CSR: Going guerrilla on finance

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By:
Helen Avery
Published on:

Looking back over 50 years, it is surprising how finance has changed its role in protest.

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As Euromoney celebrates its 50th year, I was curious to research where the world was in 1969. I have been left intrigued by the advancements of five decades but also by the similarities between then and now. 

In 1969, social unrest was palpable, inequality in all its forms high on the political radar and government regimes were unreliable – if not terrifying. Dictatorships ruled most of Latin America, leading to protest, civil war and mass displacement. In Northern Ireland, what came to be called the Troubles were beginning; Britain deployed 300 troops to the province. 

Millions protested against the government on the streets of France and marches took place across Europe, Russia and throughout Africa. In the Middle East, Gadhafi had taken control of Libya. In Asia, the Sino-Soviet conflict brought China and the USSR to the brink of war; Pol Pot was leading the Khmer Rouge; and the war in Vietnam still raged. 

In the US, the civil rights movement, still reeling from the assassination of its leader, Martin Luther King, found solidarity with anti-Vietnam protestors, the second wave of feminists calling for greater equality and a gay rights movement that been spurred by the Stonewall riots that year. 

There was the moon landing and the country had just elected a president – Richard Nixon – who would later avoid his own impeachment by resigning. And, of course, there was Woodstock, where 400,000 people gathered (several Wall Street executives among them, I’m told) for peace, joining with an environmental movement that was also born that decade. 

Fundamental

While there are clearly themes echoing or being revisited today, one big difference for Euromoney readers is that in 1969 capital markets and personal investments did not figure in any discussions about minority rights, wealth disparity, the environment, or stopping war. Now, capital is recognized as fundamental to any and all of global society’s ills – either in exacerbating them or solving them. 

Today’s protests reflect this. They are not directed only at governments but also at the guardians of the purse. In January, an environmental group spoofed Larry Fink’s annual letter to shareholders to claim that BlackRock had taken the decision to remove company holdings of corporations that were not in line with the Paris Agreement. 


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It was well-written and convincing enough to fool several wires and financial newspapers. What I found even more interesting, however, was that the group had paid for the letter to appear at the top of Google as an ad for anyone searching Larry Fink or BlackRock. The website URL – bought and developed by the group – was equally believable and the website that it pointed to was an almost exact copy of BlackRock’s. The only clue to arouse suspicion that I could see was that the latest annual report mentioned on the site was from 2016. 

It was the first guerrilla move I have seen relating to financial institutions and shows just how pivotal the flow of finance has become. Whoever wrote that letter knew Fink’s tone well. And Fink’s view was clearly seen as having a crucial role in the mission to reduce carbon emissions. Moreover, the contrast between the fake letter and the real Fink letter of ‘profit and purpose’ that emerged several days later had the effect (and I imagine this was intended) of making the real letter appear weak. 

Although Fink stated boldly in his 2018 annual letter that shareholder engagement was crucial in environmental and social challenges, BlackRock barely changed its approach to shareholder votes over the year. The firm voted with shareholder resolutions on key climate issues less than a quarter of the time. It did not back any resolutions regarding political influence disclosure. 

Rhetoric

People have quoted Fink’s 2018 letter at me as some game-changing moment so often that I have often felt like banging my head against a wall. I take my hat off to those who go to the effort of faking a letter to show how BlackRock really could have a positive impact – and hopefully saving me from hearing this year how Fink’s rhetoric is proof that change is happening. No, it’s not. Rhetoric is not action. 

But now my curiosity has been piqued again. Who is financing this protest group or, indeed, any of the online sites that are carefully scrutinizing the actions of financial institutions? I have a feeling the answer will be surprising. 

I have spoken to several wealthy individuals over the last month who are doing just this – using their money to finance grassroots movements for environmental and social justice and, perhaps more surprisingly, wealth equality. 

It is interesting to think that the clients that private banking divisions of the big banks are so desperate to attract may be financing protests – guerrilla or otherwise – against those very same banks.