BlackRock - throwing down the gauntlet
Investors are becoming more vocal in their requests for disclosure of climate risk
BlackRock have made it clear to companies that they will be engaging with companies on an ongoing basis and will not hesitate to exercise their rights through voting
This is an issue that boards must consider as part of ongoing strategic discussions
BlackRock is a big player in investment. As of 31 December 2017, they had almost $6.3 trillion (USD) of assets under management. They have shareholdings in some of the biggest companies in the world. Recently as part of their own strategy for investor responsibility, they have been using that shareholder power to advance the cause of disclosure of climate risk.
One interesting example of this is what happened at the ExxonMobil AGM in 2017, where the shareholder resolution introduced by the New York State Comptroller to "publish an assessment of portfolio risks under a 2 degree scenario" was passed, largely due to the efforts of BlackRock and Vanguard - against the wishes of the ExxonMobil board. Since that time, ExxonMobil - in a US securities filing - committed to provide shareholders with information on "energy demand sensitivities, implications of two degree scenarios, and positioning for a low carbon future". No detail yet on the timeline of this disclosure so no doubt observers will be keeping a close eye on what they are doing.
It's clear that BlackRock as a company hold a significant amount of power and are willing to use it. In their Investment Stewardship Priorities for 2017/18 they stated;
“As a long-term investor, we are willing to be patient with companies when our engagement affirms they are working to address our concerns. However, our patience is not infinite—when we do not see progress despite ongoing engagement, or companies are insufficiently responsive to our efforts to protect the long-term economic interests of our clients, we will not hesitate to exercise our right to vote against management recommendations.”
Their focus is on engagement to achieve an outcome in line with what they see as priorities for their investments. As part of this engagement, Larry Fink (CEO of BlackRock) issued an open letter to CEOs in January 2018 (https://www.blackrock.com/corporate/en-no/investor-relations/larry-fink-ceo-letter). This letter details what BlackRock sees as priorities for the boards of the companies in which they invest. Obviously the overall aim for BlackRock is sustainable, long-term growth in their investments though they see that as more than just financial performance. The letter stresses the importance of social license to operate to long term survival of a company. To quote the letter:
"Society is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose. To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society. Companies must benefit all of their stakeholders, including shareholders, employees, customers, and the communities in which they operate."
An interesting development is some of the narrative that is provides about stock exchange indices. Previously, investors such as BlackRock would engage with companies and, if they weren't satisfied that their concerns were being addressed, they could divest. Nowadays, BlackRock is utilising index funds more. In this case, divestment does not work in de-risking their investments as the company in question is still part of the index. To address this, BlackRock have committed to use their power as shareholders and voters to step up engagement with these companies. They are reframing the way in which they engage with companies such that engagement is a year long conversation about the long term strategy of a company. To support the increase in engagement, BlackRock intend to double the size of their investment stewardship team over the next three years.
Now Larry Fink's letter to CEOs is not specifically targeting climate change as one of the risks facing companies, rather it's a broad letter that seeks to change the way boards view what they consider to be good performance. Their request is that companies publicly detail their strategic framework for long term value creation and explicitly state that the board reviews and approves it. They will continue to engage with companies and exercise their voting rights to ensure these public responses are adequate. Climate change risk disclosure however, is very important to BlackRock as a company. This is evidenced by the fact that they are a member of the Task Force for Climate Related Financial Disclosure (TCFD) and helped to prepare the framework that was published in 2017. In addition, there are reports that BlackRock sent letters to approximately 120 companies in which BlackRock is invested who have material exposure to climate risk. These letters encouraged disclosure of climate risk according to the TCFD framework. Specifically, the letters requested that companies assess the TCFD recommendations and provide an indication of how their current reporting aligns with them, whether they intend to adopt the recommendations and what obstacles they foresee in implementing the recommendations. This is a firm example of the sorts of engagement discussed in the Larry Fink's open letter.
The conclusion is that consideration of climate risk, and disclosure of exposure to those risks is increasingly an issue that must be discussed at board level. Climate change has long moved beyond an issue for the environmental team to deal with and must be considered to be a critical part of business strategy. BlackRock is an influential investor and it's just a matter of time before others in the mainstream investment industry follow suit.