Climate investing's enduring tailwinds

Thomas Mucha, Geopolitical Strategist
Alan Hsu, Portfolio Manager
2023-05-04T12:00:00-04:00  | S2:E7  | 26:44

The views expressed are those of the speaker(s) and are subject to change. Other teams may hold different views and make different investment decisions. For professional/institutional investors only. Your capital may be at risk.

Episode notes

Portfolio manager Alan Hsu joins host Thomas Mucha to share his latest insights on climate investing, highlighting the growth of favorable climate legislation, the concept of true positives versus false negatives, the critical role of climate science in investing, and much more.

Key topics:

2:20 - Alan's path to climate investing

4:50 - The intersection of energy and technology

7:40 - The broad climate investing opportunity

9:50 - Favorable climate legislation

12:00 - True positives versus false negatives

16:00 - Collaborating with Woodwell and MIT

18:30 - Climate change and geopolitical risk

20:55 - New climate technologies

23:15 - An optimistic view


ALAN HSU: The climate transition is the way many of these countries or continents will achieve energy security and independence. And by combining these two very important goals, it bolsters our confidence that you’ll see more and more favorable climate legislation and policy.

THOMAS MUCHA:  Once a niche area, confined to renewable energy, climate investing is now incredibly broad, for the simple fact that climate change is likely to affect almost every corner of the economy. Adding her voice to the mix, US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen recently warned that climate change is likely to impact asset values, with contagion, she says, for the entire financial system. And so, she urged prompt action on the low carbon transition. Now, regular listeners to this podcast will also know that I spend a lot of time on the geopolitics of climate change, and how it’s rapidly intersecting with today’s complex national security background. So here to talk about climate change, the energy transition, and the fast-growing climate opportunity set, is Alan Hsu, a portfolio manager here at Wellington. Alan has been investing through a climate lens since 2008, a lot longer than most investors, which I suppose makes him a pioneer. So Alan, welcome to Well Said

ALAN HSU: Thank you very much Thomas, it’s really a delight to be here. 

THOMAS MUCHA:  So Alan, you grew up in Houston, Texas. Oil country. The son of a petroleum engineer. You saw firsthand then the tremendous power and volatility of energy markets back in the 1980s, the 1990s. So you also know firsthand the outsized exposure to climate risks across Texas, from heat, and drought, to hurricanes, to flooding. So how does your personal background shape your views on climate investing? And also on investing in general? 

ALAN HSU: Sure. So, as you mentioned, having grown up in Texas, which is the de facto energy hub of the energy sector in North America, and as the son of a petroleum engineer, I did have an up-close view into the ups and downs of the sector. It really made me appreciate the capital intensity, as well as the boom-and-bust cycles associated with energy, and really all natural resources. Very importantly, as I got older, it also helped me to recognize how relatively little innovation took place in energy writ large. When you fast forward, when I joined Wellington as an investor, the fundamental backdrop had changed pretty dramatically. Solar, wind, battery technology, energy grid technology, were still early days, but there were signs that they were gaining traction, and were seemingly inevitably going to take share from traditional sources of energy. The view that we had at the time was that eventually, you would relabel your sources of energy. That what was regarded as conventional at the time, which would include oil, coal, natural gas, were inevitably going to be regarded as secondary. And the things that seemed out in the distance, too remote to be commercially successful, were eventually going to become common, and primary. And indeed, I think that all trajectories today suggest that that really is the path that we’re on.

THOMAS MUCHA:  Yeah, that happened. 

ALAN HSU: That has happened. And technology, policy, regulation, even consumer preferences, are all shifting meaningfully to further favor climate advantaged assets. And we felt, and I felt that that would open up a multiyear, if not multi-decade, opportunity. And that really just relates to my views on the energy sector. When I think about having grown up in Texas, going back, and even thinking about some of the weather dynamics that you allude to, for me as a child, hurricanes, drought, heat, were common. I never really thought of them as being systematic. That’s an aspect of climate investing that I’ve come to further appreciate since I’ve been with Wellington, and in particular as we have really taken advantage of a lot of the resources and the partnerships that Wellington has, whether it’s with Woodwell, or MIT, to really understand that those weather anomalies that I experienced as a child were early days, and what is likely to be a recurring problem.

THOMAS MUCHA:  Yeah, it’s part of a broader trend that’s going to be with us forever. 

ALAN HSU: For a long time. Yes.

THOMAS MUCHA:  All right, so Alan, before you were a climate investor, you worked in the tech sector, right? 

ALAN HSU: That’s right. 

THOMAS MUCHA:  So, what was the moment when you realized that energy and technology were bound to come together? 

ALAN HSU: I thought the intersection seemed clear right away, and that is when I joined the firm. My background in technology was in enterprise software. Beyond being generally a terrific business, software is also a uniquely productivity enhancing tool. It has incredibly high returns on investment, meaning almost anyone that deploys it sees some kind of benefit. And what we recognized was that it had these incredible benefits but hadn’t been deployed systematically through every facet of the industrial economy, at least not during my time in the sector. So when I decided to pivot my career trajectory, and move into professional investing, and I was fortunate enough to join Wellington, and was given a chance to express which area would you want to focus on, where would you want to center your career, I knew instantly that I wanted to focus on this intersection of energy and technology, under this premise, or this observation, that energy was a very large, very important sector that had arguably spent very little time on innovation, very little capital on innovation, and R&D, and in change, not just for years, Thomas, but for decades. 

THOMAS MUCHA:  So, tech was coming for energy? 

ALAN HSU: Again, you wouldn’t have been able to make that statement at every point in the last 40 years, but at the point at which I joined the firm, when you began to see the signs that solar and wind, albeit still nascent, albeit still relatively new technologies, if there were going to follow adoption curves, and technology improvement curves that you had seen unfold in multiple other sectors, it seemed inevitable that these types of technologies were going to continue to grow, and be deployed, and ultimately, to take share. And that was what I had seen firsthand, working in technology, the power of adding data analytics, software, new combinations of hardware, to create dispersion of outcomes within a sector. So, my view at the time was, this intersection of technology and energy seemed inevitable, and it was really going to have an impact in the conventional energy sector. 

THOMAS MUCHA:  All right, let’s dig deeper into the nuts and bolts of what climate investment really means. So, we’ve seen the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, there’s the Repower EU, among other bits of legislation here and there. I think all of this underscores and probably accelerates the massive amount of capital that’s already in motion here. The International Energy Agency estimates that US$2 trillion will be invested every year on clean energy alone, at least through the end of this decade. Some countries, including China, have begun to lower their carbon intensity, decoupling emissions from GDP through efficiency gains, more use of renewables, electric vehicles and on and on. And so, beyond this renewable energy piece of this, Alan, what else rounds out this, let’s call it enormous, opportunity set?

ALAN HSU:Climate investing seems to mean different things to different people. For us, climate investing is very simply investing in companies that are materially positioned to create value by solving the problems associated with climate. So for us, it’s not about necessarily having a low carbon portfolio, or not just owning companies that have really low scope one through three scores, there’s nothing wrong with those approaches, but that’s not how we think about climate investing. So, I’ll say again, it’s companies that create economic and stakeholder value through products and services that either decarbonize, drive resource efficiency, enhance climate resilience, or help to reprice climate risk.

THOMAS MUCHA:  That’s a broad set. 

ALAN HSU: It’s a relatively broad opportunity set, and that actually, Thomas, is, to my mind, one of the under-appreciated aspects of climate investing, is that although energy is arguably the single most important total addressable market, it’s by no means the only one. And when you think about the idea of what’s now become popular as a term is energy transition, but you broaden that a little bit, and you think about a climate transition, you begin to get a sense for just how large the opportunity set. And that’s something that is important to emphasize is that when you think about the world’s physical infrastructure, they represent a collection of different systems, each comprised of interconnected assets. Every one of these systems, whether it’s energy, electricity, food and agriculture, transportation, have been underinvested in for the past several decades. And what’s so powerful about climate investing for us, is that all of them now are being renovated, updated, improved, reconfigured, redesigned, but all of it with a really strong emphasis on sustainability and efficiency. And that really does play into the way that we think about climate investing. So important to emphasize, it’s not just about renewable energy, it really is this climate transition that encompasses the world’s physical assets. And for the first time, you have an enormous amount of capital, to your point, several trillions of dollars, that are being devoted to upgrading all of these systems. 

THOMAS MUCHA:  Right, so the broad societal, economic, political impacts, are going to be pretty significant here. 

ALAN HSU: That’s right. And you did mention a lot of legislation that we’ve seen emerge from places such as the EU, and the United States. Whether it’s the Repower EU, or the Inflation Reduction Act. And I think if we take a small step back, much of the legislation that you referenced really took shape following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. And recall at the time, how much of the focus, beyond the obvious humanitarian crisis, revolved around the resources at risk. And it wasn’t just the oil and the natural gas, it turns out that Russia and Ukraine are responsible for much of the world’s critical agriculture, as well as metals, and precious metals resources. And I think that that really woke policy makers up to this idea that you needed to ensure that we were not overly dependent on what were ultimately unreliable partnerships. And so, when you look at the legislation in both the EU as well as the US, that’s been crafted since that invasion, it seems very clear to us that as much of the focus is on energy security as it is on climate. Said another way, the climate transition is the way many of these countries or continents will achieve energy security and independence. And by combining these two very important goals, it bolsters our confidence that you’ll see more and more favorable climate legislation and policy.

THOMAS MUCHA:  Yeah, I completely agree, the conversations that I’ve had with policymakers across the board, in Brussels, in Washington, Berlin, everywhere, the Russia conflict really was a wakeup call. And it really did focus policymakers in visceral ways on energy security, economic security, and those two things are linked.

ALAN HSU: That’s right. And at a time when you call seldom find true bipartisan goals, it feels as though this idea of energy security and the recognition that climate transition is the way to achieve that does seem to be much more common.

THOMAS MUCHA:  Alan, I’ve heard you mention a heuristic that I think is a helpful way of looking at climate investing and these market inefficiencies that you’ve just highlighted. It’s this idea of true positives versus false negatives, and true negatives versus false positives. So, first, what do you mean by that? And why do you think that’s a useful lens and maybe give us a few examples.

ALAN HSU: There has been a proliferation of strategies that maybe you could loosely categorize as sustainability, or climate, or carbon, or impact, or responsible, or ESG investing, that effectively quantifies or identifies what a company’s footprint looks like today, on some metric. And none of these things is bad. But the problem from my perspective is that those are ultimately relatively blunt tools, and very importantly, unlike other steps in an investment process, those types of tools prioritize what companies look like today, whereas, as investors, most of the time, we’re taught to effectively try to look out a little bit in the future, and discount, not just all future cashflows, but the types, or the quality of the assets that drive those future cashflows. And that means you have to be able to, while recognizing the importance of today, really have more of an opinion on what happens tomorrow. This construct of false positive, or true negatives, is because you have, in some cases, companies that are maybe not ideal today, they don’t check all of the boxes, they may not meet all of the materiality thresholds, they may not have the most impressive ESG scores. But you can have a judgment based on your interaction with company management, based on your research, that while they may not be an ideal high scoring ESG, or impact, or climate credentialed company today, you can have some sense that tomorrow, they will be. False negatives would be, let’s just say as an example, a car company that doesn’t have all of their sales coming from electric vehicles, but we believe by 2030, they’ll be able to engineer that transition, and they’ll be successful in doing so, and by the way, the market is giving you an opportunity to buy them at a single digit multiple. Literally, you’re almost being paid to take the risk that that company can successfully transition. But if they don’t meet all the criteria today, then you’re not able to buy those stocks. And then a true negative, of course, would be a company that might be saying that they’re going to be undergoing a lot of capital allocation or investment shifts in order to capture some of this climate transition opportunity, but really, it doesn’t fundamentally change the nature of that business. There might be companies in conventional energy that yes, they have to devote a little bit more of their CAPEX to investing in alternative energy. But it doesn’t fundamentally change the nature of the business model. And I think that you see these types of false negatives, or true negatives, or false positives, in the marketplace, frequently. And where that nets out for you as an investor is it does impact capital allocation. It does impact where you’re able to devote your dollars. Because you don’t want to, as a professional investor, report to your stakeholders that this portfolio owns companies that don’t check all of the boxes. And yet, in many cases, those companies could be doing much, much more for the environment than most of their peers, or most of the investment universe. That’s the type of misallocation that can occur if you’re optimizing for some of these metrics that don’t really capture this idea of false positives, false negatives, etc.

THOMAS MUCHA:  That’s fascinating. And one of the things that interests me about this type of investing is, if you look at the history of investing, we’re so used to looking back at data to extrapolate towards the future, and you can’t do that with climate investing. 

ALAN HSU: It’s very difficult.

THOMAS MUCHA:  There is no past, because we haven’t lived through climate change, so we have to use the future to predict the future. And so I think we all have to sort of change our thinking about, you know, well what drives investment, what drives short, medium, long-term thinking? So, thank you, that’s a really interesting way to think about it. Now, let’s dig into the research a little bit here more. Wellington partners with the Woodwell Climate Research Center, you alluded to that before. We also partner with the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change. All this is to study climate risk, both from physical and transition risk perspectives. So how do these collaborations that we have help you approach your own work? 

ALAN HSU: It’s a terrific question, Thomas, and one we get often. I would say in very simple terms, as much as possible in investing, for me, it helps to have North Stars. And for us, incorporating the climate science has become one of those North Stars. And the reason for this is because it helps to extend our time horizons, and to recognize where you should be focused for the long-term. Not just how you position a portfolio, but how you position your research efforts. Where you dig in, where you think there’s going to be interesting ideas. So, a simple example would have been a few years ago, by working with both our internal climate science team, as well as our colleagues at Woodwell, we recognized that agriculture was going to be a very important theme for a climate portfolio. And the reason for this is because much of the world’s agriculture productivity today occurs in areas that are basically proximate to the equator, and that’s because today, that climate is relatively favorable to grow. And so, if you think about where most of the world’s vegetables, fruit, wheat, soy, rice, millet, grains are produced, it’s areas like southern California, and northern Brazil, and northern Africa, Southeast Asia. Well, working with Woodwell, we recognized that those climate conditions which are favorable today can pivot pretty dramatically to make that type of agriculture productivity much more difficult. You have rising temperatures, greater episodes of drought, greater episodes of intense rainfall, which can damage crop productivity. That helped us to recognize that we needed to focus on companies that were producing products and services that delivered some form of agriculture resilience. And working with our global industry analysts that are focused on agriculture, and industrial goods, we began to identify the short list of global companies that we felt met the criteria. From a thematic perspective, from an evaluation perspective, from a scores well on ESG perspective, that’s the nature of the collaboration here. But that’s a very good example for us of how working with Woodwell helped alert us to an insight that we probably wouldn’t have otherwise had.

THOMAS MUCHA:  That’s so interesting, because everything you just pointed out also helps support my own geopolitical analysis, I’ve used these same insights from Woodwell. Climate change in general is quickly rising to the top of the agenda for governments, for militaries, for all the national security officials around the world that I talk to. The Pentagon, of course, is concerned about how climate change, in these equatorial and tropical regions in particular, is going to impact climate migration. As you say, food and water scarcity issues. They’re expecting more resource conflicts, more political extremism, more failed states, rising health and pandemic issues. These are just some of the coming climate challenges. So, in your view Alan, how does this, let’s call it systemic focus on national security and climate change affect the future of this investment opportunity set?

ALAN HSU: Thomas, I’ve learned a lot about this dynamic from you, and my view is that the geopolitical angle is just going to reinforce the feedback loop that policymakers get about the need to continue to focus on climate. And it doesn’t mean that there’s going to be a direct line between an insight stemmed or born out of geopolitics, to policy or legislation that promotes climate investing. But I think as policymakers broadly, whether they’re in D.C. or elsewhere, recognize that there is another really important angle that drives the need to solve some of these problems, it will create this feedback loop that again, just as energy security has done for climate transition, gives me confidence that this is an area that will continue to see favorable, and I daresay bipartisan support. 

THOMAS MUCHA:  Absolutely. I think that once national security becomes the dominant way of thinking, and that’s where we are in this world, it helps force through these ideas and really is taking root. And it’s just another very powerful argument that policymakers were making already, but I agree, I think it’s going to accelerate the focus on adaptation, on mitigation, on the energy transition, across the board. 

ALAN HSU: That’s right.

THOMAS MUCHA:  So, speaking of the future, and I want to begin to wrap up this conversation, I’m curious to know about how you’re thinking about what’s coming down the road here. What are some of these, climate tech, new innovations coming that we’re not really thinking about yet? What’s out there that the markets haven’t really considered?

ALAN HSU: It’s a great question, and we’re lucky, Thomas, as you know, here at Wellington, we do have many investment professionals that are focused on what is happening in the private markets. And I think again, it’s a reason to be so excited about climate investing broadly, but also to be able to do that at a place like Wellington. As you know, their whole remit is to identify a lot of these technologies before it’s obvious in public markets. And I do think that all the technologies they’re identifying will eventually impact the public markets. Which is why we collaborate with them. They’ll either make their way in public markets in the form of a standalone public company that IPOs, or it’ll be technology that’s purchased and then integrated into some other industrial conglomerate. So, either way, it makes sense, and is beneficial to look. I can tell you that they have looked at everything from factory automation technology, to hydroponic farming, to utility smart grid technology, to community solar. Better recyclable materials, packaging. It’s a very large mandate, and a very large opportunity set. I don’t know that there’s any one breakthrough that they’re looking at, but that’s okay. I think that sometimes, we can mislead ourselves into thinking that breakthrough technologies are the only way to tackle this. And of course, it would be fantastic to have a single breakthrough technology, and maybe it comes in the area of nuclear fusion, or something like that, down the road, where you can do it modularly, you can do it very safe. Maybe it comes in things like room temperature semiconducting material. I think there are those types of breakthroughs looming, and that are out there, that we should continue to pursue. But in the absence of that, collectively, we should not take our eyes off the reality that you can cobble together a lot of very impressive technologies, and continue down the path of making solar cheaper, and improving the energy density of batteries. Improving the range of electric vehicles. Reducing the extractive footprint to get lithium. All of these things will combine to make this energy and climate transition much more economically feasible, better for consumers, and ultimately, better for the climate. 

THOMAS MUCHA:  So, let 1,000 flowers bloom.

ALAN HSU: Yes. Said better, yes. 

THOMAS MUCHA:  Taking your investor hat off for a moment, and this is more of a philosophical, rather than investment type of question, are you more optimistic, optimistic or pessimistic, about our ability to get climate change under control? Not just for the sake of markets, and financial systems, but really for humanity in general, as well as for all the complex ecosystems that exist on this planet? 

ALAN HSU: I think for me, I’ve recognized the importance of approaching this as an optimist, and that doesn’t mean blind to many of the harsh realities, blind to some of the limitations, but I think if you’re not approaching this from a perspective of optimism, it can quickly lead you to a posture of inaction. There are many, many very good ideas out there, there is significant amount of progress that’s being made in public markets that are very visible, but also in private markets that are less visible. And these improvements, innovations, etc., can have a material impact on reaching where we need to be from an atmospheric perspective, from a CO2 perspective, to get, as you say, climate under control. Is it going to be difficult? Yes. Is the challenge going to be daunting? Yes. But I believe with human ingenuity and capital deployed in the right ways, intelligently, I do think that this is something that we can tackle. 

THOMAS MUCHA:  I completely agree, optimism is the way to go, and human history shows that we can solve almost any problem that’s put in front of us, especially if we deploy capital in the right ways. So we’re grateful that you’re out there on the front lines doing it for us, Alan. So, once again, thanks for joining us, Alan Hsu, portfolio manager here at Wellington. 

ALAN HSU: My pleasure Thomas, thank you. 


Views expressed are those of the speaker(s) and are subject to change. Other teams may hold different views and make different investment decisions. For  professional/institutional investors only. Your capital may be at risk. Podcast produced April 2023.

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