The Awakening of a Giant?

By Frank Sherman

Much has been written about socially responsible investing becoming mainstream. US SIF reported two years ago that $1 in every $4 of professionally managed assets in the U.S utilize ESG criteria or shareholder advocacy, a double digit annual increase since the mid-1990s. SRI concerns have also broadened from governance issues (e.g. proxy access, political and lobby spending, executive pay, separate chair) to corporate environmental impact (e.g. sustainability reporting, climate, water) and more recently, social impacts (e.g. human rights, labor rights, diversity).

Another trend in the investment world is the disproportionate growth of passive investing. As open-end and exchange-traded mutual funds managed by large asset managers make up a growing portion of U.S. equity holdings, they take on a growing fiduciary responsibility. When you buy these funds, you transfer your fiduciary responsibility to fund managers to engage companies and vote proxies for you. These long-term and diversified owners have no way to exit a stock, so the only way to influence shareholder value at a portfolio company is through exercising active ownership rights.

Given these trends, it is not surprising to read Morningstar’s recently released proxy voting report stating investor support for ESG resolutions reached a record high in 2019 averaging 29%. This excludes the proposals which were withdrawn based on company agreements. Average support for ESG shareholder resolutions across the 50 fund families analyzed rose from 27% in 2015 to 46% in 2019. However, they found that five of the 10 largest fund families —Vanguard, BlackRock, American Funds, T. Rowe Price, and DFA— voted against more than 88% of ESG-related shareholder resolutions. Their support would have caused 19 of 23 resolutions earning more than 40% support to pass if supported by just one of the largest two asset managers. In response, these fund managers claim to ‘engage companies privately’.

The silver lining highlighted by Morningstar is Blackrock. Recall that two years ago Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, told CEOs that to sustain financial performance they must “understand the societal impact of your business as well as the ways that broad, structural trends – from slow wage growth to rising automation to climate change – affect your potential for growth”. He went on to say that companies need to engage their stakeholders and if they wait until they receive a proxy proposal to engage, “we believe the opportunity for meaningful dialogue has often already been missed”. This year in BlackRock’s annual letter, Fink stated that climate risk is changing the fundamentals of the financial system. BlackRock would be aligning its investment approach, including how it votes proxies, with sustainability. Fink committed to using proxy voting to advance TCFD- and SASB-aligned financial disclosures and to an unprecedented standard of proxy voting transparency. They demonstrated their seriousness by joining the Climate Action 100+, a global investor initiative which SGI is a member, representing $34 trillion in managed assets, to engage the world’s largest corporate greenhouse gas emitters to take necessary action on climate change.

Morningstar predicted that BlackRock’s “willingness to vote against management would give engagements on sustainability issues more teeth…as corporate management becomes more open to engaging with shareholder proponents”. I remain hopeful…

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