The CEO of the world’s largest money manager has decided—to much fanfare—to tell corporate America that they must “serve a social purpose” and make a “positive contribution to society.” The spectacular delusion and hypocrisy that enable such a statement to be made is something worth examining for its sheer shock value.
BlackRock invests nearly $6 trillion on behalf of clients around the world. It is, measured by assets under management, the single largest private firm in global capitalism. Its CEO is Larry Fink, who is paid more than $25 million a year. Fink is nominally a Democrat, but more importantly he is a businessman. He has praised Donald Trump for “embracing business,” and his decision to serve on one of Trump’s advisory councils sparked protests at the Museum of Modern Art, where Fink is a board member. (There was also an entire exhibit at the Whitney last year criticizing Fink and BlackRock for perpetuating the cycle of debt among working artists.)
As you can imagine, Larry Fink’s annual letter to the world’s CEOs is taken seriously, given the amount of money that his firm directs. “Since the financial crisis, those with capital have reaped enormous benefits,” Fink writes in this year’s letter. “For millions, the prospect of a secure retirement is slipping further and further away – especially among workers with less education, whose job security is increasingly tenuous.” That much is inarguably true. Inequality is a crisis, and our retirement systems are broken. Fink’s bold prescription, to the shock and awe of Wall Street? An incredibly vague insistence on corporate social responsibility.
We also see many governments failing to prepare for the future, on issues ranging from retirement and infrastructure to automation and worker retraining. As a result, society increasingly is turning to the private sector and asking that companies respond to broader societal challenges. Indeed, the public expectations of your company have never been greater. 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...
Today, our clients – who are your company’s owners – are asking you to demonstrate the leadership and clarity that will drive not only their own investment returns, but also the prosperity and security of their fellow citizens.
This was enough to be described as a “watershed moment on Wall Street.” Fink’s letter is seen as a bold demand from the very highest level of finance that companies consider the good of society as a vital business interest. This seems nice, in the same way that a yellow “Happy Birthday!” balloon seems nice. Cut it open, though, and it turns out to be filled with nothing.
BlackRock is so large that it owns everything. This is not a company that can just go out and put all of its money in Burt’s Bees and Ben & Jerry’s. It owns pieces of every public company that exists. It finds itself in the untenable position of trying to address a systemic problem while being the system. Does BlackRock plan to, for example, divest itself from all fossil fuel companies? Of course not. From all weapons manufacturers? Impossible. From all of the public retail and manufacturing companies that take radical measures to prevent their employees from unionizing even though doing so would get workers better wages and a more secure retirement, which Fink himself claims to want? No. BlackRock is among the biggest owners of tobacco companies and gun companies and gambling companies and private prison companies. If you think that there is any way in the world to transform these companies into forces that make a “positive contribution to society,” you are a fool. And if Larry Fink thinks he can do so, he would be a fool too. He is not a fool. So he must be a Fink.
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Fink’s letter emphasizes the dangers of economic inequality and the lack of a secure retirement plan for most citizens. These conditions exist because of the structure of American capitalism, which by design tends to funnel a disproportionate share of wealth to the ultra-rich people at the very top, and allows those people to protect their disproportionate share of the proceeds of business by buying political power. Nothing that Larry Fink says or does is as material as his conduct as the overseer of a multitrillion-dollar investment firm. So while it sounds nice that Larry wrote a nice letter, Larry also said just days ago that the new Republican tax plan, which will absolutely increase inequality and exacerbate the decline of America’s middle class, will “do wonderful things.” Certainly it will, for CEOs of multitrillion-dollar investment firms. Fink can call for “social purpose” all he wants, but BlackRock will not jeopardize its own returns, which means that ultimately BlackRock stands on the side of a system in which capital takes the maximum amount of wealth at the expense of labor. The rest is just PR.
If Larry Fink really wanted to change the nature of inequality in America, it would mean making a commitment to change the nature of the system that has made him the powerful man that he is today. He might, for example, use his considerable wealth and institutional influence to help enact changes in our nation’s tax code that were the exact opposite of the sort of changes that the Republican Party just enacted. In fact, BlackRock has its own political action committee. In 2016, it gave most of its money to Republicans.