The BlackRock CEO auditions to be the next Treasury Secretary.
BlackRock CEO Larry Fink is among the world’s most powerful investment managers, but it seems he longs for more influence. To wit, he has assumed a role as self-styled conscience of the business world in telling CEOs how to run their companies.
“We believe that sustainability should be our new standard for investing,” he wrote to clients in his annual letter this week. He added that “all investors—and particularly the millions of our clients who are saving for long-term goals like retirement—must seriously consider sustainability in their investments.”Mr. Fink gets attention because BlackRock is the world’s largest asset manager, with some $7.43 trillion in client assets. He is now threatening to vote against corporate directors and management if they don’t do what he says, and he is especially exercised about climate change. He is demanding that companies disclose climate risks, and wants to see their plans to operate under scenarios in which warming is limited to fewer than two degrees Celsius this century.
Corporations in which BlackRock invests will also have to comply with the rules from a “Sustainability Accounting Standards Board” on issues such as labor practices and workforce diversity. “Disclosure should be a means to achieving a more sustainable and inclusive capitalism,” Mr. Fink writes.
Like his friends at the Business Roundtable, Mr. Fink is big on “stakeholder” capitalism. “Each company’s prospects for growth are inextricable from its ability to operate sustainably and serve its full set of stakeholders,” he says. If he means serving employees, customers, suppliers and communities, he is merely saying what any successful company already does. But our guess is that by stakeholders Mr. Fink really means regulators and politicians.
The giveaway is that Mr. Fink says BlackRock will divest its actively managed funds from corporations that generate 25% or more of their revenues from coal production. “We don’t yet know which predictions about the climate will be most accurate,” Mr. Fink acknowledges, but “even if only a fraction of the projected impacts is realized, this is a much more structural, long-term crisis.”
He might be right, but then estimates of future temperature increases are based on climate models that have overstated warming to date. Mr. Fink wants to make corporations plan for unknown temperature increases as well as climate regulations that are even less certain.
Coal is an easy target since its share of American power is declining. But the International Energy Agency projects that oil and coal demand will stay flat through 2040 and natural gas consumption will increase 40% even if all countries keep the promises they made in the 2015 nonbinding Paris climate accord. The U.S. is predicted to account for 85% of the increase in global oil production over the next decade thanks to shale drilling.
All of which means that fossil fuels still have a long shelf life, especially in developing countries. There are 170 gigawatts of coal-plant capacity under construction across the world, which is more than what currently exists in Europe. So what happens if Mr. Fink’s political and climate predictions prove wrong? His clients will pay the price.
BlackRock is a fiduciary and as such is legally obligated to act in its clients’ best interest. This is ostensibly why BlackRock has voted against more than 80% of the climate resolutions on proxy ballots by activist shareholders. But suddenly Mr. Fink is prioritizing the interests of liberal politicians and pressure groups.
We can’t help but wonder if Mr. Fink, after a profitable life in business, is auditioning to be Treasury Secretary in, say, the Warren Presidency. His “stakeholder” notions sound similar to her plans to put American corporations further under the government’s thumb.
CEOs who take Mr. Fink seriously might note that his political and moral importuning isn’t satisfying progressives. “BlackRock will continue to be the world’s largest investor in coal, oil and gas,” the Sierra Club said in response to Mr. Fink’s letter.
Businesses will never be able to appease the climate absolutists. The best way they can prepare for climate risks and serve their stakeholders is to succeed as a business and create the wealth and broad prosperity that will make the world better able to adapt to whatever happens. That’s real “sustainablility.”
Climate crises, like financial crises, will be damaging, unpredictable and almost impossible to avoid
Last year Australia’s central bank hoped that several interest-rate cuts would mark a turning point for its slowing economy. That was before the worst bushfires in Australia’s history hit tourism, consumer confidence and growth forecasts for this year. There is now a good chance the bank will cut interest rates again soon.
Welcome to a world in which climate change’s economic impact is no longer distant and imperceptible.
- Puerto Rico never fully recovered from Hurricane Maria in 2017.
- Extreme drought in California and poorly maintained utility power lines led to severe wildfires in 2018, the utility’s bankruptcy and blackouts last year.
Climate change can’t be directly blamed for any single extreme weather event, including Hurricane Maria, California’s wildfires or Australia’s bushfires. But it makes such events more likely. “They are starting to be more than tail events, they’re starting to affect economic outcomes,” Robert Kaplan, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, told an economic conference earlier this month.
Climate crises in the next 30 years may resemble financial crises in recent decades:
- potentially quite destructive,
- largely unpredictable and, given the powerful underlying causes,
Climate has muscled to the top of business worries.
Every year, the World Economic Forum asks business, political, academic and nongovernmental leaders to rank the most probable and consequential risks, from cyberattacks to fiscal crises. This year, ahead of its annual meeting next week in Davos, Switzerland, climate-related risks took the five top spots in terms of probability, the first time a single issue had done so in the survey’s 14-year history.The New NormalAs global temperatures rise, extreme temperatures and environmental disasters become more common.Summer temperatures for local regions in the northern hemisphereSTANDARD DEVIATION FROM 115-YEAR AVERAGETHOUSANDS OF OCCURRENCES1961-19802011-2015-4-3-2-10123450102030405060World-wide extreme weather eventsSources: McKinsey Global Institute (temperature distribution), JPMorgan (extreme weather events).events1980’85’90’952000’05’10’150100200300400500600700800900
Of course, economies have always been vulnerable to natural disasters. Before the modern industrial era, crop failures were a leading cause of recession. The monsoon season remains a key economic variable in India, and the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in 2011 tipped Japan into recession.
And while estimates of climate’s economic impact are suffused with uncertainty, they don’t suggest any major economy will be pushed into recession, much less depression.
Studies reviewed by David Mackie of JPMorgan Chase suggest climate change could reduce global gross domestic product by 1% to 7% by 2100, assuming “business as usual” (i.e., absent policies to mitigate emissions of carbon dioxide). Given that the impact is spread out over 80 years, in which per capita incomes probably rise 300% to 400%, even larger climate change impacts would appear small, he said.
Aggregate changes in GDP, though, can be misleading. As global temperatures climb, the probability of extreme temperatures and events and the associated economic consequences should rise more.
This relationship is driven home in a study released Thursday by the McKinsey Global Institute. It estimated that “unusually hot summers” affected 15% of the Northern Hemisphere’s land surface in 2015, up from 0.2% before 1980.
McKinsey estimated that climate change made the European heat wave that in 2019 killed 1,500 in France 10 times more likely and the forest fires that devastated northern Alberta in 2016 up to six times more likely.
Looking ahead, assuming business as usual, McKinsey projected the probability of a 10% drop in wheat, corn, soybean and rice yields in any given year will rise from 6% now to 18% in 2050. Such a change wouldn’t cause food shortages but could cause prices to spike. The probability that a catastrophic cyclone disrupts semiconductor manufacturing in the western Pacific will double or quadruple by 2040. Such an event “could potentially lead to months of lost production for the directly affected companies,” McKinsey said. The probability of rain heavy enough to halt the mining in southeastern China of rare-earth elements, vital to many electronic devices, will rise from 2.5% now to 6% by 2050.
Such an exercise comes with plenty of caveats. The projections make no allowance for adaptation, though no doubt some outdoor activity will move indoors, some businesses will relocate from flood plains, and insurance will cushion the cost for many.
But adaptation goes only so far. Humans can’t survive prolonged high heat and humidity beyond certain thresholds. Those thresholds are rarely met now, but will be reached regularly in some regions by 2050.
Adaptation and insurance may be deemed too costly. “Underinsurance may grow worse as more extreme events unfold, because fewer people carry insurance for them,” McKinsey predicted.
Some on Wall Street are starting to treat climate change the way they regard financial crises. “Climate change is almost invariably the top issue that clients around the world raise with BlackRock,” Chairman and CEO Laurence Fink told chief executives this week in explaining why climate would be a key criterion in how BlackRock Inc. invests its $7 trillion of client money. For businesses, mandates—private or government-driven—pose a risk distinct from climate change itself. Car companies are now spending heavily to market electric vehicles with no assurance they will be profitable.
Some central bankers are also talking about climate risk the way they talk about financial crises. Christine Lagarde, the newly installed European Central Bank president, told European parliamentarians last fall, “At a minimum…[the ECB’s] macroeconomic models must incorporate the risk of climate change.”
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Yet worrying about it isn’t the same as doing something about it. Unlike financial crises, neither Wall Street nor central bankers have the tools to alter the forces making climate crises more likely: rising carbon dioxide emissions and economic development in vulnerable regions. Only political leaders can—and it isn’t clear they will.
The Madrid climate summit in December “is the most recent example of countries failing to cooperate to create a global emissions trading regime,” Mr. Mackie said. “Most likely, business as usual will be the path that policy makers follow in the years ahead…[which] increases the likelihood that the costs of dealing with climate change will go up as action is delayed.”
BlackRock Inc. BLK -0.21% said it would take a tougher stance against corporations that aren’t providing a full accounting of environmental risks, part of a slew of moves by the investment giant to show it is doing more to address investment challenges posed by climate change.
Among the moves, BlackRock said it would be increasingly disposed to vote against management and boards if companies don’t disclose climate change risks and plans in line with key industry standards.
BlackRock is also pulling back from thermal coal producers in actively managed debt-and-equity portfolios by mid-2020, a move that will lead to $500 million in sales. It will expand the range of sustainable investment products as well as double to 150 the number of exchange-traded funds that address environmental, social and governance challenges.
BlackRock is the world’s largest asset manager, with about $7 trillion under management. It has risen on the back of index funds that trade on exchanges and through these funds has extended its reach across nearly every company and is part of the retirement accounts of millions of people around the world. The firm also sits at the backbone of Wall Street as its software is used by banks to monitor their risks.
The firm said it is putting the focus on sustainability because the costs of climate change have ramifications on the price of assets and the financial ecosystem.
“Climate change has become a defining factor in companies’ long-term prospects,” BlackRock Chief Executive Laurence Fink said in his annual letter. “The evidence on climate risk is compelling investors to reassess core assumptions about modern finance.”
The letter is a reflection of Mr Fink’s towering influence over companies. But the letter has rankled some rivals who have sometimes grumbled about what they consider to be a moralistic tone.
The rise of index funds transformed three firms into major forces in corporate America and thrust them into the public spotlight. The biggest—
- Vanguard Group and
- State Street Corp.
—hold roughly a fifth of the S&P 500 through funds they run for investors. They can cast critical votes and have the ears of chief executives. How they exercise this power—or choose not too—has ripple effects across markets.
All three have faced questions over their responsibilities as shareholders on behalf of investors in funds they run. In years past, these firms have targeted gender diversity in boardrooms among other issues.
Lately, there has been increased pressure on them to do more on climate change.
BlackRock’s offices around the world have been frequented by activists who blast the firm for being slow to act on green issues. The firm has debated a question internally: how can BlackRock ensure it has public support to operate in the countries where it does business as it continues to grow?
The firm said it would provide more information on data on the carbon footprint and other potentially controversial holdings in its mutual funds. It also said it would disclose more details of its conversations with the companies its funds invest in. BlackRock also recently said it had joined Climate Action 100+, the world’s largest group of investors by assets pressuring companies to act on climate change.
The moves come as regulators are scrutinizing ESG funds across the asset-management industry in an attempt to determine whether those claims are at odds with reality.
“Over the next few years, one of the most important questions we will face is the scale and scope of government action on climate change, which will generally define the speed with which we move to a low-carbon economy,” Mr. Fink said in his letter.
He added that “while government must lead the way in this transition, companies and investors also have a meaningful role to play.”
Chase Bank, Wells Fargo, Citibank and Bank of America are the worst offenders.
WASHINGTON — If you asked us why a dozen people sat on the floor next to the A.T.M. in a Chase Bank branch on Friday, waiting for the police to arrest us for this small act of civil disobedience, we would come up with the same answer as the famous robber Willie Sutton: “Because that’s where the money is.”
We don’t want to empty the vaults. Instead, we want people to understand that the money inside the vaults of banks like Chase is driving the climate crisis. Cutting off that flow of cash may be the single quickest step we can take to rein in the fossil fuel industry and slow the rapid warming of the earth.
JPMorgan Chase isn’t the only offender, but it is among the worst. In the last three years, according to data compiled in a recently released “fossil fuel finance report card” by a group of environmental organizations, JPMorgan Chase lent over $195 billion to gas and oil companies.
- Wells Fargo lent over $151 billion,
- Citibank lent over $129 billion and
- Bank of America lent over $106 billion.
Since the Paris climate accord, which 195 countries agreed to in 2015, JPMorgan Chase has been the world’s largest investor in fossil fuels by a 29 percent margin.
This investment sends a message that’s as clear as President Trump’s shameful decision to pull America out of that pact: Short-term profits are more important than the long-term health of the planet.
There are few financial institutions untouched by these climate change-causing investments. Amalgamated Bank, Aspiration and Beneficial State Bank are notable exceptions. Local credit unions rarely have major investments in fossil fuels.
JPMorgan Chase, in contrast, has funded the very worst projects — projects that expand the reach of fossil fuel infrastructure and lock in our dependence on fossil fuels for decades to come.
If approved this year, the pipeline will carry 760,000 barrels of crude oil every day from Canada to terminals on the edge of Lake Superior. This project reroutes and expands existing pipelines so that more crude oil can flow to refineries in Minnesota, Ohio, Illinois, Michigan and Ontario.
Tara Houska, a tribal attorney and member of the Couchiching First Nation Anishinaabe, has demonstrated the impacts on the ground. If built, the Line 3 replacement route will endanger the wild rice crops harvested for at least 500 years by the people native to the upper Midwest. Many Ojibwe nations in the region have opposed the project.
But it’s just as damaging if the oil doesn’t spill. Refined and burned as gasoline or jet fuel, it will spew carbon into the air, raising the temperature of the planet.
The victims of climate change are primarily people who have done little to cause the crisis. A World Health Organization senior scientist, Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum, said in December that climate change is emerging as “potentially the greatest risk to human health in the 21st century.” In the same month, Oxfam reported that cyclones, floods and fires are now displacing three times as many people as wars.
Not all the victims of climate change are humans. An estimated 800 million animals have been killed in the Australian blazes, which came after record heat and drought. Neither of us have met a long-nosed potoroo; the news that Australia’s bush fires have likely driven it and other species to extinction makes the world seem poorer.
There’s nothing abstract about climate change any more. Slowing the pace of climate change is humanity’s great task.
One center of power in our world is political — that’s why young people have been demonstrating outside of parliaments, writing a Green New Deal and registering new voters: in the United States, 2020 will be a fateful year for changing the politics of climate.
But even if the most environmental candidates win, it’s hard to imagine that they’ll be able to move our country at the pace science requires. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said that if we want to limit global warming to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius) above preindustrial temperatures, we will have to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, cutting them to net zero by around 2050 — and Washington is only one capitol.
It makes sense to go after the other center of power, too: the vast financial empire centered in our country. Insurance companies like Liberty Mutual and asset managers like BlackRock have also, through their investments in fossil fuels, enabled climate chaos.
These titans may be too big to pressure. Yet if we could get just one offending bank to move toward divesting from fossil fuels, the ripple effects would be both swift and global.
Imagine an announcement from JPMorgan Chase that it was immediately ending funding for new fossil fuel projects. It would echo around the world in hours, and there would be nothing the Trumps or Putins or Bolsonaros of the world could do to stop it.
We sat in and were arrested at Chase Bank on Friday for nothing smaller than the future of our planet. If you care about the climate, it’s worth moving your accounts away from these offenders. Cut up your credit cards.
If you want to stop climate change, follow the money.