If capitalism is defined by the question of who controls capital – the money that makes the world go around – there’s one organisation that has perhaps more influence over modern capitalism than any other. That company is BlackRock.
The American-founded investment company has total assets under management of more than $ 6 trillion (£ 4.6 trillion), bigger than any competitor.
BlackRock owns – on behalf of its millions of pension fund investors – a portion of just about every publicly-listed company in the world. And often a sizeable one. It invests in trillions of dollars of debts of global governments and company bonds.
So who runs this leviathan? Well, to some extent it’s on auto-pilot. A hefty chunk of these assets are held in tracker funds, which simply passively “track” stock markets. But BlackRock also has hundreds of active fund managers, who select companies for their portfolios based on various criteria.
And what’s their ethos? The answer, if you’re used to hearing about the endemic short-termism of the world of finance, might surprise you.
Last week Larry Fink, the chief executive and founder of BlackRock, published his annual letter to the chief executives of all the companies around the world in which it invests last week. And Fink’s message was: don’t put profits first. Put “purpose” first. “Purpose is not the sole pursuit of profits, but the animating force for achieving them,” Fink explained. “Profits are in no way inconsistent with purpose – in fact, profits and purpose are inextricably linked.”
This corporate purpose, he went on, means investing for the long term, serving a community, developing the talents of a workforce. And so on. BlackRock also says that bosses’ pay should not rise faster than that of the firm’s workers and has threatened to vote against remuneration committees that agree to excessive awards.
It’s enough to make the libertarian epigoni of Milton Friedman, the economist who famously asserted “there is one and only one social responsibility of business – to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits”, choke on their cornflakes.
But purpose is often easier said than delivered in the business world. Sacha Romanovitch was the chief executive of Grant Thornton, the first woman to run a major accountancy firm. She attempted to restructure the company to have a focus on (in her own words, but words that might also have come from Fink) “profits with a purpose”. This meant dropping some questionable clients and sharing profits with all staff rather than just top partners. She capped her own pay at 20 times the average in the firm.
It ended badly. Romanovitch was essentially defenestrated by other Grant Thornton partners last autumn.
An anonymous memo of discontent leaked to the media claimed she was following a “socialist agenda”.
But is Romanovitch’s brand of reform really “socialist”? And even if we call it that, is it really something to fear? Among successful German “Mittelstand” companies – small and medium-sized family manufacturing firms – the kind of practices introduced by Romanovitch have always been normal.
Klaus Fischer, the owner of a firm near Stuttgart that makes wall plugs and car parts, insists that happy workers come above profits. “I’ve always been driven by the urge to be jointly successful with my employees, not just alone,” he told the Financial Times recently.
And there’s some evidence from the UK and the US that “shared capitalism” – where firms pay employees, in part, on the basis of performance of the overall enterprise or workplace – is associated with faster productivity growth within the organisation.
We often hear about Jeremy Corbyn’s supposedly backward-looking “socialism”. And Labour’s plan to compel larger firms to distribute a tenth of their equity into special funds for workers has been dismissed in some quarters in those terms.
But it’s worth thinking a little harder about what socialism means in the context of 21st-century business and finance. Perhaps a dash of that broader purpose-over-profits ethos is not as antithetical to successful business practice as we’re often told. Perhaps it could actually be a benefit. The world’s biggest fund manager, for one, seems to think so.