What is the effect of ESG rating changes on stock returns?

Published on:
by KnowESG,


Image of stock prices on screen
Image by wirestock on Freepik.

In recent years, there has been a notable increase in attention towards environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors as pivotal indicators of a company's overall sustainability and responsible business practices. ESG ratings, which assess a company's performance in these areas, have become crucial tools for investors seeking to align their portfolios with their values. 

This article delves into the intricate relationship between changes in ESG ratings and stock returns, exploring how shifts in ESG ratings can impact financial performance and influence investor decisions.

Featured: Majority Of MSCI Funds To Lose ESG Ratings

Understanding ESG Ratings

ESG ratings evaluate a company's performance across three key categories: environmental, social, and governance. Environmental factors assess the company's impact on the natural world, including carbon emissions, waste management, and resource usage. Social factors encompass labour practices, diversity and inclusion, and community engagement. Governance factors focus on the company's leadership, board structure, transparency, and ethical practices.

These ratings are provided by various ESG rating agencies, such as MSCI, Sustainalytics, and Bloomberg. These agencies utilise comprehensive data analysis to evaluate companies' performance in these areas and assign them a numerical score or rating.

Featured: Improving Diversity, Equality and Inclusion In Your Workplace

The ESG-Performance Connection

An important question arises, which is likely the most critical bottom-line concern in the push to effectively transition from ‘business as usual’ to a global economic model predicated on sustainability: Is there a correlation between a higher ESG rating and improved financial performance? 

Extensive research has delved into this relationship, and although the findings have been inconclusive, a growing body of evidence suggests a positive link between strong ESG performance and long-term stock returns.

Several mechanisms contribute to this connection. Firstly, companies with high ESG ratings often demonstrate robust risk management practices, positioning themselves well to navigate future challenges such as regulatory changes or shifts in consumer preferences. By doing so, these companies can potentially mitigate regulatory fines and litigation risks, safeguarding their bottom line.

Secondly, ESG considerations can impact a company's reputation and brand value. Companies that exhibit positive social and environmental practices are more likely to attract socially conscious consumers, which can translate into increased sales and a larger market share. Equally, those that exhibit low social scores may face an uphill battle in terms of attracting talent.

Lastly, companies with strong governance structures tend to make sound strategic decisions and allocate resources efficiently, thereby positively influencing their financial performance.

By exploring the relationship between ESG ratings and financial performance, we can gain valuable insights into the potential benefits of prioritising environmental, social, and governance factors in business practices.

Related: 5 Tech Companies That Support Employee Well-Being Fantastically

Understanding the Effect ESG Rating Changes on Stock Returns

ESG ratings are not fixed; they can change as companies enhance or decline in their ESG performance. When an ESG rating shifts, it can have a noticeable impact on a company's stock returns.

  • Positive Rating Change: A company that undergoes an upward ESG rating revision is likely to benefit from improved investor sentiment. This positive sentiment can generate increased demand for the company's stock, potentially driving up its price and resulting in positive stock returns.

  • Negative Rating Change: Conversely, a downgrade in ESG rating can raise concerns among investors. A deteriorating ESG rating may indicate underlying operational weaknesses or a lack of long-term sustainability planning. Such concerns can erode investor confidence, possibly resulting in lower stock prices and negative stock returns.

Investor Behavior and ESG

ESG ratings have become increasingly important, not only because they can influence financial performance, but also due to changing investor preferences. In today's world, investors, especially millennials and the younger generation, actively seek investments that align with their values. Consequently, companies with robust ESG performance have the potential to attract a wider and more devoted investor base.

Related: Why Anti-ESG Funds Aren’t Winning Over Investors

ESG Integration in Investment Strategies

ESG integration in investment strategies has transitioned from a niche approach to a mainstream practice. Nowadays, various investment funds, such as mutual funds, exchange-traded funds (ETFs), and pension funds, actively incorporate ESG considerations into their decision-making processes.

This shift is fueled by the increasing demand from investors for socially responsible investments and the mounting evidence of the potential financial benefits associated with companies that prioritise ESG performance.

  1. Positive Screening: Positive screening entails investing in companies that excel in ESG performance. As these companies enhance their ESG ratings, they become appealing targets for investors who wish to align their portfolios with sustainability objectives. This growing demand can lead to an increase in the demand for their stocks and potentially result in positive stock returns.

  2. Negative Screening: Conversely, negative screening involves excluding companies with poor ESG practices from investment portfolios. By doing so, investors with ESG consciousness can limit their interest in these companies' stocks. Consequently, companies that experience negative changes in their ESG ratings may face downward pressure on their stock prices and returns.

  3. ESG-Themed Investing: ESG-themed investing revolves around targeting specific ESG-related themes, such as clean energy, gender diversity, or sustainable agriculture. Companies operating within these themes are likely to attract investors who believe in the long-term growth prospects of these industries. This focused demand can significantly impact stock prices and returns, especially when positive ESG developments occur within these sectors.

Related reading: ESG Investing: The Transition from Stewardship to Integration

Volatility and Long-Term Perspective

It is important to acknowledge that the impact of changes in ESG ratings on stock returns may not always be immediate. Short-term fluctuations in stock prices are influenced by various factors, including market sentiment, macroeconomic trends, and geopolitical events. ESG rating changes might not overshadow these broader market influences right away.

However, the true strength of ESG considerations lies in their potential to mitigate risk and enhance returns in the long run. By prioritising sustainable practices, companies are better equipped to navigate future challenges, such as climate-related risks or shifts in consumer preferences.

This enhanced resilience can ultimately contribute to stable financial performance and positive stock returns, particularly during periods of market instability.

Regulatory and Reporting Landscape

The regulatory landscape surrounding ESG disclosures and reporting is rapidly evolving. As governments and regulatory bodies worldwide underscore the significance of ESG considerations, companies are under growing pressure to provide precise and comprehensive ESG data.

These disclosures can have an impact on ESG ratings, influencing investor perceptions and potentially leading to changes in stock prices and returns.

Challenges and Limitations

While the connection between changes in ESG ratings and stock returns shows promise, it is not without challenges and limitations. ESG ratings can vary considerably among different rating agencies, resulting in disparities in how investors perceive a company's ESG performance.

Furthermore, the absence of standardised ESG metrics and the potential for greenwashing (presenting a misleading positive image of a company's ESG practices) can complicate accurate assessments.

Read more on Greenwashing: What Are The Main Greenwashing Tactics Companies Use?


The relationship between changes in ESG ratings and stock returns is a complex and multifaceted subject that encompasses financial performance, investor sentiment, and broader societal trends. 

While quantifying the precise impact of ESG rating changes on stock returns can be challenging due to various influencing factors, there is a growing consensus that companies with strong ESG performance are better positioned for long-term success. Investors, companies, and policymakers must recognise that sustainable business practices are no longer optional, but rather have the power to shape the financial landscape of the future significantly. 

As ESG considerations continue to evolve, their influence on stock returns will remain a topic of great interest and ongoing research.

Follow more sector ESG news, movements, and views at our Sustainable Finance page. More questions? Check out our FAQs.


Featured Article Headlines

Streamline Your Emissions: Top Carbon Accounting Software Solutions for Efficient Sustainability Tracking

Streamline Your Emissions: Top Carbon Accounting Software Solutions for Efficient Sustainability Tracking

The Rise of Impact Investing: Paving the Way for Positive Social and Environmental Change

The Rise of Impact Investing: Paving the Way for Positive Social and Environmental Change

An Interview with Label Collective founder Julian Roberts on diversity, sustainability and innovation

The 0100 Europe 2024 PE & VC Conference

KnowESG Launching the Premier ESG Marketplace: Unique Place to Find Partners in Sustainability Transition

ESG Voice: Skillfulness Delivered - The Importance of ESG Education

Is Water Sustainable? Understanding the Reality and Solutions for Future Generations

Best Practices to Enhance ESG Reporting Processes and Outcomes

Thematic-ESG Mutual Funds: A Comprehensive Guide for Sustainable Investing

How EU’s Digital Markets Act Changes Big Tech

More from MSCI Inc.
Best Alternative Environmental ETFs
Best Alternative Environmental ETFs
Understanding the MSCI ESG Rating Methodology: A Comprehensive Guide
Understanding the MSCI ESG Rating Methodology: A Comprehensive Guide
ESG Ratings: A Benchmark For Performance
ESG Ratings: A Benchmark For Performance
MSCI Launches Sustainability Comparison Tool
MSCI Launches Sustainability Comparison Tool