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Principles and profits

INVESTING on an ethical basis has been around for a long time among charitable and religious institutional investors, but the first unit trust to have a specific ethical investment stance was Friends Provident Stewardship Fund, launched in l984. In the last few years ethical investment has started to boom and there now just over 300,000 ethical investors in the UK.

As proof of how far the sector has come, an ethical fund launching tomorrow is aimed specifically at investors who take an anti-abortion stance. The CF Banner Real Life Investment Trust will be managed by City Financial Managers, and Fleur Leach, head of ethical investment at Albert E Sharp, is the investment adviser. The managers hope to win institutional investment business from churches and individuals who are sympathetic.

Most of the investment criteria for the fund are the same as those applying to existing funds - they exclude companies which invest in oppressive regimes, for example - but the philosophy is slightly different. Ms Leach says: "A lot of funds don't invest in pharmaceutical companies because of animal testing. We think humans are pretty important too. We will avoid any organisation involved in abortion." That goes as far as to include firms making surgical instruments used in abortions.

This fund is not the only one in the ethical sector with a philosophy that will alienate some investors. Framlington Health, one of the top long-term performers in the sector, invests in drug companies that test on animals. To be fair, the managers of the fund do not understand why it was included in the sector, viewing it as a growth fund.

Many of the funds in the sector now have performance records going back five years or more (see table). While we all know that past performance is no guide to the future, and all the funds have taken a drubbing in the stock market falls, it remains a useful tool.

The table shows how the funds in the sector have performed over the short and long term. In the past couple of years they have missed out on the share price rises enjoyed by many large blue chips in the FT-SE 100 and All Share indices.

Ethical funds cannot invest in most quoted companies. They have been forced to buy into smaller companies. Often these have lagged behind the performance of the financial and pharmaceutical giants that has fuelled the rise in the market.

However, as Ms Leach points out, ethical funds can invest in some of the boom sectors, such as telecoms and some financials. At the moment 34 per cent of the companies in the FT SE 100 and 40 per cent of those in the mid-cap index (for small and medium-sized firms) meet generally applied ethical criteria. Despite the investment restrictions, the performance of the average ethical fund has been better than that of the average unit trust.

Investing ethically, just as with any unit trust, should be a long-term commitment. To get real benefit you should look at least at a five-year time scale, if not longer. On this basis the omens are relatively positive. David Mott at the Co-Operative Insurance Society, which runs the Environ ethical fund, says: "As companies are penalised for pollution there will be growing pressure to clean up the mess, even legislation. This will give encouragement to companies that aim to improve the environment, which will lead to better investment performance."

how ethical unit trusts have performed

Performance to 1 September 1998 (figures on an offer-to-bid basis with net income reinvested)

Fund Performance over 1 year Performance over 5 years Fund size

% increase rank % increase rank

TSB Environmental Investor 10.8 2 86.8 1 pounds 23m

Credit Suisse Fellowship - 1.1 10 81.9 2 pounds 94m

Framlington Health - 28.1 20 66.4 3 pounds 78m

CIS Environ 7.4 5 54.8 4 pounds 154m

NPI Global Care 4.6 6 54.1 5 pounds 90m

Family Charities Ethical - 0.1 7 53.4 6 pounds 11m

Friends Provident Stewardship - 1.9 13 50.5 7 pounds 500m

Sovereign Ethical - 7.3 17 48.2 8 pounds 23m

Scottish Equitable Ethical - 3.7 14 48.1 9 pounds 41m

Jupiter Ecology - 1.0 9 47.7 10 pounds 65m

Allchurches Amity - 3.9 15 39.5 11 pounds 38m

Aberdeen Prolific Ethical - 1.8 11 37.0 12 pounds 7m

Abbey Ethical - 1.8 11 31.6 13 pounds 46m

Friends Provident Stewardship Income - 0.6 8 27.2 14 pounds 77m

City Financial Acorn Ethical - 15.9 19 13.4 15 pounds 5m

Clerical Medical Evergreen - 10.1 18 1.8 16 pounds 20m

NPI Global Care Income 13.9 1 na na pounds 28m

Henderson Ethical 9.7 3 na na pounds 33m

Equitable Ethical - 6.0 16 na na pounds 20m

FPAM Ins Ex Ethical UK Equity 8.5 4 na na pounds 75m

AXA Sun Life Ethical na na na na pounds 1m

Friends Provident Stewardship Intl na na na na pounds 13m

Standard Life UK Ethical na na na na pounds 11m

Average for all UK unit trusts/Oeics - 5.1 40.9

FT-SE All Share (xd adj) 9.9 86.6

Source: S&P Micropal and Co-operative Insurance unit trusts