Arizona is forging ahead with its plan to pull the state’s funds from BlackRock due to concerns over the massive investment firm’s push for environmental, social, and governance (ESG) policies that have led other states to take similar actions.
Arizona Treasurer Kimberly Yee said in a statement released Thursday that the state treasury’s Investment Risk Management Committee (IRMC) began to assess the relationship between the state’s trust fund and BlackRock in late 2021.
“Part of the review by IRMC involved reading the annual letters by CEO Larry Fink, which in recent years, began dictating to businesses in the United States to follow his personal political beliefs,” Yee wrote. “In short, BlackRock moved from a traditional asset manager to a political action committee. Our internal investment team believed this moved the firm away from its fiduciary duty in general as an asset manager.”
In response to those findings, Yee noted that Arizona began to divest over $543 million from BlackRock money market funds in February 2022 and “reduced our direct exposure to BlackRock by 97%” over the course of the year. Yee added that Arizona “will continue to reduce our remaining exposure in BlackRock over time in a phased in approach that takes into consideration safe and prudent investment strategy that protects the taxpayers.”
Florida’s chief financial officer announced recently that the state’s treasury is taking action to remove about $2 billion in assets from BlackRock’s stewardship before the end of this year. In October, Louisiana and Missouri announced they would reallocate state pension funds away from BlackRock, which amounted to roughly $1.3 billion in combined assets. Taken together with Arizona’s divestment, roughly $3.8 billion in state funds have been divested from BlackRock by those four states alone.
The investment firm has also taken heat from activists who argue BlackRock isn’t doing enough to follow through with its ESG commitments. New York City Comptroller Brad Lander wrote to Fink in September citing an “alarming” contradiction between the company’s words and its deeds. Lander wrote, “BlackRock cannot simultaneously declare that climate risk is a systemic financial risk and argue that BlackRock has no role in mitigating the risks that climate change poses to its investments by supporting decarbonization in the real economy.”
State treasurers in New Jersey and Arizona are divesting approximately $325 million in investments from consumer goods giant Unilever after subsidiary Ben & Jerry said it will stop selling its ice cream in Israeli-occupied territories.
In July, the company said in a statement that it was “inconsistent with our values for Ben & Jerry’s ice cream to be sold in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.” It said it has informed the licensee that manufacturers the ice cream in the region that it will not renew its license when it expires at the end of 2022. Despite leaving the Palestinian territories, Ben & Jerry’s said it will stay in Israel through a different arrangement that has not yet been determined.
A New Jersey law enacted in 2016 requires state pension funds to withdraw investments from any company that boycotts the goods, products, or businesses of Israel or companies operating in Israel or territories occupied by Israel. The law requires the state to create a blacklist of companies that boycott Israel.
Perhaps one of the best examples for successful reform is Arizona’s recent effort, where the state amended its constitution and passed pension reforms to, as Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey described it, set its public safety “pension system on a path to financial stability while improving the way it serves our brave cops and firefighters.”
No federal challenges to Arizona’s reforms have been made – which is part of a longstanding pattern nationally. Dozens of states over the past several decades have reformed their public pension systems as problems became apparent over the years. None has been sued successfully under the U.S. Constitution – whether under the contract clause or any other provision – in all that time.
That hasn’t deterred governments. Nationwide, cities and states issued $6.1 billion in pension obligation bonds in 2020, more than in any year since 2008, according to data compiled by Municipal Market Analytics, a research firm. States with significant new pension borrowings last year included Arizona, Florida, Illinois, Michigan and Texas. In California, cities borrowed more than $3.7 billion to squirrel away at various public pension funds, breaking the old state record of $3.5 billion, set in 1994.
It’s a major comeback for this type of debt, said Matt Fabian, a partner at Municipal Market Analytics who has been writing about the deals for years. “They’re borrowing money and basically putting it into the market and gambling,” he said.
Mr. Fabian said his firm’s tally almost certainly missed the borrowing by municipalities that took West Covina’s approach, because those bonds used different names. Flagstaff rented its City Hall, libraries and fire stations last year to back a pension deal marketed as “certificates of participation.” In January, Tucson did the same, leasing two police helicopters, a zoo conservation center, five golf courses and the bleachers at its rodeo grounds, among other things. And a Chicago suburb, Berwyn, used “conveyed tax securitization bonds” to help fund police pensions.