State AGs Sound The Alarm About BlackRock, Vanguard Buying Large Stakes In Utilities
by Kevin Stocklin
In April, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) approved a request from BlackRock to increase its ownership up to 20 percent of a public utility's voting shares without being deemed an "affiliate" and incurring the regulatory scrutiny and disclosures that come with that. To gain FERC approval, BlackRock and Vanguard promised they would be "passive" investors and not use their share ownership to influence management.
Because utilities are often monopolies in the regions they serve and because electricity and heating are essential in people's lives, any investment of more than $10 million in a public utility must be approved by FERC, according to the Federal Power Act (FPA). BlackRock and Vanguard received blanket approval in 2019 to surpass this limit for three years, and BlackRock was just given blanket approval for another three years. Now Vanguard is seeking FERC approval on similar terms, but their request is sparking protests.
In November, 13 state attorneys general petitioned FERC to deny Vanguard's request. Claiming that residents of their states could be harmed if utilities are compelled to stop using fossil fuels in favor of wind and solar power, the attorneys general argued that "Vanguard is not entitled to a blanket authorization to acquire substantial equity and voting power in utility companies."
"Vanguard's own public commitments and other statements have at the very least created the appearance that Vanguard has breached its promises to the commission by engaging in environmental activism and using its financial influence to manipulate the activities of the utility companies in its portfolio," the petition stated. "A hearing in this matter is warranted to determine the extent to which Vanguard has violated the 2019 authorization and whether granting Vanguard a blanket authorization is contrary to the public interest."