Asset management firms have their fingers in a lot of pies. BlackRock, the world’s largest, has several alumni in the White House. BlackRock, Vanguard, and State Street jointly control 20 percent of the average S&P 500 company. As of March 31, BlackRock was also the largest shareholder in Warrior Met Coal, a fact that led 120 United Mineworkers—whose members at Warrior have been on strike for four months—to swarm the firm’s Manhattan offices last week with scores of supporters. And now, depending on how infrastructure and climate negotiations go, asset management firms could soon be playing a major role in how the world mitigates and adapts to climate change.
Estimates suggest the United States should spend $1 trillion per year through 2030 to decarbonize its national economy. The United Nations found that adapting to climate change could cost the world up to $300 billion per year by 2030, and up to $500 billion per year by 2050. The infrastructure package currently wending its way through Congress—both a bipartisan deal and reconciliation—is meant to be America’s “down payment” on these challenges, although as such it falls catastrophically short. Wall Street, meanwhile, is eager to get a cut both of the current spending and the spending yet to come.
Climate change presents both a public relations and an investment opportunity for asset management firms. BlackRock, in particular, markets itself as being above pedestrian things like legislation and partisan squabbling. As a “universal owner” with investments across every industry, the company has sold itself as a sage steward of not just its own $9.5 trillion worth of assets under management but of the global economy itself. In theory, its range of investments gives it a genuine interest in the health of the planet on which they sit. And in recent years, the company has indeed portrayed itself as a leader on climate-friendly investments.
Major asset managers, however, are mainly concerned with being successful asset managers. The way they treat the problem, senior research fellow Adrienne Buller of the U.K.-based think tank Common Wealth told me, is like this: “What are the risks to your portfolio of this crisis, versus what is the risk that your portfolio is creating?”
Buller and political economist Benjamin Braun, in a recent report on the rise of “asset manager capitalism,” argue that asset managers typically try to minimize their own exposure to climate change. While that might lead them to invest in some clean energy, Buller said, ultimately “it’s about having a risk-adjusted portfolio that can withstand shocks in the best way possible rather than do any work to prevent those shocks.” In other words: Ask not what BlackRock can do for climate policy. Ask what climate policy can do for BlackRock.
BlackRock’s prime directive of bringing more assets under management gives it a set of curious incentives. The fact that so much of its business model is selling institutional investors on a relatively unremarkable set of index funds—products they can buy virtually anywhere else—means that the company has to market itself as offering something else, like a conscience. But the company also needs to deliver returns that can attract more investors. As such it invests in whatever’s profitable at the time, including fossil fuels. BlackRock does not have values. It has customers, and it would like to have more of them. Customers are more important than the rate of return, since the asset management business model is fee-based, and the fees are proportionate to the amount of assets it has under management.
But BlackRock and similar firms also face a problem. “There is more cash floating around the financial system in search of investment opportunities than there are investment opportunities,” Braun told me. “Ours is not a world of capital scarcity but a world where capital is abundant and investment opportunities are scarce.”
This is where the infrastructure package championed by the Biden administration could come in. Like the European Union’s Green Deal, the embattled Bipartisan Infrastructure Package contains plenty of opportunities for new public-private partnerships in everything from clean energy to transportation to broadband and cybersecurity. It leaves the door open, as well, for “asset recycling”—privatizing public assets in exchange for quick cash to pay for other investments.
“One of the most important investments for long-term investors is infrastructure,” Fink told a panel in June. “We have hundreds of billions of dollars in interest to invest in infrastructure. Our biggest difficulty is not capital. Our biggest difficulty is finding the appropriate investments.” And BlackRock would like the U.S. to pass an infrastructure plan that helps with that.
The company has increasingly emphasized its $63 billion real assets division as a source of growth. Its muscular and secretive private equity arm could benefit from investment opportunities created by public spending on climate infrastructure, both here and abroad. In April, BlackRock Renewable Power announced it had raised $4.8 billion to invest in “global climate infrastructure assets”—including energy storage and distribution and electrified transport—across the Americas, Europe, and Asia, having secured the commitments of some 100 institutional investors. In June, the company announced it had raised $1.67 billion for its Global Infrastructure Debt Fund “targeting returns in mid to high single digits,” per Infrastructure Investor.
Last month, BlackRock CEO Larry Fink pitched the idea that the World Bank and International Monetary Fund essentially transform into insurance companies protecting private investors against the risks of investing in a green energy boom. As economist Daniela Gabor has explained, this model amounts to asking the public sector to shoulder the risks of new climate finance while private investors collect the reward, all the while transforming what are or could be truly public infrastructure into stably return-generating assets.
“For BlackRock it’s the dream situation. You get a guaranteed investment in what will be one of the only rapidly growing areas of the economy in the coming years,” Buller said of Fink’s crusade to have governments de-risk green investments. “They can present low risk but also maximize on growth.” At the same time, they can move public assets into private hands and collect the returns.
It’s not that surprising that current political developments are looking good for BlackRock. Through aggressive lobbying, the company won its fight in the U.S. not to be designated a Systemically Important Financial Institution—a post–financial crisis designation for big banks that subjects them to increased regulation—and recruited a stable of Obama administration alums who have now made their way back through the revolving door. National Economic Council Head Brian Deese and Deputy Treasury Secretary Wale Adewale Adeyemo both worked for the gargantuan asset manager before joining the Biden administration. Former BlackRock chief investment strategist Mike Pyle also serves as Vice President Kamala Harris’s chief economic adviser, having been a member of the “shadow government” Fink assembled in the hopes of securing influence over a Hillary Clinton administration.
To some, BlackRock alums’ omnipresence might seem normal—while others might find it considerably more nefarious. What’s certain is that their former employer has fared better in the administration than hopes for comprehensive climate policy.