Matthew Warren’s article in The Australian yesterday, Australian CleanTech index performed badly last year, is either the latest example climate change scepticism shining through at the Oz, or just a display of hasty research. Either way, it really makes a mess of the topic.

Warren is undoubtedly correct when he notes, “Australia’s fledgling cleantech sector has been mauled by the bear market, with some companies and sustainable funds shedding more than 20% of value in the last financial year”. The problem is his follow up that “the slump is more than double the fall in the market over the same period and comes despite the Rudd Government racing to introduce a price on greenhouse gases”.

Without even picking on the point the cleantech sector covers a much wider set of companies than just those focused just on cutting carbon emissions, Warren’s major mistake is that he is not comparing apples with apples.

Finally, in the seventh paragraph, after carefully setting the scene for why investors should expect horrible losses from any cash put into cleantech, Warren finally acknowledges the sector, as measured by the ACT Australian CleanTech Index, has actually outperformed the Small Ordinaries Index, its obvious benchmark given the companies it tracks.

The 73 companies in the CleanTech Index have a combined market cap around $14 billion. Take out the only two players outside the realm of “small cap” — Sims Group ($6 billion) and Transpacific Industries ($2 billion) – and the average market cap of the rest is well below $200 million.

So lets look again at the “more than double” slump.

Last financial year the ACT CleanTech Index fell 16%, better than the S&P ASX200 (-16.4%) or the S&P ASX Small Ords (-23%). So far this calendar year the CleanTech Index has lost 16.1%, some 4% better than the ASX200 and 8.8% better than the ASX Small Ordinaries.

But perhaps the reason Warren incorrectly concluded cleantech investments performed so badly is not just that he was comparing them against the wrong benchmark, but because he was looking at the wrong stocks altogether.

Warren certainly isn’t the first to struggle with the difference between “sustainable investment” and “cleantech investment,” although you might reasonably assume he’d notice the problem while tracking down super fund performance figures.

“Sustainable” or “ethical” funds are generally based on filtering a gamut of companies through screens. Negative screens means they won’t invest in those involved in sectors such as tobacco, weapons or uranium, for example, but do otherwise cover “good” companies across all sectors of economy. Positive screens just go for best in sector.

“Cleantech” by comparison, talks about companies focused primarily on sustainable/environmental technologies and activities – the ones designing new wave power generators or waste treatment technology, not just well run companies that don’t make money from anything “bad”.

Both investment options have their place, but certainly not lumped together in the same article with no clarification of the differences.

Backing his claim cleantech companies have done so poorly, Warren points out, “Australian Super’s domestic sustainable share fund fell by 27% last financial year, while AMP’s sustainable share fund shed 24% in value and Local Super’s product shed 19%”.

The top 10 holdings in AMP’s sustainable product are BHP Billiton, Telstra, Rio Tinto, Wesfarmers, Westpac, NAB, QBE Insurance, Commonwealth Bank, ANZ and Santos. None of these are even close to classing as “cleantech” companies.

Even if Warren had segued into these figures with a proper explanation they had nothing to do with cleantech, it might have been nice to put them into some perspective. The 19% fall for Local Super’s sustainable fund, for example, compares with an 18.4% fall in its standard Australian share fund.

Clearing up these inaccuracies won’t take away the pain for the many investors who have actually seen the value of their cleantech stocks fall in the massive way Warren makes out.

It’s been a rough year, but plenty of investors have done better with their cleantech stocks than their other punts. To talk down the sector based on mixed up, sloppy research is simply wrong, even for an ex-NSW Minerals Council spin master turned environment reporter.

WME media is Australia’s leading environment business publisher, covering cleantech, environmental policy and corporate best practice with print magazines and its online daily.

Peter Fray

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