With the short pronouncement in his most recent annual letter that “stakeholder capitalism is capitalism,” Larry Fink may have single-handedly moved the conversation about stakeholder capitalism to the fore in the investment arena. There’s a lot that has already been written on what Mr. Fink didn’t say in his letter and critics can be forgiven for calling out a lot of his letter’s shortcomings (aka, talk is cheap and he’s pretty much leaving the real, hard work up to the rest of us). Yes to all of that.
But love him or hate him, it is undeniable that by uttering these few words, the CEO of the world’s largest asset manager has effectively given permission for the bread-and-butter capitalists – the gatekeepers of institutional capital – to understand and incorporate the drivers of shareholder value over the longer term in a more holistic way. There’s more air cover now than ever before for folks to leave the dogmatic interpretations of Milton Friedman behind. And that’s extremely important.
This is not to say that we can all now go home.
What Mr. Fink did not do is provide a roadmap for how we will get there. After all, there is a big difference between action and words. What’s more, long-term value is a great goal, but the rubber meets the road with short-term issues, decisions and trade-offs. Also, making these decisions with an eye on the long game requires bucking the decades old tradition of focusing solely on near-term profits; in short it requires bravery.
As we seek out the engines that will rebuild our global economy, stakeholder capitalism may be a key to unlocking heretofore untapped sources of alpha that can hasten our transition to thriving, green economies. From where I sit as an asset manager who spends my days advancing solutions that can turn back the tide on ocean plastic pollution, there is a great deal to be done to provide the onramps for institutional capital to become part of the solution to society’s biggest environmental and social challenges.
I’ve covered off elsewhere on providing an overview of what stakeholder capitalism is. But the bigger point is that our current investment model that emphasizes shareholder primacy ignores the complete picture of risk and opportunity; and is woefully inadequate to solve our biggest global challenges. In fact, many of the kinds of innovations we need to solve these challenges can only occur if we acknowledge the need to widen our aperture.
For example, to address critical initiatives like renewables development, manage natural resource scarcity, finance technology and carbon reduction innovation, and focus on other environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues, including economic sustainability, human rights, justice, diversity and inclusion – we need to incorporate a longer-term, multi-stakeholder framework.
The good news is that we already know that such an approach works. Capital can be used as a tool to benefit workers, consumers, supply chains, the environment and communities (society as a whole), without diminishing returns to long-term investors. Businesses that benefit from a range of stakeholders and are optimized for positive ESG outcomes in the market, present investment opportunities – not risks.