When activist investors demanded that consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble report on its deforestation risks in October, alleging links between its loo roll business and unsustainable logging, they were as delighted as they were surprised when BlackRock voted in favour.
According to Friends of the Earth, BlackRock – the world’s largest asset manager – has had 16 previous opportunities to vote for resolutions to halt deforestation since 2012. It declined every one of them.
The green campaign group consequently accused the iconic US investor of being slow to walk the talk of its CEO Larry Fink, who, in a now famous letter to clients, declared that companies should make a “positive contribution to society” as well as profit.
It is a message subsequently reinforced through ambitious statements on climate change and other “non-financial” risks. The economic disruption caused by the Covid pandemic has only reinforced his viewpoint, Fink told delegates at a two-day sustainability summit organised by BlackRock over the summer.
Many in sustainability circles herald Fink as a modern-day messiah. Others are more sceptical. That list includes Wall Street’s old-timers, who wonder what he’s been smoking, and environmental activists, who smell a (greenwashed) rat.
So, what’s going on exactly? Has BlackRock changed its spots with the P&G vote?
Ray Cameron, head of the firm’s investment stewardship team for the Americas, points out that the P&G vote was consistent with BlackRock’s move at the start of the year, when it asked all companies in its portfolio to publish disclosure aligned with the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) standards. It has also publicly endorsed the conclusions of the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD).
And he quotes from BlackRock’s 92-page investment stewardship report, published for the first time in September, that the firm voted against 53 companies for their sluggish climate performance in 2020. A further 191 are “on watch” and could face a thumbs-down at their next shareholder meeting if progress isn’t made.
This quietens some critics, but not all. Billionaire hedge fund manager Christopher Horn dismisses BlackRock’s sustainability position as a “joke”. As he told the Financial Times in a recent interview: “A lot of them will say ‘we will vote for someone’s else’s resolution’, but why aren’t they filing their own resolutions?”
Soft-spoken yet quietly assertive, Cameron offers a two-fold rejoinder. The first mirrors the default response of asset managers to almost any critique: namely, that BlackRock is merely fulfilling its clients’ wishes.
In our hour-long interview, it is a theme he returns to repeatedly. But the client card can play both ways. On the one hand, if the asset owners in BlackRock’s $7.4tn portfolio express disdain for sustainability issues, then it leaves Cameron and his colleagues in a pickle. Either they turn down their custom or they follow their clients’ mandate.