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Why FRR Is Stubbing Out Its Tobacco Habit

Tobacco stocks have traditionally performed strongly as defensive equity assets, but some big investors are now starting to divest from the industry.

  • Matt Craig

The French national pension reserve fund, Fonds de Réserve pour les Retraites (FRR), announced in December 2016 that it was going to exclude investments in the equities and bonds of tobacco-producing companies.

There is growing pressure on institutional investors and others to divest from tobacco, based on strong scientific evidence of the harm caused by smoking. In particular, the efforts of Tobacco Free Portfolios, a campaigning initiative set up by Dr. Bronwyn King, an Australian cancer specialist, have raised awareness of the issue. FRR executive director Olivier Rousseau admits it struck a chord with him: “Morally, it’s a very clear-cut situation; it is indefensible. This is only a harm-producing industry, so from a moral perspective, it was easy to say that we don’t want tobacco in the portfolio.”

But whereas there is a strong rationale for excluding tobacco stocks on moral grounds, applying hard-headed investment logic to it can be sobering for investors. “The returns for tobacco have been absolutely outstanding. Between June 2004 and September 2016, the MSCI World Tobacco index grew by a whopping 632 percent,” Rousseau says. “Whereas the MSCI World index went up 122 percent.” And according to the Credit Suisse Global Investment Returns Yearbook 2015, from the Credit Suisse Research Institute, the tobacco sector was, together with beverages, the star performer since 1900 with an annualized gain of 14.6 percent [see chart below]. We’ve all heard comments from CalPERS, which said that not having had tobacco in the portfolio over the last 15 years has cost it around $3 billion. Similarly the Norwegian GPFG [Government Pension Fund Global] says its tobacco exclusion, which started ten years ago, has cost it some $2 billion. The results may vary depending on the methodology used. If one compares total returns, the difference is bigger than if one assumes, as is the case in real-life portfolios, that the dividends of high-yielding sectors, such as tobacco, are actually pooled with all dividends and reinvested in all sectors pro rata to their index weightings. Anyhow, yes, it is a bad industry, but there is no denying that it has been a very profitable investment.”

However, tobacco may not be such a good investment in the future. One reason to expect lower future returns is tougher public health legislation on smoking. “Many countries have made a commitment to act against smoking, and France is party to a 2005 international agreement on this, which basically says that public institutions should not have tobacco investments,” Rousseau says. “You can argue about its enforceability, but it is clearly a commitment taken seriously by the countries that have signed it.”

“There is a significant probability that more developed countries will take more measures against tobacco in the future. France is the second country, after the U.K., to remove branding from packaging for tobacco since January 1 this year,” Rousseau says. “Taxes are always being increased on tobacco, and regulations are increasingly restricting smoking in public spaces. Just as we can see a shift away from using carbon-emitting energy sources, so there is a similar regulatory move away from tobacco consumption.”

As part of the food and beverage sector, tobacco has performed strongly as a low-volatility, high-dividend and stable growth sector since the start of the global financial crisis in 2007. As such, tobacco stocks have been valued at high multiples, as one of the darlings of the low-volatility trend in portfolio management, but Rousseau says this is now changing. “There has been a formidable run for the low-volatility, stable-growth types of companies, but it is coming to an end. From last July, after the first few weeks of Brexit scares,” he says, “value stocks have come back with a vengeance. Since then the stable-growth, ‘low vol’ companies, carrying high multiples, have done poorly relative to the overall market. This tendency has started, and we believe there is more to go, and this could be the case for some time to come.”

FRR’s executive board had to present the case for excluding tobacco to the supervisory board. “There was a good debate, because it was easy to see the moral argument against tobacco stocks,” Rousseau says. “And of course concerns about returns were expressed, so that argument was also discussed. We cannot promise the supervisory board that excluding tobacco companies will pay out in future, but we simply believe that the formidable returns of the past are not going to be repeated in the same fashion. In our view, that would be a very low probability scenario.”

Although many investors engage with companies in an effort to improve their ESG rating and see divestment as a last resort, Rousseau says that this approach is not possible with tobacco producers. “It is typically the only thing that they do, so you would be asking them to stop their activities altogether,” he says. “You either invest, or you divest. The middle-of-the-road approach would be to reduce your weighting, but that is ducking the issue, really. We understand that there is an element of risk to us, but the next decade will most probably not see the same performance as in the past.”

As a result of its decision to exclude tobacco stocks, FRR has joined CalPERS and CalSTRS, in addition to Norway’s GPFG, the Netherlands’ PGGM, a handful of Australian and New Zealand pension funds, AXA insurance group, and, most recently, Sweden’s AP4, in going tobacco-free. “As we understand it, there are still very few investors that have done this so far, and I think the return argument is something that has been very powerful,” Rousseau says.

At the same time as it announced its tobacco divestment, FRR said it will now also exclude companies in which thermal coal extraction, or coal-fired power generation, accounts for more than 20 percent of turnover. Rousseau added that FRR is shortly to reveal the three successful managers it has hired for a €5 billion ($5.34 billion) passive equity mandate with an ESG approach, expressed notably through a smart beta, low-carbon theme and, of course, tobacco exclusion. This mandate will make up 40 percent of FRR’s developed-market equities.