Voting Matters 2023: Are asset managers using their proxy votes for action on environmental and social issues?
2023 once again saw record breaking summer heat, and extreme weather events are getting worse and more frequent. Escalating conflicts have had devastating impacts on human life.
We analysed how 69 of the world’s largest asset managers voted on 257 shareholder resolutions aimed at improving companies’ impacts on pressing social and environmental issues. Despite the growing urgency of these issues, in 2023 asset managers used their voting power less than before - only 3% of the resolutions we analysed received majority support.
The world’s four largest asset managers are driving the overall downwards trajectory in support for resolutions. But European managers’ support for resolutions is growing, likely in response to increasing regulation in the region.
Support for shareholder resolutions hit a new low in 2023, falling from its peak in 2021
In 2023, only 3% of the 257 environmental and social shareholder resolutions we assessed received majority support; the threshold needed for a resolution to be approved. This is a notable decrease from the previous two years, with 14% of resolutions passing in 2022 and 21% in 2021.
This downward trend in support for resolutions has been driven by large US asset managers, who voted for – on average – just 25% of resolutions in 2023. However, European asset managers voted on average in favour of 88% of shareholder proposals in 2023, maintaining an upward trend since 2021. Asset managers from every European country followed this upward trend, with the exception of the UK, where asset managers’ average support for resolutions has hovered at around 64%.
The world’s four largest asset managers are among the worst culprits, with their voting performance falling year on year
The four largest asset managers in the world – BlackRock, Fidelity Investments, State Street Global Advisors, and Vanguard – have shown a significant and consistent fall in their support for shareholder resolutions seeking corporate improvements on important environmental and social issues. BlackRock, the largest asset manager in the world, only supported 8% of environmental and social shareholder resolutions in 2023, compared to 40% in 2021. Vanguard, the world’s second largest asset manager, showed the weakest performance of the ‘big four’, supporting only 3% of resolutions in 2023.
69 additional resolutions would have passed had the ‘big four’ asset managers voted in favour
Illustrating the influence of the big four’s market share, we found that 69 additional resolutions would have passed with their support. These included, for example, resolutions at Amazon asking for an independent, third-party assessment of the company’s supposed commitment to workers’ freedom to unionise, and at TJX companies (who own TK Maxx in the UK), calling for a report on the human rights risks resulting from the misclassification of workers as independent contractors within the company’s supply chain.
Of the big four managers, only State Street supported the Amazon resolution, and none supported the TJX resolution. We found that both resolutions would have received majority support if all of the big four had voted in favour, and the TJX resolution could have passed with only three of the big four voting in favour (BlackRock, Vanguard, and either Fidelity Investments or State Street).
Asset managers decline to increase human rights scrutiny on arms industry amidst ongoing wars
Of the resolutions we analysed, three requested increased disclosure from arms companies in relation to the human rights impacts of their businesses. All three resolutions received 25% or fewer votes in favour. Eleven asset managers voted against all three resolutions, while State Street Global Advisors was the only of the ‘big four’ asset managers to support any one of the resolutions.
Asset managers are potentially profiting from the rising stock value of arms companies amidst escalating conflicts around the world, as well as blocking efforts to establish greater disclosure on how the arms these companies produce are used and how this may contravene the human rights of affected communities.
Some members of Climate Action 100+ (CA100+) repeatedly voted against CA100+ flagged resolutions.
As part of its engagement strategy, Climate Action 100+ ‘flags’ shareholder proposals and other votes at target companies which are aligned with the goals of the initiative. While CA100+ does not explicitly tell members to vote in favour, it is intended that investors “take into consideration” these resolutions during proxy season. In 2023, CA100+ flagged 20 shareholder resolutions.
Notably, eleven CA100+ members voted for fewer than half of the flagged resolutions for which they had holdings. BlackRock – the world's largest asset manager - voted for just two of the 20 CA100+ flagged resolutions.
Asset managers fail to hold BP to account despite the company’s rollback of climate commitments
At its 2022 AGM, BP's climate transition plan received 88.5% support in the company's first Say on Climate vote. However, in February 2023, the company weakened its medium-term emissions reduction goals for oil & gas, veering away from the approved plan. BP then failed to hold a Say on Climate vote on the altered plan at its 2023 AGM, despite misalignment with globally-agreed climate targets.
In response, civil society organisation Follow This tabled a resolution calling for BP to align its Scope 3 emission targets with the Paris Agreement. BP’s top shareholders – BlackRock, Vanguard, Norges Bank Investment Management, and Legal & General Investment Management – opposed the proposal.
Using Say on Climate votes to simply agree with management plans – and not reacting when these plans are altered without another vote – constitutes a failure amongst asset managers to exercise their shareholder rights effectively.