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The insurance experience: perspectives on impact investing in institutional portfolios

In an interview on the back of the launch of Nuveen’s 2022 EQuilibirum survey of global institutional investors, Nick Liolis, the chief investment officer at TIAA and Amy O’Brien, the global head of responsible investing at Nuveen speak about how insurance companies approach impact investing.

Nuveen’s 2022 EQuilibrium survey of global institutional investors showed that insurance companies in every region surveyed are more focused on the environmental and social attributes of their investments than their corporate and government pension fund counterparts.

Source:Nuveen 2022 global institutional investor study

Nuveen has been instrumental in advising on and implementing the impact program for TIAA, one of the world’s most highly rated and financially stable insurance companies in the U.S.

Read on for edited excerpts of an interview with Nick Liolis, the chief investment officer of TIAA’s nearly $300 billion1 General Account, and Amy O’Brien, the global head of responsible investing at Nuveen.

How does TIAA define impact investing?

Amy O’Brien (AO): While it has been called different things over the years, the concept of creating impact through investments has a long history and is still evolving. At TIAA and Nuveen, we define impact investing as investments that are made because they have an intentional, direct and measurable positive effect on environmental or social outcomes, in addition to generating a competitive risk-adjusted return.

Nick Liolis (NL): There are questions across the asset management industry about how broadly or narrowly to define impact investing. Narrowly defined, impact investing refers to projects where the link between the investment and the positive social or environmental outcome is immediate and tangible. For example, think lending to an affordable housing project or private equity for a microfinance company to support female business owners growing their incomes and building wealth. According to this definition, TIAA’s General Account has about $4 billion allocated to impact investments.2

In addition to our direct, intentional impact investment program, we realise that all our investments potentially have an impact on society and the environment. So while our entire portfolio is focused on achieving investment return targets, we are also developing ways to evaluate it through an impact lens.

What advice do you have for other insurers that are looking to start or scale their impact investment programs?

AO: You don’t have to go it alone in moving up this learning curve. You can build on the learnings of insurance companies and other asset owners with more established impact programs. It also helps to get involved with organisations such as the UN Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI), the Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN) and the Global Investors for Sustainable Development Alliance (GISD). And you can use the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to help orient your conversations, focus your efforts and organise your reporting.

NL: Look for areas where impact can be a natural extension of your existing investment strategies. Rather than trying to launch a standalone impact program, find an asset class or sector that is already a strength for you and your investment managers; then, apply an impact lens to those efforts. Nuveen’s strength in real estate, private equity and fixed income made those obvious places for us to start.

Once you find those areas, be clear about what impact you’re trying to achieve. Specific goals will be much more valuable in organising your efforts than more general impact goals.

Finally, set high standards and keep them high. The opportunity set in impact investing continues to expand and become more attractive. Commit to doing the work to source and evaluate deals that deliver the financial returns as well as the social or environmental impacts you seek.

How will impact investing continue to evolve over the next decade?

NL: Impact may follow a similar trajectory as environmental, social and governance (ESG) investing. A decade ago, many asset owners had siloed ESG initiatives; they weren’t integrated into the broader portfolio. Today, more asset owners treat ESG as another factor that is fully integrated into their overall investment decisions, regardless of asset class. It’s possible that impact could follow a similar path and become another factor in all investment decisions. Our goal is to assess the impact opportunity set across all asset classes, building on the lessons we’ve learned in private equity, fixed income and real estate. This will involve creating an impact measurement framework and key performance indicators for each asset class and investment type in the General Account and investing in those asset classes with intentionality.

AO: Given the magnitude of the social and environmental issues facing the world, the private sector will need to play a major role in providing capital to fund these efforts. According to the UN, $3.3 trillion–$4.5 trillion need to be mobilised each year to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, so capital from institutional investors is needed to help fill this gap.

The good news is that the opportunities and financial rationale for impact investing are stronger than ever. We’ve seen in the TIAA General Account and across Nuveen’s strategies that it’s possible to achieve competitive risk-adjusted returns while having a direct, measurable and positive impact on social and environmental goals.

Read the full interview here


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1             As of June 30, 2022.

2             As of June 30, 2022.

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This material is presented for informational purposes only and may change in response to changing economic and market conditions. This material is not intended to be a recommendation or investment advice, does not constitute a solicitation to buy or sell securities, and is not provided in a fiduciary capacity. The information provided does not take into account the specific objectives or circumstances of any particular investor, or suggest any specific course of action. Financial professionals should independently evaluate the risks associated with products or services and exercise independent judgment with respect to their clients. Certain products and services may not be available to all entities or persons. Past performance is not indicative of future results.

Economic and market forecasts are subject to uncertainty and may change based on varying market conditions, political and economic developments. As an asset class, real assets are less developed, more illiquid, and less transparent compared to traditional asset classes. Investments will be subject to risks generally associated with the ownership of real estate-related assets and foreign investing, including changes in economic conditions, currency values, environmental risks, the cost of and ability to obtain insurance, and risks related to leasing of properties.

Nuveen, LLC provides investment advisory services through its investment specialists. This information does not constitute investment research, as defined under MiFID.

Responsible investing incorporates Environmental Social Governance (ESG) factors that may affect exposure to issuers, sectors, industries, limiting the type and number of investment opportunities available, which could result in excluding investments that perform well.


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