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Vanguard’s Shame

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Vanguard’s Shame

Posted by Enough Team on July 7, 2009

Vanguard's Shame

As the team from Investors Against Genocide explained earlier this spring in a guest post on Enough Said, the investment management company Vanguard would hold a shareholder vote to determine whether Vanguard would revise its investment policies to ensure that no funds would be used to support companies that substantially contribute to genocide or crimes against humanity. The vote failed, and business blogger Marc Gunther reports on this regrettable outcome in a post that originally appeared here.


Harvard, Yale and Stanford did it. So did the pension funds of 27 states, including California and New York. And investment firm TIAA-CREF.

So why won’t Vanguard, the big mutual fund company, agree to use its influence to get big companies to stop supporting the genocide in Darfur?

At Vanguard’s shareholders meeting last week, owners of the company’s mutual funds rejected a proposal that would have required the funds to come up with ways to avoid “holding investments in companies that, in the judgment of the Board, substantially contribute to genocide or crimes against humanity.”
The votes weren’t even close. For the the 21 Vanguard funds reporting results, affirmative votes ranged between 7 and 17%. On its website, the company said:

An average of 89% of Vanguard shareholders voted against this proposal. The vote demonstrates that Vanguard shareholders have confidence in the funds’ board of trustees and their judgment in fulfilling their fiduciary and investment responsibilities.

Not really. Investors Against Genocide, the shareholder group that submitted the proposal, never had a chance. Proxy votes like the ones at Vanguard are almost always won by management because most investors don’t pay attention to the packages they get at home by mail.

As Eric Cohen, the chair of Investors Against Genocide, put it:

Favorable votes today are unnaturally low, because Vanguard’s active opposition and misleading statement of opposition tilted the vote against the proposal. If Vanguard wanted a good test of shareholder support, it would have taken a neutral stance, rather than seeking to obscure the interests of shareholders, especially since, as we all know, it is common practice for ordinary investors to ignore and discard their proxy materials.

Instead, Vanguard claimed that the proposal was unnecessary because it duplicates existing practices. But the company has not released its existing policy. And recent reports of Vanguard’s holdings indicate that its funds own PetroChina, the Chinese oil company that provides revenues to the government of Sudan, which is carrying out the genocide. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed in the genocide, and an estimated 2.7 million people have been drive out of their homes. U.S. companies are barred from doing business with Sudan, but there’s nothing to prevent U.S. mutual funds from investing in foreign companies that operate there.

According to Cohen, John Brennan, Vanguard’s chairman, would not be drawn into a discussion of the company’s decision to hold PetroChina during the meeting with shareholders.

Vanguard publishes a “pledge to clients” to “communicate candidly” and to “adhere to the highest standards of ethical behavior and fiduciary responsibility.”

This Vanguard client—more of my assets are invested in Vanguard funds than with any other company—thinks Vanguard is failing to live up to its own standards. I’d like to see a copy of the company’s genocide policy. Are you listening, Vanguard?