Swiss-based Bank Sarasin has developed a new country bond rating that could shift the way investors think about sovereign bonds – and the way governments think about their own ecological balance sheets. The evaluation is based upon a simple, but somewhat novel premise: given current ecological trends, a country’s use and availability of resources will play an important role in its ability to make good on future debt obligations.
Sarasin has developed a Sustainability Matrix for Countries, which evaluates countries based on the factors of resource efficiency and resource availability. Sovereign bonds of countries that meet a certain threshold for sustainability – including Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, Costa Rica, Chile, Brazil and Australia – are good candidates for investment. Meanwhile, those that do not meet these criteria, such as the U.S., China, Russia, most countries of Southern Europe and most oil-rich countries of the Middle East, cannot be included in Sarasin sustainability portfolios, no matter how good their performance on other indicators.
“With ecological scarcity increasing every day, there is a risk to countries that waste resources as well as to countries that don’t have a lot of resources,” said Bank Sarasin sustainability analyst Balazs Magyar. “By providing this assessment, we can increase the bonds’ performance, or at least decrease the risk.”
The matrix was released just weeks before a downgrade in Greece’s bond ratings sent the country reeling into economic chaos. Sarasin’s sustainability ratings had also given Greece poor marks, due to the fact that, in the last several decades, Greece has developed a widening ecological debt. Greece’s per person Ecological Footprint has grown fivefold since 1960. At the same time, its biocapacity has remained effectively constant.
“As is abundantly clear from climate change, biodiversity loss, and the myriad other environmental crises we are facing today, we are now in an ever-more ecologically-constrained world,” said Global Footprint Network President Mathis Wackernagel. “Resource-scarcity is emerging as a growing risk factor to countries’ abilities not only to meet their debt obligations, but to secure quality of life for their citizens.”
Sweden tops systematic country rating
Adequate resources must be available for a national economy to grow, but in global terms a steady level of sustainable development can only be maintained in the long term by improving resource-efficiency. Two groups of countries perform well according to Bank Sarasin’s Sustainability Matrix: those rich in resources such as Australia and Brazil, and those that use resources in a very efficient way. The latter group includes countries such as Japan, the Netherlands, Germany and also Switzerland. Sweden actually does well by both measures.
Latin America is high in resource availability, but currently lags in efficiency. Yet the region could have tremendous opportunity if it improved its resource efficiency. At the same time, Japan, Germany and the Netherlands are very efficient, but don’t have significant availability. “Their level of efficiency shows that they could manage future challenges, but for current time, they are over-consuming their resources,” Magyar said.
U.S., Gulf States rate poorly
The U.S. misses the benchmark because, in spite of its sound resource availability, it provides the same quality of life as other industrialized countries on significantly more resources. “The U.S. has a lot of biocapacity but, because of its high rate of resource demand, its Ecological Footprint actually exceeds biocapacity by almost 50 percent,” said Dr. Wackernagel. “When demand is way out of sync with biocapacity, you are in a risky situation. Eventually, it will catch up to you.”
UAE, Cyprus and Qatar rate as the least efficient countries in their income group. As desert countries, they have almost no ecological capacity and, at the same time, they have very inefficient use of resources. “Once the oil runs out, the party might be over,” said Magyar. On the other hand, he said, the region might have a very promising future in emerging solar technology. “No rain, means no clouds, which means a possibility of getting power from the sun.”
Download Bank Sarasin’s Sustainability Report 2009, featuring an interview with Mathis Wackernagel