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State Street to battle BlackRock, DWS with new sustainable funds

State Street has committed to digitally upgrading its internal systems in a massive effort known as Beacon.

State Street is almost doubling its line-up of socially-responsible ETFs as it looks to compete with the likes of BlackRock and Deutsche Bank’s DWS in the burgeoning market for values-oriented investing.

The Boston-based asset manager plans to create five ETFs that will focus on companies with better environmental, social and governance characteristics, according to regulatory filings Tuesday. The funds will track indexes provided by Bloomberg, the parent company of Bloomberg News, which distributes and develops fixed-income and equity benchmarks.

Responsible investing is catching more airtime and investment dollars as a swath of asset managers start low-cost funds. BlackRock, the world’s largest issuer of ETFs, built out a series of iShares funds in 2018 for investors to use as core holdings in their portfolios. And BlackRock and DWS separately worked with Finnish pension insurer Ilmarinen to start the cheapest ESG stock ETFs in the U.S. earlier this year.

“Coming in relatively late to the party could be a challenge,” said Todd Rosenbluth, director of ETF research at CFRA Research. “The adoption of ESG assets in the ETF wrapper is a generational shift,” he said, adding “it’s still the early innings but there are firms that have a head start.”

State Street’s new strategies will invest in corporate bonds and large companies that issue high dividends, or have a growth or value tilt, the documents show. The firm already runs a handful of clean energy and ESG-focused funds, including the SPDR SSGA Gender Diversity Index ETF (SHE).

Nearly all bested the broader market at roughly a third the price of the average fixed income product.
August 17

It’s easy to see why State Street wants to increase its presence in this space. DWS’s Xtrackers MSCI USA ESG Leaders Equity ETF (USSG) — the third-largest U.S. ESG ETF with $1.5 billion — took in $123 million last week, data compiled by Bloomberg show. Meanwhile, BlackRock’s $1.2 billion iShares ESG MSCI USA ETF (ESGU) has added more than $800 million this month, although at least $140 million of that looks to have moved over from its iShares MSCI USA ESG Select ETF (SUSA), the data show.

But critics argue that the proliferation of sustainable funds masks a more complex reality: Since corporate virtuousness is subjective, some ESG-labeled products include fossil-fuel refiners, cigarette makers and other companies that may give investors pause.

Mistakes can also cause trouble for these products. Vanguard apologized to investors last month after its largest socially-responsible ETF bought shares of a gun maker following an error by its index provider, FTSE Russell. — Additional reporting by Tom Lagerman

Bloomberg News