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Investment Institute

Sustainability-Linked Bonds: Our Framework for Assessment

  • 18 January 2022 (7 min read)

AXA IM is committed to the idea that investors will be better positioned if they acknowledge and address climate change and sustainability in their portfolios. This has prompted us to carefully monitor the arrival of a new type of fixed income
asset class: Sustainability-Linked Bonds (SLBs).

SLBs differ from Green, Social and Sustainability Bonds (GSSBs), a market where we have worked to achieve a leadership position for some years now. Unlike GSSBs, SLBs are not “use-of-proceeds” instruments – just like  conventional debt, they are general purpose bonds. However, they do represent a new opportunity to fund the climate transition and other environmental and social challenges. They may also have the potential to deliver long-term, sustainable performance for our clients.

The main difference between SLBs and conventional bonds is that SLBs integrate objectives linked to environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors. According to the SLB principles set out by the International Capital Market Association (ICMA) they are:

“…any type of bond instrument for which the financial and/or structural characteristics can vary depending on whether the issuer achieves predefined Sustainability/ ESG objectives. Those objectives are (i) measured through predefined Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and (ii) assessed against predefined Sustainability Performance Targets (SPTs).”1

Put simply, an SLB issuer will have to pay more to its investors if it fails to meet its predefined SPTs – and will still pay the same coupon if it succeeds. But this isn’t about greedy investors hoping SLB issuers fail in their sustainability ambitions – it is about responsible investors like AXA IM using SLBs to incentivise companies towards behaviour that we believe will benefit them, and us, over the long term.

SLBs could therefore act as a powerful tool, in particular, but not only, for high-emitting issuers to finance their transition towards a more sustainable business model. While GSSBs focus on specific projects and assets to be financed, SLBs establish a link between the issuer’s ESG ambitions and the financial characteristics of the bond. An issuer’s sustainability strategy may already form part of our GSSB assessment process, but it becomes the core feature for an SLB. Despite the differences, we see a common issue in these two types of instruments: There is no consensus on what a high-quality SLB is. AXA IM has therefore decided to define its proprietary framework for evaluating SLBs, and we set out our methodology and criteria in the document available for download below.

We want to highlight that SLBs will not be part of our green and impact investments – as opposed to GSSBs – but rather of our transition investments. We consider that SLBs and use-of-proceeds transition bonds both relate to transition finance instruments that will allow AXA IM to take an active role in powering that transition – in addition to our green and impact investing strategies through GSSBs.

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