Professional Investor: The winners and losers in a brave new world
Saturday 01 April 2006
Many savers who are contributing to a personal pension will not be drawing on that pension for another 10 or 20 years. So what sort of world will they be retiring into? What are the challenges we will then?
Climate change is the obvious one. Over the next 20 years, we will experience increasingly extreme weather conditions, with hotter summers, colder winters, storms, floods and droughts. By then, one hopes, most governments will have responded in a concerted way to the climate-change challenge, and there will be big changes in our sources of energy, in the cars we drive and in the way we fuel our homes and industries.
Meanwhile, landfill space will be scarce to non-existent, so waste will have to be recycled or minimised.
Societal issues may include increasing concern over obesity, which in the US has now overtaken smoking and alcohol as the main preventable drain on the health services. The response may be a greater emphasis on healthy diets and exercise, particularly for children.
The ageing population in developed countries will place great demands on healthcare. There may be breakthroughs in the fight against major diseases, but demand for joint replacements and care for the aged will continue to rise steeply.
At the same time, population growth in the developing world, along with a demand for higher standards of living, will increase pressure on the earth's limited resources and fragile ecosystems. The trend towards urbanisation will continue, with sprawling slums creating hotbeds of poverty and frustration, leading to rising terrorist attacks.
As socially responsible investors, our brief is to take the long-term view, examining all these themes. Once we have suppressed the desire to throw ourselves out of the window, we try to focus on investing in those companies that are providing solutions to some of these pressing global issues.
With climate change, for example, we see huge potential for investing in alternative energy sources. Wind and solar firms have already done well, but they remain highly attractive long-term investments. Solon and Solarworld in Germany, Conergy in the US and Clipper Windpower in the UK are favourite long-term plays.
We are also interested in companies involved in biofuels, such as Abengoa in Spain and Novozymes in Denmark. Energy-efficiency solutions are attractive long-term prospects, including insulation companies such as SIG in the UK.
Water shortages mean that water meters will probably be mandatory. Techem in Germany makes water meters, while Hyflux and Biotreat in Singapore are pioneering purification technologies.
We're concerned about companies with high energy requirements and high waste outputs. Major companies not addressing these issues are storing up problems - and huge costs - for themselves in the future. Companies whose design innovations incorporate environmental solutions are of interest to us; Apple and Sony are just two examples. Many major utilities are involved in recycling, but an interesting UK smaller company is Fonebak, which recycles used mobiles.
The challenge in knowing which themes to focus on is to identify those that have an obvious investment impact. For example, there is a clear trend towards greater consumption of organic food in the UK, but the market for organic food production is very fragmented and largely in private hands, so investment is limited to the likes of Wholefoods Markets in the US, which owns the organic food chain Fresh and Wild.
By contrast, changing demographics can be played in a number of ways. A host of companies are involved in healthcare innovations, such as Roche, the Swiss pharmaceutical giant, which make the breast cancer drug Herceptin, or Elekta in Sweden, pioneering new developments in radiotherapy. We are also interested in companies involved in broader healthcare solutions, such as Fresenius in Germany, which runs dialysis centres.
It's wise to avoid companies that are part of the healthcare problem rather than the solution; not just tobacco, but those whose main product is junk food, sweets or fizzy drinks. France has banned canned-drinks machines from all schools, and we see the closure of 25 McDonald's restaurants in the UK as just the start of this trend.
Clare Brook is head of socially responsible investment for Norwich Union. Derek Pain is away
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