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Republicans threaten Wall Street over climate positions

BlackRock, JPMorgan Chase and other asset managers face complaints from the left — and threats from the right

BlackRock headquarters in New York. (Jeenah Moon/Bloomberg News)
9 min

Republican officials across the country, tearing a page from the ongoing culture wars, are launching a broad assault on the movement by big financial firms to use their economic power to curb climate change and address other politically sensitive national issues.

In recent years, big finance companies have used their clout to advance causes that are popular among liberals. The giant asset manager BlackRock, for instance, has voted against the candidacies of hundreds of corporate board members over their lackluster records on climate issues and called climate change “a defining factor in companies’ long-term prospects.” JPMorgan Chase, the nation’s largest bank, has stopped lending to new coal mines or coal-fired power plants.

Even though the positions don’t satisfy many left-leaning activists, GOP officials are intensifying their counteroffensive, attacking the campaigns — often referred to as “environmental-social-governance,” or ESG — by threatening to retaliate against financial firms for their positions on the climate and other issues, including firearms sales.

“@BlackRock is using its massive size to drive up the price of gas & weaken national security—all so BlackRock’s rich executives can feel better about themselves,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) wrote on Twitter last month. “The next Congress is going to take on this collusive racket.”

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State officials are moving more swiftly. This spring, Kentucky lawmakers voted to empower state officials to stop doing business with any firm that says it won’t invest in fossil fuels. The move drew praise from other Republican officials, although the state hasn’t penalized a firm yet.

“Kentucky joins our growing coalition of states that have taken concrete steps to push back against the woke capitalists who are trying to destroy our energy industries,” West Virginia Treasurer Riley Moore said after Kentucky adopted the legislation.

Moore last month told six of the nation’s largest financial institutions, including JPMorgan Chase, BlackRock and Wells Fargo, that they might no longer be allowed to do business with the state of West Virginia because of their positions on working with the fossil fuel industry.

Texas has blocked a handful of financial firms, including Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase, from bond offerings over the banks’ reluctance to lend to certain gun manufacturers and fossil fuel developers, including coal mines.

Late last year, Louisiana Treasurer John Schroder barred JPMorgan Chase from taking part in a $700 million bond offering because, he said, the bank’s lending policies on firearms violated the Second Amendment.

Peter Bisbee, executive director of the Republican Attorneys General Association, said the Republicans were seeking to “protect consumers from the collusion of these woke institutions who are jeopardizing the retirement accounts of millions of Americans for the sake of pleasing woke environmental zealots, while also creating dangerous instability within our financial markets.”

The financial firms have defended their choices. BlackRock chief executive Larry Fink said in his annual letter that “over the long-term” ESG issues — including climate change, diversity and board effectiveness — “have real and quantifiable financial impacts” but that BlackRock “does not pursue divestment from oil and gas companies as a policy.”

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JPMorgan Chase told the Texas attorney general that it would not finance the manufacture of military-style weapons for civilian use regardless of a state’s views. And it said that it “does not ‘boycott’ energy companies” but would make decisions on fossil fuel loans “based on ordinary business reasons.”

Preventing big firms from doing business in GOP states could come with a cost.

A new paper by University of Pennsylvania Wharton School professor Daniel G. Garrett and Federal Reserve Board economist Ivan T. Ivanov argues that Texas state entities will pay an additional $303 million to $532 million in interest costs on the $32 billion in borrowing during the first eight months following the passage of two laws last September. Government regulation limiting the adoption of ESG “distorts financial market outcomes,” the paper says.

In a May 13 letter to Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar, JPMorgan Chase’s general counsel, Stacey R. Friedman, said that the firm would not lend to greenfield coal mines, new coal-fired power plants, or new oil and gas development in the Arctic.

“We also restrict activity with clients who derive the majority of their revenues from the extraction of coal and coal mining clients involved in mountaintop mining,” she wrote.

Yet JPMorgan Chase remains a large lender to energy companies.

In her letter, Friedman said that the bank’s credit exposure to the oil and gas industry was $42.6 billion, with an additional exposure of $33.2 billion in the utility sector. In addition, the bank had more than $100 billion in the finance and facilitation of “clean” energy projects.

But with hurricanes, floods and rising temperatures in places such as Texas, some argue that big firms like BlackRock or JPMorgan Chase must assess and address climate risks if they are going to manage their financial risks.

“One of the other things we’re hearing is that the attorneys general are really betraying the GOP’s long-standing belief in free markets,” said the Rev. Kirsten Snow Spalding, senior program director of Ceres’s investor network, which advocates for shareholder resolutions. “It is no longer furthering free capitalism but stifling it. It is interfering with free capital markets, and those on the right are putting their thumbs on market investments.”

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Conservatives disagree, with some saying that big financial firms have so much power that they can’t accurately reflect what the free market would favor. In a June 29 letter to S&P Global Ratings, five Kentucky officials objected to the agency’s decision to use “unnecessarily subjective” ESG tools in its new evaluations of the state.

Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) said in an interview that the “sheer power that is consolidated among the three firms” — BlackRock, Vanguard and State Street — has caused “the massive distortion in our public markets.”

For years, investors have been attracted to index and mutual funds at big firms because of their low fees and broad diversification. Those investors have mostly given the voting power of their shares to the big advisory firms.

Shareholder activists have taken advantage of that, urging the firms to throw their weight behind social and climate issues.

This year, there were 226 climate-related resolutions proposed by shareholders and opposed by management, according to Ceres.

According to Morningstar, a Chicago-based financial services firm, even after a weak first quarter for stocks in general, $343 billion was invested in sustainable funds.

But the ESG trend is facing growing skepticism in Congress. Sullivan has introduced legislation that would require investment advisers with more than 1 percent of a fund’s shares to vote only upon the instruction of the fund’s investors, not at their own discretion.

The big three investment advisers — BlackRock, Vanguard, and State Street — manage more than $20 trillion in combined assets and control around 25 percent of all votes cast at annual meetings. They are the largest owners in approximately 90 percent of S&P 500 companies. And they control between 73 percent and 80 percent of the exchange-traded fund (ETF) market, according to Sullivan.

His bill has 10 co-sponsors.

The GOP is ginning up similar action nationwide.

The State Financial Officers Foundation (SFOF), a nonprofit that includes 27 Republican state treasurers and auditors in 23 states, was part of a successful effort this year to undercut Sarah Bloom Raskin’s nomination to the Federal Reserve. Raskin has already served on the Fed board and was deputy treasury secretary under President Barack Obama, but her views on measuring and accounting for climate change at the Fed made her a target.

The foundation’s website links to more than a dozen conservative groups, including the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). SFOF’s five-person advisory board includes Adam Andrzejewski, who spoke at an ALEC conference in December, and Jonathan Williams, chief economist and executive vice president of policy at ALEC. The group’s biggest donors include the conservative Consumers’ Research as well as Fidelity Investments, Mastercard, Visa and others.

The foundation’s chief executive, Derek Kreifels, said in an email that ESG standards “were designed to impose punishments or rewards on the basis of compliance to subjective criteria.” He said it was up to financial officers to make “sure financial institutions and markets remain free of political agendas and avoiding investments that would harm their own state’s financial well-being.”

The State Financial Officers Foundation filed comments opposing a Securities and Exchange Commission proposed rule that would require companies to disclose climate-related information. The foundation complained on June 27 that the rule was a violation of the First Amendment because it required companies to say they regarded climate risks as worth mentioning.

“This proposed rule is the Biden administration’s attempt to take power from the states by circumventing the democratic process and legislating through SEC regulations,” John Murante, Nebraska’s treasurer and the foundation’s chairman, said in the filing.

Beset by pressure, BlackRock has increasingly been offering clients the power to vote their own shares. Clients representing nearly half of BlackRock’s indexed equity assets globally will now be eligible for BlackRock Voting Choice. Clients representing 25 percent of eligible index equity assets — $530 billion out of $2.3 trillion — had elected to participate in BlackRock Voting Choice by early June, the firm said.

BlackRock says this isn’t a response to Republicans’ attacks. It launched a more limited program last year and has been planning to expand it. And BlackRock — which still has 70 people doing ESG analysis and a fiduciary responsibility to vote in 1,300 index funds — will still weigh in on shareholder votes.

But those who favor BlackRock’s greater activism are concerned.

“BlackRock last year voted 34 percent against management. The year before, 17 percent. They were moving in a good direction in terms of risk reduction,” said Andrew Behar, chief executive of As You Sow, a shareholder advocacy group. He said the votes included climate resolutions, political spending and racial justice.

Now, Behar says, BlackRock seems to be reevaluating its approach.

“It seems to me like BlackRock is seeing voting as a liability,” Behar said.

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