At BlackRock, State Street and Vanguard, Millions of Investors Are Getting a Voice

Index fund investing has swept the world. In December, for the first time, U.S. investors entrusted more money to index funds than actively managed funds, in which a manager picks stocks or bonds for you.

There’s a good reason for the index funds’ popularity. For most people, owning a little piece of the entire market, which you can do at low cost with an index fund, has been more profitable than buying and selling securities, either on their own or through a manager.

But the relentless growth of index funds has come at a cost. One significant problem is that the most diversified funds own shares in every publicly traded company in the market, and if you don’t like a company, or its specific policies, you’re stuck. You couldn’t even exercise your vote on issues you thought were important because until recently, the fund managers insisted on doing that for you.

Well, that’s been changing in a big way.

BlackRock announced this month that it was expanding an experimental program to give investors six flavors of policy choices — like a focus on climate change or a preference for religious values — in votes on corporate issues. State Street already has a similar program underway, and Vanguard is tiptoeing into this kind of voting choice, too.

All told, the three giant fund companies have given scores of millions of investors, with $4.6 trillion in assets, a way of expressing their views on corporate issues. This is certainly an improvement. And it could eventually lead to profound changes throughout corporate America, even as it eases some ticklish problems for the big index fund companies.

In the view of scholars like John Coates, the author of “The Problem of 12: When a Few Financial Institutions Control Everything,” the growth of index funds has had the unintended consequence of diminishing shareholder democracy.

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