Remember the tragedy in the university town of Berkeley, California last summer in which a balcony collapsed, killing five Irish students and one American and catastrophically injuring seven others? It was a story that touched so many of us – those of us who had done the J1, those of us who have children who had done a J1, or studied in the US, or were there when the incident occurred, anyone who has a young friend or relative living or working away from home.
You may have heard over the weekend that the district attorney of Alameda County in California, Nancy O’Malley, announced that she would not be pursuing criminal charges because she didn’t believe it could be proven beyond a reasonable doubt that any one company or individual had been negligent.
While this is a blow to the families, they are pursuing over 30 companies associated with the building by way of civil actions. One of those is BlackRock, the owner of the building, and that’s the reason I’m blogging about this today. BlackRock is considered to be the largest asset management firm in the world. According to the Irish Independent, the US corporation has $4.6 trillion (€4.05 trillion) in assets under its control. It is listed on the New York Stock Exchange and has 12,000 employees in 30 countries.
However, in an annual report filed with the Security Exchange Commission (SEC) in the last few days, BlackRock Inc said it believed “the claims in the lawsuits are without merit” and said the corporation “intends to vigorously defend the actions”.
I for one was disgusted when I read this. Exhibiting a total lack of sensitivity to the families of the victims and the survivors and their families, who have been through so much, this giant corporation is prioritising the good of its shareholders. The statement to the Stock Exchange is part of an attitude that will protect the share price at the expense of the victims, no matter what. Of course BlackRock must make its defence, but the last thing those families need is a protracted and unpleasant court battle wherein Blackrock “vigorously” defends itself.
I am not saying BlackRock or any of the six related companies involved was negligent – the criminal action suggests not; the civil courts will make their ruling in due course.
It may feel like all we can do is be appalled at the lack of humanity of a major investment player, but there is actually something you can do.
But it brought up for me the question of ethical investment. If you become aware that an investment firm, asset manager, fund, intermediary, or any link in the financial services chain is involved in something you don’t like or agree with, you are within your rights to remove your investment (notwithstanding any terms and conditions that you agreed to). You can find out if your pension or other investment has an exposure to a particular firm or fund manager by speaking to your financial adviser or the broker who sold you the policy. You can instruct them to move your money out of this firm if that is your wish.
Ethical investment is gaining ground as a concept. Fossil-fuel divestment is becoming more and more common – major corporations, families and institutions are moving their money out of fossil fuels into clean energy. You may have heard of Sharia Investment which precludes investment for Muslims in a wide range of industries considered contrary to their religious beliefs, such as alcoholic beverages, pork products, tobacco, gambling and so on.
It’s your money and you can invest it where you like. You can show your disapproval of a company’s strategy, stance or behaviour by simply removing it from the fund.