The team behind 2019’s fake letter from BlackRock chief executive officer Larry Fink has struck again.
This time, they’ve targeted Vanguard and Marvel Entertainment, pitting the two against one another via dueling press releases sent to journalists on Tuesday. Since then, the Yes Men, a group of activist comedians, revealed that they orchestrated this stunt in an effort to push Vanguard toward action on climate change.
For major asset managers like Vanguard, whose exchange-traded funds require ownership of the market at large, acting on climate change is complicated. But because they're targeting retail investors more than they have in the past, the general public has begun to push for more change.
On Tuesday, a fake press release from Vanguard announced that the firm had set up a “Sustainable Investments” department that would help it strategize on shareholder engagement. The faux announcement also claimed that by 2030, Vanguard would make “fossil-free and deforestation-free funds [the] default option” for investors, and that it would launch a “Vanguardians of the Galaxy” ESG fund for young investors.
The point of contact listed on the press release, a filmmaker and comedian who goes by the pseudonym “Jeff Walburn,” doesn’t have a background in finance, but he does have experience as an activist targeting fossil fuels. “After working on the BlackRock project, I realized how much fossil fuel companies required financing, and I realized how much power asset managers have,” Walburn told Institutional Investor by phone. “I got excited by the possibilities of how they can remain invested and still wield influence to change them for the better.”
On Tuesday, the Yes Men also published a fake press release from Marvel, which produced the Guardians of the Galaxy film in 2014. The release “denounce[d] IP misuse to greenwash fossil-fuel financing.”
“I thought it [was] overly satirical, but a lot of people wrote believing it,” Walburn said. Only one news organization — Responsible Investor — fell for the stunt, he added, but the site quickly took the story down.
The approach was similar to one that the Yes Men used in 2019 when they sent out the spoof Fink letter, which targeted journalists and created fake websites and social media profiles. That letter was quickly caught by BlackRock, but not before the Financial Times published a story on the “news.”
According to a person familiar with the matter, BlackRock did not pursue any legal action. Walburn, for his part, said that he never officially heard from the organization, and that he hasn’t yet heard from Vanguard or Marvel. Neither has Institutional Investor, which on Wednesday reached out by e-mail to Vanguard and Marvel for comment.
Walburn said he hopes that this action demonstrates to Vanguard that it should do more to address the climate change risk. “In this case, it’s just like reminding Vanguard that their competitors will have a specific plan,” Walburn said. “Even if they’re bullshit, shouldn’t you have a plan too?”
Vanguard has previously made climate-related pledges. In 2020, the company announced that in 2021, it would use 100 percent renewable energy in its global operations. Vanguard also promised that it would reach carbon neutrality throughout its global operations in 2025.
While the asset management firm does offer sustainable investment options, these are by no means the default, as suggested by the Yes Men. Vanguard does also vote its proxies, according to the 2020 announcement.
In 2021, Vanguard signed onto the Net Zero Asset Managers Commitment, pledging that its assets under management will hit net zero emissions by 2050 and interim targets by 2030.
This likely isn’t the last time that Vanguard will hear from the Yes Men. Walburn said that he’s thinking about targeting the group again. “In future projects, we’ll focus on an institutional level,” he said.