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BlackRock faces $2 billion hit as DeSantis escalates ESG fight

Dec. 2, 2022 Updated Fri., Dec. 2, 2022 at 6:41 p.m.

Blackrock headquarters are shown in New York in this undated photo.  (Jeenah Moon/Bloomberg)
Blackrock headquarters are shown in New York in this undated photo. (Jeenah Moon/Bloomberg)
By Saijel Kishan, Danielle Moran and Felipe Marques Bloomberg

Florida is pulling about $2 billion from BlackRock Inc. in the largest anti-ESG withdrawal announced by a U.S. 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.

“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.

Pressure is building on BlackRock to stem the outflows.

An analyst at UBS 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 U.S., specifically at the state level,” according to an Oct. 3 memo.

Against that backdrop, BlackRock poured record amounts of money into U.S. 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.

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