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Understanding Our Socially Responsible Investing (SRI) Portfolio

Betterment is moving the category forward for socially responsible investors by offering an SRI portfolio that is fully diversified and keeps costs low.

Articles by Alex Benke, CFP®
By Alex Benke, CFP® VP of Advice and Investing, Betterment Published Jul. 19, 2017 | Updated Jun. 24, 2020
Published Jul. 19, 2017 | Updated Jun. 24, 2020
5 min read

It makes sense that some investors try to align their investments with the values and social ideals that shape their worldview. The way you live, the career you choose, and the people you care about align with your personal values; shouldn’t your investments do the same?

Socially responsible investing (SRI) is an approach to investing that reduces exposure to companies that are deemed to have a negative social impact—e.g., companies that profit from poor labor standards or environmental devastation—while increasing exposure to companies that are deemed to have a positive social impact—e.g., companies that foster inclusive workplaces or commit to environmentally sustainable practices.

The Betterment SRI portfolio strategy aims to maintain the diversified, low-fee approach of Betterment’s core portfolio while increasing investments in companies that meet SRI criteria. To learn more about how and why we’ve built the Betterment SRI portfolio, read on to the following sections. The technical details of our approach can be found in our full portfolio methodology.

Why Did Betterment Develop an SRI Portfolio?

Betterment is dedicated to offering a personalized experience for its customers. This means providing options that help customers align our advice to their personal values. We decided to develop an SRI portfolio because, currently, there are three major ways that investors attempt to execute an SRI strategy, and none meets an investor’s full needs:

  • Some investors buy SRI mutual funds, settling for unreasonably high fees compared to performance and often losing out on important tax and cost optimization opportunities.
  • Others opt for one of several SRI-specific investment managers whose SRI portfolios may fulfill the investors’ desire for SRI screening but do not always provide proper diversification against risk.
  • Still others try to pick their own basket of SRI investments—a challenging, time-intensive, and inaccessible approach for most everyday investors.

We set out to do better for SRI investors. You should not have to choose between holding an SRI portfolio and following a low-cost, diversified investment strategy with tax optimization in order to make sure your investments reflect your personal values.

The Betterment SRI portfolio strategy is designed to achieve this balance. We allow socially conscious investors to express that preference in their portfolios without sacrificing the aspects of Betterment’s advice that protect their returns the most: proper diversification, tax optimization, and cost control.

What Is Betterment’s Approach to SRI?

While SRI has been around for decades, especially for institutions like churches and labor unions, the SRI funds available to individual investors have only emerged in the last 20 to 30 years. And most of these SRI products have been actively-managed mutual funds with high fees. Only recently have lower cost options, like ETFs for SRI, emerged in the market.

As we developed Betterment SRI, we analyzed all low-cost SRI ETFs available, searching for products that could replace components of our core strategy without disrupting the diversification or cost of the overall portfolio.

The asset classes (i.e., portfolio component) that we can confidently replace with an SRI alternative are:

  • U.S. Stocks – Large Cap
  • Emerging Market Stocks
  • Developed Market Stocks

Other asset classes, such as value, small-cap, and bonds are not replaced with an SRI alternative in our portfolio either because an acceptable alternative doesn’t yet exist or because the respective fund’s fees or liquidity levels make for a prohibitively high cost to our customers.

Three asset classes use SRI-specific funds—the rest remain similar to the Betterment portfolio—and that difference has an impact on the social responsibility of your overall portfolio. For one, many investors are most concerned about the social responsibility of the largest U.S. companies in their portfolios, which often set standards for acceptable corporate behavior that other companies try to emulate.

In our SRI portfolio, stocks (but not bonds) of companies like Exxon, Chevron, Philip Morris, Wells Fargo, Walmart, and Pfizer may be excluded because they are deemed not to meet social responsibility criteria. Other companies deemed to have strong social responsibility practices, such as Microsoft, Google, Proctor & Gamble, Merck, CocaCola, Intel, Cisco, Disney, and IBM may make up a larger portion of the SRI portfolio than they do for Betterment’s core portfolio. In addition, a major reason why there are no acceptable SRI alternatives for other asset classes is that the demand for these products has not been sufficient to encourage fund managers to create them. By electing to use the Betterment SRI portfolio strategy, you signal to the investing world that there is a demand for high quality SRI investment options and may help to encourage the development of well-diversified, low-cost SRI funds in a wider variety of asset classes.

If you’re interested in a more quantitative understanding of how the Betterment SRI portfolio compares to our core portfolio in terms of social responsibility, you can review the SRI ratings published by MSCI (see below). MSCI’s ratings for the SRI funds used in Betterment’s SRI portfolio are higher than the ratings for the funds used in the Betterment portfolio. For more information on what the numbers mean, click here for our full whitepaper.

MCSI ESG Quality Scores

Stock Holdings In The Betterment Portfolio vs. SRI-Specific ETFs In The Betterment SRI Portfolio

U.S. Stocks – Large Cap

Betterment Portfolio: 5.28

DSI: 6.92

SUSA: 8.51

ESGU: 6.97

Emerging Market Stocks

Betterment Portfolio: 3.83

ESGE: 8.34

Developed Market Stocks

Betterment Portfolio: 6.79

ESGD: 8.34

Sources: MSCI, courtesy of etf.com. The values presented above are as of November 14, 2019 and are subject to change. 

Let’s Make Investing More Socially Responsible

As you review our SRI portfolio, you might ask yourself, “Is it more important that my portfolio is well-diversified with reasonable costs, or should my money be exclusively invested in SRI funds, regardless of the cost or level of diversification?”

These are insightful questions that get at the heart of the tradeoffs involved in socially responsible investing today. Currently, most accessible SRI approaches make investors choose between a well-diversified, low-cost portfolio and an inadequately diversified and/or higher cost portfolio comprised of SRI funds.

Diversification and controlled costs are investing fundamentals that all investors—SRI or not—deserve. They’re principles that live at the heart of fiduciary advice. The only reason other SRI solutions settle for higher costs and less diversification is because the industry isn’t challenged to offer something better. We at Betterment believe we can create a future that does not ask SRI investors to choose.

We are committed to achieving more socially responsible investing through our research over time and are tracking the availability of better vehicles for these purposes. Since originally launching the SRI portfolio in 2017 with ESG exposure to only US large cap stocks, we’ve been able to expand the exposure to now cover also developed market stocks and emerging market stocks. As always, we will continue to monitor for additional ways to improve our portfolio.

In the future, we will improve our SRI portfolio even further, iterating and adding new SRI funds that satisfy our cost and diversification requirements as they become available.

Get started with the Betterment SRI Portfolio.

Get started with our approach to SRI today, and join us as we work to expand our SRI approach together.

If you don’t yet have a Betterment account, open an account to explore the portfolio options available to you.

If you already have a Betterment account, you can enable the SRI portfolio when adding a new goal or by updating your existing goal’s portfolio strategy via the “Portfolio Analysis” tab of your Betterment account.

Once on your “Portfolio Analysis” tab, you will see an “edit” option under the “Portfolio Strategy” section. Once you select “edit” you will be sent to the “Portfolio Strategy” flow where you can opt into the SRI portfolio.

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