This is an exquisite time for Foresight Group to go public. During the dotcom boom, the investment fund was focused on tech. It has since pivoted to the latest hot market: environmental, social and governance investing. And now Foresight itself is listing on the London Stock Exchange, just as ESG reaches new levels of hype.
This week Larry Fink, head of BlackRock, urged chief executives to embrace higher ESG standards. “The climate transition presents a historic investment opportunity,” he wrote, noting that even in pandemic-afflicted 2020, investors raced to shift their money into sustainable companies: “The reallocation of capital accelerated even faster than I anticipated.”
At the same time, S&P announced it might downgrade the credit ratings of 13 energy companies including ExxonMobil, Total, Chevron and Shell because of the threat posed by the transition from fossil fuels.
On the stock market, the divide is a yawning chasm: reliable cash cows are now spurned as dirty dead-enders; while companies that produce little or no revenue are highly prized as long as they have a green gloss.
Foresight is ideally placed to capitalise on rampant investor demand. Its assets under management have surged in two years from £2.6bn to £6.8bn on “ESG-oriented strategies” in infrastructure such as solar panels and wind turbines. It offers to open doors to “difficult-to-access private markets”, just as 20 years ago it promised to do the same with tech.
Its own returns are not stellar. Three private funds report a net internal rate of return of between 2.9 and 15.2 per cent. Of two publicly-listed funds, one outperformed a handpicked peer group and one underperformed. Its private equity unit recorded a 3 times gross return on deployed capital over 10 years.
No matter. Investors are desperate to follow the Fink doctrine. When it lists next month, Foresight is expected to achieve a valuation of about £500m, a hefty premium to revenues of only £57.3m and net profits of £6.5m.
Beyond the multiple, there are some problematic attributes to this ESG-focused company. Foresight’s own “social” credentials are questionable. Although its employees are based in London’s Shard skyscraper, the company itself is registered in the low-tax Channel Island of Guernsey. Last year it paid £53,000 in tax on profits of £6.6m. For the past three years, according to the prospectus, that rate has hovered between 0.1 and 1.3 per cent. Foresight has warned potential investors that its taxes will rise to a still skimpy 10-13 per cent. It spreads this philosophy more widely, offering retail investors products designed to avoid inheritance tax.
What about the G for governance? There is no independent chairman. A small board of five includes 71-year-old founder Bernard Fairman as executive chairman and three non-executives listed as independent directors, two of whom are based in the Channel Islands.
None of this will be much of a hindrance to Foresight’s IPO. As Mr Fink says: “The tectonic shift . . . will accelerate further.” Investors will pile into ESG, without always looking at the details. The trend comes at an ideal moment for Foresight’s Mr Fairman, who owns 55 per cent of the company. He intends to sell about half his stake for more than £100m.