Is Goldman Sachs’ new fund really just greenwashing stocks? | Tech Industry
When Goldman Sachs and billionaire Paul Tudor Jones announced a partnership three months ago to help socially conscious investors support “just business behavior”, they promised that their new index fund would generate solid returns for savers while directing their investment dollars towards truly humane companies.
“Capitalism should be a positive force for change,” said Jones in a press release announcing the fund, which is designed to track an index of socially responsible companies identified by his non-profit Just Capital. “Its future will be driven by a new definition of corporate success that is aligned with the values and priorities of the public.”
The partnership comes as pension funds, university endowments and other institutional investors increasingly seek to put their financial weight behind ethical and sustainable corporate behavior. So far, the rebrand seems to be working: The Just fund debuted in June to rave reviews from the financial press and ended its first day of trading with over $250m in assets, making its launch one of the most successful in recent history.
However, a Capital & Main review of corporate documents shows that some of Just’s largest investments are in fossil fuel firms that have been sued for suppressing global climate research, Wall Street behemoths fined for defrauding investors, a social media platform accused of helping rig elections and a tech industry giant criticized for paying its workers starvation wages.
Moreover, proxy voting records reveal that even as Goldman Sachs now markets itself as a champion of social responsibility, the firm has been using its existing stakes in many Just fund companies to help CEOs block key environmental and social justice reforms proposed by their shareholders. Those initiatives range from gender pay gap and diversity initiatives to corporate governance reforms; from efforts to increase lobbying transparency to prohibitions on doing business with companies tied to genocide and other human rights violations.
Meanwhile, in the months before Just fund’s launch, Goldman was slammed for blocking a human rights resolution at its own company – and one of Goldman’s key lobbying groups in Washington was working to shape Republican legislation that would make it far more difficult for shareholders to file environmental, human rights and other socially minded initiatives in the future.
“You shouldn’t be able to, with a straight face, invest in the Dakota Access Pipeline with your left hand, and with your right hand tell people that you’re doing responsible investing,” Lisa Lindsley, Capital Markets Advisor for the shareholder advocacy group SumOfUs, told Capital & Main. “The compartmentalization is very hypocritical.”
Through a spokesperson, Goldman Sachs declined to comment on the process by which its equity funds vote on shareholder proposals, and how that process may differ with the Just fund – which, as a newly launched fund, has not yet participated in proxy voting for any of the companies in which it holds stock.
‘Ethically motivated versus a more greenwashing approach’
Goldman’s new fund spotlights socially responsible investing (SRI) – a financial strategy that represents Wall Street’s more affirmative answer to negative or exclusionary “screening” tactics like divestment from fossil fuel producers and tobacco firms.
While a recent directive by the Trump administration has been viewed by some experts as an effort to limit SRI strategies, the market for such investments remains strong. According to the Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment, US-based assets managed using SRI strategies more than doubled to $8.7tn between 2012 and 2016, and now account for more than one in five dollars under professional management in the country.
The rise in SRI investment comes amid questions about whether corporate boards are adequately evaluating environmental and social justice concerns when they look at their company’s long-term financial prospects. PwC’s 2017 survey of corporate officials found “that directors are clearly out of step with investor priorities in some critical areas” and the report added that “one of these areas is environmental issues”.
High-profile initiatives like the Just fund are a chance for the industry to tout its eagerness, as Goldman Sachs executive Timothy O’Neill put it in a press release, to “[allow] investment to flow toward a more sustainable and equitable future, while seeking to generate attractive returns for investors”.
The trend has given Wall Street an opportunity for an image makeover in a time of growing public distrust in the financial system: According to a Gallup poll conducted last month, fewer than half of Americans under 30 report having a positive view of capitalism, a 12-point drop in just the past two years.
For some activists and investors, though, the rapid expansion of the market for SRI-branded financial products has raised concerns about greenwashing – the practice by which companies market themselves as socially or environmentally responsible without actually adopting business practices that meet those goals.
“Putting the word ‘ethical’ or ‘sustainable’ in the name of a fund does not make it so,” said a report by British investment advisory firm Castlefield, whose recent reports documented how some environmental funds include investments in fossil fuel firms. “It is increasingly important to differentiate between those funds genuinely responding to customer demand for a sustainable approach and those which use terms like ethical, Socially Responsible Investment or stewardship in their name but include companies such as British American Tobacco or Shell in their key holdings.”
Goldman’s record on socially responsible investing
Amid surging interest in SRI funds, Goldman’s Just US Large Cap Equity ETF aims to convince investors that the company is serious about injecting a spirit of ethics and morality into its financial strategies. To that end, the fund says it directs money only into companies that are ranked highly by Just Capital.
The 426 companies featured in the Just index were selected on the basis of their performance across seven different criteria, including labor practices, customer service and environmental impacts. Goldman itself ranks in the top tenth of the Just rankings, despite the company being attacked for supporting the fossil fuel industry and also being fined $5bn in 2016 by the Department of Justice for “serious misconduct in falsely assuring investors that securities it sold were backed by sound mortgages, when it knew that they were full of mortgages that were likely to fail”.
Whether Goldman’s new Just fund represents a step in a larger shift towards socially responsible investment remains to be seen. Baruch College’s Jared Peifer says that one way to judge a firm’s commitment to social responsibility is to watch how it deals with resolutions brought by shareholders, whereby investors attempt to force management to adopt socially responsible policies.
“There is variance to the degree that SRI funds are ethically motivated versus a more greenwashing approach,” Peifer said. “Is the fund dialoguing with management? Issuing shareholder proxy votes, voting on others? If so, that seems like a more ethically motivated fund to me, because they are exerting additional effort many other funds do not bother with.”
In recent years, Goldman executives have been fighting off SRI resolutions at their own company, including initiatives that have asked management to more transparently disclose their political lobbying and create a human rights committee to review the company’s policies regarding doing business with governments engaged in censorship and repression. Only three months before Goldman announced the Just fund, Goldman successfully pressed the Securities and Exchange Commission to bless its move to block shareholders from voting on a resolution asking the company to honor indigenous peoples’ rights.
“The company’s extraordinary no action request shows the notable lengths that the company is willing to go, and to stretch credulity, in order to prevent its directors from shouldering fiduciary obligations on indigenous and human rights,” wrote shareholder proponents at the time.
Last year, Goldman was lauded by Share Action, an SRI activist group, for switching its position and using its holdings to support a series of climate-change-related shareholder initiatives. In its proxy voting guidelines, Goldman says it will generally vote for proposals asking companies to report on “policies, initiatives and oversight mechanisms related to environmental sustainability, or how the company may be impacted by climate change”.
However, those guidelines do not make the same commitment when it comes to initiatives requiring companies to actually reduce their carbon emissions. The guidelines also say the company will generally vote against “proposals requesting increased disclosure of a company’s policies with respect to political contributions”. The company further says it will vote to remove representatives of employees or organized labor from a company’s board if they are overseeing company audits or executive compensation, and if there is no legal requirement for them to be in that position.
Goldman votes against resolutions at Just fund companies
Goldman’s hostility toward many SRI initiatives is illustrated by its votes on resolutions at the companies now in its Just fund.
For example, there is Chevron Corporation, which ranks as the Just fund’s 17th-largest holding as it faces accusations that it is trying to intimidate environmentalists and avoid cleaning up pollution in the Amazon rainforest.
In May, the oil giant’s shareholders were asked to vote on a slate of seven proposals, including a requirement for the company’s board to nominate a director with environmental experience; the preparation of a report on transitioning to a low-carbon business model; increased transparency relating to lobbying activities; and stronger prohibitions on Chevron’s interests overseas from doing business with governments that are complicit in genocide or crimes against humanity.
As shareholders in Chevron, 14 different Goldman Sachs Asset Management (GSAM) funds voted on these proposals. The majority of funds voted in support of just one, a request for the company to prepare a report on its efforts to minimize methane emissions. In every other case, the funds unanimously or overwhelmingly opposed the proposals.
Proxy-voting records from dozens of shareholder meetings reviewed by Capital & Main show a similar pattern. In rare cases, Goldman funds did vote in favor of some shareholder reforms, including the preparation of a report on the gender pay gap at Facebook and Google. At several pharmaceutical companies, including AbbVie, Amgen and Eli Lilly, Goldman funds supported increased accountability for executives regarding high drug prices.
Such votes, however, were few and far between. Of the 10 companies that make up the largest share of Goldman’s Just fund, eight considered shareholder-proposed reforms that were overwhelmingly opposed by Goldman-managed funds at their most recent annual meetings. The proposals included prohibitions on offshore tax avoidance schemes, increased transparency on lobbying activities and requirements that companies appoint an independent board chair – a governance model that advocates say leads to more responsible corporate behavior. The remaining two companies, Microsoft and Visa, did not consider any shareholder proposals.
At JPMorgan, the recipient of Just’s fourth-largest investment, Goldman funds voted unanimously against a requirement for the company to release a report on its investments in PetroChina, a firm that activists accuse of helping to fund crimes against humanity due to its ongoing business relationships with oppressive regimes in Syria and Sudan. Goldman made that move despite its own proxy voting guidelines saying the company would “generally vote for proposals requesting a report on company or company supplier labor and/or human rights standards and policies, or on the impact of its operations on society”.
Eighteen of the 19 Goldman funds with shares in JPMorgan also voted against an effort to prohibit the accelerated vesting of awards for executives who enter government service, a practice often criticized for fueling the revolving door between Wall Street and financial regulators.
A shareholder proposal to the board of pharmaceutical manufacturer Johnson & Johnson, expressing concern that the company’s compensation practices “may insulate senior executives from legal risks” relating to the opioids crisis, recommended that opioid-related litigation costs be factored into executive pay. All 16 Goldman funds with stock in Johnson & Johnson voted to defeat the proposal.
Goldman asserts that its fund is designed to invest in firms that rank well in Just Capital’s ratings. But even that assertion is not what it seems.
Because the index features companies ranked in the top half of their respective industries, it includes dozens of firms in sectors like energy and financial services that score poorly overall. For example, the fund invests in both National Oilwell Varco, a drilling equipment firm, and Entergy, a Louisiana utility, despite the fact that the companies rank 626th and 676th, respectively, among the 875 companies evaluated by Just Capital.
“Every industry is represented at approximately the same weight as [in] the Russell 1000,” said Just Capital’s Hernando Cortina, referring to the best-known index fund tracking the largest publicly traded companies. Cortina added that the Just fund is designed to feature responsible companies “while providing diversified equity exposure to every industry”.
Lisa Lindsley of SumOfUs said the situation spotlights how socially responsible investing is seen on Wall Street not as a values-based cause, but as yet another way to trick investors into believing that the investment industry has reformed itself a decade after the financial crisis.
“The reason they’re going into this is that there’s money there. It’s all driven by greed,” she said. “It’s pretty easy to do some greenwashing and call yourself a responsible investment manager.”
As Goldman now markets its Just fund, it remains unclear whether the company will change its proxy voting or its posture towards shareholder resolutions in general. Those resolutions, though, could be more rare, if congressional Republicans pass their legislation that would make it more difficult for shareholder resolutions to qualify for a vote. Federal records show that the American Bankers Association – which lists Goldman Sachs as a member – has been lobbying on that bill, which critics say could undermine the SRI movement.
“Shareholder proposals play an important role in ensuring that owners get a say in how their companies are run, and in setting the broader agenda across the market,” wrote Dimitri Zagoroff of the shareholder advisory firm Glass Lewis. “Making it harder for shareholder proposals to be resubmitted from year to year would make it that much harder for proponents to refine their ideas and build a coalition of support. This often takes several years, both to generate interest in the underlying topic, and to convince other shareholders that the specific proposal offers the appropriate means of addressing the topic.”
Co-published by Capital & Main, a non-profit investigative news site based in Los Angeles.