Investing better and ESG with Vietnam Holding Investment Trust

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Two investment trends have taken centre stage during the season of COVID-19. The first one is Gold, an ancient asset whose appeal is set deep with the human psyche. The other is ESG, a three-letter acronym for Environmental and Social Governance, that has left the cloisters of project finance and become a mainstream ‘must-have’ for asset allocators in the Western World.

Gold is seen as a hedge against inflation, and a fear of many is that the primary monetary policy response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been money-printing in all but name, which should be inflationary in the mid-to-long term.

Many investors in the UK will have been looking at ways to invest more directly in Gold to meet, or perhaps protect, their personal investment objectives. In many Emerging Markets, including Vietnam, Gold is still a common store of wealth and a medium of exchange, especially when it comes to buying land or properties: sales of gold bars at one of our portfolio companies has increased 20 percent compared to last year. But not all that glitters is gold.

The other ‘glitter’ has been the growing importance investment funds have placed on combining investing for financial returns with being a more impactful and responsible corporate citizen.

This can be meaningful to existing investors (individuals or institutions) as well as helping attract interest from new investors, particularly those who are seeking to align their personal or corporate values with their portfolio objectives. The pressure on multinationals to reduce plastic waste, lower their reliance on fossil fuels, and be more inclusive in the workplace and society as a whole has increased steadily in the last 12-18 months. ESG is part of a broader approach of impact or responsible investing, and it is far from new.

For decades infrastructure projects have been subject to environmental impact assessments, and the related project finance instruments have been subject to key guidelines and principles, such as the Equator principles built on existing environmental and social policy frameworks established by the International Finance Corporation (part of the World Bank) and other multi-lateral agencies such as the Asian Development Bank. The trend to bring wider awareness of the issues relating to sustainability to retail investor portfolios is welcome.

The ‘E’ related ESG themes were marginal in the 1980s, despite an increasing awareness of the threat to the Ozone hole through green-house gases: back then, if we worried much, it was more about the release of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) rather than the levels of carbon di-oxide (C02). On the whole, few column inches were taken up with such broader ESG concerns, other than perhaps on the part of a small group of green-political thinkers. The 1990s saw more focus on recycling of paper and bottles, and concerns on deforestation, and the ‘G’ in ESG got increased attention when the Cadbury report on Corporate Governance was published, pushing for the separation of the roles of Chairman and CEO in UK listed companies.

Arguably, it wasn’t until Al Gore failed in the 2000 US presidential bid and then turned his attention to climate change, culminating in the 2006 release of ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, that awareness increased.

The film and its associated images of Polar Bears stranded on melting blocks of ice, nudged more mainstream thinkers, voters and influencers, to think long and hard about the world they wanted to leave behind for the grandkids.

Then came Blue Planet, and the shocking episode in its sequel, Blue Planet II, when the world saw the prevalence of plastic waste in the oceans through the eyes and soft, authoritative words of David Attenborough. ‘Woke’ was added to the dictionary in 2017, the same year that Blue Planet II was released.

Greta Thunberg finally tipped the balance in late 2018. By mid-2019, more investors and entrepreneurs alike were embracing ways to reduce plastic waste, embrace the circular economy, and re-orient their thinking and investing style to accommodate sustainability. The EU has now produced rules on reporting (reference to the EU Taxonomy on climate change mitigation will become mandatory in annual reports in 2021), and so investors can be sure the themes of ESG are front-and-centre at the mind of fund managers, institutional investors and allocators of capital.

Enter the Coronavirus

Although the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic initially pushed concerns on plastic waste to one side in the early phase of the pandemic, as people needed throwaway items en masse, from wet-wipes, to takeaway food containers and lots more plastic bags, there is rightly, residual concern on the impact of billions of discarded surgical face-masks.

COVID-19 has also emphasised the importance of ESG investing in helping shape positive outcomes, not least within developing countries. In Vietnam’s case, it also has highlighted the role social responsibility has played in the country’s effective handling of the crisis compared to other nations around the world. Active investors, such as Vietnam Holding, can do their part. We are engaged with our portfolio companies in many ways, in respect of each of the dimensions of ESG and will continue to do our part in helping them navigate through the next norm whilst also exploring opportunities with other budding businesses that, in our view, are purpose-driven and well-positioned for sustainable growth.

Vietnam did a fantastic job in containing the outbreak of coronavirus initially up until the last week of July it had less than 500 cases, zero deaths and had gone 99 days without any new community-spread cases. Clearly, the recent emergence of new COVID-19 cases in Da Nang, a popular tourist destination in central Vietnam, surprised everyone. There have now been 20 deaths and a total of 905 cases as of 14th August.

Whilst these figures remain minimal compared to the rest of the world, the economic impact has been dramatic. Some of the cases were imported and of course quarantined upon arrival, but most were transmitted throughout the community, largely in Da Nang and Hoi An. Da Nang was immediately put under strict lockdown. After having enjoyed a comeback from the initial shutdown, Vietnam’s usual booming tourism business is now halted. Vietnam Airlines, the national flag carrier, plans to halve salaries for pilots and flight attendants, for example, and is looking to sell several planes amidst projections of US$650m in losses for the year.

Vietnam’s tourism sector was hit by a second outbreak of Coronavirus on 24th July in Danang, above, but its stock market has rebounded 7% in August

However, despite some anxiety over further spread during the next few weeks, there are glimmers of positive news. Retail figures, particularly for online sales, show that consumer spending is increasingly optimistic. The stock market has risen by more than 6% in the first half of August, and Vietnam’s trade surplus has risen to US$6bn in the first half of the year, providing further strength to the foreign reserves and economy as a whole.

Let’s also not forget the country’s relatively quick recovery following the national shutdown in March. If the government’s handling can continue to ensure public confidence as it did before with closed borders, testing, tracking and tracing, hotspot isolating and caring for patients in the specialist National Hospital for Tropical Diseases, then tourism and domestic spending are likely to bounce back again. In the end, Vietnam’s battle against COVID-19 boils down to its people pulling together, taking ownership and making it their duty to follow the government’s guidelines and rally against the virus as a matter of national security. In the long run, we believe businesses with sustainable strategies will benefit from this type of spirit and domestic consumer behaviour.

So, although Gold may remain as an attractive investment opportunity for investors at this time, including the domestic investors among Vietnam’s 100 million population, the true gold may lie hidden in markets such as Vietnam. The country has decades of multi-generational growth ahead of it, and through active managers it is possible to search out investment opportunities that tread gently with respect to the environment, make sustainable compounding returns and contribute to society as a whole.

In the same way that Gold is a tool for diversification, so is selecting geographies to invest in that may not be so familiar. Although buying ETFs may, on the surface, appear to be an easy way to get quality diversification, or buying into a large global fund that might have some exposure to a market of interest, another more strategic way is to buy directly into a single country fund. Vietnam is a rapidly growing market and is gaining an increasing following amongst investors. Despite its own stock markets being less than two decades old, there are three country funds that are listed on the London Stock Exchange. Vietnam Holding (LSE: VNH) is perhaps the nimblest. It is a focussed portfolio of US$120 million in assets, with a strong pedigree in responsible investing.

Vietnam Holdings has been a signatory of the United Nation’s Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI) for over a decade now, and has always considered environmental, social and governance (ESG) as an integral part of its investment process, which is why we are so proud to reveal the latest PRI assessment of A, A* and A. These scores prove the Fund’s commitment to responsible investing, and the long-term outperformance against the indices and ETFs show that there is value in investing in an actively managed fund. Later this year Vietnam will become the largest constituent of the MSCI Frontier Market, and perhaps in a few years part of the MSCI Emerging Market Index. It may be a good time to explore the opportunity now, take the road less travelled, but do so with a purposeful aim of Investing Better.

The author, Craig Martin, is Chairman and Managing Director of Dynam Capital, a Guernsey regulated fund manager. Dynam is the manager for Vietnam Holding (LSE: VNH) a main board London listed closed-end fund focussed exclusively on investing in equities in Vietnam. Dynam has an experienced team of 12 people on the ground in Vietnam. VNH can be bought through your stock-broker, or wealth manager. See www.vietnamholding.com for more information.

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