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BlackRock Faces $2 Billion Hit as DeSantis Escalates ESG Fight

Dec. 2, 2022, 12:00 PM

Florida is pulling about $2 billion from BlackRock Inc. in the largest anti-ESG withdrawal announced by a US state, as Republicans ramp up their fight against the world’s largest money manager.

BlackRock wasn’t aware of the decision until reading about it Thursday in a statement from Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis. In a video posted the day before the announcement, Patronis said financial firms should brace for more actions by the state’s Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, who campaigned for re-election on his so-called anti-woke agenda as he gears up for a possible presidential run.

Florida becomes at least the sixth state divesting from New York-based BlackRock, Wall Street’s biggest champion of environmental, social and governance investing.

“We keep seeing action at a rapid pace and it seems to be escalating,” Joshua Lichtenstein, a partner at law firm Ropes & Gray’s ESG practice, said in an interview on Thursday. “It seems like a state which had already taken significant anti-ESG action is going even further.”

In all, 19 attorneys general from states largely with GOP-dominated governments, including Arizona, Kentucky and West Virginia, have lashed out at BlackRock for pursuing a “climate agenda,” at odds, they allege, with generating returns for state pensions. Louisiana and Missouri are among states that have also pulled money from the asset manager.

Read more: Onetime Trump Appointee Helps Spark Sweeping ESG Backlash

“Using our cash to fund BlackRock’s social-engineering project isn’t something Florida ever signed up for,” Patronis said in the statement. “It’s got nothing to do with maximizing returns and is the opposite of what an asset manager is paid to do.”

BlackRock, which oversees $8 trillion globally, was “surprised” by Florida’s decision given the strong returns it has produced for state taxpayers over the past five years, spokesperson Ed Sweeney said. “Neither the CFO nor his staff have raised any performance concerns,” he said.

UBS Downgrade

Pressure is building on BlackRock to stem the outflows. An analyst at UBS AG downgraded the asset manager’s stock rating in October, partly because its “early and energetic” portrayal of itself as a champion of ESG made the firm a political target.

Chief Executive Officer Larry Fink this week said he’s been working to counter criticism from across the political spectrum for BlackRock’s support of sustainable investing. Republicans have retaliated against his firm’s embrace of what they’ve described as “woke” capitalism, while Democrats and environmental activists have targeted BlackRock for investing in fossil-fuel producers.

To help stem the backlash, BlackRock said it had picked Mark McCombe for a new role as vice chairman focusing on telling “BlackRock’s story to more stakeholders across the US, specifically at the state level,” according to an Oct. 3 memo.

Against that backdrop, BlackRock poured record amounts of money into US political campaigns this year. Fink said Wednesday that he has been spending a lot of time in Washington to “correct the narrative.”

The state treasury will immediately have Florida’s custody bank freeze about $1.43 billion worth of long-term securities and remove BlackRock as the manager of approximately $600 million worth of short-term overnight investments, Patronis said Thursday.

DeSantis Escalates

Pulling back from BlackRock is the latest step in a broader strategy orchestrated by DeSantis of clashing with corporations for their embrace of ESG values. Back in August, DeSantis passed a resolution calling for state funds to be invested without considering the “ideological agenda” of the ESG movement.

Patronis took the governor’s guidance and acted against BlackRock.

“The CFO heard the governor loud and clear and accordingly acted to divest state treasury funds from ESG-focused BlackRock,” Bryan Griffin, the governor’s press secretary, said.

The move follows other similar clashes with corporate giants, such as PayPal Holdings Inc. and Walt Disney Co.

DeSantis is seen as a key rival of Donald Trump for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. The governor won a landslide re-election victory in November promising to battle what he called “woke ideology” being promoted by Wall Street banks, asset managers and big-tech companies in Florida.

Read more: ‘Anti-Woke’ DeSantis Mixes Politics, Money in Florida Pensions

BlackRock still manages about $13 billion for Florida’s State Board of Administration, which invests for the Florida Retirement System Pension Plan and more than 25 other state funds, according to an SBA spokeswoman. The Florida Department of Financial Services manages approximately $60 billion in taxpayer money.

“This feels like a political determination, not the deliberative determination you’d expect a fiduciary to make,” Lichtenstein said.

--With assistance from Neil Weinberg, Shelly Hagan and Michael Smith.

To contact the reporters on this story:
Saijel Kishan in New York at skishan@bloomberg.net;
Danielle Moran in New York at dmoran21@bloomberg.net;
Felipe Marques in Miami at fmarques10@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story:
Elizabeth Campbell at ecampbell14@bloomberg.net

Tal Barak Harif

© 2022 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Used with permission.