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Large-Growth Medalists at the Extremes of Sustainability

Quite a few good large-growth funds earn high Sustainability Ratings despite not being explicitly ESG-oriented.

The Morningstar Sustainability Rating for Funds is designed as a tool for investors who are interested in sustainability, in addition to more-traditional investment criteria. The rating, which we rolled out in March, measures funds on a variety of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) criteria, such as environmental and workplace policies, product safety, and corporate responsibility, and also dings companies involved in controversies, such as  Volkswagen's (VOW) recent emissions scandal. Funds with a Sustainability Rating of High (represented by 5 globes) have holdings that collectively score very well on ESG factors, while funds with lower scores earn lower ratings, down to Low (represented by 1 globe).

Since introducing the Sustainability Rating, we've done some preliminary studies to see how the rating correlates with other investment factors. Not surprisingly, funds that explicitly commit themselves to sustainability as part of their mandate tend to have high Sustainability Ratings, with 80% earning ratings of Above Average or High. We also found that Morningstar Medalists (funds with a Morningstar Analyst Rating of Gold, Silver, or Bronze) tend to have modestly higher Sustainability Ratings than the universe as a whole. We also looked at some of the funds in each Morningstar Category that earn the highest Sustainability Ratings, whether or not they're consciously ESG-oriented.

In this article, we'll drill down in more depth into the large-growth category and the Sustainability Ratings of individual funds, with a focus on Morningstar Medalists. The following table shows the large-growth medalists with Sustainability Ratings of High or Low, the two extremes. In addition to each fund's Morningstar Analyst Rating and Sustainability Rating, we also show the elements that go into the Sustainability Rating. Each fund gets separate ratings for environmental, social, and governance factors (where High is best and Low is worst), and these are combined into an overall ESG rating. Each fund also gets a Controversy score, which measures its exposure to risks from controversies; this is deducted from the ESG score (with a High Controversy score causing the biggest deduction, a Low score the smallest deduction) to get the fund's Sustainability Rating. (See the Sustainability Rating Methodology document for all the details on how the rating is calculated.)

Out of the 48 large-growth medalists, the only one with an explicit ESG focus is Bronze-rated  Neuberger Berman Socially Responsive (NBSRX), though Bronze-rated  Amana Growth (AMAGX), primarily a religious fund that adheres to Islamic principles, also has many secular ESG features. Both of these funds earn Sustainability Ratings of High, meaning that they do what they promise in terms of ESG and sustainability. Beyond these funds, though, there are quite a few good large-growth funds that earn high Sustainability Ratings despite not being explicitly ESG-oriented, and other funds that score low on sustainability despite being attractive in other ways.

The most notable large-growth funds to earn high Sustainability Ratings are a quartet managed by the Primecap team:  Vanguard Primecap (VPMCX),  Vanguard Primecap Core (VPCCX),  Vanguard Capital Opportunity (VHCOX), and  Primecap Odyssey Growth (POGRX). All four of these funds earn Analyst Ratings of Gold and Sustainability Ratings of 5 globes (High), meaning they're among the cream of the crop by both measures. The Primecap managers have never used any explicit ESG screens in running those funds, but they do a lot of research and typically own quality companies they can hold for a long time. For years they've had big overweightings in technology and healthcare, two sectors that are not as likely as some others to be involved in controversies.

The Primecap funds are the only large-growth funds that combine the highest Analyst Ratings and Sustainability Ratings, but a couple of Silver-rated funds in the category earn a 5-globe Sustainability Rating. One of these is  Jensen Quality Growth (JENSX), which only holds companies that have generated returns on equity of at least 15% in each of the past 10 years. That means it holds a lot of big, stable growers and avoids highly cyclical names; like the Primecap funds, it's heavy in technology and healthcare, with  Microsoft (MSFT),  Johnson & Johnson (JNJ), and medical device firm  Becton Dickinson (BDX) among the top holdings. The other Silver-rated 5-globe fund in the category is  ClearBridge Aggressive Growth (SHRAX), which has been managed for more than 30 years by Richie Freeman (with Evan Bauman as his comanager since 2009). Like the Primecap and Jensen funds, it's heaviest in healthcare and technology stocks, which together make up nearly 60% of its most recent portfolio.

Five Bronze-rated large-growth funds also earn the top Sustainability Rating. In addition to the above-mentioned Neuberger Berman Socially Responsive and Amana Growth, there's also  MFS Massachusetts Investors Growth Stock (MIGFX),  Vulcan Value Partners (VVPLX), and  Franklin Growth (FKGRX). The MFS and Franklin funds, like the others we have just seen, have big weightings in technology and healthcare stocks, though the Franklin fund has an even bigger stake in industrials, including several airlines and railroads. Vulcan Value Partners, on the other hand, has about 90% of its portfolio in four sectors--financials, consumer cyclicals, industrials, and technology--though like the others, it holds primarily quality stocks with good free cash flows and strong balance sheets.

What happens when we turn to the opposite end of the spectrum--large-growth medalists with low Sustainability Ratings? A low Sustainability Rating doesn't mean a fund is bad; medalists are good funds by definition. The two biggest large-growth funds by assets,  American Funds Growth Fund of America (AGTHX) and  Fidelity Contrafund (FCNTX), both have Sustainability Ratings of Below Average, but they have excellent track records and Analyst Ratings of Bronze and Silver, respectively. A low Sustainability Rating means is that these funds own companies that don't look very good by various ESG criteria. That doesn't mean those holdings are bad stock picks; often it just means that they're going through problems that have depressed their price and made them cheaper. It's not uncommon for such stocks to be held by funds that frequently take chances on out-of-favor stocks, a strategy that can lead to good results when it's done well.

One of the most prominent examples of a large-growth medalist with a Sustainability Rating of Low is Bronze-rated  Sequoia (SEQUX). It has made headlines recently because of its huge stake in troubled drugmaker  Valeant (VRX), which led to the resignation of manager Bob Goldfarb and a shakeup in the fund's board. Valeant's problems, combined with Sequoia's huge stake in the stock, have dragged down the fund's Sustainability Rating as well as its returns. (A low governance score as well as a high controversy rating were the main contributors.) Even so, Sequoia still has numerous good things going for it, enough for Morningstar to maintain an Analyst Rating of Bronze.

Among the other large-growth medalists with Low Sustainability Ratings are  Morgan Stanley Institutional Growth (MSEQX), run by Morningstar's 2013 Domestic-Stock Fund Manager of the Year Dennis Lynch and his team, and  Touchstone Sands Capital Institutional Growth (CISGX) and its clone  Touchstone Sands Capital Select Growth (PTSGX). These funds have achieved strong long-term returns with fairly aggressive strategies that frequently involve risky bets, an approach that often leads them to hold stocks that look questionable on one or more ESG criteria, or which are involved in controversies. That has worked quite well for these funds over time, but it means that they're not the best options for investors who are concerned about sustainability.

The Morningstar Sustainability Rating is just one more tool that investors can use in choosing where to put their money. Funds without an intentional ESG focus can still vary quite a bit in how attractive their portfolios are from an ESG perspective, and these ratings help to measure that.

David Kathman has a position in the following securities mentioned above: VPMCX. Find out about Morningstar’s editorial policies.