The little-known group that’s battling Wall Street over ESG

Anti-ESG investing: Hild is part of a network of conservatives committed to defeating ESG, many of them opposed to efforts to mitigate climate change. — Bloomberg

NEW YORK: Operating with a meager budget from a suburban home outside Washington, Will Hild is gearing up for his next battle against Wall Street and the forces behind environmental, social and governance (ESG) investing.

Hild and his tiny workforce at Consumers’ Research are at the forefront of the movement, crafting adversarial campaigns that attack money managers who try to combine profits with altruistic goals by using ESG metrics to help decide where to invest.

The 37-year-old Hild, backed by powerful right-wing operative Leonard Leo, is part of a network of conservatives committed to defeating ESG, many of them opposed to efforts to mitigate climate change.

He works behind the scenes crisscrossing the nation to lobby Republican state officials to take up the cause, but Hild is equally comfortable being out front-sending bombastic text messages about the evils of “woke” corporations or making media appearances touting ESG as a threat to America.

Most notably, Hild has zeroed in on BlackRock Inc and its chief executive officer Larry Fink.

Operating with an annual budget last year equivalent to 0.002% of BlackRock’s income, he helped catapult ESG from a niche investment strategy mostly popular in Europe to a topic that’s at home on right-wing AM radio talk shows.

His efforts contributed to moves by politicians in Florida, Texas and elsewhere to try to ban the company from doing business with their states.

Now, he’s got another target in his sights: Bank of America Corp.

Hild says he’s singling out the second-largest US bank and CEO Brian Moynihan for being the most vocal among Wall Street lenders when it comes to climate risks and other topics tied to ESG, including gun rights and abortion.

He cites the bank’s work calculating greenhouse gas emissions for its clients and its internal diversity, equity and inclusion training as particularly egregious behaviour.“This isn’t going to be a one-off hit,” Hild said in a video interview.

Consumers’ Research plans to run ads on cable news networks pressing the issue, and drive mobile billboards around Bank of America’s headquarters in Charlotte, North Carolina, its offices in midtown Manhattan and some of its busiest branches in states from Arizona to Florida.

Bank of America said in a statement that its focus on “responsible growth is how we deliver industry-leading service to our 68 million American consumers, being a great place to work for our employees and supporting communities across the United States while delivering strong returns for our shareholders.”

The ESG backlash picked up momentum last year.

GOP officials have started investigations, created boycott lists and introduced anti-ESG bills.

Last month, about two dozen Republican state attorneys general wrote a letter to the Net-Zero Insurance Alliance (NZIA), a group of insurers committed to working on climate-change goals, asking how their participation in the coalition affected their business practices.

Within 10 days, most of the founding members had quit.

Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, who signed the letter sent to NZIA, said Hild has been vital in his office’s pushback against ESG.

“He has helped raise the alarm and armed us with actionable, detailed information,” Reyes said in a statement.

The NZIA is part of the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero. Michael R. Bloomberg, the founder of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP, is co-chair of GFANZ.

The track record of the anti-ESG forces is decidedly mixed-BlackRock saw several states pull more than US$3bil (RM13.8bil) from its accounts, members of climate-finance groups have fled in droves and investors and bankers are talking a lot less about ESG than they did before.

But BlackRock still got US$230bil (RM1.05 trillion) of net inflows from US clients last year and any impact on money flows into sustainable investments have been hard to suss out, with analysts saying that poor performance was the main driver behind withdrawals from those types of funds.

BlackRock declined to comment.

Born in Knoxville, Tennessee, and raised there and in Florida, Hild is a Georgetown University law graduate who previously worked at conservative groups including the Federalist Society.

He first grew annoyed with do-gooder corporations about five years ago, when he saw them taking positions on social issues that seemed completely unrelated to their businesses.

Operating at the time from a shared office space, Hild was especially frustrated at seeing single-use plastic cutlery banned from the facility for the supposed environmental benefits, regardless of what clients wanted.

It isn’t lost on Hild, whose father is a retired Southern Baptist minister, that ESG traces its roots to strategies employed by religious groups that shun investments like tobacco, alcohol and gambling.

He says that’s different from large financial companies imposing liberal goals on customers who may not agree with them. He’s particularly bothered when money managers for state pension funds use their control of retirees’ assets to pressure corporations to adopt ESG policies. — Bloomberg

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