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Each year, BlackRock’s Chairman and CEO, Larry Fink, writes a letter to CEOs on behalf of our clients. On this episode of The Bid, Larry discusses how the events of 2020 shaped his thinking in developing this year’s letter, why “net zero” will reshape the economy and why companies driven by purpose will thrive moving forward.

  • MARY CATHERINE LADER: Welcome to The Bid, where we break down what’s happening in the markets and explore the forces changing investing. I’m your host, Mary-Catherine Lader. 32 years ago, BlackRock’s Chairman and CEO, Larry Fink, rallied seven other people to found a small bond firm. Since the Financial Crisis, Larry began an annual tradition of writing a letter to CEOs in our capacity as a shareholder on behalf of our clients – the institutions and individuals who invest in companies to achieve their financial goals.

    Over the last few years, the letters have addressed how our world is changing, like the rise of populism, but also how it might change for the better, such as through stakeholder capitalism. Last year’s letter called on CEOs to prepare for a shift and reallocation of capital due to climate change. And so, on this special episode, Larry joins us to talk about the events of 2020 developed this year’s letter and why net zero will reshape the economy.

    Larry, thanks so much for coming on The Bid.

    LARRY FINK: It’s great to be here. Great to be in the office today.

    MARY CATHERINE LADER: Exactly. So, before we dive in on this year’s letter, let’s take a step back. Can you just share why you write these letters each year?

    LARRY FINK: That’s a long story, but I started writing the letters because A, it was an epiphany about what we did when we acquired BGI.

    MARY CATHERINE LADER: And BGI, meaning Barclays Global Investors, which we acquired in 2009.

    LARRY FINK: Yes, and all of a sudden, we became one of the top two largest investors in equities in the world, and a high percentage of those assets were in index assets. And indexation is the ultimate of long termism, because you own these companies’ stocks forever, as long as they’re in an index. And you can’t sell these stocks as long as they’re in an index. And so the only component where you have some role and responsibility is in the power of your vote. And it came to me that it is even more important for us to effectuate a corporate action or corporate behavior through the vote, because we can’t sell the shares if we don’t like the company or their behaviors. And so, the power of our vote became very enlarged. Two, spending time looking at the financial media. And reading the financial media, the conversations were all about the moment; it’s all about the ups and downs of the market. And as I said as an indexer, we are the ultimate long-term investor, but then importantly too, two-thirds of all the assets we manage at BlackRock are for retirement savings1. And I was becoming more sickened by watching the narrative, markets going up or down, what does it mean with one country doing this or that? And the reality is for the majority of investors, the ups and downs of today or this week or this month have very little bearing on the outcome 30, 40 years for a retirement. And so, the beginnings of the letters, 2012 now, were about long-termism and why we need to reorient ourselves away from short term behaviors to long-term behaviors. And that evolved from focusing on long-term behaviors, focusing on long-term outcomes like retirement but also trying to change the narrative. What are the contributions of a company that can create good, durable, long-term outcomes? And the whole concept of corporate stewardship and stakeholder capitalism became much more part of what I thought was the responsibilities of management teams and boards. And it just became more and more clear, we have more than a shareholder as our stakeholders. We all have multiple stakeholders that we have to work with and for. And one of the major components for me – I didn’t write this as somebody who is just writing letters to companies who we invest in. I was actually writing from the lens of a CEO of a public company. And I was writing it and trying to invoke, what are my responsibilities are as a CEO of public company? And then I focused on okay, what are my responsibilities in terms of my stakeholders, the employees at BlackRock? Our clients? And then much it has to do with the whole concept – this occurred over the last four years – this whole concept that deglobalization. My whole career, but prior to that was all about globalization and the positive nature of what globalization can bring to the world and humanity. And that became thrown out with this whole idea of deglobalization. And that just raised the whole concept of you are a stakeholder of your community. And if you are a multinational company like BlackRock, we have not just many communities here in the United States, but if we’re going to earn the license to operate in all the different countries where we work, we BlackRock, we have to have that license in every country. And so that is when I started really focusing on the needs of stakeholder capitalism on behalf of our shareholders at BlackRock but on behalf of us as a shareholder in every other company. And I get excited when I start thinking about what I’m going to write about in the fall, and I get excited about what are the issues that are bothering me? What are the issues that I think are important? And most people think I’d come up with something original, but I don’t think anything is original. I can tell you, I get all these ideas from our clients! And that’s what is so wonderful about the responsibilities and role we have. We have all of these incredible conversations with clients throughout the United States, throughout the world. And it’s through these conversations, and I hear what’s on their mind, I’m just putting all of those thoughts on paper and I’m trying to evoke what I’m hearing, what I feel, what I see, I put up in my own words and feelings. But it is through that process that it all comes together.

    MARY CATHERINE LADER: Well, in 2020, you had no shortage of material to choose from. You engaged with clients at a rapid pace, even more than usual, particularly during the tumultuous markets in March and April. Between the struggle over racial injustice, obviously the pandemic, the U.S. elections, there were so many short-term events, there were so many headlines – focusing on the long-term was particularly challenging. So, last fall, as you sat down to write this year’s letter, how did the events of 2020 shape what you wanted to talk about?

    LARRY FINK: Well, let me start off, 2020 was shaped – a lot of it – from the fall of 2019 when it was through the conversations and the consecutive conversations I had about why sustainability was becoming important. And more and more clients were asking for it. So that letter was published in January 2020 and we talked about climate change as investment risk; and that was probably the major theory behind it, and why we believe this is going to be a tectonic shift in how we think and how we invest. 2020, obviously, when we started the year, we were aware of this rising virus in China and other parts of Asia by January/February, but when March rolled around and it became very real that it was not just a pandemic in a few countries, it was a global pandemic. And that, again, shaped everything we do and everything we did. And we still are being shaped by this existential risk of health and security. And we all now have experienced a vast change in how we live, how we work, how we are educated, how we are receiving medicine and medical advice, on and on and on. So, the year has changed quite dramatically, but through that year, though, we’ve seen blessings of humanity and we’ve seen terrors of humanity. We have learned to work and operate. We have learned, as I said, to consume information differently, to consume products and purchase things differently. We are working differently because we’re all mostly working remotely. But we were able to prevail. And that’s why I can sit here today and say why I am so optimistic about the world and the future, why I’m so optimistic with capitalism too. I think you can look back at 2020 and say there are some wonderful blessings here. But at the same time, like all recessions – recessions expose all of the inequalities, as you mentioned, the racial injustices. Recessions create real economic difficulties and segments. And because this recession was so deep and required so much government fiscal stimulus and monetary stimulus, it really shaped the outcomes in very extreme ways. We all know equity markets have rallied quite considerably; technology companies had flourished because of the necessary need for all of us to use more technology. But also at the same time, it’s created huge hardship.  Parts of our economy that are based on the aggregation of human beings: culture, travel, business gatherings, social gatherings, gatherings at restaurants, hotels. These industries have been devastated; and all of the employment in these industries has been destroyed. At this time now into 2021, there are segments of the economy doing really well, and parts of the economic doing very badly. Leaving a lot of unemployment worldwide, we’ve seen much more exposure to the emerging world that is more devastated by this. The emerging world is being devastated by climate risk at the same time, the deglobalization that I spoke about. So, there are many macro trends that are leaving the society more fragmented.  But the one thing that I would say that is so loud and persistent, the existential risk of health because of Covid-19 actually illuminated the existential risk of climate change on the health of the planet. And what we witnessed in 2020 was an acceleration, even a faster acceleration than I talked about, this tectonic shift. But it really has created a real acceleration globally and not just with governmental policy but investor preference. I do believe more and more investors believe that climate risk is investment risk. So it’s embodying everything they do. That’s going to be transforming how we think about investing in 2021 and beyond.

    MARY CATHERINE LADER: And so, you mentioned this growth in investor preferences, that despite all the macro trends that were happening last year, we saw this validation of a preference for sustainable investing and sustainability.

    LARRY FINK: Yes.

    MARY CATHERINE LADER: How do you think that is going to change the future?

    LARRY FINK: Do I need to step back for a second and talk about my career, my 40 plus year career? As a young leader in the mortgage industry back in the late-70s and early-80s, I was very self-aware that we were at the cutting edge of changing the whole capital markets. And it was – now I’m really giving my age – in 1983 when we were allowed to have personal computers on a trading floor and we were able now to use that computer to customize portfolios and mortgages into different types of securities and auto loans and credit card loans, and derivative contracts by having the computer on the portfolio manager trader’s desk. That transformed finance as we know it. As more and more companies report under SASB and TCFD – and I would urge every company that’s listening, if you haven’t begun reporting on it, you’ve got to do it now. Because the pressure is going to be on. But more importantly, through that data, we’re going to create the analytics to basically understand the behaviors of each company. And as you framed the question about investor preferences, I think through this data, we’re going to show why climate risk is investment risk.  We are going to have the data to show how one company is moving forward versus another company in the same industry. Having all this data at the corporate level, we’re going to be able to now create portfolios of companies that have much greater performance related to how they’re moving forward in terms of sustainability issues, and are they moving toward a net carbon platform as a company? We are going to have the ability to customize, personalize a portfolio strategy that meets your needs. We could create a higher sustainability portfolio of companies that’s closely tracking the liability that you want but has higher standards towards sustainability. You want to have companies that have a much higher S for social issues. We can carve and create that out through better data and analytics using SASB. And so, it is my belief that the revolution is not going to be coming from the personal computer on the trading desk like it did in the mortgage era. But it’s going to be the data, and through that data and analytics that we have, we have the ability to customize any portfolio that you want that will meet those sustainability attributes, your social attributes, your governance attributes over the whole cross of ESG standards. And to me this is what is going to transform – in years, not decades, years – how people invest. And for the companies that are not going to be properly reporting and to the boards that are allowing their management not to properly report, they’re going to be left behind. And the better companies, the more stakeholder-friendly companies are performing better. And we’re seeing that, they’re producing more durable, consistent profitability. We are going to see big changes in corporate valuations, through these big, largescale transformations in how investors invest.

    MARY CATHERINE LADER: And you see market forces driving companies, not just a desire to do good or be transparent ultimately, disclosing more.

    LARRY FINK: I’m going to say it’s not about doing good. It’s if you believe that climate risk is investment risk, it’s not being socially good. We could all be socially good, but in the United States, we have to be beyond doing something good – you have to do something with the idea that you’re going to maximize return. And if you go around that, then you’re not a fiduciary under our rules. Now that may be changing under the Biden Administration, but at this moment, we have to live under that rule. Through the data, through the process, we expect to have the analytics to show why climate risk is investment risk and why we can create these portfolios.

    MARY CATHERINE LADER: And so you talked about climate risk is an investment risk, how that has become so apparent. But in this year’s letter, you focus on how net zero is going to drive a transformation of the economy. And the portrait you painted of a personalized investing landscape is really powerful –it’s related to net zero, but it’s not the same. So, what do you mean when you talk about net zero requiring a transformation of the economy?

    LARRY FINK: Once again, there is nothing novel about what I’m asking. I’m asking every company to move forward on reporting on a net zero economy. Basically, we’re asking every company to report under TCFD, which is asking those questions. And how every company is going to be prepared to meet the requirements of the Paris Accord. And so, basically the one beauty – and I learned this over my 40 plus years in business and finance – once we understand a problem, we bring the problem forward, and we identify it and try to minimize the problem. And that’s why I’m an optimist. When we identify a problem, we find solutions. And I believe through this process of moving this problem forward, by having more and more companies report under TCFD and for companies to report how they are moving forward in terms of net carbon economy or net carbon footprint. And we are doing that at BlackRock, we reported under TCFD and we’re moving forward, but we’re asking every company as a part of their reporting to also report to us how are they moving their company forward to reach the targets of the Paris Accord to have a net zero carbon economy.

    MARY CATHERINE LADER: You mentioned that at BlackRock we also submitted a TCFD report. What else are you doing, what else is BlackRock doing to lead in this way and to prepare and protect our own investors and shareholders?

    LARRY FINK: I’m not sure we’re leading. I think what we are doing is responding. We are responding to where governments are asking everyone to move forward. As I said, the beauty of finance is once we identify a problem, we bring it forward and try to eradicate it. And I think that is our important role as the largest investor in the world is to identify a problem, to respond to societal needs. I could say as the CEO of a public company, our employees at BlackRock are asking me to move faster. And I’m sure most companies are saying the same thing.  But as we move forward, to a net carbon free economy, it’s going to mean an acceleration of renewables. But until we have new technology – and this is one thing that I constantly write about – it is about making sure that we are focusing on technology so we can move forward. Because there are going to be segments of society that are not going to be able to adapt quickly enough. And the one thing I do write in my 2021 letter, why society still has to be just. This transition has to be a just transition. This is really, really important. Because we need to make sure that we are creating jobs as fast as we destroy jobs. And that happens, but it may not be in the same location and this is why it needs to be very thoughtful and top of mind. It has to come from government with the private sector working together. It can’t just be advocating it, or we’re going to have a great unevenness and we’re not going to have a just society. And so, it’s really important when we speak about these issues, a net zero carbon economy, it’s going to mean this transition and it’s going to mean that we have to manage it from the top down. The other thing I want to be loud about – this transition is not a transition just for public companies. We’re asking a lot from public companies. And if public companies all did this, we would not get to a net zero carbon economy unless we have the private part of the economy doing it too, and also governments. If you really worry about climate change, you have to be worried about physical risk in cities. We just can’t ask FEMA and the federal government to bail out every time there is a natural disaster. It’s been a fantastic agency to help those who have been harmed. But we need to have a plan. And every country needs to have a plan. So, one of the things about my 2021 letter is it’s not just about asking public companies to move forward, it is about governments to move forward, too, in a holistic way working alongside with the public companies.

    MARY CATHERINE LADER: So, talking about climate risk and the risk for cities, for example, if they don’t pay attention to these risks and change, it’s really tangible, it’s concrete, it’s clear what that is. But just switching gears a little bit, you mentioned and referenced stakeholder capitalism, the importance of just transitions. In recent years, you have written to CEOs about how companies need to articulate their purpose and be responsive to a range of stakeholders, their shareholders but also their communities, their employees and society at large. How have CEOs and companies responded to that, particularly through the pandemic?

    LARRY FINK: As I say in my letter, I’m very proud of capitalism. I think so many companies have done so well at making sure that their employees were safe during the pandemic. I can’t think of a year where stakeholder capitalism wasn’t more vivid from how are we trying to move forward as a company and making sure that our employees feel secure and safe, not just physically, but the transition away from office, working from home. What is our mental health and what are we doing to make sure our employees feel safe and secure. And when you have your employees believe in the culture of the firm and believe in what the firm is doing, they’re a great sales force for the firm. They embody the culture and the organization. So, I can’t think of a year in my lifetime of business where the stakeholder of your employees is so evident. And for companies to move forward, we all know it is about making sure that we are connected with our employees, especially as so much of our employees were working remotely. Two, what I could say from 2020 is our clients were in more need of information. They were more in need for what are we thinking, where should they go, how should they move forward? And then three, my gosh, investing in being a part of the communities where you’re working, whether it’s a community in one country if you’re only housed in one country, or if you’re housed in many countries. And at BlackRock, we’re in 30 different countries and we do business in 100 different countries. And if we don’t show and earn our license to operate in those 100 places where we do business, then we’re not going to have a business in those countries.  So, I would say in 2020, more light was shined on the virtues of stakeholder-ism. I’m more convinced than ever, those companies who performed really well for their employees, for their clients and the communities they operate in, their shareholders have benefitted dramatically. And as I said earlier, we’re seeing a widening between the best performing companies in industry and the worst performing companies in industry. And so much of that has to do with those who are embodying stakeholder capitalism and working for all their stakeholders. And building that enduring, durable profitability over the long run.2

    MARY CATHERINE LADER: So, your optimism about capitalism is clear; your optimism that we’ll accelerate in the direction that you’re painting in the letter is clear. Actions from boards, management teams, from customers. For many people, though, it’s a hard time to be optimistic. So much loss in the past year, so much job loss.

    LARRY FINK: Yes.

    MARY CATHERINE LADER: Many people struggling to feed their families. What is your message to those people who are having a hard time being optimistic? What are either the proof points in 2021 to look towards, or other indications that you think can fuel optimism for those for whom this is a really challenging time?

    LARRY FINK: Well, if I could channel the answer towards what government needs to do.

    MARY CATHERINE LADER: Sure.

    LARRY FINK: Every government needs to broaden their economies. Economies were narrowed during the pandemic: big winners, but a lot of losers. And this is how you framed the question. For the governments that are focusing on broadening the economy, broadening the economy through positive policies, hopefully in the United States, we have a broad infrastructure bill to create better jobs, bigger jobs. We could transform our society. I think it’s going to be very critical for the Biden Administration and every government in the future to find ways to accelerate the vaccination and make sure we have herd immunity. And those who have herd immunity faster, we’re going to have those restaurants open, we’re going to have those conventions open, we’re going to have rock concerts again. We’re going to be traveling, we’re going to be going to museums. And that is how we broaden the economy. So, we have to conquer this virus, we have to conquer it together and we all have to move forward. And so, first and foremost, for people who have lost hope, it is making sure that we broaden the economy through a vaccination. And then we broaden the economy through policies, whether it’s fiscal stimulus of some sort in terms of making sure that we broaden the economy through great domestic job creation.

    MARY CATHERINE LADER: So, last question. There’s a lot in this year’s letter, net zero, stakeholder capitalism, we talked about that. Last year, your letter had a powerful impact making waves and really making that sentence, “climate risk as investment risk,” memorable. And then it came true in many senses. What is your hope for this year’s letter?

    LARRY FINK: Just an understanding of the accelerating of how fast this is going. I am so powerfully optimistic about capitalism, and I hope that comes across, too, that when you think about what the pharmaceutical industry, which was in such disregard. At the moment, four companies that have a vaccination, three are approved and one is on the way. And I now hear another one is going to be on the way. What’s important, it took only ten months. I can’t think of another thing that is so much more powerful than the ingenuity of capitalism, the ingenuity of companies. But even things as mundane as food and food delivery and making sure that our grocery stores were stocked at a time when we’re all worried about our health and their employees are being protected. And things as exciting about the transformation of technology and our over-reliance on technology and how technology has shaped and transformed our lives and truly made our lives better. The demand for EV and electric vehicles that is only accelerating the advancements in battery. So, I am more convinced than ever that stakeholder capitalism is broader, louder. I’m also louder in this letter about the need to accelerate corporate behavior related to issues around sustainability and social issues. We have a lot to do in front of us, but I’m absolutely confident the best companies are going to exhibit incredible behaviors. And just in the last few weeks, there’s surveys coming out that the most respected parts of society now are businesses and CEOs. We’ve come a long way! But I really believe the transformation of leadership, the transformation of businesses, is about more and more leaders and their boards are focusing on things about their stakeholders, they’re connecting with their employees deeper and broader, they’re connecting with their clients broader and they’re certainly trying to be more connected to their society. So much of that is in this letter. As you said, it is about moving forward on better disclosure, more complete disclosures especially on net zero. But I also believe this letter related to this whole concept of the advancement of personalization and customization of indexes is going to change investor behaviors in a large, large way. And once again, like in everything else we do, data just becomes the engine for everything we do. Five years ago, seven years ago, most CEOs and boards didn’t want to be that transparent, and now what we’re seeing, the new leadership of companies and their boards are really focusing on how do we become more transparent? Not just transparent for their shareholders like us so we can analyze them, but more transparent so they can connect better and deeper with their employees. Greater transparency so their clients can understand the behaviors of a company. More than ever before, I would say clients, they choose who they do business with. More and more people are choosing who they do business with and why. And I believe those companies who have a loud, persistent, consistent voice are winning more of their clients’ share of wallet, whatever product they’re in. And clients are willing to pay premiums even. It’s not a run to the bottom, the cheapest price, too. It is about who do I connect with, who do I believe in, who do I identify with? And I think these are all really important parts of what leadership has to be in terms of identifying what is the best thing for their company, their employees, their clients. And so, I think this was a natural evolution, but it’s a powerful one. This transparency evolution is changing how we work, how we live, how we behave. And I’m just remarkably optimistic about how we are evolving and how we are evolving with society. And this is all good; this is not something to be afraid of. This is something to embrace. And that is one thing that I say loudly in the 2021 letter: Climate change and investing is something that is a powerful economic result. As we move towards a more sustainable world, it’s going to create great jobs, it’s going to create a great environment. And so, we should not be frightened of it. We should all be embracing it and finding ways that we can be a part of that. And I think this is one of the big messages in the 2021 letter.

    MARY CATHERINE LADER: Well, thank you Larry for that optimistic message as we start 2021. And who knows what this year will hold. Thank you so much for joining us today.

    LARRY FINK: You’re welcome. Thank you.

     Email TheBid@BlackRock.com if you have ideas on what topics we should cover in the year ahead. And remember to subscribe, rate, and review wherever you listen. We’ll see you next time.

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