Over the past two weeks, activist hedge fund investor Engine No. 1 scored a victory for the climate change movement by wresting three board seats at ExxonMobil with the support of the “Big Three” institutional investment firms BlackRock, Vanguard, and State Street. But the episode also marks a failure in ExxonMobil’s “corporate diplomacy” because of its inability to convincingly demonstrate that it is committed to mitigating climate risks and protecting its long-term business value, according to Wharton management professor Witold Henisz.
Engine No. 1 has only a 0.02% stake in ExxonMobil, but the climate risk issues it pushed for were sufficient to get the three big investment firms on its side. In explaining its stance, BlackRock stated that the energy major needs “to further assess the company’s strategy and board expertise against the possibility that demand for fossil fuels may decline rapidly in the coming decades.” BlackRock CEO Larry Fink had reiterated his company’s commitment to combating climate change in his 2021 annual letter to CEOs; in his 2020 letter to CEOs, he had said that “climate risk is investment risk.”
An activist investor is likely to pick up a third seat on the board of Exxon Mobil Corp., giving it additional leverage to press the oil giant to address investor discontent about diminished profits and its fossil-fuel focused strategy amid concerns about climate change.
Exxon said Wednesday that an updated vote count showed shareholders backed a third nominee of Engine No. 1, an upstart hedge fund that had already won two board seats at Exxon’s annual shareholder meeting last week. The final vote hasn’t been certified, Exxon said, and could take days or weeks to be finalized, according to people familiar with the matter.
Engine No. 1, which owns a tiny fraction of Exxon’s stock, had sought four seats on the board and argued the Texas oil giant should commit to carbon neutrality, effectively bringing its emissions to zero—both from the company and its products—by 2050, as some peers have. If the preliminary voting results hold, it will control a quarter of Exxon’s 12-person board.
Shareholders representing nearly 56% of shares that were eligible to vote supported a proposal calling for Exxon to disclose more about direct and indirect lobbying spending and policies, while about 64% voted for Exxon to release a report on how its lobbying aligns with Paris climate accords.
By lunchtime Tuesday we should know whether the Wells Fargo & Co. shareholders adopted a proposal to have the company conduct a racial-equity audit, an idea championed by a pension fund shareholder affiliated with the Service Employees International Union.
Wells Fargo and other big banks have recommended shareholders vote down these racial-equity audit proposals, a feature of this year’s annual shareholder meeting season.
The banks are likely to have the votes, but hopefully they don’t put the whole idea into a file and forget about it.
Already, over the past few weeks, Biden’s Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) announced that it will update its guidelines on how climate risks should be disclosed to investors, and launched a task force to focus on climate-related compliance and misconduct. The SEC has also refused to help ExxonMobil block a shareholder vote on a climate-change resolution. (Although the commission did just let the company reject a shareholder proposal to force the operation to disclose what it plans to do with its untapped fossil fuel assets.)
This week, the Securities and Exchange Commission sided with ExxonMobil in rejecting a shareholder proposal to require the company to report how it plans to deal with “stranded assets” — untapped fossil fuels that the company is counting as assets but may never be drilled, meaning they will turn into liabilities.
California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS)1 and State Board of Administration (SBA) of Florida2, the largest and fifth-largest public pension funds in the US, have publicly disclosed that they have voted FOR Effissimo Capital Management’s shareholder proposal to conduct an independent investigation of Toshiba Corporation’s (TYO: 6502) 2020 Annual General Meeting (AGM).
SBA Florida cited three reasons for its supportive vote: “Conflicted review process; Insufficient resolution of outstanding concerns; Reasonably proportionate request.”
The votes by prominent institutional shareholders of Toshiba follow earlier disclosure by California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS), the second-largest public pension fund in the US, that it was voting FOR Effissimo’s proposal.
New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli, trustee of the New York State Common Retirement Fund, released the following statement today in response to McDonald’s decision to disclose workforce diversity data and tie executive compensation to the company’s ability to foster inclusion and ensure improved human capital management. As a result of McDonald’s new policy, DiNapoli and the Fund are withdrawing their shareholder proposal that had asked the company to connect executive compensation to the company’s management of ESG and workforce issues. The Fund owned 1,674,102 shares in McDonald’s valued at $359,229,000 as of Dec. 31, 2020.
“It’s my hope that other companies follow McDonald’s example, particularly those corporations where New York state’s pension fund has filed similar shareholder proposals seeking greater attention to, and respect for, their human capital.
Author: Thomas DiNapoli
Publication Date: 18 February 2021
Publication Site: Office of the New York State Comptroller