Most Americans are aware that the political class is largely owned by the big corporations–big Pharma, big Oil, the defense contractors, Wall Street, etc. This is nothing new.
But most Americans also rarely stop and ask, “Who owns the big corporations that own the politicians?”
If they did ask that question, the answer they’d probably come up with, through a bit of logical deduction, is Wall Street investment banks, given that most of these big corporations are publicly traded.
And that answer is partially correct–Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, Morgan Stanley, Citigroup, Bank of America, BlackRock etc. They have their hands in just about every company you can think of.
But there is another company, that isn’t based in New York, and that isn’t publicly traded, that owns them all–including BlackRock.
The company is called Vanguard Group, and it’s based in a town named Malvern, Pennsylvania, which is about an hour’s drive west of Philadelphia.
I first learned about Vanguard when I got into investing in stocks during college. Any decent investment research website allows you to see who the largest shareholders are in a given company.
Pick any company at random, look at who their largest investors are, and you’ll almost invariably learn that the vast majority of the company’s shares are held by what’s known as “institutional investors,” or large asset management firms like mutual funds, hedge funds, pension funds, investment banks, endowment funds and insurance funds.
When you look at who those institutional owners are, you’ll see that there’s a few names that pop up again and again and again for virtually every company you research: BlackRock, State Street, JP Morgan and Vanguard.
Let’s take, for example, Home Depot. It’s a publicly traded stock, so we can see who owns it on Yahoo Finance. We go to the “Holders” tab, and we see that 71% of Home Depot’s shares are owned by institutions. The top institutional holder in the Home Depot Corporation is Vanguard, followed by BlackRock, who combined own about 15% of the company.
Let’s try another company, and in a completely different industry, too. We’ll go with Exxon Mobil.
We find with Exxon Mobil that 53% of the shares outstanding are owned by institutions, and the single largest shareholder in Exxon is, again, Vanguard, who owns 8.34% of the company. Next on the list is BlackRock, who owns 6.22%, and then State Street, which owns 5.96%.
Interesting that the same three investment firms are the largest shareholders in both Home Depot and Exxon Mobil.
What about a tech company like Google–or, I guess, Alphabet, as it’s now called. 80% owned by institutions. Top holder: Vanguard yet again with 7.57% of shares outstanding. Then we have BlackRock in second place with 6.78%.
What about Apple, the largest corporation in the world by market cap? Apple is 59% owned by institutions, and yet again, it’s Vanguard in first place with 7.71% of the shares. BlackRock is second with 6.26%, and then Berkshire Hathaway–i.e. Warren Buffett–with 5.41%.
This is an interesting trend we see. And as I was talking about earlier, I noticed it years ago when I first got into investing. I wondered to myself, what is the deal with Vanguard and why are they the largest shareholder in virtually every company you can think of?
Well, it’s important to understand just exactly what Vanguard does. Vanguard is the second-largest provider of exchanged-traded funds, ETFs, which are tradeable securities that replicate the performance of a given asset class. ETFs are really a genius idea, pioneered by Vanguard founder Jack Bogle, when you think about what they are: they allow an investor to track the performance of, say, the S&P 500 index without actually having to buy stock in every single company in the S&P 500. You can just buy Vanguard’s S&P 500 ETF, “VOO,” and it will mimic the performance of the S&P 500 index. S&P goes up 1%? VOO goes up 1%. S&P goes down 0.3%? VOO goes down 0.3%.
There are many other companies out there that offer index funds besides Vanguard. BlackRock is the largest provider of ETFs with its products called “iShares”, and Vanguard is the second-largest.
The bottom line here is that in order to be able to offer these many ETFs (and there are tons of them for virtually everything you can think of, like the bond market, the Brazilian economy, the oil sector, and so much more) both Vanguard and BlackRock have to actually own stock in all the corresponding companies and industries. In order to offer an ETF that tracks the tech sector, you have to own shares in all the companies in the tech sector.
And so this is the conclusion I, somewhat naively, came to years ago when I was wondering why Vanguard and BlackRock seemingly own every company.
But wait. That’s not all Vanguard and BlackRock doing, right? I mean, you don’t just become the largest shareholders in nearly every company in the S&P 500 without any sort of ulterior motives, right? Being the largest shareholder in a major corporation gives you quite a bit of pull.
We’re not really expected to believe that Vanguard and BlackRock are mere passive owners who don’t seek to use their large ownership stakes to exert control of these companies, are we?
Well, at least when it comes to BlackRock, they do exert their influence on the companies they own stakes in. In 2018, BlackRock’s Chairman and CEO Larry Fink wrote a public letter in which he announced that BlackRock expects the companies of the world–and BlackRock has an ownership stake in just about all of them–to make “positive contributions to society.”
It really was a watershed moment in American history, although it went largely unnoticed by most average Americans at the time. Here we had the CEO of one of the biggest and most powerful investment firms on the planet coming right out and saying from now on, BlackRock has expectations for all of the companies in which it owns a stake that go beyond just turning a profit every quarter. BlackRock now expects these companies to be working towards “making the world a better place,” at least in accordance with BlackRock’s worldview. Here is a summary of that letter from Fox Business:
The boss of the world’s largest money manager told corporate chiefs to prepare for BlackRock Inc. to become a more assertive shareholder.
Laurence Fink in his annual letter to chief executives of companies in which BlackRock invests called on them to better articulate their long-term plans and how their organizations contribute to society, and said the New York money manager will have more frequent and in-depth conversations with them. He has made similar appeals to CEOs in past letters.
BlackRock’s assets have swelled to $6.3 trillion as investors have plowed hundreds of billions of dollars into index-tracking funds. That has given large index-fund managers like BlackRock increasing clout on important corporate decisions such as takeovers and the fates of chief executives.
“The time has come for a new model of shareholder engagement — one that strengthens and deepens communication between shareholders and the companies that they own,” Mr. Fink wrote.
BlackRock plans over the next three years to double the size of the team that engages with companies in which the firm’s funds invest, to more than 60 people, he said.
Corporate strategies should cover financial metrics, he wrote, but to achieve those “you must also understand the societal impact of your business, as well as the ways that broad structural trends — from slow wage growth to rising automation to climate change — affect your potential for growth.”
This year, BlackRock and Vanguard supported a successful shareholder proposal at Exxon Mobil Corp. that called for the company to share more information about how climate change and regulations could impact its operations.
Oh boy. I’m sure you can read between the lines here. You know exactly what Fink is saying: this is liberal social engineering being spearheaded by BlackRock through corporate America.
Larry Fink essentially made Woke Capitalism BlackRock’s official policy with that 2018 letter.
You may remember there was some chatter in 2016, when it was assumed Hillary Clinton was going to win the Presidency, that Larry Fink had a strong desire to be chosen as her Treasury Secretary, and he just might have been had Hillary won. He was also angling for the job in 2013 when Obama was looking to replace Tim Geithner.
So Fink’s 2018 letter, while all the platitudes about “responsibility” and “making the world a better place” and “societal impact” sound good, they might not sound so good to people who don’t align with Fink politically.
What if your idea of a better world is not the same as Larry Fink’s?
Well, too bad. Build your own BlackRock.
In 2020, Fink went even further on the Woke Capitalism crusade than he did in 2018. From Breitbart:
In his annual letter to chief executives, BlackRock Chairman and CEO Larry Fink wrote that “climate change has become a defining factor in companies’ long-term prospects … But awareness is rapidly changing, and I believe we are on the edge of a fundamental reshaping of finance.”
In a “stewardship expectations” report released last week, Blackrock essentially doubled-down on its woke capitalism pressure campaign, saying it would increase the pressure it puts on companies on environmental and racial issues.
In the report, Blackrock issued the order to U.S. companies to disclose the racial, ethnic, and gender makeup of their employees as well as measures they’re taking to advance “diversity, equity, and inclusion.”
“We are raising our expectations, in the context of regional norms, on board and workforce ethnic and gender diversity,” Blackrock said.
Blackrock, which controls $7.8 trillion of assets, holds hundreds of meetings with corporate leaders in which executives are grilled on how they are complying with the asset manager’s “diversity, equity, and inclusion” agenda.
Not only this, but Biden’s Director of the National Economic Council is Brian Deese, a former BlackRock executive.
BlackRock is so powerful that last year Bloomberg called the company “the fourth branch of government” due to the fact that last year during the lockdown-induced economic crisis, the Fed relied on BlackRock to, as Bloomberg put it, “prop up the entire corporate bond market.”
So to answer the question above about whether Vanguard and BlackRock are actually taking advantage of the fact that they have ownership stakes in virtually every corporation you can think of, the answer is yes. At least in BlackRock’s case.
Larry Fink is exactly what I was referring to the other day when I talked about how our ruling class have become ideologues in addition to wealthy oligarchs.
The ruling class is not just wealthy and powerful: they’ve also now become leftwing liberal fanatics.
Okay, but what does all this have to do with Vanguard? This article is about Vanguard, but we’re talking about BlackRock here.
Well, here’s the thing: while BlackRock is very public about its political and social agenda, Vanguard isn’t. Vanguard doesn’t say much about anything, actually. Go to Google, search “Vanguard Group,” and click news: there ain’t much. Larry Fink is always in the news, but Vanguard isn’t. Their CEO is a guy named Tim Buckley, by the way.
Look up Tim Buckley and there really isn’t much. He’s a generic-looking corporate suit kinda guy. There’s an article from last month where he apologized for cutting medical benefits for retirees and employees, but that’s about all you’ll find on him.
There’s an article in Yahoo from a couple days ago by a person named Cyril Mychalejko accusing Vanguard of “financing the destruction of the planet” with fossil fuels.
But other than that, nobody ever really talks about Vanguard, despite the fact that it has a whopping $7 trillion in assets under management (AUM), which is less than BlackRock’s $9.46 trillion, but still obviously a mind-boggling amount of money. BlackRock and Vanguard rank 1 and 2 respectively in terms of AUM.
Remember earlier when we used Yahoo Finance to look up the ownership breakdown of several large corporations? Let’s do that for BlackRock itself, which is publicly traded.
86% of BlackRock is held by institutions, and guess what? The single largest holder of BlackRock stock is Vanguard at 7.98%. That may not seem like a lot, given that it means 92% of BlackRock is not owned by Vanguard, but Vanguard still owns a larger stake of BlackRock than anybody else.
If the CEOs of the companies that BlackRock holds stock in have to answer to Larry Fink, then it stands to reason that Larry Fink has to answer to Vanguard.
And not only is Vanguard the largest shareholder in BlackRock, it’s also the largest single owner of State Street, holding 9.38% of the shares of the 3rd-largest asset manager in the world ($3.1 trillion AUM). BlackRock owns 7.8% of State Street.
Vanguard also owns 10.3% of Berkshire Hathaway’s “B” stock, and BlackRock owns 8%. State Street owns 6%.
Okay, let’s do the same thing for Vanguard. Let’s see who owns Vanguard, I’m sure it’s BlackRock and State Street.
Well, Vanguard is a private company. We can’t see who owns it. It’s not publicly available information.
When we go to Vanguard’s Wikipedia page, there’s shockingly little information about the company, despite the fact that the Wikipedia page says that Vanguard is the largest provider of mutual funds in the world. It also states that “along with BlackRock and State Street, Vanguard is considered one of the Big Three index fund managers that dominate corporate America.”
Wow. “Dominate corporate America.” That’s one way to put it.
We do get some insight into the ownership structure of Vanguard, however. Wikipedia says “Vanguard is owned by the [mutual] funds managed by the company and is therefore owned by its customers.”
Okay, but who are the customers, then? The word “customer” brings to mind individual investors like you and me, but I think we can assume that, given Vanguard’s $7 trillion in AUM, the “customers” are very wealthy individuals, corporations and institutions. That $7 trillion is not coming from mom and pop investors.
And so this is essentially where we hit a wall.
I tried to look into who Vanguard’s largest “customers” are and I couldn’t find anything. It’s all private information. The company does not disclose it, at least as far as I can tell. And it is their right as a private corporation to keep all this information private, but when you’re as big as Vanguard is, the privacy of the company leads people to make their own assumptions.
And that’s basically what a lot of the articles I’ve read on Vanguard do. It’s all speculation. They got as far as I did, and then the only option left to them was to speculate. I’ve seen names like Rothschild and Rockefeller and Gates thrown around–you know, the usual suspects.
Whoever the owners of Vanguard are, however, they want to remain private. That’s all I’ll say at this point, and I’ll let you form your own theories about the matter.
But before wrapping this post up, I want to highlight a few other important companies Vanguard and BlackRock are shareholders in:
- Pfizer: Vanguard is the largest owner at 8.1%, BlackRock second-largest at 7.3%, State Street third at 5%.
- New York Times corporation: Vanguard is the biggest single owner at 8.34%, then BlackRock at 8.1%.
- Moderna: The largest holder is “Baillie Gifford and Company,” which owns 10.4% of the stock. BlackRock is second at 6.63%, and then Vanguard is in a close 4th at 5%. I looked into Baillie Gifford and found it’s a private partnership Scottish investment firm founded in 1908. Interestingly, I was able to find this article that said Vanguard became Baillie Gifford’s biggest client starting in 2003. It says that Baillie Gifford runs the Vanguard Global Equity fund. If you type “Baillie Gifford Vanguard” into a search engine you’ll find that the two firms do a lot of business together.
- Amazon: Vanguard is the largest holder at 6.45%, BlackRock is second at 5.5%.
- Microsoft: Vanguard owns the most, 8.1%, BlackRock in second with 6.75%.
- Facebook (now “Meta Platforms”): Vanguard owns 7.7% and BlackRock owns 6.59%, making them the two single largest owners.
- Vanguard (8%) and BlackRock (6.2%) are the second and third largest holders in Coca Cola behind Berkshire Hathaway (9.26%). Funny enough, Vanguard (8.6%) and BlackRock (7.1%) are the two largest shareholders in Coca Cola’s ostensible rival, PepsiCo.
- Johnson & Johnson: Vanguard (8.8%) and BlackRock (7.4%) are the two largest holders. State Street owns 5.4%. JNJ is the largest pharmaceutical corporation in the world.
- Merck: Vanguard owns the most, 8.9%, BlackRock the 2nd-most, 7.4%, State Street owns the 3rd-most, 4.5%.
- Honeywell (a large defense contractor conglomerate): Vanguard tops with 8.07%, BlackRock next on the list with 5.94%.
- Boeing: Vanguard is second at 7.25% behind Newport Trust Co., which owns 7.46%. BlackRock is third at 5.22%.
- Lockheed Martin: State Street owns a considerable chunk at 14.6%, followed by Vanguard (7.75%) and BlackRock (6.27%).
- Raytheon: Again State Street is the biggest holder, with 9.5%, followed by Vanguard (8.6%) and BlackRock (6.67%)
- JP Morgan: Vanguard and BlackRock are the two largest holders at 8.9% and 6.5% respectively. State Street is in third with 4.8%.
- Goldman Sachs: Same situation as JPM. Vanguard own the most, 7.8%, BlackRock at 6.94%, and State Street at 6.35%.
I could keep on going but I think you get the picture. I included State Street in these because remember, Vanguard is the largest investor in State Street, followed by BlackRock.
And so it is that a quiet investment firm that most Americans have never heard of, based in suburban Philadelphia, has become the single-largest investor in essentially any and every company you can think of.
Who is Vanguard investing on behalf of? We don’t know, and we can’t know because the company is private.
From what we do know about BlackRock, it’s safe to assume that Vanguard is not merely a silent investor in the companies it holds shares in.
We cannot know what level of influence Vanguard has in the boardrooms of these companies it owns stake in, but I’d guess it’s a lot. I’d also guess that Vanguard’s influence extends into the political sphere as well.
If you’ve ever wondered why there’s so much “sameness” in corporate America–the way they market themselves, the political and social views they all espouse, the language they use, etc.–there’s a reason for that. They’re all owned by the same few companies.
Just a few months before he died in January 2019, Vanguard founder John C. “Jack” Bogle wrote an article that was published in the Wall Street Journal, and it was a warning about the increasing power of index funds, which he himself created many years ago:
Yes, U.S. index mutual funds have grown to huge size, with their holdings doubling from 4.5% of total U.S. stock-market value in 2002 to 9% in 2009, and then almost doubling again to more than 17% in 2018. Even that penetration understates the role of mutual fund managers, as they also offer actively managed funds, and their combined assets amount to more than 35% of the shares of U.S. corporations.
If historical trends continue, a handful of giant institutional investors will one day hold voting control of virtually every large U.S. corporation. Public policy cannot ignore this growing dominance, and consider its impact on the financial markets, corporate governance, and regulation. These will be major issues in the coming era. Three index fund managers dominate the field with a collective 81% share of index fund assets: Vanguard has a 51% share; BlackRock, 21%; and State Street Global, 9%. Such domination exists primarily because the indexing field attracts few new major entrants.
Most observers expect that the share of corporate ownership by index funds will continue to grow over the next decade. It seems only a matter of time until index mutual funds cross the 50% mark. If that were to happen, the “Big Three” might own 30% or more of the U.S. stock market—effective control. I do not believe that such concentration would serve the national interest.
My concerns are shared by many academic observers. In a draft paper released in September, Prof. John C. Coates of Harvard Law School wrote that indexing is reshaping corporate governance, and warned that we are tipping toward a point where the voting power will be “controlled by a small number of individuals” who can exercise “practical power over the majority of U.S. public companies.”
One of the last things Bogle did before he died was to warn us about the company he created that now essentially owns everything.
However, Bogle’s warning makes it seem as if the things he’s predicting haven’t already come true. I think you’d be hard pressed to deny that he wasn’t talking about the future, he was talking about the present.
Back during the turn of the century, another era quite like ours today in which monopoly and corporate control dominated the political system and the world at large, political cartoonists depicted Standard Oil as a menacing octopus atop the world, with its tentacles going in all directions, grabbing and strangling everything in sight. The octopus in political cartoons became a common way to depict a powerful financial or military entity–the British Empire, the Soviet Union, even America itself, among many other things.
Vanguard, along with BlackRock, are now the octopus of our time.