Another Bad Day at Black Rock

Imagine if you had billions of dollars of other peoples’ money at your disposal to invest and instead of investing it prudently to provide the maximum safest returns you can find, you decide to blow it to advance your own “environmental, social and governance”(ESG) objectives. Imagine that this virtue-signaling power trip at the expense of those to whom you owe a high degree of care, cost clients $1.7 trillion dollars in over a six-month period. Well, you don’t actually have to consider this a hypothetical, that is the story of BlackRock as I noted last month.

The question in my mind for the two years I have been warning about the loss to beneficiaries of such mismanagement is whether there will be any consequences for such conduct, and it looks as though there will be. Big time.

Among the more traditional ways of recouping such losses as pensioner lawsuits against investment managers of pension funds (and a lot of the money BlackRock handles for others is pension fund money), it looks like state boycotts and antitrust lawsuits may also be in the making. In January Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick asked the state’s comptroller to place BlackRock “at the top of the list of financial companies that boycott the Texas oil and gas industry.” Doing so under Texas senate Bill 13 would deprive companies like Blackrock from substantial accounts. The state could no longer contract with or invest in any companies so listed.

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Just yesterday, BlackRock Chairman and CEO, Larry Fink, issued his annual 2022 letter to CEOs indicating that BlackRock’s goal is to transition to a “net zero” world, including decarbonizing the energy sector. Needless to say, it is highly inconsistent to claim support for Texas’ oil and gas energy industry while leading a “net zero” policy effort that will destroy the oil and gas industry and destabilize the economy worldwide.

According to SB 13, a company is considered to be boycotting an energy company if it limits relations with an entity involved in the fossil fuel-based energy sector if the entity “does not commit or pledge to meet environmental standards beyond applicable federal and state law[.]” Committing to a “net zero” carbon strategy is beyond applicable environmental standards in federal and state law. Therefore, BlackRock is boycotting energy companies by basing investment decisions on whether a company pledges to meet BlackRock’s “net zero” goals.

Recently the state of West Virginia announced it would no longer do business with companies that boycott the fossil fuel industry—which includes BlackRock. The ban will “cost the firms $18 billion a year” according to West Virginia’s treasury office. That business loss is now potentially in the trillion-dollar range as 19 state attorneys general point to Fink’s record and assert the company he heads is “an explicit leader in the such to ‘retire fossil fuels’”. The letter to BlackRock Chairman Fink reads like a legal pleading with very extensive factual and legal citations. It begins:

Based on the facts currently available to us, BlackRock appears to use the hard-earned money of our states’ citizens to circumvent the best possible return on investment, as well as their vote. BlackRock’s past public commitments indicate that it has used citizens’ assets to pressure companies to comply with international agreements such as the Paris Agreement that force the phase-out of fossil fuels, increase energy prices, drive inflation, and weaken the national security of the United States. These agreements have never been ratified by the United States Senate. The Senators elected by the citizens of this country determine which international agreements have the force of law, not BlackRock. We have several additional concerns that fall under our jurisdictional authority as attorneys general.

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Those "additional concerns" should also be concerning to BlackRock. On the question of “neutrality” on energy, the AGs put paid to the company's claim, noting its many actions to wipe out the fossil fuel industry. “Rather than being a spectator betting on the game, BlackRock appears to have put on a quarterback jersey and actively taken the field. It mocks the company’s claim that it wishes to “dialogue” on energy issues, and accuses Blackrock of violating its fiduciary duty as the investment manager for state pension funds, as well as the company's poor energy projection record and its priorities. “Given these facts, it strains credulity to believe that a sole focus on financial returns would lead an asset manager to manage all assets for the achievement of net zero by 2050 and make climate issues the number one portfolio company engagement factor.”

More than arguing a breach of fiduciary obligations, the signers indicate the company's actions violate federal antitrust law.

 BlackRock’s actions appear to intentionally restrain and harm the competitiveness of the energy markets. Disturbingly, a survey last year from the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas asked: “Which of the following is the primary reason that publicly traded oil producers are restraining growth despite high oil prices?” Sixty percent of respondents referenced a form of “investor pressure.” These antitrust concerns are especially acute because BlackRock and other asset managers affirmatively tout their market dominance. BlackRock is the world’s largest investment management company, with $10 trillion in assets, “more than the gross domestic product of every country in the world, except for the US and China.

The letter seeks a response by the 22nd of this month. The tenor of this well-documented letter and its extensive citations of fact and law lead me to believe, BlackRock will be forced to defend multiple lawsuits unless it takes significant steps to abandon both its ESG investment strategies and its extensive activities to force net-zero emissions at the expense of those whose money they manage.

Coming next week: The Genesis of ESG, by Joan Sammon.

THE COLUMN: 'These Boots Were Made for Walking' *UPDATED*

If you think the Republicans are going to clean up in the fall Congressional elections, taking back both the House of Representatives and the Senate, with a clear shot to unseating Joe Biden or Your Name Here in 2024, think again. Yesterday, in a triumphal special session, the Senate passed the "Inflation Reduction Act" (stop laughing), with the otherwise useless vice president, Kamala Harris, casting the tie-breaker in favor of the rebranded mo' betta version of the recently deceased "Build Back Better" boondoggle. This time around, there was no Joe Manchin the Third or Krysten Sinema to put their fingers in the dikes and hold back Brandon's flood tide, both of them having sold out in exchange for some particular local fillips. In a 50-50 upper chamber, with the House in the bag, that's all the Democrats needed, 

The bill will do nothing about inflation, of course. Prices will continue their upward spiral, and supermarket shelves will increasingly resemble similar establishments in the Soviet Union c. 1985. But who cares? What counts is how the media spins the vote, and the answer is: a big win for the ice-cream gobbler and chief Covid patient—fully vaxxed and boosted!—now emerging hale and hearty from the White House basement and getting ready head back to Delaware for some much-needed R&R. There's nothing the Democrat-Media Complex loves more than a comeback story. And for that Joe Biden can thank Manchin and Sinema. 

Let's start with Manchin, former governor and now apparently senator-for-life from West Virginia. Having replaced John McCain as the phoniest man in the Senate, Manchin has enjoyed playing footsie with Mitch McConnell while he does his "conservative" fan dance for the rubes back home in Hootin' Holler, W. Va., a half-assed state that was gerrymandered out of rump counties of Ol' Virginny during the Civil War and hasn't amounted to a hill of beans since. Surrounded on the north by Federal powerhouses Ohio and Pennsylvania and bordered by two slave states that stayed in the Union, Kentucky and Maryland, in 1863 it chose the better part of valor and skedaddled away from the Confederacy as quickly as it could. The gutless Manchin is its perfect embodiment:

Sinema, the latest model of "maverick" from Arizona, meanwhile got... well, let's let the New York Times tell us what she got:

To win Ms. Sinema’s support, Democratic leaders agreed to drop a $14 billion tax increase on some wealthy hedge fund managers and private equity executives that she had opposed, change the structure of a 15 percent minimum tax on corporations, and include drought money to benefit Arizona... Ms. Sinema had been the final holdout on the package after Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, struck a deal with top Democrats last week that resurrected a plan that had appeared to have collapsed.

Ah, but when the stakes are this high there's always another palm that can be greased, another side deal to be made. This was Manchin's -- and the headline on the Times story informs the honorable gentleman from Hind Teat, W.Va., just how much his courage is appreciated and how much good will they'll show him in 2024 when he runs for re-election:

Manchin’s Donors Include Pipeline Giants That Win in His Climate Deal

After years of spirited opposition from environmental activists, the Mountain Valley Pipeline — a 304-mile gas pipeline cutting through the Appalachian Mountains — was behind schedule, over budget and beset with lawsuits. As recently as February, one of its developers, NextEra Energy, warned that the many legal and regulatory obstacles meant there was “a very low probability of pipeline completion.” Then came Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and his hold on the Democrats’ climate agenda.

Mr. Manchin’s recent surprise agreement to back the Biden administration’s historic climate legislation came about in part because the senator was promised something in return: not only support for the pipeline in his home state, but also expedited approval for pipelines and other infrastructure nationwide, as part of a wider set of concessions to fossil fuels.

It was a big win for a pipeline industry that, in recent years, has quietly become one of Mr. Manchin’s biggest financial supporters.

The pride of Hootin' Holler.

The Wall Street Journal put the boot in: "Republicans thought that by supporting giant infrastructure and computer-chip bills, the West Virginian might stop a partisan spending bill. GOP Senators now look like tourists who paid $300 from LaGuardia for a taxi to their Manhattan hotel."

The package will be confirmed in the House just as soon as speaker Nancy Pelosi gets back from her super top-secret mission to start a shooting war with China for no good reason. One of the surprise bon-bons embedded in this farrago is a huge budget boost for everybody's favorite federal agency, the IRS

Under the Inflation Reduction Act negotiated by Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.), the agency would receive $80 billion in funding to hire as many as 87,000 additional employees. The increase would more than double the size of the IRS workforce, which currently has 78,661 full-time staffers, according to federal data.

The additional IRS funding is integral to the Democrats' reconciliation package. A Congressional Budget Office analysis found the hiring of new IRS agents would result in more than $200 billion in additional revenue for the federal government over the next decade. More than half of that funding is specifically earmarked for "enforcement," meaning tax audits and other responsibilities such as "digital asset monitoring." That would make the IRS one of the largest federal agencies. 

How did the GOP, which thought it had Joe Biden and the Democrats right where they wanted them just a couple of weeks ago, get into such a pickle? And why are things only going to get worse, right up to the moment when they fail to take back the Senate and under-perform in the House? Nate Silver weighs in: 

As was the case when we launched the forecast a month ago, the Deluxe version of FiveThirtyEight’s midterm model still rates the battle for control of the Senate as a “toss-up.” But within that category there’s been modest, but consistent movement toward Democrats. Their chances of winning the Senate now stand at 55 percent. That’s up from 47 percent from forecast launch on June 30. It’s also up from 40 percent in a retroactive forecast dated back to June 1.

Silver's right about the Senate: does anybody really think the carpetbagging  Cleveland-born Turkish Muslim. Dr. Mehmet Oz, who voted in the 2018 Turkish elections, and the washed-up football player Herschel Walker are going to win? Oz is running at least ten points behind a guy who just had a stroke, while Walker will face Warnock, a man with almost as many skeletons in his closet as Walker has. Trump has backed both Oz and Walker; after all, he's seen a lot of them on TV. Meanwhile, in Ohio, J.D. Vance is doing his best to blow what should be a gimme, and currently trails his Democrat opponent, congressman Tim Ryan, by four points.

All that matters, people.

So how did we get here? Two names immediately come to mind: Mitch McConnell, one of the leaders of the geriatric mafia in Congress, and Donald Trump. McConnell, supposedly the canny old tortoise who's always outwitting the Democrat hares, spent most of his time as Senate majority leader obstructing Trump, getting the three Supreme Court justices through by nuking the filibuster for Court appointments, but not much else. The time to have retired this careerist testudo and his corrupt Taiwanese-born wife was in 2014, when it was clear the GOP was going to take the Senate with or without him. But no: McConnell, who turns 81 in February, was left in place to continue warming the seat he's held for the former slave state of Kentucky since 1984.

And then there's Trump, at whose feet we can justly lay the 50-50 Senate that followed in the wake of his loss in 2020 and its disgraceful aftermath in January 2021. Going into the fall elections, both Georgia senate seats were held by the GOP: David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, who were opposed by Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock. Loeffler, a wealthy housewife appointed to fill out retired senator Johnny Isakson's term, looked like a sure loser from the start, while Purdue -- another plutocrat --  at least had the advantage of genuine incumbency, even if it was only one term. All the GOP had to do was win one of them and they would retain control of the Senate. 

But no. As luck would have it, both elections went to runoffs, which were duly held on Jan. 5, with the "stolen election" hysteria approaching its height the following day. In the intervening weeks Georgia had been a special focus of Trump's ire, and president decided to make two Republican state officials -- Gov. Brian Kemp and secretary of state Brad Raffensberger -- his principal enemies. Unsurprisingly, in this overheated atmosphere, both Perdue and Loeffler lost and thus the Senate was tied.

Which left Harris as the deciding vote in yesterday's passage of a bill we will all live to regret for a very long time. Those boots, bought so dearly in 2020, were made for walking, and they just walked all over you. 

UPDATED: And, just like that, it's no longer an "inflation reduction" bill. It's a "climate, tax, and health care package." Suckers!!

Manchin Brags About Sinking 'Build Back Better'

If you required further proof that Senator Joe Manchin, the last sane Democrat, is proud of having tanked his own party's multi-trillion dollar "Build Back Better" bill, look no further than this campaign ad he just cut -- for a Republican no less -- in which he brags about his opposition to it for voters in his home state of West Virginia:

The context requires a bit of explanation: redistricting has led to Republican Reps. Alex Mooney and David McKinley fighting to represent the same district, WV-2. Mooney has accused McKinley as being soft on BBB, which is wildly unpopular in West Virginia. And now Mr. Anti-BBB himself has stepped in say that that claim "is an outright lie," in the course of endorsing McKinley.

But that context is less important than the fact that Senator Manchin is now wearing his position as the great slayer of Build Back Better as a badge of honor. And make no mistake -- Build Back Better would have been a disaster As the New York Post explained back in December,

The $5 trillion BBB bill would have been a handout to Democrat-backed unions, federalizing child-care and pre-K workers into their ranks. It was full of gifts for everyone from rich people living in Democratic states (via the state and local tax deduction) to journalists (via media subsidies). Besides being a colossal waste of money, its “climate change” subsidies would have hurt Manchin’s state of West Virginia...

The legislation would have driven up the cost of everything for everyone — adding to our already historic inflation. It was nowhere close to being “paid for,” as President Biden claimed. And yes, it is $5 trillion, not the $1.75 trillion Democrats dishonestly advertised — by pretending programs would disappear after a year or two, when they knew they’d extend them forever. Even not accounting for that gimmick, the bill would add at least $367 billion to the federal deficit.

Considering the fact that Manchin's critiques of the bill (along with other massive spending proposals authorized by Congress and the White House since the outbreak of Covid-19) were always built upon his concerns about impending inflation, he's been proven more prescient than most of his colleagues. Of course they despise him for it. And judging by this commercial, he's ready to say with another Democrat of old, "They are unanimous in their hate for me — and I welcome their hatred."

Good on you, Senator. You've earned it.

Which way, Senator Manchin?

Joe Manchin, chairman of the Senate's Energy and Natural Resource committee, has sent an open letter to Joe Biden imploring him to reverse his Keystone XL pipeline decision. That letter begins:

I am writing to express my support of responsible energy infrastructure development, including of oil and natural gas pipelines. Pipelines continue to be our safest mode to transport our oil and natural gas resources, and they support thousands of high paying, American union jobs. To that end, I encourage you to reconsider your decision to revoke the cross border permit for the Keystone XL pipeline and to take into account the potential impact of any further action to safety, jobs, and energy security.

Manchin goes on to argue that increasing our environmentally safe pipeline infrastructure (which, he explains, have "a 99.999% safety record," much better than oil shipped by rail or highway) should be at the very heart of Biden's "Build Back Better" economic recovery plan, because it keeps "Americans working while strengthening North American economic and energy security." Indeed, the great benefit of Keystone XL and other pipeline projects is that they "maintain[] that energy security through strategic relationships with our allies rather than increasing reliance on OPEC nations and Russia."

This intervention is notable. The last of the Blue Dog Democrats, Manchin represents the now-heavily Republican (and resource heavy) state of West Virginia. A former governor of that state, Manchin's margins of victory have shrunk in each of his senate races, and in 2018 he only won by about three percentage points. His next election will come during a presidential year, and in 2020 the Republican presidential candidate carried West Virginia by almost forty points. If he wants to be reelected, he will have to start getting some results.

Aware of the above realities, minority leader Mitch McConnell is no doubt courting Manchin heavily, in the hopes that he will cross the aisle and a 50-50 senate will be controlled by the GOP once more. Will letting Manchin keep the Energy committee chairmanship (over ranking Republican John Barrasso of Wyoming) be enough? Maybe giving him the Interior subcommittee (over Alaska's Lisa Murkowski) as well? Both seem doable.

At the same time, there is something to be said for being a senator from the president's own party. The real possibility that he could flip (as Jim Jeffords did in 2001, moving from the GOP to Independent and voting with the Democrats, thus ending the tie) makes him the most important senator for the White House's hopes of implementing some form of the new president's agenda, and he knows it. Manchin has already been throwing his weight around, vowing that he will not be the fiftieth vote in favor of "the Green New Deal or socialism," giving McConnell his word that he won't let his party nuke the filibuster, and voicing his opposition to further $2,000 stimulus checks for all Americans.

Still, if Biden wants to keep Manchin on his side, he'd better give him a few substantive wins that he can point to back home. Because if not, Biden's unmerited triumph in Georgia (which saw Republican own goals turn the senate blue) will have been wasted. Taking Manchin's letter seriously would be a good place to start, if not with Keystone, perhaps with other, less conspicuous pipeline projects going forward.

If not, well, he'd look pretty good in a red jersey.