When Goldman Sachs and billionaire Paul Tudor Jones announced a partnership three months ago to help socially conscious investors support “just business behavior”, they promised that their new index fund would generate solid returns for savers while directing their investment dollars towards truly humane companies.
“Capitalism should be a positive force for change,” said Jones in a press release announcing the fund, which is designed to track an index of socially responsible companies identified by his non-profit Just Capital. “Its future will be driven by a new definition of corporate success that is aligned with the values and priorities of the public.”
The partnership comes as pension funds, university endowments and other institutional investors increasingly seek to put their financial weight behind ethical and sustainable corporate behavior. So far, the rebrand seems to be working: the Just fund debuted in June to rave reviews from the financial press and ended its first day of trading with over $250m in assets, making its launch one of the most successful in recent history.
However, a Capital & Main review of corporate documents shows that some of Just’s largest investments are in fossil fuel firms that have been sued for suppressing global climate research, Wall Street behemoths fined for defrauding investors, a social media platform accused of helping rig elections and a tech industry giant criticized for paying its workers starvation wages.
Moreover, proxy voting records reveal that even as Goldman Sachs now markets itself as a champion of social responsibility, the firm has been using its existing stakes in many Just fund companies to help CEOs block key environmental and social justice reforms proposed by their shareholders. Those initiatives range from gender pay gap and diversity initiatives to corporate governance reforms; from efforts to increase lobbying transparency to prohibitions on doing business with companies tied to genocide and other human rights violations.
Meanwhile, in the months before Just fund’s launch, Goldman was slammed for blocking a human rights resolution at its own company – and one of Goldman’s key lobbying groups in Washington was working to shape Republican legislation that would make it far more difficult for shareholders to file environmental, human rights and other socially minded initiatives in the future.
“You shouldn’t be able to, with a straight face, invest in the Dakota Access Pipeline with your left hand, and with your right hand tell people that you’re doing responsible investing,” Lisa Lindsley, capital markets adviser for the shareholder advocacy group SumOfUs, told Capital & Main. “The compartmentalization is very hypocritical.
Through a spokesperson, Goldman Sachs declined to comment on the process by which its equity funds vote on shareholder proposals, and how that process may differ with the Just fund – which, as a newly launched fund, has not yet participated in proxy voting for any of the companies in which it holds stock.
‘Ethically motivated versus a more greenwashing approach’
Goldman’s new fund spotlights socially responsible investing (SRI) – a financial strategy that represents Wall Street’s more affirmative answer to negative or exclusionary “screening” tactics like divestment from fossil fuel producers and tobacco firms.
While a recent directive by the Trump administration has been viewed by some experts as an effort to limit SRI strategies, the market for such investments remains strong. According to the Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment, US-based assets managed using SRI strategies more than doubled to $8.7tn between 2012 and 2016, and now account for more than one in five dollars under professional management in the country.
The rise in SRI investment comes amid questions about whether corporate boards are adequately evaluating environmental and social justice concerns when they look at their company’s long-term financial prospects. PwC’s 2017 survey of corporate officials found “that directors are clearly out of step with investor priorities in some critical areas” and the report added that “one of these areas is environmental issues”.