winding road for startups seeking investment

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COVID-19 creates long and winding road for startups seeking investment 1

By Jayne Chan, Head of StartmeupHK, Invest Hong Kong

Countless technology and other companies describe themselves as innovators, disruptors or game changers, or maybe all three, and sometimes that’s true. But none have had quite the disruptive force of COVID-19 which has flipped work and life habits upside down and sucked so much oxygen out of the global economy. The impact will be lasting: many of those new habits are here to stay.

Yet, while a recalibration of lifestyles and business processes is perhaps overdue – and to be embraced given it’s happening anyway – the change presents huge challenges for startups and new businesses that were on a growth trajectory prior to the pandemic. Few would deny that opportunities exist amid the disruption, but the challenge right now is to survive the crisis intact.

The global economy this year will see its biggest contraction in decades. The World Bank projects global gross domestic product to fall by 5.2% this year,[1] with advanced economies shrinking 7% and emerging economies 2.5%. It forecast East Asia and the Pacific to grow just 0.5% this year, down from 5.9% last year. These forecasts assume the markets will return to somewhere near normality during the second half of the year.

Despite all the economic murk and gloom, there are signs that a post-COVID bounce is likely. The World Bank predicts economic growth of 6.6% in East Asia and the Pacific in 2021.

Some business sectors fare better

Looking around, it’s reasonable to anticipate a relatively speedy recovery. In a few business sectors, such as healthcare and telemedicine, e-commerce, fintech, home delivery and food retail sectors, there are companies that have fared better. In some instances, the situation has been transformational in a positive way.

In fintech, for example, global investment actually rose year-on-year in the first half of 2020, according to Accenture,[2] up 3.8% to US$23.1 billion from US$22.3 billion, albeit with the help of COVID-related government loans in some markets. Asia-Pacific saw a sharp rise driven by China and Australia. In the first half, China’s fintech market grew 177% year-on-year to US$2.3 billion, while Australia’s grew 189% to US$1.2 billion.

Resilience is clear to see, but businesses face huge challenges. From a startup perspective, within weeks of the COVID-19 outbreak, many companies went from being solid-growth enterprises, possibly looking to raise money, to ones simply trying to stay afloat.

Debtor books have grown massively as companies stop cash going out the door. Many well-run companies have customers who may not be cancelling, but they are also not paying as fast. For such companies, it becomes a cash issue rather than a fundamental underlying business one. The reality is that businesses are ensuring that every penny going out the door absolutely needs to – so payment terms get stretched. It’s understandable, but it’s problematic if everyone does it.

For startups seeking to work their way onto the fundraising ladder, the process typically starts with an initial pre-seed and/or seed round, which then moves on to Series A to B, C and onwards as needed. The funds usually come from angel investors, accelerators or venture capital firms, in return for an equity stake. Even at the best of times, pitching to get on the first rung of the ladder is perhaps the greatest challenge.

Bar for investment higher as company valuations drop

Advice for many prospects looking at fundraising, certainly during the first wave of COVID-19, was to do nothing except focus on survival. For investors, a business that weaves and navigates its way through the crisis, or even take advantage of the pandemic environment to flourish, is likely to resonate.

Even for those companies that have fared better in recent months, barring an utterly compelling reason to raise funds, now may not be the ideal time. It’s clear that the bar for investment has gone up and company valuations have come down, neither of which is a surprise given higher risk profiles at present.

For companies that are well known to investors, such as Grab, Lu.com, Airwallex or WeLab, fundraising is more manageable. And for slightly smaller but relatively new companies, there are plenty of examples of recent success attracting fresh investment, often through existing investors.

Jayne Chan

Jayne Chan

But for smaller, newer companies, not being able to do face-to-face pitches creates much more of a challenge – after all, most funds like a boots-on-the-ground physical interaction before putting money in, particularly if the sums are large.

Despite all that, for new businesses planning to seek funds down the line, there is no harm warming up investors. Having the right conversations now makes sense and would help a startup to hit the ground running when the pandemic abates. The conversations should include ones with government funding organisations. For an investor, matching government funding is attractive because of the higher startup success rate.

Pandemic drives consumers and businesses online

Thanks to the pandemic, people are now far more willing to go online for all manner of transactions. Working remotely from the office is now commonplace, with work hours more flexible.

This trend among consumers, healthcare professionals and office workers has become more entrenched – more retailers are going online, while companies rethink their office space needs. This extends to investors, many of whom initially sat on their hands expecting COVID-19 to quickly pass by. They quickly adapted when it became clear coronavirus was going nowhere fast.

Quantitative easing and low interest rate policies by central banks, along with a boom driven by the lockdown – appetite for online entertainment, financial services, communications, healthcare, shopping, etc. – spurred fresh demand for tech products, pushing share prices rising to record highs. This created an attractive environment for investors to seek fresh investment opportunities.

A consequence of widespread digitalisation is that software, e-commerce and, more broadly, digital startups have an advantage in the competition for funding. An ability to do business both face-to-face and remotely makes such businesses less vulnerable to other trade pitfalls and therefore more attractive for investors.

Conversely, it’s harder for hardware startups at a time when global trade is weakening. They have to consider whether production costs and the markets they promote will be affected by such issues as tariffs or people flow. This type of startup is likely to have access to fewer financing opportunities.

It may seem obvious, but it’s of paramount importance for startups seeking funding to be clear about what they are looking for from investors. Are they simply injecting capital as a passive investment hoping for a return, or are they looking to create synergies to help develop the business? Startups should consider what resources investors can bring to the business besides capital.

These are testing times. However, founders of startups need to stay positive and true to their mission and vision, and why they started the companies in the first place. After all, that’s their value proposition.

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Can Thematic Investing provide investors with growth opportunities in uncertain times?

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The impact of COVID-19 on the investment market

New whitepaper from CAMRADATA explores

CAMRADATA’s latest whitepaper on Thematic Investing, considers the role this type of investing can play in asset management and explores trends that can permeate society and traverse sectors. The whitepaper includes insights from guests who attended a virtual roundtable on Thematic Investing hosted by CAMRADATA in November, including representatives from CPR Asset Management, Sarasin & Partners, Impact Investing Institute, PwC, Quilter Cheviot, Scottish Widows and Stonehage Fleming.

Sean Thompson, Managing Director, CAMRADATA said, “In these seminal times, thematic investing has the potential to shape how the future unfolds. Yet running a successful thematic fund is no easy feat – it is a bit like navigating unchartered waters trying to identify the trends and the long-term opportunities.

“Trends such as AI and biotechnology are still in their relative early days, for example, and global economies are undergoing dramatic changes. But mapping out certain trends, identifying potential sustainable returns through a unifying thread that spans multiple sectors, could help future-proof investments. “Our roundtable guests considered current key themes, which themes worked well, and which have not and how thematic investors could identify trends with the potential to offer future growth.”

The guests named themes they currently like which included artificial intelligence, China, climate change, clean energy, automation, evolving consumption, ageing, digitalisation, water, waste management, biodiversity, and board diversity.

After discussing themes that have worked or not, the guests looked at total allocation to themed funds, and whether clients might be blinded by themes to the overall risk exposure in their portfolios.

Key takeaway points were:

  • Themes have a habit of coming and going. One guest recognised that automation and robotics, for example, were cyclical, which means that investors will have to think carefully about entry-points.
  • It was agreed that the commodities ‘super cycle’ of the 2000s came about with the economic development of China. Many commodities-based products found their way into mainstream investing, but this is unlikely to happen again.
  • One guest was surprised by some of the themes that interested their customers; with their research showing that Board Diversity was almost the lowest-ranking concern among the ESG choices they listed.
  • There was correlation between environmental impact and social benefits to investing. The theme that concerns the Impact Investing Institute, which is less than two years old, is improved measurement of such relationships.
  • In terms of successful themes, one clear winner due to COVID had been digitalisation.
  • One theme that has not done so well is the Ageing theme focused on older people travelling and enjoying experiences abroad later in life.
  • One guest said their firm used themes for ideas generation, not as a shortcut for portfolio construction. They said themes lead to good ideas, but they then spend at least three months researching a stock, so that the best themes are represented by the best investments.
  • The final point was that there are sensitivities for any global investor in allocating to themes, even the biggest one of all, Climate Change.
  • But on a positive note, one guest added if all stakeholders can resolve their differences on definitions such as impact and ethical investing, then more capital will be readily transferred into opportunities.

The whitepaper also features two articles from the sponsors offering valuable additional insight. These are:

  • CPR Asset Management: ‘Central Banks: leading the path towards Impact Investing’
  • Sarasin & Partners: ‘Theme or fad? How to invest for the long term’

To download the Thematic Investing whitepaper, click here

For more information on CAMRADATA visit www.camradata.com

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Promises, Promises: Navigating the Reputational Risks of ESG Investment Pledges

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Why are people investing in music?

By Nir Kossovsky and Denise Williamee, Steel City Re

As the trend towards ESG investment and a low-carbon economy continues, banks are being backed into a reputational corner. Law firms specializing in representing the expanding pool of litigious shareholders are salivating.

On one hand, banks understand the inherent financial risks and challenges involved with making a wholesale move towards a low-carbon economy. The transition to a greener corporate world can’t happen overnight; as long as “brown” assets continue to be profitable, those in bank leadership positions have to balance their green aspirations with their responsibility to shareholders.

On the other hand, while not renewing loans on existing coal mines or fracking sites may improve a bank’s carbon disclosures, it could have social and financial ramifications that disappoint other stakeholders—i.e., causing people to lose their jobs. Still, financial institutions are experiencing pressure from all sides—from ESG investors to social license holders – to divest the fossil fuel industry and adopt drastic “green financing” practices now.

To alleviate these pressures, banks are pledging greener financing initiatives. Almost every large global bank has made some sort of commitment. Goldman Sachs, for example, announced they would spend $750 billion on sustainable finance over the next decade. Bank of America pledged $300 billion.

Bank boards and executives likely don’t fully appreciate the reputational risks posed by the aspirational statements they’re making. They are making promises and raising expectations without the operational or governance systems in place to ensure those expectations will actually be met. Overpromising and increasing the risk of angering and disappointing stakeholders is the very definition of reputational risk.

Banks are in a unique position: integral to every aspect of our economy, well-known brands that work hard to build and retain the trust of their customers and the general public while operating in an environment of intense scrutiny by politicians and regulators at every level of government. Satisfying all the stakeholders calling for greener policies while fulfilling their responsibility to their shareholders is a demanding balancing act fraught with risk. The Business Roundtable pledge, led by JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, and elevating employees, communities, and the environment as stakeholders, was an attempt to strike that balance. Already, though, that pledge is being dismissed by politicians like Senator Elizabeth Warren, who characterized it as an “empty publicity stunt.”

The price of missing expectations is costly, and bank executives and board members could find themselves in a legal hot seat. Federal securities lawsuit filings alleging reputation harm from missed expectations are up 60% over last year, the third year of a rising trend.

This trend stems from SEC regulation S-K that calls for more human capital disclosures, and the Caremark decision that sets the bar for most securities litigation and makes board oversight of mission-critical corporate operations a test of the duty of loyalty. Other cases, like In Re Signet, have made ESG-like pronouncements—historically “immaterial corporate puffery”—now potentially material in the securities arena.

For example, directors’ duty of loyalty were successfully questioned in alleged failures of innovation (In Re Clovis Oncology, Inc., board failure to protect the firm’s reputation for pharmacologic innovation); safety (Marchand v. Blue Bell Creameries, board failure to protect the company’s reputation for food safety); and environmental sustainability (Inter-Marketing Group USA, Inc. v. Armstrong, board failure to protect the firm’s reputation for oil pipeline-related environmental protection).

In other words, aspirational pledges are now being considered by courts with the full weight of a material public disclosure. As wealth managers chase ESG-informed investing and capital markets chase ‘green underwriting’, the plaintiff’s bar chases boards and executives making pledges that appear to be no more than aspirational marketing.

The only way to strike a balance and mitigate these risks is through a robust Enterprise Risk Management (ERM) strategy that’s centered around understanding who your key stakeholders are, what their interests are, and ultimately, what their expectations are. Coincidentally, it is also one of the three key behaviors the world’s largest asset management firm, Blackrock, is demanding of all investee companies in 2021 thus communicating the type of authenticity to its slogan “beyond investing,” that BP failed to accomplish with similar sloganeering a decade ago.

Banks need to create a central intelligence unit with board level oversight to comb through every aspect of the organization to identify stakeholder interests, potential risks and/or exposures. Pledges and communications should be informed by a rigorous and honest self-assessment of the institution’s public filings and operational capacity. Overpromising is costly. ESG pledges must be rooted in achievable goals that a bank’s leadership are confident their institutions can reasonably execute on an operational level. Banks also need to consider transferring or financing risks using the broad range of conventional and parametric insurance products currently available.

Enterprise risk management, when executed properly, will fulfill ESG commitments, reassure stakeholder groups and give marketers, counsel, and investment as well as government relations professionals an authentic story to tell about strong corporate governance. ERM focused on reputational intelligence will provide confidence to ESG funds, institutional investors, bond raters, and government officials alike.

The popularity of ESG investment and chasing ESG ratings is not going to go away, and stakeholder pressures will continue to mount. Investors doubled the size of the ESG sector this year, putting $27.4 billion into ETFs traded in U.S. markets. According to a recent survey conducted by Bank of America relating to ‘Gen Z’—which is just entering the workforce—80% take ESG into account when making their investment decisions.

Bank leadership that is striving to attain the correct balance between stakeholders and shareholders need to lean more into the “governance” portion of the ESG equation; pledges backed by enterprise risk management are the strongest pledges you can make.

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ESG – Bubble or Bandwagon?

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Portfolios that a daring young investor may choose

By Josh Gregory, Founder of Sugi

Isaac Newton was a successful investor, but he lost a fortune (£15m in today’s money) in the South Sea Bubble of 1720. When asked about his misadventure, he supposedly replied that he ‘could calculate the motions of the heavenly stars, but not the madness of people’ (presumably, himself included). 

The rise and fall of South Sea stock was one of the earliest and largest instances of a market bubble and crash. Three hundred years later, we’re facing another massive investing trend: sustainable investing. In the last year or so, almost every investment institution has jumped on the sustainability bandwagon. 

It’s now arguably more notable to find an asset manager who hasn’t committed to sustainable, ethical, responsible, impact and/or ESG (environmental, social and governance) investing than one who has. The numbers are telling: in August 2020, assets in global ESG exchange traded funds and products topped $100 billion (£73 billion) globally. 

Demand for sustainable investments has been bolstered by two main factors. Firstly, with climate change firmly on the global agenda and all eyes watching the Biden administration’s transition to power (and the subsequent climate change policy that will follow), ‘greening up’ has never been more of a priority for businesses and individuals. This includes the investment industry, with both retail and institutional investors increasingly demanding that their money has a positive impact on our planet. 

Secondly, since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic reports have continually claimed that ESG funds are outperforming ‘traditional’ investments. No longer is going green cited as a ‘nice to have’; rather, these reports demonstrate the value and resilience of ESG funds to the investor community, increasing demand. Surely, this can only be a good thing? Yes, but only if investors know what they’re buying. 

It’s no secret that ESG investing suffers from complexity, lack of transparency and a lack of any universal standard. Fundamentally, this is why we created Sugi – a new platform enabling retail investors to track the environmental impact of their investment portfolios using clear and objective carbon impact data. 

Josh Gregory

Josh Gregory

Today, ESG terms can lawfully be used to label pretty much anything. Ultimately, this means that the ESG label is not a guarantee of good practice. In fact, an ESG rating is a financial risk metric – the scores calculate the extent to which ESG issues affect a company’s economic value. Many investors, even institutional investors, don’t know how to decipher this. The scores themselves are designed to be used in tandem with portfolio dashboards and other data to make financial decisions. This effectively means that the scores on their own without any context are not of much use to anyone.

This has led to a glut of greenwashing in the sector, where investment products are described as green, ethical or sustainable, but the description is unsubstantiated. And while the top financial performance of ESG funds seems uncontroversial, those digging a little deeper may be surprised at what they find. Many ESG funds are heavily weighted in favour of technology companies, which typically have low carbon emissions. These stocks skyrocketed in 2020 but it’s important to note the context. It was largely due to the COVID-19 lockdowns and had nothing to do with the stocks’ ESG credentials. 

The EU, the UK and the US are all working on their own strict definitions of ESG. This should, in theory, go some way to clarify what investors are getting when they choose an ESG or sustainable investment product. However, this will take a while to implement and there will still not be a globally recognised definition or standard. 

It would seem many people are pouring money into investments when they don’t know what they’re buying. That’s nothing new. But underneath the ESG label lies something meaningful, worthwhile and, above all, valuable for the world in which we live – environmental, social and governance best practice.

The question remains though, is it a bubble? A bubble exists if ESG investments are over-valued (i.e. over-bought). Right now, ESG funds may be in bubble territory because many of the underlying stocks that make up the funds are themselves in a bubble. But does that make ESG a bubble? If it is, when do we call it? 

Historically, all bubbles –whether they be tulips, canals, railways or the internet – no-one knows. And if I knew now, I’d be sunning in the South Seas rather than writing this blog!

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