ESG

Entrepreneur's Fund Challenges "Woke" Corporations – Media

Tom Burroughes, Group Editor, May 11, 2022

articleimage

The trend of ESG investing and corporate genuflection to concerns about equality and diversity appears to be unstoppable. But how can this square with the need to make a profit and deliver returns for shareholders? One businessman is unhappy with the direction of travel.

A young US health and technology entrepreneur has had enough of “woke” business practices and has raised $20 million to launch a fund that presses companies to focus on making money rather than political stances, according to a media report. 

Vivek Ramaswamy, the author of Woke Inc who made his fortune investing in pharmaceutical companies, has won the backing of hedge fund manager Bill Ackman and billionaire tech entrepreneur Peter Thiel to launch a new venture called Strive, the Wall Street Journal reported on May 10. Ramaswamy said Strive will only invest in firms that focus on maximizing profits and will shun those that espouse political beliefs.

Such a story highlights how some figures in wealth management – not under bright lights at the moment – are questioning where some of the trend of environmental, social and governance-themed investment is going. It raises questions over the proper role of publicly listed firms. Half a century ago, Chicago economist Milton Friedman famously stated that the role of companies is to maximize shareholder returns, not to foster social or non-financial objectives that are not explicitly stated in articles of incorporation. Since then, however, the trend has shifted to the point where Friedman’s argument is treated as incomplete. Whether opinion changes as inflation hits some portfolios remains to be seen. Debate continues on whether such investment approaches match or beat more conventional forms over time.

In the US, the Securities and Exchange Commission has drawn controversy by proposing to force listed firms to disclose the impact they have on the environment. In other jurisdictions, governments can require firms to disclose data such as senior female hires, and other measures of performance that aren’t strictly financial. 

Some investors aren’t happy with the direction of asset management. For example, when Larry Fink, chief executive of the titan fund manager BlackRock issued a regular note to investors, he was at pains to deny that his firm was engaging in “woke” politics. (The term is a play on the idea of people "waking up" from certain previous states of presumed ignorance about topics such as gender and race relations. The term is sometimes an alternative to what can be dubbed “political correctness” and is usually seen as a left-wing phenomenon because it focuses on equality of outcomes, the alleged evils of unfettered capitalism, etc).

The WSJ report about Ramaswamy, who at 36 is a relative youngster in the sector, has called his approach “excellence capitalism.” He criticized the stance from what he dubbed the “ideological cartel” of BlackRock, Vanguard and other major money managers.  

“We will tell oil companies to be excellent oil companies and coal companies to be excellent coal companies and solar companies to be excellent solar companies,” he is quoted as saying. 

Ramaswamy said he “naturally took the next step” to launch his own fund after the Manhattan Institute invited him and BlackRock’s Fink to debate stakeholder capitalism in 2020 and Fink declined.

Meanwhile, as this news service attests, ESG investing remains one of the dominant trends in wealth management. This publication has its own “Wealth For Good” awards program that is designed to highlight what firms do in the sector. We continue to track this space, including controversies such as “greenwashing.”

Register for FamilyWealthReport today

Gain access to regular and exclusive research on the global wealth management sector along with the opportunity to attend industry events such as exclusive invites to Breakfast Briefings and Summits in the major wealth management centres and industry leading awards programmes