Impact Divestment: Exit Illustration from Pixabay by Clker-Free-Vector-Images

Impact divestment: Illiquidity hurts

Illustration: Exit Illustration from Pixabay by Clker-Free-Vector-Images

Impact divestment means the ability to divest from an investment, if it is not considered impactful anymore.

Impact investment focus on private investments?

The Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN) writes that “impact investments are investments made with the intention to generate positive, measurable social and environmental impact alongside a financial return. Impact investments … target a range of returns from below market to market rate”. They “can be made across asset classes, including but not limited to cash equivalents, fixed income, venture capital, and private equity” (

For a reason, exchange listed bonds and equities are not explicitly mentioned by the GIIN. According to other impact definitions, one main requirement for investor impact is the provision of additional capital. Buying exchange-listed securities means paying money to other investors. With such transactions, the issuers of the securities do not receive additional capital. On the other hand, private credit and equity is typically additional capital. Therefore, often only private market investments were considered to be adequate for impact investments.

And there is another, although rarely used argument for private investments: Project-specific private investments provide a much more targeted impact potential than investments in listed stocks of whole companies or bundles of listed bonds e.g. through mutual funds.

Is it possible to have positive impact with listed securities? In: „Impact Divestment“

By definition, impact investments do not have to promise outperformance or even market rate returns. Frequently, they come with higher fees than traditional investments. It is no surprise, therefore, that today also many listed security investments are sold as impact investments. Marketing specialists have several arguments for this approach. Many of these arguments do not convince me, though.

One argumentation, although rarely used, does: Investors only have limited capital. Their main and core investments typically consist of easy to buy and to sell listed securities. Investors can focus on “impact securities”. Examples of positive impact securities are stocks and bonds of renewable energy and many healthcare companies. Examples of negative impact securities are coal mining companies and producers of unhealthy beverages and food. And when the “impact securities” lose their positive impact potential, they can be sold easily.

If investors openly communicate this approach, they may have an “investor impact” on the prices of the securities, the issuers of the securities, other investors and stakeholders.

Illiquid investments: The inability to divest as major impact risk? in: „Impact Divestment“

Providing additional capital for companies with positive impact may have more impact than the same investment in a listed company. Although the capital may be additional for the receiver, an investor may not the only potential provider of the additional capital, though. That is especially true when there is too much capital chasing too few attractive private investment opportunities, which often seems to be the case.

There is one major argument against private impact investments which I have not heard about: The inability to divest. With exchange traded investments, I can easily sell my holding if I am not satisfied with the impact of that investment anymore. I can not do that with illiquid investments. The key question is, how often investors want do divest for impact reasons. Unfortunately, I have no scientific evidence regarding this question.

Personally, I do not want to miss the possibility to divest from potential impact investments. Here is why: With my mutual fund, I try to create a portfolio of the 30 most sustainable companies (see: My fund – Responsible Investment Research Blog ( Two and a half years after its start, I already divested from 56 companies. 7% of these were sold because I did not consider the companies to be sufficiently aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals anymore. 23% were divested because the companies use activities such as medical animal testing which I do not consider acceptable anymore. And 56% were thrown out because they fell below my minimum Environmental, Social or Governance (ESG) requirements (see Divestments: 49 bei 30 Aktien meines Artikel 9 Fonds – Responsible Investment Research Blog ( With illiquid investments, I would still have to stick with the initial 30 stocks.

Is shareholder engagement easier with public companies? In: Impact Divestment

In addition, through my extensive shareholder engagement activities, I try to improve the sustainability of my investments. Although I have only relatively little capital invested in every one of the 30 global stocks, the response rate of the companies is over 90% (see Engagement Report here: FutureVest Equity Sustainable Development Goals). If these companies will implement some of my proposals is not clear yet. The overall reaction is rather positive, though.

I am sure that I would not have a similar impact potential if I had invested the same amount of money in a diversified portfolio of private companies or projects. The main reason: The minimum investment for professional private credit or private equity is very high and I would have to indirectly invest through third-party funds. And successful indirect investor engagement through private funds by small investors is nothing I have ever heard about.

Illiquid investments: Neither return nor risk or diversification benefits?

There are more reasons why I am skeptical about illiquid investments. According to financial theory, investors should receive higher returns for an illiquid compared to a similar liquid investment. Scientific evidence shows, that even sophisticated institutional investors do not easily earn such an illiquidity premium (see e.g. research by Richard Ennis, e.g. Hogwarts Finance).

Institutional investors also like illiquid investments because they show little volatility. The volatility is often very low, because valuations of illiquid investments are infrequent and often based on previous valuations. If illiquid investments were valued with public market equivalents, they would be very volatile.

The third major argument is, that investors can diversify their portfolios with illiquid investments. That is correct. But the correct question should be about the additional diversification potential of illiquid securities. If illiquid securities are valued like liquid investments, the additional or marginal diversification potential is often very slim.

In sum: Illiquid investments have major impact (sustainability) risks, little diversification benefits and no significant return premium.

My recommendation for impact seeking investors therefore is: Focus on liquid investments which are highly aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations, have no unsustainable activities and excellent ESG-ratings. Then try to improve these investments with investor engagement. Finally divest, if you find alternatives which are significantly more sustainable.