By Valerie Richardson
BlackRock the world’s largest asset manager that endured years of pressure and protests from the left, announced in January that it would embrace a climate change and social justice agenda — and then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Now BlackRock is on the hot seat. Entering its annual shareholder meeting Thursday, it is caught between activists demanding that the firm walk the talk and conservatives condemning the emphasis on politics over profits — as well as crying hypocrisy over BlackRock’s enormous holdings in China, the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter.
BlackRock CEO Larry Fink is “doing two things” with his embrace of the environmental, social and governance (ESG) investment model pushed by activists, said Justin Danhof, general counsel of the free market National Center for Public Policy Research.
“He’s pushing for ESG initiatives on American companies at a time when we’re in the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression,” Mr. Danhof said. “And what do these left-wing ESG initiatives do? They just add an extra regulatory cost of doing business on American companies. At the same time, he’s pushing Chinese investments through his funds that have horrible ESG records. How does he square those two?”
Fueling the unease is BlackRock’s newly designated role as a bond-purchasing administrator of the CARES Act, prompting 17 Republican senators to send a letter asking Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin and other administration officials to keep such financial assistance “neutral and free of bias.”
“That’s when we became really concerned,” said the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Myron Ebell. “If they’re going to play this key middleman role, we need to make sure that they’re not flogging their own ESG agenda. They’re going to have to be watched very closely.”
A who’s who of top conservatives fired off a plea last month to Mr. Fink asking him to “reconsider” his Jan. 14 letter to investors signaling his intention to move from a “shareholder” to the more politically charged “stakeholder” model.
“During the best of times, the purpose of any business is to return a profit for shareholders by providing goods and services that consumers want and need,” said the letter, led by Mr. Danhof. “But especially during times of grave threat to the economic health of the nation, that purpose — and not a political agenda — should be top of mind for businesses and for investors.”
He plans to submit a question at Thursday’s remote meeting about how BlackRock squares its climate advocacy, which has real costs for U.S. companies, in light of its China business.
“The most stark example I’m giving is, should Marriott spend its finite resources to put solar panels on their hotels, or maybe keep their furloughed employees on their health plans for now?” said Mr. Danhof. “I mean, which one’s most important? The answer seems obvious to me, but I’m not sure it’s obvious to others.”
Meanwhile, activists have no intention of letting up the pressure. As You Sow, the leading liberal shareholder advocacy group, plans to introduce a resolution calling for BlackRock to incorporate its “new purpose” into governance documents despite the firm’s efforts to block it.
“Shareholders are ready to put these words into action for the benefit of all,” As You Sow CEO Andrew Behar said in a written statement. “Together we can reshape the definition of capitalism to accommodate all stakeholders, including those that have been increasingly left behind to create a safe, just, and sustainable world.”
Watching will be environmental groups such as the Union of Concerned Scientists, which praised BlackRock for joining in January the Climate Action 100+ and Mr. Fink’s annual letter to companies laying out “climate-related financial risks as a key long-term concern for shareholders.”
“The next few weeks will show everyone if BlackRock really means business when it comes to climate action — its vote could make or break climate-critical resolutions at ExxonMobil, Chevron and JPMorgan Chase,” UCS corporate analyst Nicole Pinko said in a May 6 analysis.
BlackRock indicated last month that it would lift the some of the political pressure, at least during the pandemic, after some companies said they had “de-prioritized” nonfinancial projects such as “sustainability reports,” according to Reuters.
“In the near term, we anticipate that some companies will need to reallocate resources from sustainability initiatives and reporting to address immediate priorities created by the pandemic and related economic fallout,” BlackRock said in a May statement. “Over time, however, we expect that, particularly among market leaders, companies will continue to enhance their focus on material sustainability management and reporting — and that this will be a key driver of long-term returns.”
BlackRock has been hit with hypocrisy charges from both sides. Climate change activists point out that the $7 trillion fund is also the largest U.S. investor in fossil fuels, while free-market advocates ask how BlackRock’s climate agenda jibes with its role in promoting Chinese investments.
At a Senate Banking Committee hearing, Sen. Martha McSally, Arizona Republican, mocked what she called BlackRock’s “ridiculous” defense of China on its website, called “Five myths and realities about investing in China,” and asked Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell about the firm’s role as a CARES Act financial agent.
“I would just say this: All large asset managers buy Chinese securities,” Mr. Powell said at Tuesday’s hearing. “These are global asset managers. I’m not here to defend or criticize them for that. It’s just not really relevant to the work that we want them to do.”
Ms. McSally was undeterred. “I really think BlackRock and others need to also wake up and do their patriotic duty, see what’s going on here: Communist China should not be profiting off of unleashing this calamity on the world, and that is something that should unite all Americans, even if they work at BlackRock,” she said.
BlackRock did not respond to requests for comment.
The pandemic and subsequent economic downturn has heightened criticism of BlackRock’s decision to focus on “managing climate-related risks,” Mr. Danhof said.
Recent op-eds include “BlackRock’s choice: Investment fiduciary or political activist?” by the RealClearFoundation’s Rupert Darwall, and “Social Justice Requirements Could Politicize Investments in CARES Act,” by the Institute for Policy Innovation’s Tom Giovanetti.
“Tasked and funded by the Federal Reserve to buy billions of dollars in corporate bonds, will BlackRock favor companies that adhere to their ESG agenda? Will they refuse to buy corporate debt of fossil fuel companies?” Mr. Giovanetti asked in the May 15 op-ed in Newsweek.
Mr. Danhof said that “for a while, Fink was getting away with this because the economy itself was so good, nobody cared.”
“We’ve been paying attention for a long time, but now other people are saying, ‘Wait a minute, what’s this guy doing?’” he said. “He can’t just fly to his Davos crowd, where everyone appreciates his very European approach to all this, because now real people are suffering.”