Asset management giant BlackRock has become the target of an attack-ad campaign focused on its ESG policies and investments in China.
Launched in late October by a Washington, D.C.-based “anti-woke” group called Consumers’ Research, the campaign’s centerpiece is an ad that has aired during NFL games and MSNBC ad breaks that claims that BlackRock is “investing your money” in China, much as an ad targeting a politician might discuss tax dollars spent by their foe.
According to Will Hild, executive director of Consumers’ Research, the ad is part of a “multimillion-dollar, multiphase attack on BlackRock.”
The campaign begs a larger question for the asset management industry: Will their push toward ESG result in more backlash like this? And if so, how much of a chilling effect, if any, will it have on the way they operate?
ESG and other sustainable investing strategies are entrenched in Europe and are the fastest growing category in the U.S. — in both the private and public markets. Most private markets managers have at least considered incorporating ESG into their investment strategy. A recent PitchBook sustainability survey shows that just 5 percent of the general partners that responded had no plans to incorporate ESG into their investment strategy. The others had either already done so or were exploring the possibility of making ESG a part of their investment policies.
According to a recently published paper by Benjamin Braun, a researcher at The Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies, on the power held by asset managers, “Investors increasingly expect asset managers to act as stewards of their capital in ways that go beyond maximizing short-term returns, above all in the context of global warming.” Braun contends that while asset managers have begun to act on climate change by signing onto stewardship codes, their primary driver is increasing assets under management, not altruism. But regardless of their motives, the decision by asset managers to go green — or to even just posture as though they’ve gone green — has begun to spark the ire of organizations like Consumers’ Research.
“Given BlackRock's activities here in the United States, I don’t think there’s any argument that they’re not woke,” Hild said by phone, adding that nevertheless, they’re “probably the wokest” organization in the finance industry. When asked his definition of “woke,” Hild said he would describe it “as taking positions, radical left-wing positions, that are not germane to their business, in order to distract.”
BlackRock is undeterred.
“As a fiduciary to our clients, BlackRock focuses on matters like diversity in the boardroom and climate risk because we believe these are material issues that can affect the long-term value of our clients’ investments,” a spokesperson for the company said in a statement. “Those are the issues [that] the funders and leaders of this campaign do not appear to agree with.”
Although Hild’s complaints against BlackRock are multifaceted, he did specifically say that fiduciary duty laws prohibit the use of ESG in investment screenings.
This isn’t true. Although allocators have long wanted more guidance on ESG, fiduciary rules still allow them to take non-financial factors into consideration when investing. In 2020, ESG was set back by the Trump administration’s Department of Labor when it enacted two rules that attempted to disallow the use of ESG in determining the suitability of investments for any institutions subject to ERISA laws. In January, however, the Biden administration rolled those regulations back and has since proposed a rule that would make it clear that “when considering projected returns, a fiduciary’s duty of prudence may often require an evaluation of the economic effects of climate change and other ESG factors.”
BlackRock is just the latest company to be targeted by Consumers’ Research on this topic, and the others — including Coca-Cola, American Airlines, and Nike — don’t have a fiduciary duty to clients. “It's obviously designed to chill other firms from doing some good,” said Lisa Graves, head of True North Research, about the campaign. “[The opposition to socially responsible investing] was just really striking to me. This is the new rebranding of it, to call socially responsible investing ‘woke’ and to cause trouble and manufacture dissent against it.”