FOR those who want to delve beyond the soundbites and into who actually is driving the economic, political and social forces, a less well-known name has come to the fore in recent months. During the last decade or so we’ve become familiar with the World Economic Forum, Common Purpose and George Soros’s Open Society Foundation, amongst others. Now we have BlackRock, but what exactly is BlackRock?
Based in New York City, BlackRock is a major investment asset corporation, said to have more than 10trillion dollars under its management and owning stakes in more than 14,000 companies worldwide. Since its foundation 34 years ago, it has grown into the world’s largest financial adviser, with millions of people invested in the stock market via its index-tracking funds.
It is BlackRock’s political ties, influence and involvement which have proved contentious. These include its involvement with the US Federal Reserve both during the 2008 banking crisis and assisting with US Central Bank bond purchasing during the 2020 Covid crisis. The firm counsels heads of state, central banks and financial institutions in times of crisis. It has recently held video conferences with President Zelensky of Ukraine, having offered its services ‘pro bono’ regarding investment sources for the rebuilding of the country.
BlackRock’s website boldly proclaims its commitment to ‘corporate sustainability’, ‘investment stewardship’ and ‘sustainable investing’. Major clients are the European Central Bank, the Greek government, the Vatican and big US banks and other financial institutions, including Citibank, State Street and American Express.
The firm’s CEO, Californian Larry Fink, proclaimed in 2019 that corporations and their CEOs must actively take the lead when governments fail to address social and political issues. To that end, BlackRock has been actively severing its ties with the fossil fuel industry. Earlier this year Fink wrote an open letter to the CEOs of the businesses in which his clients have stakeholdings, stating he expected to see a ‘decarbonising’ of the global economy and that ‘access to capital is not a right. It is a privilege. And the duty to attract that capital in a responsible and sustainable way lies with you’. He further asserted that businesses were expected to play a role in ‘decarbonising the global economy’ and that few things will impact capital allocation decisions – and thereby the long-term value of companies – more than how effectively they navigated the global energy transition in the years ahead.
This letter has led to a major falling out between BlackRock and a number of American states, with 19 state attorneys accusing BlackRock of actively pressuring companies to phase out fossil fuels to the detriment of states which depend on the oil-and-gas industry. From the other side of the debate, New York City’s comptroller suggested BlackRock was retreating from its climate promises. BlackRock has publicly denied it is hostile to the energy sector and says it is being used as a political punch bag.
The firm has announced its full support for ongoing diversity commitments, declaring in December 2021 that it wants US companies to aim for corporate boards that are 30 per cent diverse, including a minimum of two women and at least one member from an ‘under-represented group’.
BlackRock is heavily involved in the charity sector, managing over £4.5billion for more than 3,000 UK charities alone. ‘Sustainability’, food security and renewable energy rank very highly in their priorities in that sector.
The role of BlackRock in the recent selling off of derivatives by UK pension funds, said to be behind the triggering of a fall in sterling following the ill-fated Kwasi Kwarteng mini-Budget, is an intriguing one. BlackRock executives would defend their actions by stating they were merely protecting clients who were financially overcommitted in that sector and that pension fund managers ought to have known the risks involved in leveraged investment strategies in the first place, and that there is far more to that type of riskier investment than just following trends. Either way the political fallout was profound, triggering a chain of events which led to the fall of Prime Minister Liz Truss. BlackRock executive defends pensions strategy that fuelled UK crisis
A business with the financial resources of BlackRock will naturally attract well-connected people to its payroll. People such as Rupert Harrison, chief of staff to Chancellor George Osborne from 2006 to 2015. An opponent of Brexit, he tweeted in July 2017 that ‘the rest of Europe is booming and we’re not’.
Intriguingly, Harrison is now one of new Chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s most senior advisers. On the surface, Hunt seemed to have been parachuted in from nowhere, having failed in two leadership elections and spending more than two years on the back benches, yet from the moment he was appointed he already had a highly expert team, including Harrison, ready to start at once and acting promptly with great self-assurance as though he knew he already had the backing of those who really matter.
Given Harrison’s declared hostility to Brexit and BlackRock’s opposition to fossil fuels it will be interesting to observe both the direction dealings with the EU take and how long the short-lived Truss administration’s aim of allowing new shale gas and oil licences lasts under the new administration, especially after several years of such licences being actively discouraged in Westminster and Whitehall. Those of us with a long-term record of supporting Brexit and who can see and fear the consequences of the switch away from fossil fuel sources can only despair.
(My sources for this article include the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, Wikipedia, Twitter, Financial News and most importantly, BlackRock’s own website, blackrock.com)