The returns from a $1.1bn fund managed by the heirs of the billionaire founder of Standard Oil have oustripped industry averages, despite their decision to divest from fossil fuels five years ago.
A case study published by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF) on Monday notes that its investment portfolio has exceeded expectations and outstripped industry benchmarks since the company decided to largely exit fossil fuel assets.
According to the study, the RBF posted an average annual net return of 7.76 per cent over the five-year period that ended in December last year. But in the same period, an index portfolio made up of 70 per cent stocks and 30 per cent bonds, including coal, oil, and gas holdings, returned a full percentage point less, at 6.71 per cent.
The RBF portfolio was also revealed to be less volatile than the industry benchmark, with 27 per cent less “annualised standard deviation” than the yardstick – meaning it has had smaller swings in its value and may be considered less risky.
Valerie Rockefeller, the great-great-granddaughter of oil magnate John D. Rockefeller and chair of the RBF board of trustees, said: “Oil is obviously a definitional part of my family’s past. But it has no place in our future.”
In its heydey, Standard Oil controlled 90 per cent of the US’ oil production, making John D Rockefeller the country’s first billionaire with a fortune worth well over one per cent of the entire American economy. After a Supreme Court antitrust ruling in 1911, the firm was broken up into nearly three dozen separate companies, which included the predecessors of ExxonMobil and Chevron Corporation.
Following its high-profile decision to divest its endowment from coal, tar sands, and oil and gas in 2014, RBF’s investment portfolio is now 99 per cent fossil fuel free.
The divestment movement has matured somewhat since RBF signed on, Valerie Rockefeller noted. In 2014, the movement boasted $50bn in global assets under management; but the value of funds pledging to divest from fossil fuels has since ballooned to around $12tr, as more and more universities, governments, companies, and foundations have pledged to cut fossil fuel investment. Oxford University became the latest high-profile member of the club when it announced last month that it would divest its multi-million-pound endowment from fossil fuel assets.
RBF said in the new report that it hopes that its financial performance would encourage other big investors to turn away from carbon-intensive coal, oil, gas, and tar sand projects.
“The rationale for continued investment in gas and oil is fading fast,” president and chief executive Stephen Heintz said, confirming that the fund’s departure from fossil fuels had also shielded its endowment from coronavirus-induced market volatility over recent months.
“We spent the last five years proving oil was bad not only for the environment but for the bottom line,” Heintz added. “Covid-19 did it in two months.”
Demand for crude oil has plummeted as flights have been grounded, commuters told to stay at home, and economic activity suppressed, sending markets into turmoil. Energy-related carbon dioxide emissions are now expected to drop eight per cent in 2020, according to a report by the International Energy Agency which noted that renewables were the only power source set to grow this year.
Ed Crooks, vice-chair of the Americas for energy consultant Wood Mackenzie, argued in a blog post earlier this month that the Covid-19 crisis was highlighting the “superior resilience” of electricity businesses.
While clean energy has not been immune to Covid-induced downturns – investment in wind power and interest in roll electric vehicles, residential solar and renewable technologies competing with “bargain basement” oil and gas prices have all been adversely affected by the pandemic – Crooks said that there have been “some signs” that the “pandemic could accelerate the long-term transition to lower-carbon energy”.
“Renewable energy has been holding up reasonably well, and certainly better than oil. Well over half the world’s oil consumption is used in transport, which has been one of the sectors hit hardest in the downturn” he wrote. “Electricity demand has also fallen — in the US it was down about six per cent in April compared to the same month of 2019 — but it has not collapsed the way the oil market has. Prices have also held up much better for electricity than for oil.”
In related news, a new study from the Global Sustainable Investment Alliance this week reported that global sustainable assets currently stand at over $30tr, having doubled between 2012 and 2018.
Over the period European assets have grown from $8.8tr to $14.1tr, while US assets have tripled to $12tr, and Japan has seen a 200-fold increase.