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FUND COMMENTARY

The strategy behind Thrivent’s ESG ETF

02/06/2024

Team of two engineers installing solar panels on roof.

Key points

Long-term investor

Thrivent engages and partners with companies in deep, long-term, meaningful conversations to make up for the lack of disclosures of ESG data.

The role of ESG in risk identification

ESG factors play an important role in investment management to help identify risks and opportunities.


This ETF is different from traditional ETFs. Traditional ETFs tell the public what assets they hold each day. This ETF will not. This may create additional risks for your investment. For example:

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  • You may have to pay more money to trade the ETF’s shares. This ETF will provide less information to traders, who tend to charge more for trades when they have less information.
  • The price you pay to buy ETF shares on an exchange may not match the value of the ETF’s portfolio. The same is true when you sell shares. These price differences may be greater for this ETF compared to other ETFs because it provides less information to traders.
  • These additional risks may be even greater in bad or uncertain market conditions.
  • The ETF will publish on its website each day a “Proxy Portfolio” designed to help trading in shares of the ETF. While the Proxy Portfolio includes some of the ETF’s holdings, it is not the ETF’s actual portfolio.

The differences between this ETF and other ETFs may also have advantages. By keeping certain information about the ETF secret, this ETF may face less risk that other traders can predict or copy its investment strategy. This may improve the ETF’s performance. If other traders are able to copy or predict the ETF’s investment strategy, however, this may hurt the ETF’s performance. For additional information regarding the unique attributes and risks of the ETF, see the Principal Risks section of the prospectus.

Part small-cap, part mid-cap, part ESG—the task of managing Thrivent Small-Mid Cap ESG ETF (TSME) is a bit like unscrambling a Rubik’s Cube.

“An important part of our investment process,” explains Charles (Chad) Miller, senior portfolio manager, “is analyzing the various ESG issues each company is involved with and the strategies that play into these topics—while also directly attaching this to our fundamental research analysis.”

Miller, along with Matt Finn, head of equities, limits the portfolio to a select mix of approximately 60 small- and medium-sized stocks with attractive valuations that have demonstrated a commitment to environmental, social and (corporate) governance (ESG) initiatives and sustainable business practices.

Miller leans on Thrivent’s experienced small- and mid-cap portfolio management teams to help shape the portfolio. “We're able to leverage the unique experience and knowledge that our investment team brings to the table—from our deep pool of investment analysts to our portfolio management teams,” he said.

For Miller, bringing ESG standards into the mix adds a whole new dimension to managing the Fund. The lens under which stocks must be analyzed expands, while the universe of prospective holdings contracts. Adding to the challenge, ESG research data is still limited, particularly in the small- and mid-cap sectors.

“One of the biggest challenges with an ESG fund today is that the disclosure around ESG topics is still evolving and improving over time,” said Miller. “And so, there are specific challenges on trying to figure out information we would love to know in our investment process.”

That’s another area where Miller believes Thrivent has an advantage as a long-term investor in the small- and mid-cap space. “Where there are ESG issues that might not be completely covered with current disclosures, we can reach out and engage with the company to get a better understanding of the steps they may be taking that have not yet been picked up by the ESG reporting services. So, the ability to engage and partner with companies in deep, long-term, meaningful conversations is an advantage for us in making up for the lack of disclosures of ESG data.”

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Portfolio building

Purpose and positive impact are two elements Miller looks for in every company he considers for the portfolio. “We’re looking for companies that are having a positive impact on the communities they operate in, the employees in their workforce and the consumers to whom they offer a great value proposition. And ultimately, we attach this to a goal of generating a strong financial return to this purpose-driven approach.”

Rather than selecting stocks for the portfolio that just happen to fall within the realm of acceptability by ESG standards, the Fund takes a close look at each prospective holding on a case-by-case basis. “We’re really looking for the top companies that are doing a good job of addressing their material ESG issues across their business. We’re analyzing the specific issues, and we're engaging with the companies to make sure we fully understand the issues that are arising,” Miller said.

Miller takes a holistic approach for the Fund, evaluating what companies are doing across the entire ESG spectrum. “We do not use any sector exclusions. But rather we put every company through the same investment process. This allows us to identify opportunities in the marketplace rather than avoiding specific sectors based on ambiguous exclusion criteria,” he added.

“We're looking for companies that can successfully serve the individual needs of their end stakeholders, while leaving some flexibility in our process to account for certain challenges and issues that these companies are currently working through to try to solve,” he said. “The fund does not utilize any type of political, social or moral guidelines to select ESG investments. But rather, the fund is focused on identifying financially material ESG topics to improve the risk adjusted return profile of its investments.”

Miller believes that, as an actively managed portfolio, the Fund team has an advantage over passive ESG funds because of their opportunity to analyze companies from a complete 360-degree perspective.

“We engage with each company and talk through what they’re doing, what they're seeing and how they’re managing their business, because ultimately, they have a perspective that is important to consider,” Miller said. “We believe that our ability to understand what’s really happening on the ground gives us an advantage over the typical passively managed ESG index fund with 300 to 500 individual securities.”

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Assessing ESG strengths

Sifting out promising ESG stocks takes a little extra effort in confirming the company is appropriately addressing ESG issues, ascertaining that the company has a viable business plan with solid prospects for growth and that both of those pieces fit neatly together.

In his analysis, Miller breaks down each company’s ability to address what he considers to be the six primary stakeholders: the environment, employees, customers, suppliers, community and corporate governance policies and procedures.

“This helps us identify potential opportunities in a business model and the specific points of differentiation,” said Miller. “If our research indicates the company is doing a particularly strong job in any one—or, ideally—several of these categories, this helps us formulate a picture of what its competitive advantage really is going forward.”

For instance, in the environmental area, Miller and his team assess each stock by paying particular attention to how the company is impacting the natural world around it—and what strategies it has to reduce that impact over time.

“We're looking for companies that can create emissions as efficiently as possible in the short to medium term and then ultimately reduce those over the long term,” Miller noted. “We're looking for companies that have a strategy to solve water scarcity challenges, consider biodiversity impacts and then also invest in circular business models that create great efficiencies for the environment, as well as the individual companies.”

For example, Miller and his team may assess a company in the health care industry in three key areas—improving outcomes, increasing coverage for underserved individuals and maintaining strong data security and privacy standards. “If we believe the company is improving outcomes and increasing coverage to underserved individuals who otherwise would have gone untreated, we could flow that through directly into our revenue forecast and into our profitability forecast to attach that to our estimate of long-term upside.

“But if we go through all of this,” adds Miller, “and determine that the company is doing all these great things, but they’re already priced into the financial model, then we don't own that company in the Fund.”

Miller also believes it’s important that companies that are pursuing ESG initiatives are doing it for the right reasons.

“Increasingly, we are seeing a growing body of evidence that those companies that do address these topics head-on, try to operate in a sustainable manner, invest in employees and tackle these material ESG issues may also see an improvement in potential performance.”

Working with SASB

The Fund management team evaluates prospective holdings using criteria provided by the third-party ESG materiality framework from the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB). SASB has worked with stakeholders in various industries to help identify the most financially material ESG issues by industry.

SASB identifies several key areas of interest by industry. “SASB indicates where it believes concerns could show up in a company’s financial statements—if the company has properly addressed a particular category or if it has faltered in that category,” Miller said. “We can tie this directly into our fundamental analysis of the company, feed that into our financial model and ultimately our assessment of the long-term valuation for the company.”

Within the governance category, the Fund focuses on accountability and alignment. “We’re looking for an independent board; we’re looking for effective disclosures,” noted Miller. “We’re looking for ethical conduct, and we’re looking for increased disclosures to help provide the information we want to see in making our investment decision.”

From an alignment perspective, the Fund analyzes areas such as pay practices, long-term investment decisions and capital allocation. “We know the investments that these companies are making today ultimately become our returns in three to four years,” said Miller. “So, we really want to see companies that have a robust process around capital allocation and a right to win in the areas where they’re making investments.”

Sustainability

ESG factors play an important role in investment management to help identify risks and opportunities. 

“From an opportunities perspective, we believe it is helpful to understand what companies are doing to position themselves as a part of the solution to various challenges,” explained Miller. “For example, the world is going through an energy transition driven by regulation, national security and improved efficiency of more recent energy generation sources. Our ability to identify companies that can play a role in this transition and help other companies achieve required targets give us the ability to identify potential opportunities for investment.”

Can focusing on ESG stocks actually improve portfolio performance? While evidence is inconclusive given the brief period that ESG investing has been popular, Miller suggested that incorporating ESG factors in building a portfolio may contribute to strong investment performance for a couple of reasons.

“We know ESG topics are receiving significant attention from executives and boards of directors in shaping company strategies for the coming years,” said Miller. “Based on this focus and implication on company strategy and investment, we believe having a system to engage and analyze the decisions companies are making today will be crucial to identifying opportunities over the coming years.”

He also highlights a growing body of academic evidence to indicate that ESG topics may have an impact on stock performance (see table below).


The Sustainability Thesis

Sustainability is an umbrella term that includes the integration of ESG factors. It means meeting current needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. ESG factors allow Fund management to consider sustainability issues in fundamental analysis.

Our point of view

ESG focus

Understanding material ESG topics may reduce risk and increase long-term potential.

Stakeholder analysis

Provides a window into the long-term viability of a company.

Attractive return potential

Companies that successfully serve primary stakeholders have a greater chance of long-term success.

Supporting evidence

Employee treatment matters

Companies on the Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For List consistently outperform the market by a factor of 3.36.1

Materiality matters

The average U.S. retail investor cares about firms’ ESG-related activities, but primarily to the extent they are financially material for company performance.2

Sustainability matters

Decreases in ESG ratings are followed within six months by annualized negative abnormal returns of approximately 3%.3

Great Place To Work, “When Employees Thrive, Companies Triple Their Stock Market Performance,” April 2023, Jan. 16, 2024.

2 “Retail Investors and ESG News,” Qianqian Li, Edward M. Watts and Christina Zhu. September 2023, Jan. 22, 2024.

3 “ESG rating score revisions and stock returns,” Rients Galema and Dirk Gerritsen, October 2023, Jan. 22, 2024.


Dealing with risk

Miller believes that ESG factors play an important role in investment management to help identify both risks and opportunities. 

While small- and mid-cap stocks can be volatile and may lose value, Miller says the Fund can mitigate some of that risk through its ESG analysis process while also identifying opportunities in the marketplace.

“It’s our belief that many companies that face challenges or potential scandals that wind up on the front page of the news have issues that ultimately trace back to an ESG issue. It could be a disregard for the environmental impact the company has on its community, its customers or its employees that eventually causes problems in the business.

“Or it could be a social issue where those companies lack the proper ethics or investment in the workforce to create a structure where feedback can flow through the company and identify problems before they become too large,” Miller added. “It could be a governance issue where companies don't have the correct policies and procedures in place to make sure risk is managed appropriately.”

Simply having a framework to analyze how companies are performing across the various ESG buckets helps the Fund identify potential risks in its investments. “But if we flip over to the opportunities,” stressed Miller, “it’s our belief that those companies that can successfully and sustainably serve the primary stakeholders and business ecosystem stand a better chance of being successful in the long run.”

 

 

All information and representations herein are as of 02/06/2024, unless otherwise noted.

The views expressed are as of the date given, may change as market or other conditions change, and may differ from views expressed by other Thrivent Asset Management, LLC associates. Actual investment decisions made by Thrivent Asset Management, LLC will not necessarily reflect the views expressed. This information should not be considered investment advice or a recommendation of any particular security, strategy or product. Investment decisions should always be made based on an investor's specific financial needs, objectives, goals, time horizon, and risk tolerance.

Securities markets generally tend to move in cycles with periods when security prices rise and periods when security prices decline. The Fund’s value is influenced by a number of factors, including the performance of the broader market, and risks specific to the Fund’s asset classes, investment styles, and issuers. ESG strategies may result in investment returns that may be lower than if decisions were based solely on investment considerations. Because ESG criteria exclude certain securities for non-investment reasons, investors may forgo some market opportunities available to those who do not screen for ESG attributes. The Adviser’s assessment of investments may prove incorrect, resulting in losses, poor performance, or failure to achieve ESG objectives. Small and mid-sized companies often have greater price volatility, lower trading volume, and less liquidity than larger, more established companies. The Fund is newly formed and has a limited operating history. Transactions in shares of ETFs may result in brokerage commissions, which will reduce returns. These and other risks are described in the prospectus.

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