investment viewpoints

Sustainability shortfall: cyclical or structural?

Sustainability shortfall: cyclical or structural?
Thomas Höhne-Sparborth, PhD - Head of Sustainability Research

Thomas Höhne-Sparborth, PhD

Head of Sustainability Research
Pascal Menges - CLIC Equities, CIO Office

Pascal Menges

CLIC Equities, CIO Office
Didier Rabattu - Head of Equities

Didier Rabattu

Head of Equities

2023 has been a challenging year for cleantech and sustainability equity themes in general, with underperformance from key indices and stocks. Many investors may be left pondering an important question: does this performance reflect the market’s judgement on the sustainability revolution? 

Not in our view. We regard the systems changes happening in energy, food and materials as a technology revolution, spurred on by innovation and shifting regulation. This revolution will lead us to a new system that is technologically superior and will economically outcompete the old system. Such revolutions, however, do not tend to unfold in a linear manner. 

The world economy is moving inexorably toward a new model – what we call the CLIC® economy (Circular, Lean, Inclusive and Clean). This profound transformation of our economy, infrastructure and value chains is of course vital to addressing key environmental challenges. But we seek these investment opportunities because we believe they represent a promising structural driver of growth, supported by strong fundamentals. 


The market in 2023

Much of what has occurred in the market this year resulted from the cyclical challenges of turbo-charged increases in interest rates, elevated inflation, food and energy insecurity, heightened geopolitical tensions (both wars and trade), economic sluggishness and weakening consumer demand in the context of volatile de-stocking trends. 

These factors have harmed many investment themes amid recession fears, and they led to a flight of capital into visible cash flows seen as non-cyclical to some extent (Apple, Alphabet, Meta and the rest of the so-called Magnificent 7 tech stocks1).

Notably, this macro environment has been unfavourable for the key investment themes where we see longer-term structural growth opportunities. But the momentum behind these themes continues to build. Growing policy support and heightening pressures from regulators and consumers are spurring disruption to corporate processes and value chains across industries. 

We see breakthroughs unfolding that will lead to new businesses, and the rapid expansion – or displacement – of existing ones. Moreover, price declines this year have arguably improved the entry point for stocks that are best positioned for these opportunities.

We outline our convictions here, explaining how they inform our investment in four key themes covered by our holistiQ2 research team: Renewables, Electrification, the Circular Economy and New Food Systems. These areas are set to enable and benefit from this revolution.
 

  • Our conviction

    Technology for renewable energy has reached a tipping point in terms of cost-competitiveness. Solar power is now the cheapest form of energy on the planet3, with costs having fallen by approximately 90% in the last 10 years. While rates and supply chain bottlenecks pushed costs up in 2022 and 2023, economies of scale and efficiency improvements should lead to further reductions. 

    FIG 1.  Evolution in the cost of solar power (USD / MWh, exponential scale)


    Source: Oxford INET, IEA, LOIM.

    The transition is mainly driven by strong economics, but policy support has helped to accelerate it. In the US, the milestone Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 (IRA) includes incentives like tax credits that allow households to offset the cost of renewable energy systems. In the EU, the REPowerEU plan is setting ambitious targets for the deployment of renewable energy and transitions in end demand sectors. 

    And what about in China? While the country is still heavily dependent on coal power, China is today installing roughly as much solar and wind capacity as the rest of the world combined, with new installations of zero carbon power now exceeding those for fossil-based plants. 
     

    Current headwinds 

    Despite this strong support, equities related to cleantech have underperformed fossil-fuel companies this year. The S&P Global Clean Energy Index – comprising the biggest companies in solar, wind power and other renewables-related businesses – is down by approx. 30% year to date. This compares with a 16% gain for the MSCI World Index, as of 15.11.2023.

    What went wrong? For one thing, higher rates led to an increase in financing costs. Alongside bottlenecks in supply chains, this pushed up equipment and installation costs, slowing deployment. For some sectors, like utilities, higher rates not only increased the cost of deployment, but also depressed their valuations, often seen to act as bond proxies.

    FIG 2.  Levelised cost of solar power electricity ($ / MWh)

    Source: LOIM, based on IEA (Renewable Energy Market Update, June 2023) and Bloomberg New Energy Finance (LCOE Data, October 2023).

    In parallel, Europe’s construction market has been weak. With technologies like solar power, heat pumps and energy storage closely linked to activities in construction and renovation, these sectors have faced additional headwinds. Sluggish demand, combined with the accumulation of stocks – particularly of Chinese components – has led warehouses to fill up, with the industry caught in a much needed but painful destocking cycle. 

    Installations of renewables in the first half of 2023 were below our expectations in Europe and the US. Even so, they exceeded our projections globally – driven by considerable strength in China. China’s rapid acceleration in installations may lead the country to be among  the few to achieve its clean energy targets as much as five years early4. In its latest outlook, the IEA tripled its projections5 for the total amount of renewable capacity expected to have been deployed in China by 2030. 

    Table 1: Our expectations vs actual installations of solar and wind in H1 2023 (GW)

       

    holistiQ expected H1 Installations (GW)

    Installed in
    H1 (GW)

    Status

    Solar

    US

    15.5

    11.6

    Behind

    China

    49.0

    78.0

    Ahead

    Europe

    27.6

    26.4

    On track

    Combined total

    92.1

    116.0

    Ahead

    Wind

    US

    4.3

    3.2

    Behind

    China

    17.5

    23.0

    Ahead

    Europe (onshore)

    8.4

    6.8

    Behind

    Europe (offshore)

    2.0

    2.1

    On track

    Combined total

    32.2

    35.1

    Ahead

    Source: LOIM; US SEIA, EIA, NEA,  WindPower Monthly; Goldman Sachs (Chinese wind figure for GS estimated). Period covered: January 1, 2023 to October 6, 2023.
     

    Why we still like the theme

    The above overview illustrates why we believe the underlying structural drivers for renewables remain strong. Higher financing costs have hit the market hard, but these costs also increased for other (fossil-based) technologies. As such, while these factors have slowed near-term deployment of new power capacity, renewable technologies remain set to win out in the transition. Structural growth opportunities will continue to emerge across the value chain as electricity demand rises. 

    More regulatory support also looms on the horizon. The European Parliament is expected to vote on the Net Zero Industrial Act before year-end, fast-tracking key projects. In the US, higher-than-expected uptake of key technologies has led to a revision of the total value of the incentives likely to be issued through the (uncapped) Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) – from USD 370 billion to USD 650 billion. 

    Moreover, while costs of deployment have increased, this will filter through into higher prices – albeit with a delay. This would unfold through both the regulated and unregulated parts of the sector. On the regulated front, local authorities are revising  power prices progressively higher. On the unregulated front, the conditions for power purchase agreements (PPAs) are also being revised up. The economics and the attractiveness of renewable projects are likely to adjust along with prices, creating attractive opportunities in markets that have performed poorly in 2023. 

  • Our conviction

    As we wean ourselves off of fossil fuels on the road to net zero, we will move to electrified alternatives. Sectors from buildings to mobility and industry will be transformed. From today until 2050, the share of electricity in these markets will become dominant, significantly impacting profit pools. Sources such as the International Energy Agency estimate that this will require trillions of dollars in investment. 

    There is a robust economic rationale for this. In a traditional internal combustion engine (ICE), for example, only about 20% of the fuel energy is generally converted into useful power6. The rest is lost in exhaust heat. With an EV powered by renewable energy, that percentage rises to around 80%. In this case, superior energy efficiency drives both improved environmental efficiency (reduced emissions) as well as improved economic efficiency (through lower running costs). 

    Ultimately, therefore, the energy transition comprises not only a supply-side transition to renewable power, but also a profound transformation of key demand sectors ranging from buildings to mobility and industry. In our view, the electrification of our economy represents a system change, redrawing value chains and creating new addressable markets and earnings opportunities.

    FIG 3. Current and projected share of electric power as a portion of total energy use in a Net Zero scenario (%)

    Source: LOIM research.
     

    Current headwinds 

    This is a capital-intensive infrastructure and industrial revolution. Opportunities around electrification have, therefore, been adversely affected by the same global economic slowdown, recession fears, weaker consumer spending and higher borrowing costs that hurt the deployment of renewables. 

    In our view, this has little to do with the underlying engineering, environmental or long-term economics for electrified technologies. Rather it relates to shifts in the cost of capital and the reduced willingness of consumers to commit to upfront capital costs in renovation and similar projects in the current economic environment. 

    Governments worried about higher borrowing costs and fiscal deficits have also reined in infrastructure investment, further impacting infrastructure essential for the energy transition. In Britain, for example, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has announced plans to scale back a new zero carbon, high-speed railway known as HS2 (in addition to delaying a ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars).  

    Consequently, after a series of strong years, sales growth of electric vehicles (EVs) has slowed significantly. Margins have also been under pressure, with key players citing an accelerating price war. There has also been concern about competition from China, which has been dominating the EV market with a jump of 87%7 in sales in 2022. 

    In the US, the rollout of the IRA’s USD 7,500 tax credits for EV purchases has been delayed by requirements that a portion of key components in the vehicles and batteries be locally sourced – before supply chains were ready to deliver domestic alternatives. 

    For heat pumps, the same weakness in construction markets that hurt the solar industry also dented demand for these devices used to electrify buildings. 


    Why we still like the theme

    Despite the problems summarised above, the momentum in electrification continues. Sales of EVs are expected to capture 18% of the automotive market this year8, a phenomenal increase from 4% in 2020. Range has improved, reliability has improved and safety has improved. EV charging points have been growing at almost 50% globally since 20159, increasing the attractiveness, accessibility and market potential of EVs. With these strong drivers, it will become progressively harder for combustion vehicles to remain competitive.

    FIG 4. Installed electric vehicle charging points (million units)

    Source: International Energy Agency electric vehicle outlook and 2023 projection. 

    This deployment of charging infrastructure is set to continue. The EU’s proposed revisions to its Energy Performance Building Directive (EPBD) include requirements for, among other things, the rollout of EV charging infrastructure in both residential and non-residential buildings.  

    With regard to margins, the price war among car manufacturers and increased competition from China help make EVs more attractive to consumers, in our view. Continued adoption will drive opportunities across the value chain, from markets around electrical components and power electronics to batteries, raw materials, software, charging networks and even the stronger tyres used in EVs. 

    FIG 5. Sales of EVs by region (million units sold)

    Source: IEA (2023).

    Nuances across the different vehicle segments (e.g., luxury versus mainstream) also create opportunities for discerning investors to position themselves in elements of the value chain with stronger potential to retain pricing power and margins. 

    Meanwhile, new and improved battery technologies will drive additional reshaping of the EV landscape, promising shorter charging times, more affordability, lighter batteries and better safety features. Such innovations are poised to ease the main reservations around EVs, accelerating their adoption. Heat pumps are outperforming fossil fuel heating systems in efficiency, even in very cold weather.
     

  • Our conviction 

    Materials and resources sit at the heart of our economy. Their abundance and affordability created the wealth we know today. Approximately 60% of current GDP is linked to sectors that are highly material-intensive. The economics, returns and financial opportunities in these industries are closely connected to raw material availability, costs and resource efficiency, making the material system central to the economics of much of society. 

    FIG 6. Portion of economy linked to industries highly exposed to material systems (trillion USD of GDP)

    Source: LOIM research.

    Beyond its economic importance, the material system is also key to environmental challenges ranging from the transition to net zero, to leakage of waste into the environment and harmful impacts from excess resource extraction. Current economic models would lead to a doubling of resource extraction by  2050, exhaust much of our remaining carbon budget and lead to the accumulation of as much as 50kg of plastic waste in our oceans per meter of shoreline by 204010.

    The move from our current linear economy to a circular one is mainly driven by the environmental imperative. Resource inefficiencies and inadequate collection and recycling systems result in trillions of dollars of losses to the economy, from up to USD 120 billion per year in plastic packaging, to USD 500 billion in discarded clothing and USD 940 billion in food waste. These losses create a capturable value pool for technologies and business models built around rethinking product use, redesign, remanufacture, recycling, recovery and other circular economy strategies. 

    Key technologies are approaching mass adoption, bringing about exponential change. These include Industry 4.0 tech solutions for the digitisation of manufacturing, bio-based material breakthroughs (plant-based leather, cross-laminated timber, enzymes to reduce food waste), and better manufacturing processes (additive, robotics). 

    FIG 7. Solutions emerging in the disruption of the material system (maturity curve)

    Source: LOIM research.

    The economic rationale is similar to the one for the energy system: technologies are emerging that are driving improved resource efficiency (energy or material), a smaller environmental footprint and cost reductions – albeit requiring upfront capital expenditure that creates addressable markets for those providing the solutions. 
     

    Current headwinds

    Companies in key segments like robotics, paper packaging and recycling have generally shown some weakness or failed to keep up with the flight of capital into the technology giants. We see this as part of the overall weakness in industrials, stemming from the cyclical factors already outlined (slowing economy, weakness in consumer/construction markets, etc.). 

    We should note that some companies in this space did outperform. The Circular Economy is largely about efficiency, leveraging tech and other solutions, so companies in segments like design software (e.g., Cadence11) or simulation software (Ansys11) outperformed. So did value stocks in the waste management industry, who are well-positioned as the value of waste goes up in a society looking to reduce and recycle it.
     

    Why we still like the theme

    We believe the economic drivers underlying the transition to a more circular, resource-efficient or resource-productive economy remain robust and in fact continue to strengthen. Technologies from additive manufacturing through to new advanced materials or AI-enabled sorting solutions are becoming more attractive and flexible with new use cases emerging. 

    Concern related to the security of supply and geopolitical dynamics around critical raw materials continues to grow, with the EU recently publishing an updated list of 34 critical raw materials facing supply concerns. And in the move to decarbonise, we believe employing solutions built around resource-efficiency and circularity will often be more cost-competitive than trying to decarbonise production processes that have not sought to optimise their material footprint. 

    Carbon markets will provide a further, notable driver. China is expected to expand coverage of its nascent carbon market to four of its most high-polluting industries by 2025 – steel, cement, chemicals and aluminium.   In Europe, free allowances given to industries such as cement, aluminium, fertilizers, electricity, hydrogen and iron and steel will be phased out from 2027, under its Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). Even at moderate carbon prices, which have already been exceeded in the EU, the impact on the cost of different materials may be substantial, accelerating substitutions, circularity and resource efficiency. 

    FIG 8. Illustration of the impact of a USD 100/t carbon price on the cost of different materials

    Source: LOIM research.

    Finally, regulatory landscapes continue to evolve. In Europe, revisions to the EPBD will require lifecycle assessments of the footprint of buildings, including a focus on embodied emissions – driving further thinking around circularity. The inclusion of embodied emissions will draw attention to the differential in emission footprints of different materials – for instance between cement, concrete and steel on the one hand, and structural timber on the other. We believe that replacing high-carbon materials with bio-based alternatives represents a viable and increasingly economic means of reducing lifecycle footprints. 

  • Our conviction

    Why does the USD 10 trillion food system need to change? It faces increasing strain from a rapidly growing population with average incomes that continue to rise. Our traditional agricultural systems have already had ruinous effects on the climate, and on biodiversity, forests, soils and freshwater resources. This degrades the very natural capital and ecosystem services that are vital to future food production. 

    Today, our food system generates around 18Gt of emissions across its entire value chain, which amounts to approximately one third of all global emissions. Most of these are generated during agricultural production, comprising both farm-side emissions, methane, and emissions related to land use change. 

    Despite the environmental cost being concentrated in this segment of the value chain, a US farmer receives only about 8 cents for every dollar spent on food (the rest accumulating to processing, retail, branding, distribution and support industries), leading to a disconnect between value creation and those areas most in need of investment. 

    FIG 9. Share of emissions and consumer value (% of total)

    Source: Breakdown of value based on the breakdown of a US dollar of food for US consumers in 2022 as per USDA (2023); breakdown of GHG emissions based on Our World in Data (2022).

    But thanks to policy, technological and market forces, we believe we are at the cusp of a fourth agricultural revolution, involving changes in our diets, production processes, and the way we distribute and manage food. These include breakthroughs in alternative proteins (plant-based, cell-based and cultured meat), as well as better production methods, with precision agriculture, organic fertilisers and biological crop protection, to name a few   (see growth projections for these in Table 2 below). 

    Table 2: Projection for changes in agricultural practices from 2021 to 2030 

    FARMING PRACTICE

    AGRICULTURAL AREA

    2021

     

    2030

    Tillage

    Conventional

    86%

    60%

    Reduced

    14%

    40%

    Chemical inputs

    Conventional

    47%

    41%

    Conventional, sub-optimal

    45%

    37%

    Reduced and optimised

    7%

    20%

    Organic

    1%

    2%

    Crop mix

    Conventional

    79%

    52%

    Increased crop rotations

    7%

    20%

    Cover crops

    7%

    20%

    Agroforestry

    7%

    8%

    Seeds

    Conventional

    87%

    81%

    GMO

    12%

    18%

    GE

    0%

    1%

    Ag tech

    Conventional

    90%

    85%

    Simple precision ag

    2%

    3%

    Advanced precision ag

    8%

    13%

    Source: LOIM research.
     

    Current headwinds

    Alongside volatility in energy prices, the rising cost of food has been central to the inflationary environment that emerged in 2022. Increases in energy and food costs were initially triggered by the conflict in Ukraine, but excess droughts and flooding in key food-producing areas such as Brazil, India and Pakistan, as well as in parts of Europe and in the US wheat belt further exacerbated these challenges. 

    In 2023, the effects of high inflation, economic weakness and low consumer confidence have had knock-on effects in the food system, much like they have for other themes discussed here. Consumer sectors, across staples and discretionary segments, have underperformed the wider market, with their value chains (spanning into industrial and material segments) similarly feeling the pressure. 

    This environment has been a challenging one for disruptive forces to reach full fruition. Alternative proteins have become cheaper and consumer choice has improved, but these products are not yet cost-competitive with traditional forms of protein, and – treated as a discretionary product – have been hit in the current environment. 

    The higher rates, cuts in infrastructure spending, etc., impacted industrial companies providing many of the solutions in the food system, including equipment providers and supply chain solutions. Many of these are small- and mid-cap companies, which have particularly underperformed under current conditions. We believe, once again, that this has little to do with the underlying economics of transitions to, for instance, precision agriculture. Rather, it reflects a temporary reduction in appetite for capital investments. 
     

    Why we still like the theme

    Despite the headwinds, we expect further acceleration in interest in the food system. Policy developments have escalated. Targets set at COP15, the UN biodiversity conference, target the restoration of 30% of land and oceans by 2030 and the halving of food waste. A new Deforestation Law and Nature Restoration Law are moving forward in the EU. And at COP28 in Dubai, food systems have been pushed to the main stage, particularly from the perspective of climate resilience. 

    Economically, we see new tipping points emerging. Plant-based proteins, we believe, will shift from being a luxury product to a cost-saving measure, as new forms of alternative protein (cell-based and cultured meat) enter the market. Advances in biotechnology and AI are finding ready application in agricultural systems, from the development of specialty (and more climate-resilient) seeds, to advances in precision agriculture. And breakthroughs in medical science and the GLP-1 obesity drug are driving further disruptions across the health, nutrition and staples sectors. 

    In parallel, the new Food, Land and Agriculture (FLAG) initiative of the Science-Based Targets initiative (SBTi) will require corporates to take responsibility for their (scope 3) upstream value chain emissions when setting climate targets. Shifts in production processes, product mixes and changes in value chain configuration will be pushed into the mainstream. 

    FIG 10. Relative cost of protein (animal-sourced protein = 1)

    Source: LOIM research.

    Industry developments such as the 10x20x30 initiative – which brings together 10+ of the largest retailers and 20 of their largest suppliers to cut food waste in half by 2030 – are putting COP targets into practice, creating opportunities for investors across enhanced packaging, cold chain solutions, supply chain management, specialty ingredients, and other solutions aimed at tackling the food waste challenge. 

    All in all, we believe food systems will be one of the themes that will continue to garner increased interest among investors and end markets alike. 
     

Unstoppable momentum

In summary, the sectors and growth opportunities outlined here have not been what the market has looked for under recent macro conditions. Much of the underperformance has resulted from cyclical factors, in our view, whereas our conviction stems from structural factors that continue to look strong to us. 

We see attractive entry points for these structural growth themes. Cleantech names in some cases have fallen to around 2018 levels, often as a result of de-rating rather than changes in earnings momentum. This seemingly prices in little of the expected earnings growth that the above transitions would imply. 

We continue to believe these themes make economic sense, creating huge opportunities for increased resource productivity and efficiency gains. Regulatory changes and government targets in areas such as emissions reductions, circularity and recycling cannot be achieved without significant disruption to corporate processes and value chains. 

This will create new growth opportunities and drive capital inflows. Accelerating technological advances are likely to transform multiple industries – from health to food systems, to materials and the industrial space. 

The momentum is unstoppable.

sources.

1  Any reference to a specific company or security does not constitute a recommendation to buy, sell, hold or directly invest in the company or securities. It should not be assumed that the recommendations made in the future will be profitable or will equal the performance of the securities discussed in this document.
2 This marketing communication provides information about holistiQ Investment Partners (“holistiQ”). holistiQ is a trading name of the Lombard Odier Investment Managers group (“LOIM”) and is not a legal partnership or other separate legal entity. Any dealings in respect of holistiQ shall be carried out solely through LOIM regulated entities and their authorised officers. Systemiq Limited is not a regulated entity and nothing in this website is intended to imply that Systemiq Limited will carry out regulated activity in any jurisdiction
3 Solar - IEA
A Race to the Top China 2023: China's quest for energy security drives wind and solar development - Global Energy Monitor
5 Executive summary – World Energy Outlook 2023 – Analysis - IEA  
6 Electrifying transportation reduces emissions AND saves massive amounts of energy » Yale Climate Connections
7 Electric Vehicle Sales Review Q4-2022 | PwC and Strategy&
8 Electric vehicles - IEA
Trends in charging infrastructure – Global EV Outlook 2023 – Analysis - IEA
10  Visual Feature | Pollution to Solution: Accessing marine litter and plastic pollution (unep.org)
11  Any reference to a specific company or security does not constitute a recommendation to buy, sell, hold or directly invest in the company or securities. It should not be assumed that the recommendations made in the future will be profitable or will equal the performance of the securities discussed in this document. Past performance is not a guarantee of future results.


 

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