Asset managers are poised to push companies to do more on racial injustice, spurred by the outcry about the killings of Black people by police in the US and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.
While some companies, such as Apple and retailer Target, donated cash to civil rights groups after the death of George Floyd on May 25, others, such as US bank Wells Fargo and its Wall Street competitors, have stepped up efforts to hire and promote people of colour.
“The current climate is serving as a catalyst for change,” says As You Sow, a Californian shareholder campaign group, adding that investors will need to keep up pressure in boardrooms to maintain the momentum for racial justice.
Next year it seems likely that companies will be under pressure to do more than voice support for racial equality, with several asset managers poised to call for greater disclosure of their staff’s racial mix.
“Something we are going to spend a lot of the next proxy season engaging on is getting better workplace demographic disclosure so we can actually hold companies accountable,” Katie Koch, a managing director at Goldman Sachs Asset Management, told a conference in September.
Companies rarely disclose information about gender and racial diversity. While nearly 400 of the 1,000 Russell constituents present figures on gender, only 40 or so give data on race and ethnicity, Morgan Stanley said in August.
“In the context of the recent spotlight on racial inequality in the US, we expect a sustained focus on diversity at US corporates for the foreseeable future,” Morgan Stanley said.
Investors are piling on pressure. Procter & Gamble, the consumer goods group, will this month face a shareholder resolution calling for diversity disclosure.
As You Sow, which is behind the petition, says that P&G refuses “to report on how it assesses the effectiveness of its diversity and inclusion programmes”. Other companies have agreed to publish meaningful diversity reports, the campaign group says.
Before this year’s wave of support for BLM, asset managers were reluctant to support shareholder petitions that demanded racial disclosures.
Historically, only a handful of ESG-specific fund firms have consistently supported diversity proposals by shareholders. Petitions this year at Alphabet, Intel and JPMorgan failed to win 10 per cent support.
One battle in the months ahead will involve putting pressure on companies to disclose figures on employees’ race and ethnicity. They already provide these to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission but they are not made public unless a company publishes them voluntarily.
John Streur, chief executive of Calvert, an ESG-focused asset manager, says his firm has verbal commitments from a dozen companies that have agreed to release such data.
“We are engaging with 100 large companies in the US in an effort to convince them to provide transparency to their demographics,” Mr Streur says. “There are lots of other things that need to be done but we think that foundational step is to get the disclosure, get the transparency, get the information available so goals can be set and benchmarks can be struck.”
Parnassus, another ESG-focused asset manager, will also press companies to disclose EEO data. The firm will vote against a company’s board members if the business does not have a person of colour on the board, says Iyassu Essayas, head of ESG research at Parnassus.
As an asset manager, “we can’t save the world”, he says, but Parnassus can hold companies accountable even as BLM falls out of the headlines.
“We don’t want this to become a marketing effort,” he says of companies’ support for BLM.
Parnassus is also investing $6m in Black-led community development financial institutions, which are socially-conscious lenders that support individuals and small businesses in poor areas.
Daryn Dodson, a managing director at Illumen Capital, an investment fund, echoes concern that companies and asset managers will lose focus on the racial equality issue as interest fades.
Corporate commitments “will be measured by results and follow through like we measure so much of what we measure in finance,” he said at the September conference.
Hiring people of colour is important but so is changing “an entire ocean of bias” among people in leadership, he said. “One way is to declare that you are open to that,” he said. “Most of the world, by evidence, is not.”
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