As major corporations ditch their goal of maximizing shareholder value for maximizing societal value according to social justice, one wonders: Is woke capital really dedicated to its principles, or is it bowing at the altar of progressivism for PR and profits?
Recent news regarding BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, brings this question to mind. The behemoth firm, which manages almost $7 trillion in assets, recently committed to a slew of environmentalist initiatives that will affect its business, and the businesses in which its clients invest.
Its decisions matter because everyone from mom-and-pop investors to nation-states—representing hundreds of millions of people—through BlackRock collectively own stocks, bonds, and other instruments covering the entire global marketplace. Indeed, you may own shares of one or several of BlackRock’s iShares exchange-traded funds, or have exposure to the company through a retirement plan. If so, you are effectively voting for its political agenda.
BlackRock’s latest efforts include everything from substantially increasing the number of so-called “ESG” (Environmental, Social, and Governance) funds its clients can invest in, to removing investment offerings in companies big in the thermal coal production business, to pushing the companies BlackRock’s clients own to adhere to “UN Sustainable Development Goals, such as Gender Equality and Affordable and Clean Energy.”
Accordingly, BlackRock recently joined the “Climate Action 100+,” which, per the investment manager, “engages with companies to improve climate disclosure and align business strategy with the goals of the Paris Agreement.”
If BlackRock’s initiatives seem at odds with the purpose of a financial services company, they should. It believes it is “on the edge of a fundamental reshaping of finance.” Two statements from CEO Laurence Fink sum up the company’s ethos:
- In a letter to chief executive officers, Fink wrote: “We don’t yet know which predictions about the climate will be most accurate, nor what effects we have failed to consider. But there is no denying the direction we are heading. Every government, company, and shareholder must confront climate change.” [Emphasis added]
- In a letter to BlackRock clients, Fink wrote: “We believe that sustainability should be our new standard for investing.”
In several previous letters too, BlackRock has called for businesses to focus on environmentalism. BlackRock’s actions and words are consistent with the company’s historical focus on the ESG space, which has mushroomed over the last 15 years as woke capital has ascended.
They are consistent with the company serving as one of 181 major signatories to the Business Roundtable’s recast “Principles of Corporate Governance,” which in August 2019 shifted its focus from “shareholder primacy” to serving “all stakeholders,” by in part “protect[ing] the environment by embracing sustainable practices across our businesses.”
And they are consistent with the Davos crowd. Indeed, this year, Davos’s main theme was “sustainability” and giving meaning to the concept of “stakeholder capitalism.” That is, the world’s global elite paraded on the leftist bandwagon—one that will run over the little people whose lives they seek to micromanage, and who have been rebelling against them at the ballot box throughout the West.
Left unasked is this: If BlackRock and its sustainability-driven corporate allies are true believers in their principles, how can they square them with their extensive ties to the world’s biggest polluter, China?
BlackRock has been expanding its China investment offerings, mirroring the move by major index providers to increase their weightings toward Chinese companies. Investors therefore are not only helping fund Chinese polluters, but strengthening the economy that underpins the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that permits such pollution in the first place.
Of course, setting aside the cognitive dissonance on matters of “environmental justice,” untold millions of everyday people—through large asset managers and their ESG vehicles—have become unwitting backers of companies like Hikvision. The Hangzhou-based concern produces the cameras that surveil the Uighur Muslims being held in China’s gulags. Still more people fund through their portfolios the American big tech companies that continue to partner with it.
How can the woke sophisticates in the financial services world and beyond who knowingly underwrite China, and nefarious CCP-backed companies, claim to be genuinely progressive ESG devotees, let alone proponents of justice of any kind?
Ties to China are one example of the contradictions inherent to Woke Capital. As Bloomberg’s Matt Levine noted in his “Money Stuff” newsletter, BlackRock’s letter to management:
…will arrive on the desk of the CEO of, I don’t know, giant state-owned oil company Saudi Aramco? A company where, according to Bloomberg data, BlackRock is the largest outside shareholder. A company that did a bond offering last year—after the Saudi government murdered and dismembered Jamal Khashoggi, after Fink sent that letter about making society better—in which BlackRock was also a big investor.
Cynicism is merited, and for reasons that go beyond the ability of large companies to, on the one hand, claim fealty to leftist notions of morality and virtue, while on the other doing business with those who survive by flouting those standards.
What makes woke capital even more “problematic” is not just the apparent hypocrisy, but that it may be rigging the game in its favor, morphing into woke crony capital. ESG investments can quickly become “sure things” through government subsidies, tax incentives, and contracts. Remember Solyndra?
And since investment managers like BlackRock serve governments—via pension funds, sovereign wealth funds, or directly—are we to believe these governments plan on making losing bets? Are we to believe they intend to make losing bets in particular when they can tip the balance in favor of their investments? And to whose campaign coffers do we think these businesses will be contributing?
Sure, the leadership of large corporations may truly believe in leftist principles—after all, it is those principles that predominate among our elites. Such leaders might also be paying more than lip service to such principles to appease leftist pressure groups that might otherwise shake them down—or, as in the case of BlackRock, to avoid the ire of skeptical regulatory agencies. If public relations affect a firm’s reputation, and the market ascribes a value to that reputation, PR becomes a legitimate concern—a “cost of doing business.”
But the world’s largest multinational corporations did not grow so big by prioritizing political leftism over profit. The smart money would suggest that today, at very best they are seeking to create the appearance of “doing good” as leftists define it, while in reality investing in government-sponsored sectors with a potentially more attractive risk-reward profile—made all the more attractive should government punish non-ESG-friendly firms. Recall Hillary Clinton’s plans for coal, for example.
If companies wish to prioritize leftism above all else, that is their prerogative. Clients and shareholders can take their business elsewhere should they take issue with it. But once companies’ interests align with those of government, any related actions deserve substantial scrutiny.
Environmentalist policies in particular demand heightened sensitivity given they are often justified by hysterical predictions that prove false, and require massive economic intervention and the destabilization of daily life on the stated basis of unimpeachable Science (that itself may well be tied to government funding).
Those at the top of the corporate world will no doubt continue to lecture Americans about how they ought to feel and vote on any number of issues, and seek to use their power to impose those views upon us. In the long run, if the twin tandem of Big Government and Big Business are aligned in these efforts, the question will be whether there is anything to prevent non-leftists from being run over roughshod.
In the short run, one might ask whether given the trends of woke capital, our cancel culture, and the erosion of common bonds in our body public, Americans are headed towards self-segregation by political ideology. Maybe in some sense we are already there. But what does it say about the state of our union?