Until now, twenty-first-century US presidential administrations have been crawling with former Goldman Sachs executives. But now a new day is dawning! Joe Biden has banished them and replaced them with cabinet picks linked to the asset management juggernaut BlackRock. Something has fundamentally changed.
In all seriousness, while installing finance executives in key cabinet positions is nothing new, the prominence of BlackRock compared to older, more established financial institutions, is a sign of the times. The company, founded in 1988 by Larry Fink, who had previously pioneered toxic mortgage-backed securities of the type that sank the economy twenty years later, is situated on a financial frontier.
BlackRock is the largest asset management company in the world, with nearly $8 trillion worth of assets under its control. It owns a stake of 5 percent or more in nearly 98 percent of firms in the S&P 500 index, including Apple, Microsoft, J. P. Morgan Chase, Wells Fargo — the list goes on. Owning 5 percent of a company’s shares is enough to give any shareholder major influence.
BlackRock is thus a firm that owns shares of other firms, and it is the largest of such firms. It’s the biggest of the “Big Three” asset management funds — BlackRock, Vanguard, and State Street — which together constitute the largest shareholder in 88 percent of the companies in the S&P 500 index and 40 percent of all publicly listed companies in the United States. (Notably, BlackRock is the world’s largest shareholder in fossil fuels, managing over $87 billion worth of shares in oil and gas companies.)
The company is deeply embedded in finance the world over. “There is pretty much nothing in the financial market that BlackRock is not somehow involved in,” says Wall Street correspondent Heike Buchter. This embeddedness provides seemingly endless opportunities for BlackRock to enrich itself. For instance, BlackRock not only owns shares in companies, but also offers its services as an auditor. Governments and central banks enlist BlackRock to audit and advise them on what to do with domestic financial institutions — institutions in which BlackRock itself is often a shareholder.
In its capacity as a shareholder, BlackRock doesn’t tend to play an activist role, meaning it usually sides with corporate management in meetings, taking a hands-off approach in public except on rare occasions. But BlackRock is so powerful that it can command a private audience with corporate management and state its preferences directly. Knowing the power the firm wields as an owner, corporate managers are no doubt eager to do what BlackRock has indicated it wants.
But though capable of exerting a great deal of influence, BlackRock is not especially invested in the fate of one particular firm or another. Instead, asset management firms like BlackRock care more about the performance of capital as a whole. As Brett Christophers recently argued in Jacobin, “What serves the interests of the modern institutional investment community is not so much seeing this or that company perform well, but maintaining confidence in capitalism as a mode of social and economic production and reproduction.” As long as capitalists somewhere are raking in big profits, BlackRock can devise ways to benefit.
In other words, BlackRock doesn’t really live or die by particular investments in individual capitalist enterprises so much as a general investment in capitalism itself. Even more than investment banks like Goldman Sachs, then, BlackRock’s interests are synonymous not just with the interests of one firm but with capital writ large.
One financial industry insider told the Wall Street Journal that Biden’s BlackRock picks send “a clear signal to the industry to breathe easier: They can plan for stability without likely facing massive new regulatory or tax risks.” The message sent by two BlackRock appointees is that serving the interests of capital — not just this or that firm or even sector — is the Biden administration’s top economic priority, and he’s willing to enlist the world’s most ruthless capitalists to help him serve.