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IN June this year, when IJM Corp Bhd announced plans to divest its controlling stake in its plantation arm, the group gave a few reasons for the deal.

That included securing an attractive price for an asset for which the group had no plans for expansion. The deal also enables the group to focus on its other synergistic activities of construction, property development, infrastructure concessions and the manufacturing of building materials, IJM had said.

All that is true, but industry observers reckon that one more consideration was at play – that the group had wished to decouple itself from the plantation business due to investor fixation on the environmental, social and governance (ESG) concept.

In other words, by selling off its plantation arm, the IJM group’s valuation of its other businesses would not be hampered by ESG-concerned investors shunning them as a whole.

Fast forward to today, and with crude palm oil (CPO) prices on a tear, plantation companies are reporting bumper profits.

Alas, that is having little impact on the price of their shares. That is mainly due to the fact that many funds are limiting their exposure to plantation companies due to ESG concerns.Chan: GLICs are more likely to work with domestic companies on their ESG expectations.

CGS-CIMB head of research Ivy Ng points out that the foreign shareholding of large-cap plantation companies has declined over the past three to five years and this is very likely due to ESG concerns.

She adds though that other factors are also at play.

“Investors could also be possibly concerned over shortages of labour (at these plantation companies) and were also reducing exposure in the Malaysian equity market because of better opportunities in markets like the United States.

“Funds will go where the returns are higher,” she says.

Fund manager Danny Wong says that based on Bloomberg data, foreign ownership in Bursa Malaysia’s big-cap plantation stocks have fallen by 5.7% since 2017.

The drop is likely to be bigger over a longer period, points out another fund manager.

“It’s an ‘ESG overhang’ (for the plantation sector). If you track back foreign ownership in plantation stocks over the last 10 or more years, it’s been only going down and along with it, these stocks’ price-earnings (PE) valuations,” he says.Lau: Big-cap planters’ share prices have not done well likely due to the ESG-centric institutional investors.


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