Financial advisors can glom onto a new set of data points to bolster their often well-justified skepticism about funds marketing their socially responsible investing.
The investment research company Morningstar recently assembled two reports of statistics to show how often managers of some of the Environmental, Social and Governance-oriented funds have voted in favor of shareholder proposals. Specifically, Morningstar tracked votes on proposals related to greenhouse gas and climate change in the first of its two reports, and on related gender-diversity in its second.
In coming months, Morningstar plans to issue additional reports on fund managers’ voting records on other ESG-related shareholder proposals, according to Madison Sargis, Morningstar’s associate director of quantitative research.
FAs should pay attention to the Morningstar reports not for having standalone value, but for their usefulness in a broader context, says Mark Bateman, head of ESG research at Aperio Group in Sausalito, Calif., which manages $23 billion.
“Looking at an individual proxy vote without evaluating the totality of the approach creates the potential of interpreting actions and inconsistency out of sight of the complete strategy,” Bateman writes in an email. “That said, patterns are important,” he adds.
Morningstar cited BlackRock’s record of voting against shareholder proposals which at first glance appear aligned with their stated investment objectives. But more context is needed to evaluate the behemoth asset management firm’s approach, Bateman concludes.
Specifically, Morningstar reported that the fund managers at BlackRock Impact U.S. Equity (BIRAX) voted against three greenhouse gas and climate-change shareholder proposals -- specifically, resolutions that called for greater greenhouse gas disclosure from Chevron (CVX), Fluor (FLR), and Range Resources (RRC) -- during the 2018 corporate proxy season, according to Morningstar.
But BlackRock’s fund managers’ voting pattern “is indicative of [their] broader approach,” Bateman writes. Their voting record “is consistent with well-telegraphed BlackRock policy of supporting management and engaging directly with the company behind closed doors. Investors need to choose whether they accept BlackRock’s strategy as appropriate, but the voting patterns are consistent with BlackRock’s stated approach,” Bateman adds.
If it occupies a hot seat for voting against shareholder proposals, BlackRock has plenty of company, according to the Morningstar report.
“The BlackRock fund wasn’t alone among other sustainable-investing funds offered by large fund companies that cast votes on behalf of their investors against climate-change-related company proposals. Environmental, social, and governance funds from Vanguard, Fidelity Investments, and TIAA-CREF, among others, cast a number of votes that seemingly conflict with an ESG mandate, including funds specifically aimed at the environment,” concludes the Morningstar report, issued in March and made available only to subscribers.
That across-the-industry trend poses a problem for ESG investors, Bateman concludes. Some fund managers, however, voted for some proposals and against others, possibly “showing a sophistication in their approach and analysis of the companies and the specific resolutions. This could also demonstrate a more nuanced approach than the funds that voted in favor of all of these proposals,” Bateman writes.
Morningstar singled out State Street ETF in its second report in the series, which was issued earlier this month. The report focused on how fund managers voted on gender-diversity shareholder proposals. The State Street managers of a gender-diversity-focused ETF voted in favor of only two of 10 proposals mandating board diversity and pay-equity-related statistical disclosures, Morningstar reported.
In response, a State Street spokesperson emailed a statement to the Wall Street Journal: “Examining our voting record on a set of shareholder proposals that have significant variations in language year over year does not tell the whole story of how we approach this issue. We do not simply consider the topic being addressed in a shareholder proposal when deciding how to vote, rather we vote on a case-by-case basis, taking into account each company’s unique circumstances and the level of disclosure relative to our expectations.”
In general, shareholder activism offers ESG-focused investors an “often overlooked” tool for achieving their goals, concludes Bradford Long, a research director at DiMeo Schneider & Associates in Chicago, which has roughly $12 billion under management.
The two Morningstar reports highlight “that there are many ways to align your values and your investments,” Long adds. “Many investors first and foremost think of their holdings as their primary alignment. They may seek to avoid securities that run counter to their values or own more of securities that best represent their ideals. However, this is not the only form of ESG investing,” he notes. Shareholder engagement is a significant alternative option, he continues. “Whether an investor chooses one or multiple forms of alignment is as much a personal decision as their value set, but they should be aware of the ways they can implement values in their portfolio and the implications of doing so,” he adds.
Expect more reports about ESG fund managers’ voting patterns from Morningstar.
“They’ve been pretty popular,” Sargis says. “We have gotten a lot of interest from asset managers and advisors.”