Bringing the retail investor into engagement
Pushing retail investors into the historical territory of institutional capital could transform the relationship between boards and shareholders.
It has been over a year since BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, launched “Voting Choice”, a service that allows asset owners to have direct contact with the voting decisions at companies in which their money is invested. Nowhere is this contact more critical than in the world of climate engagement.
In a letter in November 2022 to clients and CEOs, BlackRock CEO Larry Fink framed it as a point of transformation in shareholder capitalism. “I am convinced,” Fink wrote, “that Voting Choice has the power to transform the relationship between asset owners and companies”.
With this service, BlackRock is pushing shareholder democracy into new terrain: the pool of eligible clients will be wider, the voting guidelines more expansive and, in the case of a few mutual funds in the UK, BlackRock says it will extend the service to individual investors.
The latter is perhaps the most significant change, particularly when it comes to climate change. Executed at scale, it brings individual investors closer to the corporate table, effectively challenging the status quo of proxy voting. As the 2023 proxy voting season draws closer, it is worth asking: does the status quo need a challenge?
Investors will demand a voice
One might argue, as Fink did in his letter, that the key benefit of bringing the retail investor to the table is that it meets a market demand – individuals want to have a say in companies whose stock they might hold. “The next generation of investors will increasingly demand to be heard”, Fink stated, as he defended the decision to democratise shareholder value.
There is a kernel of truth to that. In 2019, a group of German researchers studied the investment decisions of 953 European retail investors and found that climate information in financial products was a “powerful nudge”. Individual investors react to climate-related information. They are interested in the environmental footprint of their holdings.
Further, retail investors are a sizeable chunk of shareholder democracy: in the US, research suggests that they account for an average of 26% of outstanding equity. Their preferences and how they choose to express them are therefore consequential.
If the information matters enough, the retail market is unlikely to be content with the “sitting on the sidelines” approach of the status quo. A voice that has formed, will demand to be heard. This demand is likely to grow in intensity as climate change becomes the central tenet of public discourse.
Dispersed and apathetic investors?
Engaging with a company on its climate performance, requires both time and technical knowledge. Sifting through a company’s emissions data, figuring out its alignment with the Paris Accord and trying to estimate the financial effects of climate risk are complex tasks. Which is why the investment industry’s approach to this has been – leave it to the experts and reward those that do it well.
Asset managers invest in their stewardship teams to professionalise this process on behalf of asset owners. Coalitions like the Net-Zero Asset Managers initiative have rallied the industry around this goal.
It is therefore fair to ask: will a retail investor have the time and expertise that stewardship needs? Some might, others might not. A group of legal experts from the US argue that retail investors by their very nature are “dispersed and rationally apathetic, unable to effectively monitor firms”.
“We need to be realistic about how much time individuals will spend on corporate governance. Who would expect a typical individual to wade through thousands of proxy questions every year?” wrote Fink.
Innovation at scale
Perhaps the most challenging piece of the puzzle is the logistics of making this happen. Getting a multitude of individuals to the corporate ballot is an arduous endeavour. It needs innovation at a systemic scale.
According to Fink, the entire value chain of proxy voting would need to adapt – the regulator would need new rules of the game, the asset managers need to change their offering and technological innovation would need to make voting “as easy to do so as it is to buy a mutual fund or ETF on your mobile phone today”.
These are the same set of constraints that have hitherto limited proxy voting to the asset management and institutional investor universe.
The 2023 proxy voting follows a path-breaking 2022 season and is set within a context of climate risks dominating the concerns of boards and shareholders alike. It may very well be a transformative moment in shareholder democracy. Particularly if the gears of the asset owner/asset manager relationship are shifting.
Atharva Deshmukh is Net Zero Investor’s head of research.